Happy birthday to Frank McCourt

I read Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir while I was in grad school, and I remember sitting in the hear-a-pin-drop quiet of the New School University library – reading it. I came to the section where young Malachy gets someone’s dentures stuck in his mouth – the teeth jutting out of his face like some grotesque mask … and somehow, the father scoops Malachy up and they run to the doctor’s office, with young Frank trailing along behind. Frank, hurrying to catch up, can see Malachy’s face, hanging backwards over the father’s shoulder, and all he can see is the look of terror in Malachy’s eyes, but also the strange-ness of the enormous teeth jutting out of Malachy’s face.

I started laughing so loudly, and so uncontrollably, that eventually I had to stand up and leave the library. I tried to contain myself … but finally … it was too much. Tears of laughter streamed down my face, and I could tell that I was disturbing people. So I stood up, still GUFFAWING, and staggered out of the quiet library, so that I could howl with laughter in peace.

I’ve met Frank a couple of times – and also Malachy. They show up, randomly, at many Irish events here in the city – especially theatrical events. I remember being at some reception with Malachy McCourt, now an old jolly man, with jowls, etc., and I’m making small talk, but the entire time … I could not get out of my head the vision of him as a small terrified boy, with dentures stuck in his face. Bobbing over his father’s shoulder like an apparition of grotesque doom.

Actually, my favorite Frank McCourt story isn’t even in Angela’s Ashes – or the lesser sequel ‘Tis. I read some interview with him where he talked about his years as a teacher of English at a rough school on Staten Island. You can imagine. He walked into the situation only to find complete and utter chaos. Tough kids, barely enough school supplies, discipline problems, yadda yadda. So McCourt looks at the curriculum and looks at the copies of books that the school actually has to hand out to the students. You know, they’re supposed to read Middlemarch and stuff like that. McCourt decided – George Eliot? Staten Island? This won’t work. And decided instead to read Shakespeare’s plays with the class. You can imagine the pissed-off goombah response from the students: “We don’t know shit about him, Mr. McCourt … we can’t read this shit!” But McCourt persisted – and instead of just reading the plays – he would make copies of the scenes and have the students act them out. Which, of course, changed the entire thing. The students got SO into it. Some of them even memorized their lines. They knew what they were doing. They got into it. They could relate. They understood Romeo and Juliet most of all (of course. Most teenagers do.) “Yeah, man, poor Romeo … he just wants to be wid his girl, y’know?” The kid assigned to play Mercutio apparently suddenly burst into brilliance – McCourt remembered his performance vividly and how much this tough kid from Staten Island clicked into that part (which is one of my favorite parts Shakespeare ever wrote, actually. I had a little crush on him as a teenager myself. Forget Romeo. Give me Mercutio!!)

So anyway. Cut to 10, 15 years later. The school is having a reunion. McCourt, who no longer teaches there, is invited. He goes. He enters the room where the reunion is taking place, and suddenly – all of his former students – who had been teenagers, and are now full grown adults – all come racing over to him, STILL spouting Shakespeare – running at him, saying the lines that they had memorized 10 years before, the words still imprinted in their minds.

And I remember what Frank said. He said, “Jesus! I thought to myself – this is the most important moment of my life!”

This story always makes me think of my sister Jean, who is a teacher. That’s what teachers can do. Amazing. Life-changing.

Happy birthday, Frank!

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17 Responses to Happy birthday to Frank McCourt

  1. susanna says:

    thanks sheila, that was lovely.

  2. damian says:

    Shiela, will Frank love you for reminding people it’s his birthday?

    When I moved to the US, I worked for a while at a title insurance company in NYC where there was guaranteed to be a birthday celebration once a week with cake in the kitchen/dining area. In fact, at one point there were so many, management decided two or more birthdays in the same week were to be co-celebrated. What flummoxed me about American birthday celebrations was that everyone gathered and talked about the birthday, but no-one, NO-ONE, ever asked the question everyone in Ireland, Britain or any part of Europe would ask on arrival in the room. It was like a huge s elephant squatted beside the birthday person, and everyone would siddle past it as they nibbled on the cake or toyed with the frosted cream. And what was that question? “So how old are you today?” I was always astonished that teh question was never asked. I guess we Irish, etc. don’t have any class…or we’re just plain nosy.

    Even now, after years of living in the states, when I attend birthday parties, my compulsion (so far kept well under control) is to ask, “And how old are you today?”

  3. Iain says:

    The ‘life-changing’ thing made me think about a head teacher I had in primary-school. At the end of each school year, on those days when there was never enough work to fill up a morning, let alone a full day, he would sit the whole school down in the gym and show us old movies: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The 39 Steps, The Vikings.

    Today, almost 30 years later, the magic is still there – every time I sit down in a movie theater, I think back to that time and offer up a silent “thankyou” to Mr Sudlow…

  4. qualityg says:

    The only thing better than reading a book by Frank McCourt is listening to him speak and tell stories. I have only heard them on TV but it must be fascinating to talk to him one on one.

    I remember when I got out of the service and went to surprise my brother while he was teaching a class of Junior High students. As I looked through the door window I saw him teaching at the front of the class and three students doing push-ups at the back of the class.

    When I questioned him as to why the push-ups, he said ” If I can’t improve their minds, I’ll improve their bodies!”

    As you said “That’s what teachers can do.”

    Great Post, Thank you!

  5. red says:

    I love stories about great dedicated teachers. They’re so MOVING to me. Thanks, all.

  6. Kelly says:

    This teacher on her prep period says thank you for a shining moment of inspiration!

  7. Alex says:

    I love that you guffawed so loudly that you had to physically get up and leave the library. Brilliant.

    Now THAT’S a great book.

  8. The Colossus says:

    I’ve read Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis; I also read that article about him you mentioned; it was very good. I particularly liked the part where it’s revealed to the class that he hadn’t been to college, or even graduated high school. Shows what a desire to read and educate oneself can really do for a person. Today the ed system is all about credentials; a great teacher like McCourt could only be hired as a janitor. Sad.

    Malachy McCourt’s book, A Monk Swimming, I read a few years back and remembering it being very funny, he was quite the rogue in his youth. If you have a mischievous Irish uncle, as I did, well, the book will seem very familiar to you.

  9. beth says:

    the part of angela’s ashes that did that to me was when one character screams at another, “i’ll give ye a fong in the hole of yer arse for your troubles!” and i thought the wording was so fucking hysterical i pretty much lost my shit.

  10. red says:


  11. Happy Birthday Frank McCourt

    Sheila O’Malley lets us know that today is writer Frank McCourt’s birthday. I have never read any of McCourt’s work, but have seen the film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes a few times and find it to be both depressing and wonderful at the same time. It’…

  12. red says:

    colossus – I may be wrong, but I do believe that any big Irish family has at least one mischievous uncle!! hahaha I’ve got quite a few myself. One was my godfather, God rest his soul.

  13. Ara Rubyan says:


    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the thing that struck me about AA is that it seemed like McCourt didn’t use “quoted dialog” in recounting all the conversations.

    Am I remembering this correctly?

    If so, can you think of any other books that were written like that?

  14. red says:

    ara – huh? I don’t understand your comment at all. Can I list other books written like that? How about “Every First-Person Memoir Ever Written”?

    Unless you walk around holding a tape recorder throughout your life. In which case you’re a freak.

  15. Ara Rubyan says:

    OK, let me take another crack at it.

    IIRC, McCourt did not write ANY dialog like this:

    “Where are you going,” said my mother.

    “I can’t tell you until I get back,” I said.

    None. I don’t recall a single instance of quoted dialog.

    Instead (and correct me if I’m wrong) the conversation, all the conversations, are/is recounted like this:

    So my mother asked where I was going. I said that I couldn’t tell her until I got back.

    No quoted dialog. Whatsoever. None.

    I can’t recall another author who wrote a book in that style. Not even Saul Bellow, who (in my opinion) was the King of Internal Dialog.

    Maybe I’m recalling McCourt’s book wrongly.

    [crickets chirping]

    OK, forget I asked.

  16. red says:

    I still don’t get your point. Is it a criticism or just an observation? If it’s a criticism, then I have to say: it’s just a matter of it being a style. You might not like the style, and that’s fine – a lot of people didn’t like the style of Angela’s Ashes.

    It’s an oral storytelling style, which is very Irish. It’s not neat. It’s conversational. Irish storytellers sit around and yap just like McCourt does in the book.

    “So then she says I’m hopin’ you’re goin’ to mass this Sunday and I says back Sure, but I’ve got things to do, Ma, and then she says …”

    The story rollicks along like that.

    If you hear Frank McCourt read out loud from it, it’s as though you’re sitting hearing all the stories over a couple of pints at the local pub. It’s conversational. Maybe YOU tell stories with little quotation marks included in your voice, and you include “I said” and “he declared” … but most people don’t. It all blends together.

    “So he told me he wasn’t interested in seeing me anymore and I shouted at him about how pissed off I was.”

    That’s how I would tell the tale. Not:

    He said to me, regretfully, “I am so sorry. I don’t want to see you anymore.”

    His words took a while to sink in. Then my throat constricted, and tears came to my eyes. “How could you do this to me?” I shouted. “How could you do this to me?”

    Uhm … If someone told me a personal story in that tone, I would think: wow, this person is … feckin’ weird, frankly.

  17. Ara Rubyan says:

    Oh, gosh. I’m not criticizing. I loved the book.

    I just wanted to know if anyone can recall another book written in that (unique and vivid) style.

    Sorry if I sounded bellicose or anything.

    P.S. Can you think of any other books….?

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