Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Forgiving Frank McCourt


Frank McCourt, Teacher ManFor a while back there, he was in his own words 'the mick of the moment', a celebrity feted wherever he went except his native Limerick, where they wanted to strangle him. In those times, you would have been hard pressed to find someone who had not read Angela's Ashes.

Then he wrote the follow-up, 'Tis, and left you with the feeling that it was all a bit of a jape, a stirring of an Irish stew of misery, conflict, blarney, sex and redemption. And when someone with a clever agent wrote a story based on an imagined love affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, we forgot all about Frank McCourt.

Of course we shouldn't have, because McCourt's last book Teacher Man was his best. I will come back to that, but first there is the question of what it was about Angela's Ashes that struck such an immediate chord. Was it, I wonder, that Limerick in the '30s and '40s was little different from many of the suburbs of more fashionable cities in Britain and America and Australia? However much the world gasped at the bleakness of the back lanes of Limerick, were there elements in that poverty that were familiar?

Or was it the freshness of the writing, the cheeky almost offhand style, without whinging or self-pity? The voice was that of a storyteller, not a historian or a memoirist. The characters — vicious teachers, manipulative priests, the garrulous sentimental father and Woodbine-smoking mother — seemed as much like creations for a story as flesh and blood people.

Even his adolescent sexual self-discovery was a matter for a joke. 'I'm worn out from being the worst sinner in Limerick. I want to get rid of this sin and have rashers and eggs and no guilt, no torment ... but how can any priest give absolution to someone like me who delivers telegrams and ends up in a state of excitement on a green sofa with a girl dying of the galloping consumption?'

In 'Tis, he followed up with the story of his family in New York, and it is not surprising that the book does not reach the heights of the first one.

Perhaps it is the teacher in me that regards Teacher Man as his best book. Okay, the bits of smart aleckry are still there and the occasional exaggeration and the clever turns of phrase, but there is too a humility, an admission of frailty and fallibility.

This is not the teacher as hero; he is not afraid to say that there were days when 'I don't want to see or hear them. I have squandered my best years in the company of squawking adolescents. I'm not in the mood.'

But, then there were the times when 'I'm desperate to get into the classroom. I wait impatiently in the hallway. I paw the ground. Come on, Mr Ritterman. Hurry up. Finish your damn math lesson. There are things I want to say to this class.' Only a teacher would know those swings.

McCourt's first appointment was in a vocational school in Staten Island, teaching young people who would grow up to service the city's needs and never bother any college professor. Society would expend no more money schooling them. McCourt had to teach them English grammar: subject, predicate and object, participles and infinitives, and if there was time they might get on to things like topic sentences and paragraph structure.

There is nothing heroic or self-congratulatory about the way he writes of those early days, just a daily grind to enthuse his students and himself, falling back on his brogue and his singing or storytelling, anything to survive.

He tells you what most good teachers will admit, that the best lessons, the ones you remember and your students remember, are less a matter of preparation and planning than spur-of-the moment inspiration, as likely to be brought on by desperation as by advice from a colleague or text book.

Teacher Man is better than a dozen treatises on teaching, than a hundred official reports, than a bagful of letters to newspapers bemoaning the neglect of the basics. This is what it is really like to be the lonely figure with only cunning and a stick of chalk to protect you from disaster. First you must survive, then you try to make a difference. 'They may like you, they may even love you', he writes, 'but they are young and it is the business of the young to push the old off the planet.'

Limerick has forgiven Frank McCourt. For the rest of us, when we read a memoir, we find it hard to avoid asking ourselves 'Is it as good as Angela's Ashes?'

Frank McCourt died a week shy of his 79th birthday.

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008.

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, euology, frank mccourt, angela's ashes, tis, teacher man, limerick



submit a comment

Existing comments

Lovely piece, and poor Frank's books after AA are very good, paling only by comparison to the masterpiece he had the cheek to commit. You are right that part of the greatness of AA is the fact that so very many of us recognize so very much of it, with horror and the affection that arrives only after you escaped; but I have always thought the real genius of AA, the secret to its power, is finally McCourt's lack of bitterness, his mercy and forgiveness. He should be raging, and he doesn't -- he tells every scrap of detail, and then grins and sings and tells another story. I suspect stories save us far more than we know.

Brian Doyle | 22 July 2009  

The London Telegraph's obituary reminds us how people in Limerick denounced McCourt beceause of his alleged failure to faithfully record his childhood and his domestic conditions. I have often wondered whether that really mattered, because 'Angela's Ashes' truth lay elsewhere in its parable of poverty. In any case that seems to be what it is remembered for.

That leads to the wider question: Why was Helen Demidenko (aka Helen Darville)excoriated for creating fiction, "The Hand that signed the paper", under the guise of an autobiography, while the poems of 'Ern Malley' were treated as a great joke? I have always felt uneasy about the rage that the former caused. Was it because a young unknown student had hoodwinked the literary establishment?

jl trew | 22 July 2009  

Thank you Frank!

I had been a teacher for 20 years. I followed in the footsteps of a father, an uncle, a great grandfather. I taught in three systems, Private schools, NSW Public Schools and local schools in the Canadian provinces.

I then deserted teaching and became a trainer of teachers. Until I retired over ten years ago, I still remember the dictum of my father and uncle; "teaching is about activity, communication and negotiation".
I found this all in the Teacher Man"! Vale Frank.

John McQualter | 22 July 2009  

Regarding Frank McCourt and Angela's Ashes I'm reminded of the old adage: 'When in Ireland you can do what you like (you'll be defended) but careful what you say' (especially in Limerick). Frank McCourt was a provacateur who took a cheap shot at his native Ireland.

Claude Rigney | 23 July 2009  

Similar Articles

Prick and it'll bleed

  • Chris Andrews
  • 28 July 2009

When I was a kid the right knee of my pants usually tore first, but I can only sneer on the left .. My body goes this way up for 16 hours, then should be laid flat in the dark.


Stupid men in a brutal land

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 23 July 2009

Australia, 1902. One year since Federation. The nation is a sickly child, as yet unaware of its weakness. The colonisers deceive themselves into thinking they can tame the land. A century later, not much has changed.