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One year ago: Frank McCourt

July 19, 2010 |  6:00 am


My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone. When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. And worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

So begins "Angela's Ashes," the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by Frank McCourt, who died one year ago. He was 78.

McCourt didn't write his life story until years after he retired as a New York City schoolteacher in 1987. "Angela's Ashes" was published in 1996, became a No. 1 bestseller and was translated into more than 20 languages.

Although it took him years to write the memoir, McCourt knew his way around a good story, as explained in the obituary written by Times staff writer Dennis McLellan:

Storytelling came naturally to McCourt, whose skills were nurtured over pints of Guinness at places such as the Lion's Head tavern in Greenwich Village, which was a hangout for newspapermen and authors such as Pete Hamill and Norman Mailer.

"We were all storytellers growing up," McCourt said of his family in a 2000 interview with the Toronto Sun. "That's all we had. There was no TV or radio. We'd sit around the fire and make up stories. My dad was a great storyteller. We'd mention a neighbor, and he'd make up a story.

"But I also had to be a great storyteller to survive teaching. I spent 30 years in the classroom. When you stand before 170 teenagers each day, you have to get and keep their attention. Their attention span is about seven minutes, which is the time between commercials. So you have to stay on your toes."

McCourt followed up "Angela's Ashes" with the sequels " 'Tis" in 1999 and "Teacher Man" in 2005.

Read the complete obituary of Frank McCourt and an appreciation by Times columnist Tim Rutten.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: Frank McCourt in 2005.

Credit: Peter Foley / European Pressphoto Agency