This month, Frank McCourt would've turned 80. This blog is in his honor.
Recently, I went to Ireland to honor my late, great mentor and high school English teacher, Frank McCourt. As you may know, Frank McCourt taught in the New York City public school system for 30 thankless years, then wrote a little international bestseller about his childhood in Limerick called Angela’s Ashes.
Although he became one of the most celebrated authors on the planet, the denizens of Limerick were not always quick to embrace him. His memoir of devastating poverty was slanderous, they protested – real Limerick wasn’t like that at all– he’d maligned them, he had! But no matter. Now there’s an “Angela’s Ashes Walking Tour” that ranks #4 of the top ten things to do in town.
And just a few months ago, the city’s movers and shakers unveiled a bronze bust of Frank in his honor outside his former primary school.
Clouds of volcanic ash were still threatening Irish airspace at the time of the ceremony, but luckily, the Amazing Bob and I and our friend Maureen (another student of Frank’s) and all the other guests were able to make it. Appropriately, the mayor spoke at the unveiling, along with the dean of the University of Limerick, Frank’s phenomenal wife, Ellen, and his three beloved, wickedly witty brothers. (“Our mother Angela is saying to that volcano: ‘You want ashes? I’ll give you fuckin’ ashes’,” announced Alfie.)
The rain stopped, the crowds applauded wildly outside Leamy Primary School Gallery, and to everyone’s great relief, the bust not only looked like Frank at his handsomest, but captured his sly look of bemusement.
Then, the partying began in earnest. Drinks all around! Buffet! Speeches! And biggest of all: Music and singing! Frank’s nearest and dearest came to the mike to perform ballads, Irish folk songs, pop hits. It was astonishing to see how easily the culture tapped into itself.
When was the last time I’d been among a group of people who could provide their own live entertainment for hours and hours? Possibly not since I was 12, watching the boys in my seventh grade class hold a spitting contest off the balcony during Lloyd Goldfarb’s bar mitzvah.
The Irish know how to party around their grief with more gusto, skill, and eloquence than any other culture I’ve encountered.
I’ve been to Ireland several times. The first time, I was a student, sleeping on the floor of Maureen’s bed-sit, where we had to burn peat in a tiny stove in order to keep warm, and the bathroom down the hall had a meter: hot water cost 25p a shower. Unemployment was 25%, and the country was hemorrhaging its young people. A few years later, I returned to find the Celtic tiger revving up its engine: suddenly, there was a new Writers’ Museum in Dublin, the renovated Temple Bar district, and more than sausage and chips on the menus.
Now, 15 years later, the country is falling on hard times again, but an outsider wouldn't know it. In the past decade, Dublin has transformed almost as much as Shanghai – whole districts of gleaming glass architecture have sprung up to such an extent that parts of the city are unrecognizable. A futuristic silver needle soars over the entire skyline at the top of O’Connell Street. Fusion restaurants, private clubs, fancy boutiques, arts complexes…Dublin now no longer reminds me of 19th century Manchester but of another great phoenix of a city: Berlin.
And the Limerick of Angela’s Ashes? While it ain’t exactly a boomtown, someone has definitely taken a paint brush to it. The slums of Frank’s childhood have become a charming little neighborhood -- the tenements of his old lane replaced by single-family homes with tiny lawns and flower boxes. The only commemoration of the McCourt family in evidence is at the old neighborhood pub, which has touchingly replaced its “Men” and “Women” bathroom signs with the words “Frank” and “Angela.”
When I saw this, I wept. “You’re crying over a bathroom door?” Maureen chided as we made our way through our teacher’s old stomping grounds.
Yeah. For all the changes it has undergone, Ireland’s most marked characteristic, for me, still, remains this: an inspiring sadness.
It’s a country steeped in melancholy, in a palpable, lyrical grief. This is what struck me about Ireland more than anything else the first time I visited – and continues to strike me each time I go back. The Irish understand suffering and loss first-hand; their culture is saturated with mourning, with the understanding that bad things can happen – and have happened -- to good people.
And instead of turning away from the terrible beauty and sorrow of this, they’ve embraced it, celebrated it, channeled it into art – into amazing music and literature. And they continue to do so. It’s living. It’s on their tongues and fingertips. It’s grabbing the microphone in the banquet room at the Strand Hotel in Limerick on a rainy Thursday evening.
All of this may sound facile, but remember: I’m American. Despite the big Irish population in my homeland, mine is not a country that in almost any way, shape, or form accepts pain. Smile! we order. Lighten up, big fella. Jeez, don’t be such a downer.
We almost pathologically refuse to accept the fact that sometimes, shit happens: If you’re poor, sick, or old in America, we tend to believe it’s your own damn fault. Our peculiar, adolescent mix of Puritanism, individualism, and optimism has bred a national conviction that if you just hit upon the right combination of lifestyle choices – if you just work hard enough, take enough vitamins and antioxidants, exercise, don’t smoke, invest wisely, attend a certain church, vote a certain way, buy the right, groovy shit, and behave -- you can outwit tragedy. If you don’t, well, that’s not just life. You, personally, have somehow failed to be clever and industrious enough.
This is why we Yanks are so suspect of universal health care, welfare, unemployment insurance, or any other policy that stands to benefit the common good in some big and basic way.
Although America has been generous internationally at times, domestically? Not so much. Even today, we Americans still believe that we’re each in this alone. We're taught as children that we're masters of our own destiny: We can grow up to be president, or the next Bill Gates, or the next Warren Buffet. The flip side of this is that if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves. And so, if our neighbors are down-and-out, we write things on the internet like: “Why should I bail out some lazy-ass welfare mom who took on a mortgage she couldn’t possibly afford?” “I don’t want my tax dollars subsidizing health insurance for some lowlife.” “Get a job and quit whining, scumbag.”
Our lack of empathy and imagination is stunning. While he was alive, even Frank McCourt had a few such remarks directed his way. At one of his readings for Angela’s Ashes that I attended in Washington, D.C., a woman asked him, “Weren’t you ever mad and frustrated that your mother didn’t just get up off her bed and get a job?”
It was one of the only times I saw Frank get angry. “Are you a mother?” he shot back. “How many children have you lost? If you buried one child, then another, then another, how sure are you that you’d be able to ‘just get up out of bed’?”
To be fair, Angela’s Ashes doesn’t portray Limerick as a hotbed of humanitarianism, either. The Church, the schools, the local charities…even distant family members appear criminal in their indifference, negligence, hypocrisy, and snobbery towards the McCourt’s.
But great art requires both outrage and compassion. And Ireland – far more than America -- breeds both. Certainly, Frank had them. “What James Joyce did for Dublin, Frank McCourt did for Limerick,” a speaker said at the unveiling. He wasn’t being hyperbolic. He was simply stating fact.
Bill Bryson once noted: “No country has given the world more incomparable literature per head of population than Ireland.” Given its painful history, its indomitable culture, and its unique, elegiac tenderness, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Bestselling author of "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress," "Kiss My Tiara," and "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." Her debut novel, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street" will be published in June 2014 by Grand Central Publishing-Hachette. You can also hear her commentary on NPR. Go to www.susanjanegilman.net for more info.