B'Jesus! Would you believe it?

Frank McCourt hit the big time with 'Angela's Ashes'. Now his relatives are cashing in too. RUTH MORRIS reports from New York
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the absence of royalty, America has always displayed a certain fondness for its Irish-Catholic dynasties. After the turbulence of the Kennedy decades, a new softer, more sensitive clan has emerged to claim the end of the century. Its name is McCourt.

In the absence of royalty, America has always displayed a certain fondness for its Irish-Catholic dynasties. After the turbulence of the Kennedy decades, a new softer, more sensitive clan has emerged to claim the end of the century. Its name is McCourt.

The McCourts of New York have no time for high politics or low dealings. Their trade is words and images, printed and celluloid. The name is enough to open doors, at least if they belong to publishing houses or television production companies. And it sells like the b'Jesus.

The patriarch is Frank, 67, as in Angela's Ashes, the Pulitzer prize- winning author whose memoir - in his words - of a "miserable Irish Catholic childhood" stormed the international bestseller lists three years ago and turned this retired Manhattan schoolteacher into a literary lion and a multi-millionaire.The long-awaited second instalment, Ashes II (actually called 'Tis) arrives in bookshops later this year. Forget Monica's Story. This is the big publishing event of 1999. Bookstores everywhere will be clearing shelf space on the assumption that what the world really wants to know is what happened to young Frank once he crawled out of the dank and desperate slums of Limerick and into manhood.

To date, Angela's Ashes has sold more than four million copies around the world. It has been translated into 20 languages, including Croatian and Turkish. It's a good bet, then, that a fair chunk of the world's population is planning to shell out the local equivalent of £20 for the sequel, which begins with Frank back in New York at the age of 19.

But how great is the appetite for all things McCourt? Apparently pretty ravenous. Even as Angela's Ashes eventually sank slowly down the bestseller's list after an unprecedented 200 weeks at the top, another McCourt was rising in the opposite direction.

Malachy McCourt is the little brother of Frank, by a year. But he's catching up quickly. His memoir, A Monk's Swimming (an arch reference to a childish mishearing of the Hail Mary "amongst women"), hit the bookstands with an advance printing of 250,000 copies and a cheque for $600,000 in Junior's back pocket.

The paperback edition of A Monk's Swimming is published in the US in a few weeks' time, adding to healthy sales that have already pushed the first edition into the top three of the New York Times non- fiction lists.

But while the reading public has lapped up Malachy's boisterous yarns, including a spell as a gold smuggler in India, the critics have been less kind, verging, indeed, on the brutal. USA Today called it "So much blarney", while Time magazine complained that its "gassy circumlocutions quickly grow tiresome" and the Times likened the style to "WC Fields falling flat". Most agreed that the memoir was a smart piece of opportunism, cashing in on the McCourt name, but otherwise lacking in merit.

Diplomatically, Frank has taken refuge by saying that he hasn't had time to read the book, being too busy finishing his latest. At the same time, he recently remarked, in the way that only a member of your own family can: "It's a good thing if it makes him a lot of money. It helps him out."

Malachy had been somewhat on his uppers of late, recently confessing that until the book took off, he was leading "a miserable existence on Social Security and a couple of small actor's pensions". But it turns out that the dynamic of the relationship between the two brothers is rather more complicated than it seems. For most of their lives, Malachy was the famous one, while Frank laboured anonymously at the chalk face in Stuyvesant High School.

To understand what has changed, it is necessary to call in another McCourt with a rising star. Conor McCourt is the son of Malachy and nephew to Frank. By day he is a 32-year-old New York policeman with a mid-town beat. By night and at weekends, however, Conor is a budding documentary-maker, with his own production company, Romeo and Juliet. (Juliet is his wife.)

American TV showed his latest documentary in prime time on St Patrick's Day. His first effort, The McCourts of Limerick, was a family history that traced the early years of the Angela's Ashes period and was also snapped up for broadcast. Conor's latest film is The McCourts of New York and covers pretty much the territory of A Monk's Swimming and the forthcoming 'Tis with lengthy interviews with all the four surviving brothers, Frank, Malachy, Alphie and Michael (three siblings died in childhood in Ireland, including twins) along with a surprising amount of archive footage.

Conor, who began in the documentary business by filming weddings, admits that his famous surname has been an enormous help in marketing what was originally a glorified home video. The knock-on effect of Angela's Ashes on the family has been profound and not just because "Frank is now a rich man and my father isn't doing so badly". The brothers have spent more time with each other than in years, he says. The most curious change, though, is: "That I used to be Malachy's son and now I'm Frank's nephew."

As The McCourts of New York shows, Malachy enjoyed a certain celebrity in the Sixties and Seventies. As the eponymous host of Malachy's, an Irish bar, he gained a reputation as both a formidable teller of tales and drinker. Documentary footage shows a huge bearded fellow, never without a whiskey in one fist and prone to gruesome renditions of the Wild Rover.

A frequent guest on New York-based television chatshows, he graduated to TV commercials (playing King Henry VIII for Imperial margarine), a boisterous barman (ie, himself) in the long-forgotten soap opera Ryan's Hope and bit parts in a number of films, including Bonfire of the Vanities.

Towards the end of his stage career in the Eighties, he developed a double act with brother Frank based on their Irish childhood and beyond. With his hangdog expression, Frank was the natural comic foil to play straight man to the exuberant Malachy.

Called A Couple of Blaguards, the show was revived in New York last week with Malachy playing himself again, if somewhat battered by booze and the passage of time. Wit undimmed, he says Frank is "too rich" to join him this time.The remark is obviously tongue in cheek. Both brothers are now financially secure enough and share a bond to too many memories to see each other as rivals. Malachy prickles only when asked to compare his literary style with the more famous Frank which, he says, "drives me nuts. I'm not Frank McCourt, nor is anybody else. James Joyce wrote what he wrote. Frank wrote what he wrote. I wrote what I wrote".

Will he write any more? Last November, he provided the text for Through Irish Eyes, a book of photographs from the Ireland of the Thirties, opportunistically subtitled "A visual companion to Angela McCourt's Ireland".

Frank, meanwhile, completes his life story with 'Tis. He also has a one- man comedy revue on the story of Irish America, which was recently filmed for American television. In a recent interview with Time Out New York, he said of himself and Malachy: "We're ossified. We should be stuffed and mounted."

There is no sign, though, of the saga ending. A film version of Angela's Ashes, with Oscar nominee Emily Watson playing the long-suffering mother, is due later this year. Combined with the publication of the sequel, it should test just how much mileage the McCourt name still holds.

Conor, meanwhile, is branching out. His next documentary will be about the real lives of four cops in Philadelphia, Ireland, Brazil and Indonesia, where his brother works. He plans to continue in the police force and will soon take his sergeant's exams. "I'm getting out of the McCourt business," he jokes.

But others may be getting in. Alphie, a New York builder who specialises in restoring apartment blocks, has long been a closet poet. "We hear that Alphie is writing something," says Conor. Michael, the remaining brother, works as a barman in San Francisco. Like Malachy, he is a recovering alcoholic. He has apparently told the family he will write a book. "When the other buggers are dead," he says.

The story is not quite complete, though. There is Angela herself, who died in 1981 having emigrated to the US to be near her sons. It is said she did not care to have their early poverty talked about in public, regarding it as shameful.

Towards the end of her life she was persuaded to see A Couple of Blaguards, but walked out half way through in disgust - not before berating her errant sons on the stage.

But now it seems Angela McCourt kept a diary. Pages from it are shown on Conor's second documentary and an extract is briefly read to camera. Could the real Angela yet rise from the ashes?

Comments