Frank McCourt was born in 1930, to Irish immigrant parents in New York. Unable to find employment in the Depression, the family returned to his mother's home town of Limerick, in the south-west of Ireland in 1934.
They lived in desperate conditions in a rat-infested slum which often flooded. With little opportunity of work, Frank's alcoholic father Malachy finally left his mother Angela and their remaining four children to fend for themselves.
This is the "miserable Irish childhood" described in McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes. Three of the children died from disease and malnutrition, and Frank himself almost died from typhoid when he was ten.
McCourt left school when he was 13. As the oldest child in a fatherless family, he felt responsible for his siblings' survival. He did what he could, raising small amounts of money through petty crime and any odd job he could find – telegram delivery boy, coalman and rent collector.
At 19, Frank returned to New York and joined the US army just before the Korean war. After three years, he left the army and took advantage of the GI Bill. He persuaded New York University to accept him as a student, and the government to pay his tuition fees, despite the fact that he had never been to secondary school.
Graduating with a degree in English and Education, in 1958 he began his teaching career at a technical high school on Staten Island. Generally speaking, his students were reluctant to spend time discussing the finer points of literature. He kept control by telling them stories about his life in Ireland, a tactic that stood him in good stead for his future writing career. He also allowed his students to express themselves creatively on unorthodox subjects – their own obituaries, or an excuse note from Adam and Eve to God, for example. He brings this teaching experience to life in his third book, Teacher Man (2005).
Angela's Ashes was published in 1996 and was an instant bestseller. It has been published in 27 countries and translated into 17 languages. It won the US National Book Critics Circle Award, the ABBY Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. However, it did not escape heavy criticism from the people of Limerick who claimed that much of it was exaggerated or untrue.
McCourt's second book, 'Tis, was another bestseller, published in 1999. It takes up his story where Angela's Ashes ends – his life in America from the age of 19 to the end of his teaching career in 1985.
Frank McCourt died of metastic melanoma on 19 July 2009. He was 78. He is survived by his wife and his daughter by his first marriage.
Academy of Achievement Interview