Frank McCourt, author of 'Angela's Ashes', dies

Irish writer won the Pulitzer Prize – and millions of fans
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The Independent Culture

The Irish author Frank McCourt has died in New York City, aged 78. He was best known for Angela's Ashes, a memoir about his childhood.

He had been gravely ill with meningitis and recently was treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. He died at a Manhattan hospice, his brother Malachy McCourt said last night.

Frank McCourt had spent many years working as a school teacher in the US, and enjoyed fame only after retirement with the publication of Angela's Ashes in 1996. The book was instantly popular with both critics and readers, winning a Pulitzer Prize and selling millions of copies. A film adaptation was released in 1999 starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson. He also wrote two further autobiographical works, 'Tis and Teacher Man.

"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," was the unforgettable opening to Angela's Ashes. As he described in the book, he was born in Brooklyn, New York City, on 19 August 1930, the eldest of seven siblings. The family moved back to Limerick, Ireland, shortly after the death of his sister Margaret in 1935, when she was just a few weeks old.

The book, and in turn his life, struck a chord with so many people as it is described the harsh realities of life in Limerick in the 1930s and 40s. His family lived in a run-down lane, sharing one outdoor toilet with their entire street. His father was an alcoholic who rarely worked, and tended to spend what little he earned on alcohol. For years it seemed the family subsisted mostly on bread and tea. Three of his siblings died, and he himself almost died from typhoid fever.

He returned to New York aged 19, but was soon drafted and sent to Germany. On his return he used the GI bill, a provision that provided education for returning servicemen, to enrol in New York University. He eventually graduated and began work as a teacher.

He was known primarily around New York as a creative writing teacher and as a local character, often to be found at the White Horse Tavern and other literary hangouts.

It was only when a friend helped him get his then-unfinished manuscript signed up by a publisher that the world at large learnt his remarkable story. Angela's Ashes initially had a print-run of just 25,000, but has now become perhaps the ultimate case of the non-celebrity memoir, the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.