24th July 2009 at 01:00
Frank McCourt 1930-2009

Angela's Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of an impoverished childhood in Ireland, would not have been written if Frank McCourt had not worked as an English teacher.

McCourt, who died this week, detailed many of the triumphs and misadventures of three decades teaching in New York schools in his third book, Teacher Man.

Francis (Frank) McCourt claimed to have been conceived up against a wall in Brooklyn. He was the son of Malachy, an alcoholic from Belfast, and Angela, from the slums of Limerick. Born in 1930, after a shotgun wedding, he was the eldest of seven children. Three of these - including Margaret, the only girl - died in childhood.

In 1934, the family moved to Ireland, hoping for a better life. But Limerick during the Depression was not the land of hope they had imagined: the McCourts lived in rat-infested slums, sharing a single toilet with their neighbours.

Malachy, who continued to drink heavily, moved to England in 1935. He had intended to find better-paid work to support his family; ultimately, he disappeared from their lives.

The subsequent hardships faced by Angela McCourt as she raised her four sons are chronicled in Angela's Ashes. But the book actually had its origins in a series of classroom exercises in composition.

In 1949, 19-year-old Frank returned to the US. Two years later, he was drafted into the Army. On his discharge, the US Government paid the tuition fees for his masters course in English and education. And so, in 1958, the young Mr McCourt's teaching career began at McKee Career and Technical High School on Staten Island.

As the nervous teacher stood facing a classroom full of would-be mechanics and beauticians, a boy called Petey hurled a baloney sandwich at him. For many, it would have been the beginning of the end. Instead, McCourt picked it up, dusted it off and ate it. It was, he said, delicious. More importantly, his pupils were enthralled.

Many of his teaching methods were similarly unconventional. In Teacher Man, he recounts how he would ask pupils to write excuse notes in the styles of famous historical figures. Alternatively, he would buoy a flagging lesson with the "dinner interrogation": an exercise in which pupils itemised what they had eaten for dinner the night before, who had prepared it, and what the family had talked about over the table. "You are your material," he told pupils. And he would entertain them with stories of his childhood in Ireland: an early, unformed version of what eventually became Angela's Ashes.

But McCourt often struggled to hold pupils' attention, repeatedly exhorting himself to be a stricter teacher. And he was haunted by a sense of inadequacy, reinforced by the excoriations of principals who worried that he was neglecting the basics.

In 1961, he married Alberta Small. The couple had one daughter, Margaret, and the marriage ended after 18 years.

But his career continued to advance. In 1975, he was appointed to the prestigious Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, which counts four Nobel laureates among its alumni. Here, his creative writing classes were regularly oversubscribed, pupils squeezing on to window-sills to attend.

Then, in 1981, Angela McCourt died. Her son retired from teaching and he finally put into practice the lessons that he had taught his pupils over the years.

Angela's Ashes was published, to immediate public acclaim, in 1996. It was followed by 'Tis, in 1999, describing the US years. His third memoir, Teacher Man (2005), focused predominantly on his years in the classroom.

In May this year, it was announced that McCourt had been treated for melanoma. Then, in July, his brother revealed that he had meningitis. McCourt had hoped one day to publish a novel, but died before this ambition could be realised.

Frank McCourt is survived by his third wife, Ellen Frey, as well as his daughter Margaret, grandaughter and grandsons.

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