Author Frank McCourt taught me about being Irish Catholic
Though he’ll always be remembered as the Pulitzer Prize winning author, whose memoir Angela’s Ashes spent over 100 weeks on the bestseller list, Frank McCourt, was primarily, a teacher. For over 30 years, he taught in the New York City school district, and though I first came to know him as the bestselling author, it is as a teacher I remember him as I learn of his death.
Frank McCourt died July 19 at the age of 78, about a dozen years after the publication of Anglea’s Ashes, his first book. Two more books followed, though not nearly as successful. His brother recently said he was ill of meningitis, brought on by melanoma skin cancer. He was in a Hospice, and not expected to live long. He didn’t. The announcement came just 24 hours before.
His life’s journey brought him far, and in the end he had a house in Connecticut next to Arthur Miller’s, received an honorary Doctorate and met the Pope. There’s also an Angela’s Ashes walking tour in Limerick. That’s a lot to accomplish in a dozen years, on top of a Pulitzer and a few more books.
But what I learned from Frank McCourt is rather simple, something he might’ve hit home to his school kids, something he taught me in Angela’s Ashes, whether he meant to or not: What it means to be Irish.
I don’t eat potatoes – rarely a French Fry – so when I tell people I’m Irish, they’re a bit suspicious (my Italian last name is from a marriage that didn’t last, though I kept the name – and the children).
Despite my lack of preference for meat and potatoes, I always identified with being Irish, rather than my mom’s side of Polish, perhaps if for no other reason because the Irish side lived closer and was quite large. My sons would sometimes say at yet another introduction of a 2nd or 3rd cousin, “How many cousins do we have?”
Irish Catholics and large families are a cliché that rings so true, and even a party half attended was one quite full. Cousins were throughout Hudson County and spread into New York, city and upstate. As kids we were never alone, outings anywhere a reason to pack the station wagon front to hatchback, and off we went in a haphazard direction.
I never knew what being Irish Catholic meant, however, until I read Angela’s Ashes. Sure, my Irish grandmother in Hoboken told me – and all of us – all the time. Especially when I decided on a whim to become a Protestant.
It really wasn’t a whim, but more of a search for the truth, for god, for the meaning of life. And, being a feminist who didn’t like what Catholicism stood for, I was searching for a church that was more free-spirited and open to women and leaders … more modern.
I found it for a time, in a Congregational Church, which happened to be Protestant. I thought it was a good choice, Christian, not too far off the realm of the reality I was brought up with.
Wrong. My grandmother told me I might as well be Jewish or Muslim, believe in satan or witches. To become a Protestant of any sort, was to join some other side, a side that wasn’t us. She told me the history of the church, of Northern Ireland, even though she herself didn’t experience Ireland first-hand. To be a Protestant was, in short, to join sides with the enemy.
I tried to tell her it had nothing to do with me, with us, here in America. I tried to tell her Protestants believed in Jesus, what could be wrong with that? She was angry. I didn’t get it. She thought I was stupid and young. I thought she was stupid and old.
Then I read Angela’s Ashes, and Frank McCourt explained it to me. Sometimes it takes a third party, someone other than family, to make sense of a few years worth of family arguments. Sometimes pieces of history sewn together into the fabric of narrative, of a family story – someone else’s story – make sense of modern life in a way that conversation can’t.
Conversation evokes emotions, especially between family members, or anyone who has something at stake. It’s so difficult not to defend, deflect, show off and make a point. Angela’s Ashes manages to make the points my grandmother and others have tried to make about what it means to be Irish, to be Catholic.
Points I’ve forgotten about. Until now. Even though I have no religion and church-hopped for many years. Even though the Catholic church never become a home for me again. It doesn’t matter. Catholicism is where my roots are, and where my childhood identity comes from.
Frank McCourt taught me much when his book was first published. Now, in his death, he’s reminded me of it all again. It’s a book worth a second look.