BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes," right before
the show started, somebody said to me if I ask you where this cover came from, that
it would tick you off.
Mr. FRANK McCOURT, AUTHOR, "ANGELA'S ASHES": That would, yeah.
McCOURT: Well, I've been asked a million times. It's--well,
it doesn't look like me anyway. That kid looks too well fed.
LAMB: Who is the kid?
McCOURT: I don't know. Somebody--something Scribner’s came
up with. Some urchin from some strange place. It does look
like--a little--it could be me. It looks like some lane in
Limerick--but he looks too--even--but I never had bare feet. My mother always
made sure that we had shoes even though they were falling off our feet. But we
—other kids went around barefoot, but we didn't. We were too snobbish.
LAMB: So the--when they--when you saw this book, you didn't know that
this picture--where it came from or who it was?
McCOURT: No. I had no idea at all. There was some dispute
about it. My wife said that it's wrong to put some unknown kid.
She wanted them to put me on it. But they decided they--and
people like it in general. They--it gives the flavor of the book--cunning, furtive kid
on the street.
LAMB: When did you get the first idea that you wanted to do something like
McCOURT: Write this book?
McCOURT: First of all, I always wanted to be a writer, but I
didn't know that I wanted to write about this lane in Limerick,
this slum. Because anybody that comes from those circumstances
doesn't want to write about it. You're ashamed of it. You don't
have any self-esteem. So it wasn't till I somehow began to gain
some approval or acceptance from my students in New York or from
friends of mine. In social circles, I start talking about growing up
in Limerick and--I suppose some of the stuff I told them was amusing
and they'd laugh because the whole--poverty is so absurd.
Some of the stories I told them were so absurd. They'd laugh and
they'd say, `You should write this. When are you going to write
about'--I've been hearing this for years. `When are you going to
write a book? When are you going to write a book?' But no more
insistent than the little voice in my head, `Write the damn book.'
And I've tried it over the years. I wrote a version of it
in 1969, I think, called, "If You Live in the Lane." But it was
derivative, imitate--I was imitating everybody. O'Casey and
Joyce and Henry were in and Evelyn Waugh--imagine me writing like
Evelyn Waugh. I tried to be smart-ass, upper-class British writer.
That didn't--none of it worked until eventually I found my own way.
LAMB: Where is the high school you taught in?
McCOURT: In New York, East 15th Street--four--15th and
Fourth Avenue. But that wasn't the only one I taught. I think I
was in three different high schools; McKee Vocational in Staten
Island, Seward Park on the Lower East Side, briefly in Fashion
Industries high school on West 24th Street. And then in Stuyvesant
LAMB: How many years?
McCOURT: A total of 20--well, close to 30 including substitute
LAMB: So when did you sit down and first start putting words on paper for this
McCOURT: Well, this--that version I did, "If You Live
in the Lane," in 1960--no, it's not--it goes way
back--it goes way back to my 20s when I started jotting things in
notebooks, things that my mother said that--sayings from the
neighbors, because there was a lot of funny stuff despite the poverty.
There was a lot--there were--we had a lot of eccentrics wandering
around in Limerick who, if they were here, they would be locked up
today, yesterday. But there were characters all over the place.
LAMB: Who's this?
McCOURT: Oh, God. That's my mother in the middle. That's
when my brother Mike got married. He's the one to my mother's
right. I--or--my brother Alphie's on the left. Mike, Malachy
and myself and my mother. That was Mike's wedding about 30--I don't
know--32 or 33 years ago. His first wedding.
LAMB: Where are your brothers today?
McCOURT: Malachy--the bear--the bearded one is in New
York. He's an actor. He's writing a book. And Alphie--Mike runs
a bar and restaurant out in San Francisco, Seal Cove Inn, and
Alphie--Alph--they all went into the bar business. People used to
say, `Well, when are you going into the bar business?' I said, `When
my brothers become teachers.'
Alphie--Alphie--he--we had great hopes for him because he's the
only who had any kind of education. He went to secondary school
in Ireland, came over and we all thought he was going to go up to
Colum--he went to Columbia briefly. And we thought he'd become a
lawyer or something like that, but he--instead, he opened a Mexican
restaurant. The only Irishman you ever met that opened a Mexican restaurant.
LAMB: And it's still there in New York?
McCOURT: Oh, no, it's gone now.
LAMB: Oh, gone?
McCOURT: Los Panchos. It was very popular in the Upper West Side.
LAMB: Who's this?
McCOURT: That's my mother.
LAMB: When was this taken?
McCOURT: I think that was...
LAMB: It says on the back `1979.'
McCOURT: Mm. Some bar in--on Third Avenue. We would take
her out occasionally. She loved going out because she enjoyed
the good time. You can see she was a large woman. That--of
course, that was because she was sedentary. But she loved parties.
LAMB: How many children did she have in her life?
LAMB: How many of them are alive today?
LAMB: What happened to the other three?
McCOURT: Well, she had six children in five and a
half years and--that were--including twins. And three of them died in
that five and a half years. Margaret, the little girl, and the twins.
She--Margaret died in Brooklyn and the twins died in Ireland,
so they died of--probably bronchial pneumonia or something like
that--something preventable. And that's what--the death of the little
girl, I think, drove my father crazy because he was mad about her.
And I know that. I remember the kind of attention he'd pay her which
he didn't pay us. He was very good to us. He was a very kind
gentleman when he was sober, but --and--my mother
went into a deep depression. Now if that--if the death of the little
girl drove them into a depression and drove him to the
bottle, you can imagine what it was like, then, when the twins died in
LAMB: What year did the children die?
McCOURT: Margaret died in 1934, I think. And the twins
in '35. Oliver died in May of '35 and Eugene November '35. And in
the meantime, my mother got pregnant again. The month that
LAMB: And where do you fit in the family...
McCOURT: I'm the oldest.
LAMB: ...of seven? You're the oldest?
LAMB: Who's this?
McCOURT: Oh, God. That's my father. I don't know who he's holding
McCOURT: Oh, Fiona! Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's
Malachy's granddaughter. That was taken in Belfast just before he
died, I think. Yeah. He'd lost all his hair and he had an accent
that was indecipherable. You'd need subtitles to hear him. So
that's in Belfast where he died. He made his way--well, he
went off to England during the war and knocked around there and got
into trouble drinking. Made his way back to his father's farm, where
my grandmother was, and then wound up in Belfast on a pension.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw him?
McCOURT: In his coffin in 1985. Before that I saw him in 1971 when
Belfast was erupting. It was the worst summer they'd had.
LAMB: What was your relationship with him in the end?
McCOURT: Eh, inconsequential. I never saw him. If I did
see him, it was kind of a formal conversation. It was very hard
to get into an intimate conversation with him. And you-- if I were to look at
this from the outside, I would have said to myself, `Well, why didn't you go back
and talk to him?' But I think-I had a feeling that there was no point in it or that he
wouldn't come through. He was so blocked in everywhere. He'd say,
`Well, how's your mother?' And, `How's your brothers?'
And--rawr rawr rawr rawr--and that was it and then he'd look out the
window and he'd drink his tea and there was no getting through to him.
LAMB: Were you ever close to him?
McCOURT: I was when I was a kid.
LAMB: Did you...
McCOURT: I think I was close to him.
LAMB: There was a time in the book where you talk about he kissed you
for the first time...
McCOURT: In the hospital...
LAMB: ...that you remember.
McCOURT: ...when I had typhoid fever. This--and this
is a national characteristic, I think, of the Irish, this poetic,
mercurial, flamboyant race. We don't go around saying, `I love you.'
The word `love' was something that was reserved for God or babies, `I
love you darling,' it --you talk to babies or maybe horses that win.
But not for--not for personal relationship. I used to think when I
was a kid when people said, `I love you,' that was only for something
on the screen at the Limerick cinema. We never heard it. I never
heard a mother saying, `I love you,' to her child.
And my brother Malachy once had an experience. He was nine. I
think this may have changed the course of his life somehow
emotionally. He was in the kitchen, he was nine years old, and he
said to my mother--he was overwhelmed for some reason, and he said to
my mother, `Ma'am, I love you.' And she looked at him--and then later
on, he's there at the kitchen fiddling around and her friend Brady
Hannah comes in from next door and my mother says, `Brady, do you know
what he just said to me?' `What Angela?' `He told me he loved me.' And
the two of them had a good laugh and I think Malachy sank through the
floor. So you had to be careful about telling people you loved
LAMB: What's this?
McCOURT: Oh, God. Yeah, that's the Mungret graveyard where
we took my mother's ashes to be sprinkled. It's an old medieval abbey
outside Limerick. So she died in--she died in New York and we had her
cremated and we took her back there. She used to say, `I want to
be buried with my own people in Mungret.' And -I said--she was a large woman
as you saw from that earlier picture, I said, `Do you know the cost of transporting
your body to Ireland?' So we cremated her anyway and took her back and five or
six days of grief and celebration.
LAMB: When did she die?
McCOURT: 1981. December of '81. Oh, yeah. Oh, my--that's
the can of ashes that we were sprinkling. It was a very strange
occasion because there were--Malachy was there and our
wives were there and a group of friends. And I think we'd all drifted
away from--I--what I remember mostly was our awkwardness at
what--I mean, usually we're not caught short for words. But --I
think Malachy and I felt a bit awkward at--on this occasion because we
simply didn't know what to do. Usually you have a priest taking care
of it, but --there was a pause, we sprinkled the ashes, then I'm
the oldest son, so I'm the chief mourner, I suppose, so I just started
saying, `Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.' And that
was it. And we blessed ourselves and climbed back over that gate
again because that's a national shrine now and you can't get in. But
we had to climb over the gate.
The same gate. That's me and my daughter Maggie. Yeah.
LAMB: And Sheila Brown.
McCOURT: And Sheila Brown, right. Yeah.
LAMB: Who's Sheila Brown?
McCOURT: She's a friend of our--Brian Brown's wife.
And they have--own a kind of a normal castle or keep.
LAMB: Is it--oh, maybe ask you a different way, how does it feel to
be so public with your life?
McCOURT: I haven't had time to reflect on it since last
September, how to be--because I've seen--I know people who are
public because I used to hang around the Lion's Head Bar in New York
and I knew Pete Hamlin and people like that who'd been public for
years and years and years. And I'd see them come and go and I'd be on the
periphery of that crowd. And the--I was what they called in America `only a
teacher.' Only a teacher. They're journalists and writers and poets. I'm only a
teacher. And I was -- I was always on the periphery. In a sense, I
was like my father, an outsider.
Now people look at me--oh, they look at me. It's like Ralph Ellison's
book, "Invisible Man," the people don't see you until you--I
wrote a book. I taught for 27 years and nobody paid me a scrap of
attention, then I write a book about slum life and I'm an expert on
LAMB: And we got all this from a young man that's in your family.
McCOURT: Oh, Conor, yeah.
LAMB: Who is he?
McCOURT: He's doing a--he...
LAMB: Who are these two men?
McCOURT: That's Mike, my brother. He's the third in line for the immense
McCourt fortune. And he's the one in San Francisco. He's out there with his wife,
Joan and he has four kids. And Conor is a cop in New York who's become the family
chronicler, archivist, video man. He's very enthusiastic over capturing the history of
the family. He's done a video.
LAMB: We know.
McCOURT: Yeah? Oh, yeah! Yeah.
LAMB: We know and we're going to...
McCOURT: I think you know everything, Brian.
LAMB: We're going to show some of that a little later on. There's just some more
McCOURT: I think you have the goods on me here.
LAMB: Yeah. This is a photograph that I--you know, it's the
brothers, but what--do you know what year is this? I can tell you, I
McCOURT: This is last year.
McCOURT: This was at the Grand Ticino restaurant in New
York, the night my book was launched. Again, the same--Alphie, Mike,
Malachy and myself. Same lineup from the wedding picture 30 years
before. That was a--that's-they all--that's one of those rare occasions, I think,
when we were all together because usually when we got together--there were
fireworks or a brush fire.
McCOURT: I don't know, old grievances. But
they--the book seems to have healed a lot of that stuff with the
result that we all went to Limerick in October for the launching
of the book in Ireland. It was the first time we'd have been in
Ireland together for over 40 years because Mike is out in San
Francisco. And even though three of us live in New York, sometimes
we don't see each other for long periods of time.
LAMB: We have another one here, same group, but there's somebody in the
McCOURT: Ellen, my wife. Oh, that's outside the Redemptorist
Church in Limerick. We were--that's when we were there last year.
That's when the four of us got together. We went up to the
Redemptorist Church with, I think--Ellen was getting the tour of our--of my slum
LAMB: When did you marry Ellen?
LAMB: First, second wife?
McCOURT: I've married different states. Rhode Island, North
Carolina and finally and blissfully, California.
LAMB: Where did you meet Ellen?
McCOURT: In the Lion's Head Bar. But we--it was
arranged. It wasn't just one of these things were I wandered in off
the street. She had a friend, Deb--Deborah and--who was going with a
guy named Jerry Pointer and who is a friend of mine, and they arranged
it. It was like a matchmaking. And it worked. Although, Ellen was a
little wary of me, considering my history and I don't blame her.
LAMB: What your history?
McCOURT: Well, I'd been married twice before and I'd been a bit of a
LAMB: How many kids do you have?
McCOURT: One from the first marriage. Maggie. She's in Santa Cruz in
LAMB: How does this all work out in the Catholic Church?
McCOURT: I don't care. I'm--I suppose I'm out.
I'm--suppose I'm excommunicated. No, I'm not because I was never
married--if you're not married within the church, what you
do doesn't matter. It's simply committing the sin of adultery. So
I haven't transgressed on holy matrimony. If I got married in the church,
then they take it seriously. So I'm not ex--oh, yes, I am excommunicated for
something I did in the 1930--in my 30s. I went to Trinity College
in Dublin, which was a--forbidden Catholics by the Archbishop
John Charles McQuaid. Any Catholic who goes to Trinity College is
excommunicated automatically. That's been lifted now.
LAMB: Why was that the case?
McCOURT: He was just--he was a tyrant because Trinity
College was regarded as a nest of Protestantism and atheism
and Freemasonry. But I went there anyway to get a PhD.
LAMB: What do you think of Roman Catholicism just in general?
McCOURT: Institutional Catholicism?
McCOURT: I have no time for it. I know individual priests
and nuns who are doing, literally, God's work, but the church--the
church has to catch up. With what, I don't know, but it has to
catch--it's dying. I just read--there was one little statistic last
year in Limerick that caught my eye in “ The Irish Times” that
they beatified the founder of the Christian Brothers, Edmund Rice and the
pope--beatified him. That last year one person joined the Christian Brothers in
Ireland as compared with 39 ten years ago. So that's a dying order--teaching order.
And that shows you how few people want to go into the church anymore.
LAMB: Were you ever an altar boy?
LAMB: Why not?
McCOURT: My father wanted me to be an altar boy and
made me learn the Latin, made me learn all the responses.
He knew the Mass backwards and forwards, the priest part and the
boys' parts, so he trained me and I memorized all the
Latin and he made me kneel on the kitchen floor in Limerick and
(speaks Latin). And he takes me around the corner then to the--St.
Joseph's Church and the sacristan there who took care of the
church just looked at me and said, `We don't have room for him.'
My history is a history of having doors shut in my face. Now they're
flinging wide open. I can't--there isn't a door shut against me
anymore. Only good things happen to me.
LAMB: Why do you think this book is--has--excuse me, has been on the
best-seller list forever, has been on top 40 year--weeks after it
first hit the best-seller list?
McCOURT: It's a mystery.
LAMB: Really a mystery to you?
McCOURT: It's a mystery to me. Yeah. Today I read a
review in The New York Review of Books and that's a genre slightly to be feared
because they can trot out some very acerbic reviews. There were--it was an
enthusiastic review by a man named Neil Aitchison. And I thought I'd get a mixed
review from them because they're not known for their enthusiasm. So you have
The New York Review of Books, you have The New York Times and all kinds
of--Time magazine book of the year, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times and I'm a bit
taken aback because I thought it was a kind of a simple narrative in the tradition of what
they call the `shaneky' in Ireland, the old storyteller.
So they find--it amazes what the reviewers are
finding in the book. It's a comment on De Valera's Ireland and on
Catholicism. And they're finding how--what a consciously
clever writer I was, which I didn't know about.
LAMB: Who's De Valera?
McCOURT: De Valera, the prime minister of Ireland,
who I think kept the country back 50 years behind
its time. Which is all right because--one time George Bernard
Shaw was asked, `On the last day of the world, where would you like to
be?' And Shaw says, `Ireland.' `Why?' `Because the Irish are always 50
years behind the times.'
LAMB: Where was Eamon de Valera born?
McCOURT: New York.
LAMB: Where were you born?
McCOURT: Brooklyn. I think--I'm not sure if I was born
in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Mother would never tell me. She
always shied away from that.
McCOURT: I don't know. Because I was ill--I--was
conceived beyond the sheets and so I was the cause of sin. I used
to say, `Frankie was the cause of marriage.' They had--it was a
shotgun wedding and I was what appeared five months after
LAMB: Did that bother you when you found it out?
McCOURT: It did, yeah, because one of my friends told me I
was a bastard. And there was no way of getting around that. He said
I was doomed. And it was a sin that could not be washed away with the
baptism of water. So I'm doomed. I'm excommunicated because of
Trinity and I'm doomed because I'm a bastard.
LAMB: Were your parents Catholic when they died?
McCOURT: They--my mother would give lip service and
she would--she believed in it, but she didn't go to church that often.
I think she had confession before she died. They do--you
know, you're in a coma and they bring in a priest and you mumble
something. The thing--it's less formal and it's less rigid than it
used to be. You can go into the church now and make a general
confession. I--just say, `I confess,' but in my time, you had to
go in and detail your sins. Which kept us all in a state of
terror because, you know, an adolescent boy is constantly finding
himself irresistible and that's sin of impurity. And that was one of--the big
boy--one of the big sins in Limerick. So I think I was in a constant state of
impurity and terror of the priests to--it reached a point one time where the
priest didn't believe that I was in the proper state of repentance and told me,
`Get out of this confession box and don't come back till you're truly sorry.'
And I walked out of there, I felt I was doomed. If I'm hit by a truck now,
that's it; eternity in flames.
LAMB: Have you talked to any priests since the book came out?
McCOURT: Oh, yeah. A number briefly. But they--I have a special file now.
I have all kinds of files from my—the mayor and I have--there's one called
`negative stuff,' and I have a special file for priests and nuns. And they all like--oh,
that's the bishop--that's not the bishop, that's the mayor of Limerick, Mr. O’Hanlon.
When I went back to Limerick last year, oh, I was received with open arms. They lit—
the city was so proud of me.
LAMB: Catholic city, Catholic country.
McCOURT: Catholic Limerick, yeah.
LAMB: Received you with open arms?
McCOURT: Yeah. Six hundred people showed up at O'Mahony's
bookshop that night, waving books and--and inviting me out for a pint.
But this time when I went back --there were--were little
LAMB: Back in July?
McCOURT: ...a little opposition. Yeah.
LAMB: In July. For what reason?
McCOURT: Yeah. For the launch of the paperback. Another
tour of Ireland and by now they've read the book and there were some
LAMB: Like--did they confront you in person?
McCOURT: Yeah, they did. The same bookshop, O'Mahony's,
where I was received with wild acclaim last October, there was a
line--another line for the signing of books and a woman at the head of
the queue said, `You're a disgrace. Leamy--your—Leamy’s National
School, the thing you said about them boys.' I said, `No, I didn't.' I
said, `Where did I say that?' `You did!' I said, `Show me in the
book.' And then they hustled her off.
Then another woman says there's a bit of a hassle behind me, she says,
`You're going to get a bit of a hassle.' So this grim-looking
character comes up, he takes a picture, he's about my age, he takes a
picture out of his pocket, it's the picture of the school--the class
picture from the book, puts it down on the table, `Do you know
what that is?' I said, `Yeah. That's the class picture from Leamy’s.'
He said, `Now where am I in that picture?' I said, `I don't
know.' So for--all he said--`You don't know? How grand we are coming
back from America.' Now he says, `You're a disgrace to Ireland.
You've besmirched the fair name of Limerick and you've destroyed your
mother's good name. And here's what I think of your book,' and he
tore it to pieces, the paperback.
That's the lane in Limerick.
LAMB: Where you lived?
McCOURT: Yeah. Yeah.
McCOURT: Nineteen--I don't--1940s, late '30s through the
LAMB: What is it--for someone who's never seen the book, what is it
they actually get? What's the time frame?
McCOURT: It starts, I suppose, with my mother and father
meeting--this is just the time ends, 1929 to 1949, so that's
20 years. Except I was born in 1930 in New York and taken
to Ireland in 1934. And I left then again in 1949. So it's mainly
the story of me and my family from 19--from our arrival in Ireland to my leaving
LAMB: Another book?
McCOURT: Oh, yeah. The--I didn't know I'd be writing
another book. I wanted to write "Angela's Ashes." Now I want to write
the second book because I think the things--I want to show the effects
of poverty on--the emotional effects on a human being. It
happens to me--being--I'm the one--I'm the expert on me, I suppose.
But it--because of my teaching career in New
York and because of my dealings with all kinds of kids, poverty,
drugs, divorce, I want to show the psychological damage done to a
young man by the poverty and --that very tyrannical
church and the crazy nationalism that we were all subjected to in de
Valera's Ireland where he was pouring more money into preserving
the Irish language than he was into the slums of Ireland.
LAMB: How many people live in Ireland?
McCOURT: Now it's at--the population's about--overall, about four and
a half million.
LAMB: For the 32 counties?
McCOURT: North and south. Yeah.
LAMB: How many counties have you been in?
McCOURT: Have I been in? I've been in all of them.
Every--I've been in all--I've been--no, I've been in all of them,
yeah. I was going to exclude Derry, but I've been in Derry.
LAMB: What's `the Irish thing'?
McCOURT: The Irish thing? Now?
LAMB: Well, as you refer to it in your book. What's the--what are
the--how do you define what the Irish thing is?
McCOURT: This--it's a kind of trinity of nationalism
and--of Catholicism and immigration. This is--these are
the characteristics of the--each nation, I think, has certain
characteristics. Another characteristic of the Irish, which I thought
was disappearing, was the drink. That's how it's referred to: `the
drink.' Not drink, not alcohol, the drink. When I was there last
week, I noticed it. It's still--the swilling that goes on
is unbelievable. And I don't know where they get the money. It's a
booming economy, so--but it's always--they always seem to have the
money for the drink. And it's destroyed so many people, so many
LAMB: Do you drink?
McCOURT: Yeah, moderately. I just don't have the
capacity for it.
LAMB: How about your brothers?
McCOURT: They don't. Three brothers don't drink anymore.
They all had problems with it, and they gave it up. Well, they
went into the bar business and they were their own best
customers I suppose for a while.
LAMB: What is it about the Irish and ‘the drink?’ Why in that little country?
McCOURT: I think--I've tried to figure that out.
There was nothing else in a country that was completely
uncluttered. Compare the Irish with the Italians, say, with --rich
culture down there in Italy--architecture and music --and
wine and joie de vivre. We didn't have that. We had a kind of a
gentleness--grimness in the northern country.
There was --there's plenty of poetry, song, love--of the
landscape of nature and of women. That love poetry
died for a long time in Ireland. But in recent times
as--the--after the family thing something happened to the Irish soul.
LAMB: You have an audio book. You read it yourself--four and a half
hours long. Why did you read it yourself?
McCOURT: I didn't want any--I didn't want any effective
Broadway actor fiddling around with it. Broadway actors always pause.
There's always--there's these meaningful pauses. I just wanted to do
it myself because I think I could invest it with what I meant it to have.
McCOURT: It wasn't easy but...
LAMB: Where did you do it?
McCOURT: At Scribner's.
LAMB: In New York.
McCOURT: They have their own recording facilities.
LAMB: How long did it take you?
McCOURT: A week. Well, that's not as bad as a friend of mine, Donal
Donnelly who did "Ulysses." It took him 15 months.
LAMB: How did you do the audio?
McCOURT: They put me in a room and I sat there. And I read what they
gave me to read. There are parts --that are omitted from that I'd like to go back
and put in. But there's also a full and unabridged version coming up from
Recorded Books some time...
LAMB: Did you do that?
McCOURT: I did that, too, yeah.
LAMB: At the same time you did this one?
McCOURT: No, I did it long after this.
LAMB: How long did that take you?
McCOURT: That took me a month. And that was--hard
because they were very precise. You--I think they can hear your hair
growing those technicians and those recording people. The slightest
intake of breath that might interfere with the word, I had to go
back and do it again. But it's very efficient now. They do it just
right away and go back over it.
LAMB: I want to run a two-minute and 30 second clip of the audio and
listen to it and then ask you what this is all about.
(From audiotape) `Two days later, Dad returns from his cigarette hunt.
It's the middle of the night but he gets Malachy and me out of the
bed. He has the smell of drink in him. He has us stand at attention
in the kitchen. We are soldiers. He tells us we must promise to die
for Ireland. "We will, Dad. We will." All together we sing "Kevin
Barry." (Singing) `On Mt. Joy one Monday morning, high upon the
gallows tree, Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of
liberty. Just a lad of 18 summers, sure there's no one can deny. As
he marched to death that morning, how he held his head on high.'
There's a knock at the door, Mr. MacAdory. "Awe, Malachy, for God's
sake it's 3:00 in the morning. You have the whole house woke with the
singing." "Awe, Dan, I'm only teaching the boys to die for Ireland."
"You can teach them to die for Ireland in the daytime, Malachy." "'Tis
urgent, Dan. 'Tis urgent." "I know, Malachy, but they're only
children, babies. You go to bed now like a decent man." "Bed, Dan?
What am I to do in bed? Her little face is there day and night, her
curly black hair and her lovely blue eyes. Oh, Jesus, Dan, what will
I do? Was it the hunger that killed her, Dan." "Of course, not. Your
misses was nursing her. God took her. He has his reasons." "One more
song, Dan, before we go to bed." "Good night, Malachy." "Come on,
boys, sing." (Singing) `Because he loved the motherland, because he
loved the green. He goes to meet a martyr's fate with proud and
joyous mean. True to the last, oh, true to the last, he treads the
upward way. Young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge at Toóme
"You'll die for Ireland, won't you, boys?" "We will, Dad." "And we'll
all meet your little sister in heaven, won't we, boys?" "We will,
LAMB: What's that all about?
McCOURT: That's--that takes place in Brooklyn after my
sister died. She was 21 days old when she died. And --he went
demented. And --it was a habit of his to get us up because he was
a frustrated patriot. He was born in the wrong time. I
think he would have been very happy if some--if he had --fought
the English and been caught and hanged. He would died singing "Roddy
McCorley" or "Kevin Barry." But he--this was his way of continuing
his--the excitement that I suppose he felt when he was
in--fighting in The Troubles in Ireland.
And he would drag us out of bed in the middle of the night and
make us sing all these songs at--and I--my mother was
appalled. Everybody was appalled, but we enjoyed it because it
was very--it--we'd sing. It was--and we'd get out of bed in the
middle of the night. We'd sing and he--this was --a connection with
the father that--any excuse for making a connection with him
LAMB: How many years actually did he live?
LAMB: Was there ever a time that you knew him that he didn't drink?
McCOURT: I think towards the end he stopped maybe in the
last few years in Belfast. He had the pension. He didn't go out
that much anymore. He drank his tea.
LAMB: How long was he on the dole. And what is the dole in Ireland?
McCOURT: The dole is unemployment. And he was always on
the dole. You--it--most people--most of the working--and
so-called working men were on the dole. You'd get about 19 shillings
a--which was about $3 a week in American terms in those days. It
was not enough to keep a family going.
LAMB: And how did he get the dole money and then spend it on drink
without your mother getting her hands on the money?
McCOURT: He'd go down--all the men would go down on Thursday
morning to the--what they call the Labor Exchange to get their money.
Unlike America, if you're going on unemployment, you only have to send
in a statement, I think, once a week or something like that. But you
had to appear at the Labor Exchange every morning in Limerick in case
there might be work. And everybody use to laugh all the--there was
never going to be any work. And you'd sign. This was to make sure
that you weren't working.
So you get your money on Thursday and all the men would go
down. It was a big day. And you'd see--and it was in a lane
in Limerick. And you'd see women clustered at both ends of this--it
was an open-ended lane. Women waiting for the men to head them
off before they went to the pubs. And he--my father was a--was very,
very conscious of his dignity, but he didn't want my mother there at
all. He wanted to be able to go to the-- Labor Exchange, get
his money and then go home which he did often. But often, he went to
the pubs. And he'd just drink the whole damn thing. So my
mother threatened him. She said she was going to go down to the Labor
Exchange and get the money from the man, the clerk which she did. And
he was shamed forever because a woman came into the Labor Exchange and
took the man's dole. That's not what a woman is supposed to do.
Well, she wanted to make sure her children were fed. That's not what
a woman is supposed to do.
McCOURT: And he lost his dignity.
LAMB: When did he leave your family?
McCOURT: '41--the end of--the end of 1941.
LAMB: Where'd he go?
McCOURT: England. He went off to work in the--factories in England in
LAMB: Did he ever send money back?
McCOURT: Once or twice he sent a few pounds. It wasn't
enough. It was just a gesture. I don't know. Maybe somebody
persuaded him to send the money back but we--he left us to starve.
LAMB: When you remember the worst moments in your early life, what were
McCOURT: Waiting for the telegram boy, that--the telegram
boys on Saturdays used to deliver the telegrams to the families whose fathers
were in England. And most of the families like the Mehanes or the Downes
across from us would get their telegrams. Solid, steady men sending their money
home from England. And we'd wait all day on Saturday. And we hope and hope
and hope. And we knew then that--you could hear the engines always ringing in
England--6:00 in the morning, noon and 6:00 in the evening. But you knew--bong,
bong, bong--when the engines rung in the evening and the telegram hadn't been
delivered. That was it. You're going to face another week of starvation practically.
LAMB: What did it feel like to be hungry?
McCOURT: You--just--you never felt--you were -never satisfied and
you never had the full feeling. And we always--we used to make up such
--fantasies. There was a bush that grew in Limerick out in the country--
a little green-green leaf and a little red berry which was--were really inedible.
We wasn't--we used to call that bread and cheese. And we'd eat this--we'd eat these
leaves and little berries and image they were bread and cheese. And I thought
sometimes someday I'm going to have a big bread and cheese sandwich. That was my
One time my mother did get some money. She got a job as a charwoman.
She got some potatoes and a bit of corned beef and jelly and
custard. And this--we had this on a Sunday. And she said, `We're not
going to eat all of this today. Now we'll save some for tomorrow.'
And there were about four potatoes leftover--boiled potatoes and some
of the jelly and custard. I remember counting--one of my early
crimes, you know? And she put it in the windowsill. She had a little
curtain like a larder.
So I came home one Monday from school. There was nobody in the house.
And I look--went over and looked. I said, `I'll eat one potato or a
half.' And I couldn't stop eating the pot--I ate the four potatoes and
all the jelly and custard. And boy did she kill me. She knocked me
around the place that night. And my brother hated me. It was the
biggest crime I ever committed.
LAMB: Did you ever have a cheese sandwich?
McCOURT: Oh, I did. I--finally I had the experience of
being full when I came to the States, going into Horn and Hardart's
when I got a job.
LAMB: What was that?
McCOURT: That was an automat the old automat where you
put nickels in to take your food out of these little
compartments. I stuffed myself. But heaven--I experienced culinary
heaven when I was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany where I
was stationed in Bavaria where they had the quartermaster cooking
school. G.I. Joe.
LAMB: What year?
McCOURT: That was 1951. Oh, boy. Yeah. I...
LAMB: Where did you spend your military? For how many years?
McCOURT: It--two years in Bavaria, south of Munich in a
little village called Lenggries up in the Bavarian Alps. I had a great time.
LAMB: You came to the United States permanently in what year?
LAMB: How did you get here?
McCOURT: Oh, boy, that's another story of thievery. I had
a—what--I worked in the post office delivering telegrams. Then I
worked in Easton's Wholesale Newsagents which is like the Irish
Barnes & Noble. And then I--in the meantime I got a job with this old
woman writing. She was a money lender, a shark--a loan shark. And...
LAMB: What was her name?
McCOURT: Ms. Finucane. And she needed somebody.
I was delivering a telegram. And she said, `Are you in anyway smart?'
Well, I said, `I can read and write.' She says, `Half the people above
the lunatic asylum can read and write. Can you write a letter.' `Of
course I can write a letter.' And she hired me to write threatening
letters to dilatory customers. I was to threaten them that if they
didn't pay up they'd go to jail. Oh, and I threatened with
all kinds of things. I let my imagination run wild. And I was very
successful. She'd pay me threepence for each letter and sixpence if
it was successful.
LAMB: How much money is that in today's terms?
McCOURT: I suppose the Irish money was much more powerful
than it is now. It would be about maybe 30 cents for each letter and
then 90 cents if it was successful. And...
LAMB: And you tell the story about how your mother would hear from
her friends that gotten these threatening letters.
McCOURT: Yeah. And that they all said it was a
horrible thing. Who would write a letter like that to their own class
of people? A person like that should have their fingernails pulled
out and be boiled in oil. There were all kinds of--and I'm one--and I
was listening to all of this and I just--I felt awful that I had to
write these threatening letters. I felt, but I felt so powerful at
the same time that my letters were so--they were so effective.
But I made the money. And then I was putting it away in the post
office savings account, even to the extent where she'd give me money
for stamps to mail those letters. And I would keep the money for the
stamps and stick the letters under doors. So all of this was
going into the post office for my fare to America.
LAMB: But right before you came to America, though, you slipped in
somewhere and took a little money, didn't you?
McCOURT: Well, she died. She used to send me out on Friday
nights for a bottle of sherry to the pub, and when I came back she was
dead in the chair. So she had her purse and I stole from her purse.
And she had money upstairs in the trunk under the bed along with a
ledger that she kept all the...
LAMB: You took money at--her there in the chair?
McCOURT: Right. Yeah. With the--her purse had
dropped to the floor. And--but I verted my eyes from her
because I was terrified. But still the main thing in my life was to
get to America. And I think I would have robbed somebody's grave to
go there. I had to get out of Ireland.
LAMB: Did you report the fact that she was dead to anybody?
McCOURT: No, I didn't. I just walked away. Nobody knew. I
used to go in the back door. Nobody knew who I was. So I got the fare to
LAMB: How much was it?
McCOURT: Well, it was 59 pounds altogether to come to
America. And I was saving, saving, saving. I was also--I also worked
for Easton's News Agency. Part of our job was to--this is my
experience as a censor of magazines. We had to go through the
magazines and make sure--if something had escaped, the censors in
Dublin, we were responsible in the local Easton's for
offensive material. One of the--there was a “John O’London's Weekly”
that had a page on birth control. And the call came down from
Dublin. `Did you send out “John O’London's Weekly”?' `Yes,
I'll'--`Well, go get it and tear up page 16. It's about birth
control.' We had to go running all over the city, cycling and running,
walking and in the van, rush into these news agents and tear out page 16.
LAMB: Another picture here of the brothers. You're in that picture.
One of the brothers missing. Which one is it?
McCOURT: Yeah, Mike is missing. Mike is in San Francisco.
LAMB: And then your nephew again because I was to show...
LAMB: ...some video.
McCOURT: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: Conor McCourt, a policeman...
LAMB: ...in New York City. And he's got this documentary that he’s doing.
LAMB: When did he start it?
McCOURT: I think he and I were talking over a year ago
about this family stuff. I was interested in getting a whole
composite picture. And he came to Ireland in May 1996. I was over
there with my wife, Ellen. We were on combination of
promoting the book--prepublication. So Conor came over with his
video camera and did some footage over there. And then he
continued in New York. And he's been toiling away at it ever
since and getting better and better.
LAMB: And he's a cop that rides a bike around New York.
McCOURT: He--yeah, he rides a bike. Right. He's the
terror of the upper Westside drug dealer that--what
they--the Dominicans don't know he's--he's fluent in
Spanish. So when they’re talking about, `Mira, mira. The
drugs are--in a garbage can.' Conor knows what they're talking
about. He goes over and grabs the drugs and he grabs them. So
I--they--he's very--colorful, very effective cop.
LAMB: We have a VHS copy of some of the things he's done. We're
going to run three minutes and 19 seconds of it. And the audience
will have a chance to meet your brothers. And--let's watch this
and see what they think.
(Excerpt from videotape, courtesy of "The McCourts of Limerick," Romeo
& Juliet Productions, New York)
Mr. MIKE McCOURT: Basic time, it was a very short time really but
for that--I remember my father vaguely. And then it came time to--but
the sun was always shining. We were always playing in the streets up
there. There were always games out in the streets and stuff. And
everybody--everybody was in and out of everybody else's houses. We
all knew each other. In fact, this little scar I have up over here
was clocked on me by one Agnes Hannon. She dropped a rock on my head,
you know? And she lived right next door to us. But she was--she
threw a rock over the wall. And guess who was on the other side of
the wall? Me.
And--but it was like--it was one--it was--the thing about it was there
was kids all over the place at that time. It was a very busy little
place. And like I said, the only thing I always remember it was--it
was always warm up there. There was always warm days it seemed to me
Man: What about the rain?
Man: Ireland is supposed to be famous for the...
McCOURT: Yeah, but --I think there was
a--probably--What?--1939, '40, I suppose, when they--I even remember
reading about it. The beginning--the beginning of War World II they
were saying, `What a long, hot summer--warm summer it was all over
Europe.' And it seemed to be that way then.
Mr. ALPHIE McCOURT: What comes to mind is she was a sweet singer, a
good speaker. She had uncommonly good speech. And she was a reader
which is an affliction we all caught--an addiction, affliction,
whatever you call it. We all ended up with the same thing. She was,
as I said, from outside of Limerick from Mungret. I remember she
didn't have an easy life. I know that, but she always--she was a
great woman for a party, certainly in her latter years. I was born at
home in Barrack Hill. As far as I know, that's the family history. It
was a turbulent time. We didn't have a great deal.
Man: What's your saddest memory you have?
Mr. MALACHY McCOURT: The saddest memory is the twins, the death of
the twins, Eugene and Oliver. They were very charming pair of kids.
I remember them well, although I wasn't much older. I was a year
older. But--so we were exposed to death very early. It--the finality
of it was not apparent at that time because they always tell us, you
know, `They're very happy and they're gone to heaven and
they're playing with the angels and with the baby Jesus. And they
have everything they need,' and all that. And we would say, `Well,
why can't they have their--why can't they come back?'
(End of videotape)
LAMB: In order: Mike, Alphie and Malachy.
McCOURT: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
LAMB: Their ages? How old are you now?
McCOURT: I'm 66. Malachy's 65. Mike is 60. And Alphie is 56.
LAMB: Anybody not like the fact that you did this book?
McCOURT: In the family?
McCOURT: No, unless they're talking behind my back, but they've all
embraced it enthusiastically.
LAMB: Did it affect their lives?
McCOURT: I think it did because now Malachy's writing a
book. He was approached to write a book, and he's doing a thing
on--on his experiences in New York. It affected their lives because
it brought us altogether and it--and then the next
generation of kids. There--they know more about --what we
came from because--we talked intermittently down the years about
it--and humorously. I think--we didn't burden them with
the whining about our poverty. But now it's--I think it's between
the two covers and they can read it. And I think they're very
proud that the tribe is--has some prominence now.
LAMB: What's the second book going to be and when will it come out?
McCOURT: I think it'll come out in the spring of 1999. I'm
trying to get to it. And it's about the--my life in New
York. But mainly what I discovered, what I learned as a teacher--I
stood in front of those classes for --over 27 years talking,
exhorting, evoking and learning mostly. I used to say to them in
Stuyvesant High School in September and January when we get these new
classes in. I said, `By the end of this term there's one person in
this class who will have learned the most and that's me
because I want to learn.' And I would learn something from each
time--for instance, we did "Hamlet." Each year if you do it over and
over, it just keeps--the poem, the play keeps revealing itself.
And they by their--by my admission to them
that I was almost illiterate and that I really knew as much about a
poem as they did because they had the idea if you read a Yeats
poem or T.S. Eliot, the teacher knows what it means. The teacher
doesn't know. You can only-- guess.
They thought the teacher--I said, `No, we don't know. The poet
himself sometimes is puzzled by what he has written.' So we--I
think it helped them realize there's no end, there's no conclusion,
there's no ultimate answer. We're all in the same boat.
LAMB: What was the racial mix-up of your class?
McCOURT: Initially, it's...
LAMB: Mix--not mix-up.
McCOURT: Initially at Stuyvesant, --it was
Jewish, bright kids from the upper Westside and all around New York.
And then slowly there was an Asian incursion, if you want to
call it--Chinese and a lot of Korean kids and --a few more
exotic Sikhs and Pakistanis coming in. But all--not like the usual
New York high school which is--largely African-American and
Hispanic because Stuyvesant High School is a special school where you
have to take an examination to get in. Seven hundred openings
every year and 14,000 kids taking the exam.
So you had the cream of the crop. In one way it was easy to teach,
but in another way, you had to stay on your toes. There was no
such thing as giving those kids busy work. Oh, yeah, busy work.
They'd know. They knew. They knew. They could see right through
you. So I was forced willy-nilly to be honest with them. And
that's--I think that's the main thing I gained out of it. To be
honest with the kids at Stuyvesant and in previous schools like Seward
Park where you had the mixture of Chinese, Dominicans, and so on.
There I learned, I think, to speak clearly, directly, simply--tell the
story simply because you had to reach such a wide variety of--of kids.
LAMB: Did any of your students know these stories that you...
McCOURT: A few of them, yeah.
LAMB: Did you tell them in class?
McCOURT: Yeah, a few of them.
LAMB: And what's been the reaction? Have you run into your old
McCOURT: All over the place. Last--in Washington. I've
ran into--San Francisco. One night in San Francisco there was
16 showed up at a reading. And I think--I always had this --uneasy
feeling when I was teaching. So--supposedly, teaching writing. I had
this uneasy feeling they're sitting there and they're saying, `Oh,
yeah, you're telling us how to write. Why don't you write?' And they
would say after some of my stories, `Oh, Mr. McCourt, you should
write a book. You should write a book. You'd write a good book.' So
now I've written the book.
LAMB: Where did you write the book physically?
McCOURT: Mostly in Pennsylvania...
McCOURT: ...in a house. Milford, Pennsylvania.
LAMB: Why there?
McCOURT: Because we--Ellen and I rented a house down
there a few years ago and then we got married there on the banks of
the Delaware. Then we decided this is where we wanted to be so we
bought a house.
LAMB: You live there now?
McCOURT: No, I live in New York. I have an apartment in New
York. But we lose no opportunity to run to the Delaware River.
LAMB: When you write, what time of day do you write?
McCOURT: In the morning like my father. I've--I have a
lot of his early morning habits.
LAMB: What time do you start?
McCOURT: Sometimes seven, eight, some--I'll make
coffee and give it to Ellen in the bed. I'm a very good husband.
Everybody should have me for a husband if they want coffee in the
LAMB: How long do you write on any given day?
McCOURT: It depends on how it's coming. Some days I just
want to put a pin through my brain because it's so difficult. But on
a--on certain good days I would write nine or 10 pages...
LAMB: How long?
LAMB: Do you give it up after a certain amount of time?
McCOURT: No, if it's coming, it's coming. And I stay with
it. I'm not like Anthony Trollope who used to write
3,000 words every single morning before he got on his horse and
inspected post offices. I couldn't do that. I didn't have a set
LAMB: What do you write with, on?
McCOURT: I have a--it is an arm chair and I have a board
and I put it on the arms of the chair and I put a notebook on that and
I write in pen. I write the text on the right-hand, make notes on
the left page as I go along. And then I type it into the computer.
LAMB: When was the last word written for this book?
McCOURT: Oh, the last word was written the day before the
manuscript was due...
LAMB: What was that?
LAMB: What day was that?
McCOURT: That was--the manuscript was due on November
30th. I told them because I know I pick out certain dates. November
30th, 1995, I said I'd have-- it in there because that's the
birthday of my idol, Jonathan Swift, so I said I'd bring it in. The
night before I called Ellen at work. I said, `When you come home, I'm
going--I'm not going to write the last word till you come home.' And
she came home, and I had the notebook and I wrote the last word and we
had champagne. And the next day I delivered the manuscript.
LAMB: Are you now financially a wealthy man?
LAMB: What do you think of it?
McCOURT: Well, it won't help me to write my next book. All
the millions in the world, that's the main--I had to do this.
Now I have to do that. Why do we burden ourselves like that? I could
sit back now for the rest of my life and roam the world and
see--and--faraway places. But I have to write a book.
LAMB: Who's this?
McCOURT: Oh, that's--oh, that's my--I had
a house in Brooklyn in Cobble Hill. That's my daughter Maggie when she
was three years old.
LAMB: What's she like?
McCOURT: Oh, she's great. She's 26 now. She has a little
girl. She's out in Santa Cruz. Maggie's going to school. Oh, god.
Malachy and myself at Yeats' grave. Yeah. `Cast a cold Eye on
McCOURT: In Sligo, yeah.
LAMB: County Sligo.
McCOURT: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: Why are you there?
McCOURT: Malachy and I did a show called "A Couple of
Blaguards" about growing up in Ireland and then our adventures in
Limerick and--in America, rather. And we did it in Sligo at the
Hawks Well Theater in 1985. Oh, God, me in the Army, Ft. Dix,
New Jersey, with my old girlfriend, Emma McManus and my mother visiting
LAMB: When you see this picture--and we showed it earlier--any
McCOURT: No, I--no. I just feel sorry for his wasted
life--my father's wasted life. If it wasn't for the drink, he would
have been the perfect father.
LAMB: What's the best thing about him that you remember?
McCOURT: His--what he had in his head, the stories, the
legends, his sensitivity to Irish history, his yearning, I think--his
yearning to have been--for--his yearning for a part in the
LAMB: Who named the book and here's again the picture of your mother
and the four boys.
McCOURT: Who named the book?
LAMB: Who named the book "Angela's Ashes"?
McCOURT: I did. Well, I intended to go all the way up to her
death in 1981 when she was cremated and I--we took the ashes back.
But I had the--and I thought I was going to go that far but my
editor Nan Graham said--I took it up to the age of 19, and she said,
`That's good. That's the kind of--born in America, you go to Ireland
and you return. The odyssey is complete.'
LAMB: By the way, have you gotten over the Irish tradition of not
telling people that you love them?
McCOURT: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: The brothers the same way?
McCOURT: Oh, my brothers are the same, yeah.
LAMB: So it's not painful any longer?
McCOURT: Yeah, we-- no. We're pretty profligate with our emotions.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book with a picture not of Frank
McCourt. "Angela's Ashes" is the title of the book and we thank you
very much for joining us.
McCOURT: Thank you, Brian.
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