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Hope amid the hardship... how Frank McCourt's bleak retelling of life in Ireland captivated the world and is now a musical

 

It's been exactly 20 years since Limerick-born Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for his controversial childhood memoir Angela's Ashes. With a musical version now on the way to Belfast, Graham Clifford spoke to the writer's widow, Ellen McCourt.

How does it feel, asked the excited journalist from the Associated Press. "How does what feel?" replied Frank McCourt. "To have won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela's Ashes, of course", came the reply.

It was 20 years ago today that the two telephones in a room of the Charles Hotel in Boston starting ringing off the hook.

"Frank was on one phone and I was on the other. It was chaos. I remember the second call came from the press in Ireland. We just sat on the bed taking calls one after the other", recalls McCourt's widow Ellen.

Within minutes, a local TV crew had tracked down the Limerick-born writer.

"They literally started knocking on the door of our modest hotel room. We had to let them in. They conducted the interview with Frank there on the bed. It was a whirlwind", recalls Ellen.

On the same day Frank collected his award at a special lunch, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis won the Pulitzer for music. Two decades on, the small glass Pulitzer Prize itself rests in a cabinet in the McCourt home in New York.

"It's actually a lot smaller and underwhelming than you'd think - but when Frank won it, well, it was such a huge deal - everyone wanted a piece of him", says Ellen, who was Frank's third wife; they married in 1994.

It was with gentle encouragement from Ellen that Frank decided to put a memoir of his 'miserable Irish upbringing' together.

"He'd already told most of the stories in Angela's Ashes to his students. Some of those stories had been turned into one act plays. So the book had been percolating for years.

"We just decided that the time had come to actually put them down on paper and within 13 months of starting the book, he'd created something so special."

Angela's Ashes had become a bestseller around the world by the time Frank was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on April 8, 1997.

Focusing primarily on his childhood in Limerick, the book told of Frank's impoverished upbringing, of his father's alcoholism and the fact he "chose the bottle over the baby." Of a damp, grey, poor Limerick where some children barely had shoes or enough food to eat and where disease, referred to as 'the consumption', reigned.

Frank also wrote of how his mother, Angela, was forced into a sexual relationship with her cousin Laman Griffin so she and her children could stay under his roof.

"I think that aspect of the book was the most difficult for Frank to write. I remember he actually asked his brother Malachy (a renowned Irish-American actor) if he should include that (the story of his mother and Lama Griffin) in the book, and Malachy said 'of course he must' as that was a pivotal part of the story", recalls Ellen.

But in Limerick, some criticised the book and disputed Frank's factual recollection. They believed he'd painted an overly-bleak picture of their city.

I recall being on a bus in Limerick city at the time Angela's Ashes came out and overhearing two women lambast its 'vulgar' content. "It's terrible what he wrote about our beautiful city", said one. When I asked what passage of the book annoyed her most, she replied: "Oh, I haven't read it. No, no, I couldn't read something filled with so many mistruths."

Ellen McCourt told Review it was only after the book had been turned into a movie that a minority in Limerick voiced their disapproval.

"When it was there on the big screen, I think some people thought it portrayed their city in a negative light. A lot of people wanted to deny such an amount of poverty existed in the lanes of Limerick and away from the big houses and wealthier areas. Frank had always told me about the famous 'Irish begrudgery' and here it was."

By the time McCourt (right) won the Pulitzer Prize, Angela's Ashes was already flying off the shelves - especially in the US.

In late 1996, the movie rights had already been optioned, but still, winning the most cherished prize in literature had a massive impact on his life.

"Of course his profile increased dramatically. The day after it was announced he'd won, he had to rush up to New York to be on the Today Show on NBC. Everyone wanted to hear him speak", says Ellen.

Angela's Ashes made McCourt a millionaire. The great irony, of course, was that recounting stories of poverty could lead to monetary success decades on. "Just as well this happened late in life or else I would have blown it all on booze and fornication", he joked back then.

Maggie, Frank's only child - who he had with his first wife Alberta Small - said in an article in the Limerick Leader last year: "When he won the Pulitzer Prize, we were all amazed and kind of incredulous. I think we always knew that he was inordinately talented, but I didn't expect it.

"When Angela's Ashes came out, it changed his life because it was healing for him. There were so many things that he had not reconciled in himself, or healed himself from the darkness of his past. I don't think he expected that people would have that kind of reaction to the book."

In Limerick the reaction varied, but Una Heaton, curator of the Frank McCourt Museum, says Angela's Ashes has brought millions of people to the city over the last two decades.

"Every year we get thousands of visitors to the museum here in Leamy House, Frank's former school, in Limerick's Georgian quarter. They come from all over, especially America. Like every year we get 5,500 people coming on specific tour packages from the States especially for the Frank McCourt experience. They'll visit the award-winning museum and spend three nights in the city", explains Una.

The visitors will even go on a tour of the Treaty City led by local guide Michael O'Donnell - stopping by the site of the St Vincent de Paul where Frank's mother Angela pleaded for rations of food and clothing, to Souths' Pub which his father, and later Frank himself, frequented and the church where a young Frank made his first Holy Communion.

"Frank's honest account of his upbringing here in Limerick was such an important social commentary for the city", says Una, adding: "It educated many about the hardships faced by the poorest in our society.

"I feel so fortunate that I got to know Frank well and see, first hand, what a humble, witty and special man he was."

In July, eight years after Frank's death in 2009, Angela's Ashes: the Musical, will play at the Lime Tree theatre in Limerick before moving to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin.

It arrives at the Grand Opera House in Belfast for a run from August 1-5. We're told its an 'uplifting story of hope, fortitude and family.'

The musical is also set for the West End and Broadway.

"The story endures and that's largely down to Frank's amazing writing ability and his wit and humour even in adversity", Ellen McCourt tells Review. "Angela's Ashes resonated with people. For many, it was very familiar, painfully vivid and a very important literary work.

"It helped people, and it was those positive reactions which meant more to Frank than any Pulitzer Prize or award he was ever given."

Angela's Ashes: The Musical, Grand Opera House, Belfast, Aug 1-5. For tickets, go to www.goh.co.uk or tel: 028 9024 1919

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