Frank McCourt was well into his sixties when his first book was published, proving that you are never too old to write. Angela’s Ashes, the story of his upbringing in Limerick, was a phenomenal success, selling over ten million copies, winning a Pulitzer Prize and famously being made into a film, writes Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh


Most writers struggle to achieve success. Even best-selling authors often have to strive for many years to make a breakthrough, and we all love stories of authors who were well advanced in years when their first book was published.

From this perspective, the case of Frank McCourt is especially remarkable, and indeed inspiring. The Limerick-raised author was sixty-six years old when his first book Angela’s Ashes hit the shelves in 1996. He expected only modest sales, but the book became a phenomenon, and has sold over ten million copies. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for best biography, and was made into a film by the director Alan Parker in 1999.

The road to McCourt’s triumphant success was an unlikely one.

“When I taught in New York City high schools for thirty years”, he wrote, “no one but my students paid me a scrap of attention. In the world outside the school I was invisible.”

Success took him completely by surprise:
“I hoped the book would explain family history to McCourt children and grandchildren. I hoped it might sell a few hundred copies. Instead it jumped into the best-seller list and was translated into thirty languages and I was dazzled.”

As well as its massive success, Angela’s Ashes generated a fair amount of controversy. The memoir’s portrayal of Ireland, Limerick, and the Catholic Church were far from flattering, and some accused McCourt of exaggerating the hardship of his youth. A TV confrontation between McCourt and the Limerick broadcaster Gerry Hannan has become famous in its own right.

But, on the whole, Limerick seems to have taken the book to its heart. In 2010, a bronze bust of McCourt was unveiled there, and a Frank McCourt Museum opened in 2011, (closing in 2019).

Angela’s Ashes is set for the most part in the Limerick city of the thirties and forties. It follows the misfortunes of the McCourt family, Irish-Americans who have escaped the poverty of Depression-era New York only to find things even worse in Ireland. The mother Angela struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs as her husband Malachy consistently spends all their money on drink. Frank (known as Frankie), his brother Malachy, and two other brothers grow up in the school of adversity that is “the lanes” in Limerick.

Life in working-class Limerick is portrayed as a struggle for survival, with authority figures such as teachers, priests, and employers mostly making life difficult for Frankie and his family. The McCourts endure death (three of the children die in infancy), hunger, humiliation, overcrowding, prejudice, sickness, and innumerable other hardships.
And then, of course, there is the ever-present rain and damp: “The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks.”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own