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The Making of a Masterpiece
When a critically acclaimed Irish writer wins numerous literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, for an autobiography, one becomes intrigued as to what made this man's life so interesting. Everyone has heard the rags-to-riches story of the poor boy that grows up to become a success. Frank McCourt defines his own level of despair when the introduction to Contemporary Literary Criticisms says, "McCourt's childhood was so bleak and impoverished that the months he spent in the hospital recovering from typhoid fever seemed like a vacation" (Contemporary 147). The story of Frank McCourt's childhood is a marvel in itself, but a great story can be forgone if the person telling the tale is not exceptional himself. McCourt has been appraised to be as wonderful as old Irish writers such as Yeats and Joyce. The exposure these two writers have given Ireland has been unmatchable until now. Along with Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner for poetry, Frank McCourt has given a fresh new breath for the revival of enchanting Irish literature. Literary critic Michiko Kakutani writes, "Writing in prose that's pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin" (Kakutani 151). Being compared to such literary genius is an incredible complement to McCourt. Frank McCourt has the literary tools needed to capture the reader's interest and heart while keeping the vision of a child alive. This uniqueness sets him apart from many other authors who tell the tale of an impoverished child's life. Literary critic Malcolm Jones defines McCourt's talents by saying, "McCourt uses virtuosic black humor and a natural-born storyteller's instincts to induce in his
readers a blissful literary amnesia" (Jones 148). When words of praise are as common as his childhood's food-less days, one has to wonder where he acquired this special gift. There were three major influences in McCourt's childhood that came together to shape the way McCourt relives his childhood in his novel. In Frank McCourt's novel, Angela's Ashes, Frank's country, religion and family gave him the literary tools necessary to become a writer.
The pride of the Irish can arguably be unsurpassable by any other mans pride for his country. The Irish are known for their exuberant celebrations and feasts on such joyous occasions such as St. Patrick's Day and not so joyous occasions such as a Wake. At either gathering, the nationalist songs and boastful stories are sung and shared over a good pint of Guinness with anyone who would care to listen. This strong sense of pride in the Irish causes harsh judgement upon any man who would dare to threaten their way of life. Frank's adjustment from the New York life to the life of a child growing up in Ireland was not made easier by the biased Irish opinions. Just making it past his schoolteachers was hard enough, especially since he came from the "sinful" county of America. "That's right McCourt. Not bad for a Yank from the sinful shores of Amerikay" (McCourt, Angela's 122). While living in America during the early years of his childhood, Frank listened to his father tell magical stories of the one and only Ireland. The Irish mythological character Cuchulian inspired Frank to love the same land that his hero fought for. " I hear they put up a new statue of CuChulian to honor the men who died in 1916 an I'd like to show it to my son here who has a great admiration for CuChulian" (McCourt, Angela's 55). The constant ramblings of his father's devotion to
Ireland set the foundation for Frank's Irish pride while living in America. The time finally came for the McCourts to move to their native country of Ireland, but when they landed on the shores of the Emerald Isle, their dreams were not coming to fruition. Life was hard in Ireland and literary critic Denis Donoghue writes, "De Valera's Ireland was in the throes of economic war with England, and life was hard"(Donoghue 148). The family had no money, and no place to stay. Their only hope was for the father, Malachy, to receive a payment for his services in the IRA years before. This light of hope would soon be extinguished. The IRA could find no records of Malachy's former services for the IRA. With that, the family would not receive any money. Worst of all was the image of Frank's father. The stories that kept him entertained during his nights in America were not being supported by reality. His first taste of Ireland was a form of rejection. "Remember this Francis. This is the New Ireland. Little men in little chairs with little bits of paper. This is the Ireland men die for" (McCourt, Angela's 52). The stories of Ireland were starting to diminish. For a child, this is disappointing, but Frank did not realize the seriousness of the family's situation at the time. All was forgotten when he had the chance to gaze at a statue of his hero and nighttime companion in his dreams, CuChulian.
One of the major influences in shaping Frank's life was the motif of death. Frank grew up surrounded by death. Frank lost a sister and two twin brothers while he was a child. Death was not a shocking event during his childhood. One might say that the numerous deaths that he had to face as a child made him desensitized to such a terrible phenomenon. After another death in the family takes place young Frank says, "I don't know what to do tough I wonder if anyone will light the fire in the grate so that we can
have tea and bread because it's a long time since we had the porridge" (McCourt, Angela's 74). Frank had to deal with many deaths in his childhood, but the one death that he had the most trouble with was his own. The constant referral to his own death haunted him almost every day. While trying to sleep at night, his father would come into the home stumbling drunk and make his boys promise to die for Ireland. Singing about the woes of his poor country, Malachy wanted his boys to be martyrs for Ireland.
Because he loved the mother land,
Because he loved the green
He goes to meet a martyr's fate
With proud and joyous mien;
True to the last, oh! True to the last
He treads the upward way;
Young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
You'll die for Ireland wont you boys?
We will dad. (McCourt, Angela's 40)
This act of patriotic insanity affected Frank for the rest of his life. Frank's vow for death could not end with the country. When Frank attended school, he was taught to die for something else, his faith. Frank has a simple answer for this problem. "I wont be able to die for the faith because I am already booked to die for Ireland" (McCourt, Angela's 187). With all of these people telling him what to die for, he is confused and doesn't know why he should. The focus of his childhood in Ireland was primarily on death. When
it came down to rationalization, Frank finally got to thinking about what his life was worth. He wanted to know why there was such a focus on death in his life. "The master says it's a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there is anyone in this world who would like us to live" (McCourt, Angela's 113). The motif of death comes out of Ireland. From the "River Shannon that kills" to the many diseases that plague the Irish death is a part of Frank's everyday life. Ireland, and all the broken promises and death that came out of it, shaped the way Frank McCourt tells his story. Through the eyes of a child, the innocence with which he tells his story is possible because the harsh realities and stern views of the Irish people toughened him as a child allowing him to tell his story now. "The happy childhood is hardly worth your while" (McCourt, Angela's 11).
Growing up poor in Ireland was tough enough but Frank had to live the life of a poor Irish Catholic. "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood" (McCourt, Angela's 11). The religion of the Irish people has a history of being a major influence in their lives. The fighting taking place in Ireland today is profoundly influenced by religion. The people who live in the northern part of Ireland, correlated with the British crown, are mostly Protestant. Those Irish who live in the southern part of Ireland are predominantly Catholic. The disputes between the two have been running rampant for a very long time. Frank McCourt was raised in an Irish Catholic environment. For years he was subject to the teachings of the Catholic Church. At one point in the novel young Frank talks about how the Protestants were doomed. "I watch them go to church, the Protestants, and feel
sorry for them, especially the girls, who are so lovely. I feel sorry for the beautiful Protestant girls, they're doomed" (McCourt, Angela's 172). The Church of Ireland during Frank's childhood was very strict and orthodox. The schools were correlated with religious teaching, and every mother in the Limerick heard their child's ill-spoken words no matter how far enough away they thought they were. All of this had an enormous effect on how Frank grew up. Receiving Holy Sacraments and speaking to an angel in his prayers "Do not fear says the voice. Tell the priest your sin and you'll be forgiven" (McCourt, Angela's 125) are signs of his religious devotion. Frank was taught to believe in a higher power in life. Today, he still believes in the teachings of the Catholic Church and its traditions. The religious connotations and themes from his childhood show up in his everyday experiences today. McCourt recently commented in Worth Magazine about the way he invests his newly found money. "The high priests of Wall Street have my money and, along with that, my faith. I light candles for them" (McCourt, "Power" 110). Frank did not always feel like he could always turn to the Church for guidance. There were some good moments in his life involving religion, but he had to endure the bad before he could enjoy the good.
Frank was raised in the Catholic tradition as a child and that was not an easy way to live. From the schoolmasters at Leamy to the expectations put on him by his family, growing up Catholic for Frank was not fun at all. When Frank vomits the consecrated host given to him on his first communion, his grandma makes it a point to take him directly to confession. "She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told neighbors and passing str
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