Frank Confessions

Performance in the Life-Writings of Frank McCourt

by Margaret Eaton (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 284 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 78


This book aims to redress the critical neglect of Frank McCourt’s life-writing, which has been dismissed all too frequently as «misery memoir» and deemed commercially driven or aesthetically and politically naïve. It reassesses the life cycle of McCourt’s work, investigating the experiences that shaped his desire to write and demonstrating a nuanced and multifaceted network of stimuli and references. This new approach reimagines McCourt’s work as a series of complex constructions that are inherently performative in nature (including the multiple identities that he assigns himself) and draw on recurrent clichés and stereotypical characters formed from a medley of literary, theatrical, cinematic and popular performance traditions. The author uncovers reference points, intertexts and sources that McCourt appropriates from the Irish language tradition, storytelling, nationalistic songs, the popular music of New York City, the films of Hollywood, other memoirs, Joycean literature, melodrama and theatre. This dynamic has been recognized by other performance practitioners, and the book also explores how McCourt’s life-writing has inspired creative adaptations for stage and screen.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Curtain Rise: Locating the ‘Father of the Misery Memoir’
  • Chapter 1: ‘I’d Love To Be Irish When It’s Time For A Song’
  • Chapter 2: ‘Are ye Gangsters or Cowboys? […] Fred Astaire How Are You?’: The Effect of Hollywood Cinema on Frank McCourt’s Irish-American Male Identity
  • Chapter 3: Melodramatic Moments: McCourt’s Debt to Dion Boucicault and Seán O’Casey
  • Chapter 4: Frank McCourt’s Performance of ‘Irishness’: The Anxiety of James Joyce’s Influence?
  • Chapter 5: The After-Lives of Angela’s Ashes
  • Conclusion: Curtain Fall
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


I am indebted to Julie Sanders and James Moran who saw the potential in this enterprise at the University of Nottingham and encouraged and supported me throughout the genesis of this book.

I am obliged to Christabel Scaife, the senior commissioning editor at Peter Lang, for her enthusiastic response to my proposal, and her decision to send the sample chapters to the Reimagining Ireland series editor, Eamon Maher. It is my good fortune that Eamon is a Frank McCourt ‘fan’!

My warmest thanks go to my family for their dedicated encouragement, especially my husband, Kevin, for his steadfast belief in this endeavour. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


Curtain Rise: Locating the ‘Father of the Misery Memoir’

Francis (Frank) McCourt (1930–2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York to Irish immigrant parents but was raised in Limerick, Ireland from the age of four. He returned to New York in 1949, so his Irish-American experience is retold from the complex position of returned emigrant and foreign tourist. McCourt taught creative writing to high school students in New York City for thirty years before attracting international public attention by winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize (and other accolades) for his first memoir Angela’s Ashes.1 Alan Murdoch confirmed McCourt’s commercial success in the Independent, declaring Angela’s Ashes the ‘publishing phenomenon of the decade’ after it remained on The New York Times bestseller list for over one hundred weeks.2 It has since been translated into over twenty-five languages (with the Irish language version being undertaken by Galway-born writer, Padráic Breathneach).3 Alan Parker’s 1999 adapted film gained ← 1 | 2 → further popular attention for McCourt’s work.4 McCourt also published the sequel ’Tis in 1999 to recollect his immigrant life in New York.5 Teacher Man followed in 2005 as a memoir of his teaching career.6 Prior to the publication of Angela’s Ashes, McCourt had attempted to develop his profile on New York’s cultural and literary scene by acting in ‘Irish’ plays in New York. He wrote and performed in A Couple Of Blaguards, the prototype for this first memoir, and had articles published in the New York newspaper, Village Voice as far back as the 1970s.7 Moreover, as a teacher of creative writing, McCourt was well aware of effective narrative structures that were present in the literary dramas and other texts that he taught to students. It is remarkable that although McCourt is mentioned in a number of published works, there is no published monograph that is solely dedicated to a discussion of his writing, and this lacuna contrasts remarkably with sales of more than 10 million copies of Angela’s Ashes alone.8 Of course, this might have to do with the fact that McCourt’s work is, undoubtedly, labelled ‘popular’ and, consequently, not ‘deserving’ of ‘serious’ academic engagement, thereby recycling an old Yeatsian anxiety about the validity of artwork that has a wide commercial appeal. Indeed, despite – or, perhaps, because of – this commercial success, a number of critics have expressed reservations about the literary merit of these writings themselves, thereby ← 2 | 3 → adding grist to the Yeatsian worry.9 Consequently, McCourt’s work is widely known but little analysed: in that respect this book is an important corrective to this critical dismissal.

Some historically minded critics have attacked McCourt’s writing as being empirically untruthful. McCourt himself commented on this reaction when Angela’s Ashes was published in Ireland: ‘I was denounced from hill, pulpit and barstool. Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the Church, that I had despoiled my mother’s name and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lamppost.’10 The less well-known Limerick author and playwright Críostóir Ó Floinn judges Angela’s Ashes as a ‘most nauseating, […] commercial and repulsive, […] meretricious concoction […] awash with contrived pathos and sentiment’, rather than being a ‘literary work of integrity’.11 Ó Floinn defines McCourt as ‘a Yankee Doodle Dandy smart boyo, backed by a high-powered publicity machine, [who has] guiled some naïve critics and many of the common mob’.12 Undoubtedly, Ó Floinn wrote his own memoir There is an Isle: A Limerick Boyhood as a corrective to what he considers to be the denigrated account of growing up in Limerick offered by McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.13 While Ó Floinn’s opinion contributes to the ‘popular literature versus Literature’ debate, by mapping the story of how Frankie surmounts his past sufferings and forges a new successful identity, McCourt, the writer, offers his audience a clear ← 3 | 4 → insight into one of the key trajectories of the myth of the ‘American Dream’, by engaging in a mode of life-writing that follows his journey from boyhood to manhood in a manner that mirrors the parallel process of Ireland’s journey into independence and economic prosperity when Ireland and ‘Irishness’ became desirable commodities.14

The eminent historian Roy Foster expresses scepticism about McCourt’s intentions and considers Angela’s Ashes to be a derivative, boring, clichéd and unoriginal exaggeration of McCourt’s Limerick childhood and youth, exemplifying a narrative that is ‘skewed through selective “evidence” and a manoeuvred memory’.15 In an effort to expose McCourt’s ‘particular purpose’, Foster accuses the writer of using Irish nationalist stereotypes in a naïve way, in order to market a mere sentimentalized representation that has brought American tourists to Limerick to view gritty realism before returning to gilded America. Foster argues that McCourt performs an identity assembled from the wretchedness of his formative years with the exact intention of commercializing the past and drawing on the multifaceted approach of the United States to what it expects ‘Irishness’ to be.16 Yet, McCourt’s critics fail to consider that his status is not merely a straightforward case of emigration, or that his literary efforts may consist of a more complicated and nuanced imbrication of influences and allusions. By nationality McCourt is American, illustrated in ’Tis when he is asked upon arrival in New York: ‘And what is an Irishman doing with an ← 4 | 5 → American passport?’17 McCourt’s detractors have failed to recognize his perceptive view of the Irish-American experience and to identify McCourt’s own critique. Thus, Foster’s opinion can be challenged because although McCourt does rely on clichés and stereotypes, his writing itself is not vacuous, but rather reveals the vacuity of clichés and stereotypes. In fact, Foster is aware that these predictable elements are the very reason for the popular impact of Angela’s Ashes, and notes: ‘It is what millions of people want to read (or at least to buy)’.18 Similarly, Foster neither discerns McCourt’s witty ambiguities nor acknowledges awareness of the contested nature of Irish-American identity that is reflected in McCourt’s (often withering) review of the conflicting interpretations of Ireland’s history and national image that have been repackaged and airbrushed for Hollywood consumption and popular culture.

Critical Perspectives

This book focuses on McCourt’s life-writing not because of its perceived quality or lack of quality, but because in the 1990s his phenomenal success and the sheer volume of book sales ensured that he provided a commonly understood cultural referent for discussing the specific topics that the book addresses; namely Ireland itself, the status of the memoir genre and Irish-American identity. McCourt subtitles each of his three texts with the term ‘A Memoir’ so that the effect of his consistent use of the indefinite article alerts the reader to the idea of all three memoirs focusing on a distinct period in the unfolding of a unique life-story. However, the term ‘life-writing’ is used in this book as a fluid and all-encompassing classification because it describes the diverse genres and practices under which can be found autobiography, biography, memoir, diaries, letters, testimonies, ← 5 | 6 → auto-ethnography, personal essays and, more recently, digital forms such as blogs and email. It is an appropriate term to employ because of the wide range of ‘texts’ that this study draws upon to analyse McCourt’s life experience through performance. Furthermore, the expression highlights how McCourt’s methodology frees him from formal autobiographical convention and his belief in the validity of random events that he has committed to memory. McCourt’s texts function to reconnect with the past and this study of his work explicates how he utilizes performance to market Irish identity successfully to a mass readership since he was able to reinforce the affiliation between his life experience and the narrative of the nation. In turn, McCourt appeals to his Irish and American audiences simultaneously, making use of the dual nationality and fluid identity that being Irish-American affords him. Each chapter argues that McCourt’s hybrid identities are identifiably performative in origin and effect to allow his texts to function efficiently to condemn political, economic and social realities in Éamon de Valera’s Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s at the same time that he displays a sense of melancholy for the past.

Victor Merriman and Joe Cleary argue in different ways that the art of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland often functions to validate Ireland’s ‘modernisation’ by representing as ‘Other’, and finished an Irish past of backwardness and poverty. For McCourt, the past is a construct that relies on topics relevant to postcolonial discourses, such as race, religion, language and gender, all of which engender issues of difference and ‘Otherness’, so Cleary and Merriman’s ideas can be identified readily in a narrative strategy in which memory is paramount. Most pertinent to a response to McCourt’s writing is Merriman’s contention that the dramas produced at a time of ‘unprecedented affluence’, during the 1990s by playwrights Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr, actually restage ‘reductive stereotypes’ and present Ireland as a ‘blighted dystopia’, which implicates audiences in particular negative stances towards the poor, the past and Irishness.19 Merriman argues that the work of these two dramatists expresses postcolonial desire by challenging ‘official narratives of belonging’ and inviting modern audiences to laugh at ← 6 | 7 → the ‘internal outsiders’ who populate their plays from a comfortable distance, relieved that ‘“we” have left it all behind’.20 For his part, McCourt replicates McDonagh and Carr’s method by populating his writing with his own version of ‘reductive stereotypes’. Rather than dislocating himself from the misery generated by the class, religious and political divides of de Valerian Ireland, McCourt constructs a self-conscious reconfiguration of events and an invocation of clichés in Angela’s Ashes which exemplify Merriman’s critique that the properly postcolonial Irish state has never really arrived. The Irish stay ‘poor’ because without real cultural independence, decolonization remains a Utopia.

Cleary, meanwhile, is concerned with how an artwork might operate within a marketized system in Ireland during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era. Angela’s Ashes offers an insight into the society with which its appearance coincided, highlighting in particular the remarkable transformation in Ireland’s material and cultural history. When McCourt published Angela’s Ashes in 1996, Ireland had finally emerged from economic stagnation, and the conservative Catholic state had lost its absolute power. Yet, paradoxically, Angela’s Ashes characterizes writing that Cleary describes as returning incessantly to the ‘hangovers of de Valera’s Ireland’, challenging readers to confront the ‘dark side’ of their historical past. The term ‘dark side’ frames McCourt’s writing within Cleary’s notion of the disassociation of past and present, which articulates succinctly the associations of narrow-mindedness, thrifty conservatism, nationalism, Catholicism, emigration and stagnation with de Valera’s Ireland. Cleary’s view is influenced by Jameson’s idea that at the end of history there are no future beginnings to foresee. Cleary regards this as a reason why Irish writers are impelled to return to the ‘dark age of de Valera’, produced by a ‘nostalgia for a time when there were still battles to be fought, still alternative futures […] when the nation still had […] weighty, decisive historical choices left to make’.21 The imagination of a ← 7 | 8 → better future is very much bound up with the reappropriation of the past and the unearthing of alternative historical practices and experiences.

Cleary’s critique is typified in the way that McCourt’s readers are drawn into his creation of a version of 1930s and 1940s Ireland in Angela’s Ashes, with which they might contrast 1990s Ireland readily at a time of increased global popularity of ‘Irishness’. The crucial word here is ‘creation’, in the sense that McCourt artificially yet consciously constructs and markets a tale of Irish misery successfully. Indeed, Cleary sees this ‘now-conventional negative image’ as an essential condition for contemporary Ireland to be constructed as the ‘repudiated antithesis’, and he has said specifically: ‘Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes […] offered a much more scorchingly negative and unequivocal indictment of de Valera’s Ireland and an altogether more uncritically and unabashedly gung ho embrace of the American dream as the obvious alternative’.22 This book attests to how the performative model that McCourt adopts exposes the critical impetus around the issue of poverty, cultural isolation and economic depression, which he sets in opposition to the cosmopolitan sophistication of the ‘swinging “new Ireland”’ of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, when Cleary argues that the country ceased to be regarded as a ‘byword for repression, poverty and sexual starvation and was rebranded instead as an affluently consumerist home of the craic’.23 Moreover, McCourt exemplifies Cleary’s censure that rather than seeking to exorcize such associations, the past is ‘repeatedly evoked’ because it serves as the ‘definitive image of the anti-modern which a modernizing Ireland needed both to define itself against and to transcend’.24 Indeed, by reworking his impoverished, traumatic childhood Ireland’s enervating past (in terms of grinding poverty and the indomitable and repressive church and state politics) McCourt ensures that these negative traits become a ← 8 | 9 → fixed perception in the collective imagination and cultural production. Certainly, maintaining this image of ‘the dark side of Irishness’ was imperative to McCourt the further divorced such images became from the reality of the ‘Celtic Tiger’s’ embrace of the capitalist modernization with which Irish contemporary identity was formulated and negotiated. McCourt has not only created an ‘Irish’ version of life-writing but has also educated his audience about their good fortune in experiencing what Cleary calls a ‘“lucky escape” from all that earlier business’.25 It is this sense of ‘lucky escape’ and, more specifically, the implication of an inherent separation between past and present, between the dark old days and ‘Celtic Tiger Ireland’ that McCourt examines negatively in his writing.

Locating Performance

This book undertakes a method of analysis that couples close-readings of McCourt’s life-writing with attention to socio-cultural context, aesthetic form and issues of representations of ‘Irishness’. McCourt’s writing for stage performance, personal emails, interviews, broadcasts and sound recordings demonstrate how he creates an aesthetic effect by freighting his writing with ideas and principles of performance from reference points and intertexts drawn from a wide range of geographical and cultural reservoirs. His sources range from the Irish language tradition, storytelling, dance and songs of Limerick, to the popular music of New York City. Further key influences for McCourt are Hollywood films, Limerick and New York memoirs, Joycean literature and the tropes of stage and screen melodrama and theatre, all of which provide a ‘framework’ for McCourt to organize his experiences. These recognizable signifiers of ‘Irishness’ are not only deployed deliberately by McCourt as writer to emulate elements ← 9 | 10 → of writing and corresponding themes that had been offered previously by Dion Boucicault, James Joyce and Séan O’Casey, but also to enable him to make particular points about his Irish-American identity that might appeal to diverse audiences across both the American and global market.

Critical Perspectives on Life-Writing and Performance

Phillip Zarilli’s defines performance as a ‘mode of cultural action that is not a simple reflection of some essentialized, fixed attributes of a static, monolithic culture but an arena for the constant process of renegotiating experiences and meanings that constitute culture’.26 Zarilli is correct in pointing out that our ideas even fluctuate when transferred from the immediately experiential to an historical plane of thought. He also stresses the wider pragmatic and cultural context of performance, and how it can empower an individual through cultural inscription and recognition. In the analysis of how McCourt’s memoir has been adapted for stage performance in Chapter 5, Zarilli’s model illuminates how the producers of Angela’s Ashes: A Musical attempted to represent and configure on stage, a culture that was outside their own identity space. We see theatre functioning to make culture intelligible and how performance operates to define, and often contest simultaneously, self, identity, representation and context. Of course audiences can be hostile, sympathetic, critical, neutral, indifferent or informed. Hence, Susan Bennett’s idea of different kinds of audience and modes of reception is significant to readings of McCourt’s work (and adaptations for performance) as is the audience’s role in creating the meaning of a theatrical event, since, as Bennett would have it, performance is ‘always open to immediate and public acceptance, modification or ← 10 | 11 → rejection by those people it addresses’.27 Drawing on Hans Jauss’s concept, Bennett analyses the pleasure of participation through interpretation, arguing that audiences interpret a text (or scene) by bringing their own ‘horizon of expectation’, to a theatrical event.28 Key to Bennett’s assertions is the notion that not only is interpretation culturally encoded and shaped by personal experience, it can also be influenced by information received before, during, and after the event from critics, acquaintances and other sources. According to Bennett, successful audience involvement requires membership of a unified community that have shared experiences alongside familiarity with the codes and conventions of theatrical performance. She therefore proposes a model of reception in which the audience views performance through a culturally constructed ‘outer frame’ that interacts with an ‘inner frame’ from which the visual and aural signs are understood.29 When Bennett’s reasoning is applied to McCourt’s work we can see that the key concepts of ‘Irish’, ‘life’ and ‘life-writing’ have varied significantly during the last two decades and have helped to produce some widely varying assessments of McCourt and his writings. In Bennett’s terms ‘both the interpretive community and shifts in “horizon of expectations” determine the nature of response’, and it is the audience which ‘finally ascribes meaning and usefulness to any cultural product’.30

Although the geographical entities are obviously discrete, there is a long tradition of travel and cultural influence that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to discern the authentically ‘Irish’ or ‘American’, so that a blended identity is better determined. Indeed, as the work of Benedict Anderson has shown, we cannot assume that a nation is a fixed collection ← 11 | 12 → of characteristics.31 In fact, McCourt self-consciously engineers a binary opposition between Ireland and America by engaging with Ireland through Irish-American eyes when he says in Angela’s Ashes: ‘Day and night I dream of America’ (415). We shall see the ways in which he displays a confusion about the ‘performance’ of his diverse roles and the subsequent tensions between his American and Irish-American self, particularly as McCourt himself mocks and problematizes a binary reading of Irish-American culture. Thus, a performative model of identity formation exposes McCourt’s strategies and allows a greater insight into the hybrid nature of his literary persona. Yet this book does not seek to reject a national selfhood entirely, but rather aims to keep such an identity open by demonstrating that McCourt’s reconstruction of Limerick and New York reveals a hybrid self-representation, which both embraces and exploits elements of commonly recognized national tropes and themes.

In his life-writing McCourt demonstrates how past events can be re-performed in the present, using multiple representations of ‘Irishness’ to market and express ethnic identity to a global audience at a specific moment in time. Similarly (as we shall see in Chapter 4) in real-life forums such as interviews, book readings, book signings and keynote addresses, McCourt performs as the literary character that he constructs for himself in his life-writings through the Irish syntactical construction of grammar, idiom and dialect. This contention is affirmed by Malcolm Jones’s cliché-ridden observation: ‘McCourt […] knows just how much personal lore to confide in an interview […] throw in a slight Irish brogue, offset it with a sardonic sense of his own heritage […] and you can see why Scribner’s Eisemann says, “Frank and Angela’s Ashes are a majestic combination: a book that talks and an author who talks”.’32 Jones is suggesting that autobiographical writings usually tend towards a serious introspection of one’s life, while highlighting McCourt’s proclivity for performance. Although McCourt offers a sombre ← 12 | 13 → view of the social, cultural and political implications that surround the concept of ‘Irishness’, his theatrical blending of the comic with the tragic is displayed both in his writings, in personal encounters and at his many public speaking forums. Because these acts of ‘performance’ illuminate further the overall ‘construction’ of McCourt’s identity, a pertinent framework of reference is Stephen Greenblatt’s notion of ‘self-fashioning’. Although he discusses the term in a completely different context, that is, the social and cultural milieu of sixteenth-century England, the idea of self-fashioning is adopted in this book and applied to McCourt, a twentieth-century author. Greenblatt proposes that during this period there was a trend of individuals in art and literature to consciously fashion themselves and construct an identity through clothing and symbols and style. Consequently, the idea of self-fashioning is the ‘deliberate shaping in the formation and expression of identity’ within ‘control mechanisms’ formed from certain social and cultural codes and conventions that govern social and cultural behaviour.33 In McCourt’s case, the concept is adapted to clarify how self-fashioning relates to performance, since he consciously styles himself through what Greenblatt labels a ‘manipulable, artful process’, but according to some perceived/clichéd/mythical ‘Irishness’ while, simultaneously, being quite aware of this and challenging these control mechanism and codes.34 In McCourt’s writing we can see an enactment of Greenblatt’s insistence that the individual can both fashion himself and become fashioned by ‘cultural institutions’ like family, religion and state.35 This book uncovers the extent to which McCourt has been influenced by these institutions so that his readership can gain an insight into his representation of his impoverished past and contrast it with the comparable more affluent era in which Angela’s Ashes was published.

There is of course a well-known idea of the writer-as-exile, from Euripides to Joyce and O’Casey, but what is striking about the opening of Angela’s Ashes is that McCourt disturbs this dominant biographical ← 13 | 14 → paradigm: his story is not the familiar one of a writer who leaves home and stays away, but that of a writer who experiences a strange kind of returned emigration:

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone (1).

McCourt is drawing attention to his hybrid identity, but this admission comes at some cost and raises the question of his credibility as an Irish commentator. In order to be considered an ‘Irish’ writer he therefore mobilizes certain forms of behaviour that are popularly understood as Irish by engaging in the act of self-fashioning to construct a form of ‘Irishness’ that is defined by recognizable signifiers: including Catholic ritual, nationalist songs, storytelling and popular expressions of identity like traditional Irish music and festivals like ‘Bloomsday’ celebrations.

What is ‘Irishness’: Defining the Indefinable?

Seamus Deane asserts that Irish autobiography is a vessel for those who seek ‘through personal experience, self-examination, reconsideration of historical events and circumstances, to identify the other force, the hostile or liberating energy which made the self come into consciousness’, and thus articulates succinctly why McCourt’s autobiographical purpose of projecting ‘Irishness’ is just as significant as, for example, age, class, gender or religion.36 The various specific signifiers that might denote an ‘Irish’ identity in New York during the 1990s may be formed through rhetoric ← 14 | 15 → and fantasy and such clichés of tourist iconography like St Patrick’s Day, ‘the gift of the gab’, green beer, and leprechauns. There are numerous variations of the Irish stereotype such as the Irish Colleen, which is in fact a corruption of the Irish word ‘cailín’ (girl), and who was traditionally figured as a virginal waif, but who has increasingly appeared as knowing, sexually experienced, and a figure of narrative agency. Moreover, ethnicity has become less rooted in notions of essence as the concept of ‘Irishness’ has become more commodified through reliance upon Irish stereotypes and the presumption that the Irish have an innate penchant for self-expression exhibited through a love of dance, music, storytelling and sociability. Of course, these artificial and deliberately fabricated signifiers illustrate how Irish cultural nationalism can be expressed through performance, particularly in the context of Ireland gaining legitimacy by claiming unique artistic traits. These qualities function symbolically by adopting a particular resonance with concepts of performance culture because they represent diverse material practices that produce national identity. While these aforementioned attributes are the clichés of tourist iconography, the Yeats scholar and tenor Jim Flannery has said: ‘In the bardic tradition, the Irish have always been artists and scholars – complete people.’37 Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Sun quoted the opinion of eminent historian Carl Wittke, to underscore how US St Patrick’s Day celebrations act as a catalyst for how stereotypical characteristics are employed as transnational signifiers: ‘The so-called Irish temperament is a mixture of flaming ego, hot temper, stubbornness, great personal charm and warmth, and a wit that shines through adversity.’38 Of course, these cultural legacies and ethnic registers are all strongly charged modes of performance through which McCourt’s writing ‘speaks’. His work abounds with the exploitation of physiognomic signifiers, vivid characterization and self-aware use of generalization that ← 15 | 16 → emerge as global signifiers of ‘Irishness’, through a clichéd, Hollywoodized representation of Limerick life, that conforms to the expectations of his Irish-American readership. Chapter 1, for example, makes clear that the debilitating stereotype associated with McCourt’s father is deliberately framed in Angela’s Ashes by the use of Irish music. Although the characteristics and themes of certain songs suggest the self-referential model that this father is adopting, they also permit McCourt to expose clichés and exploit stereotypes deliberately for comic and dramatic effect, thereby suggesting the persistence of essentialist readings of authenticity and ethnic identity. At many times, music helps to reveal how ‘Irishness’ is reimagined in an American context, and we find McCourt’s writing merging traditional music with American popular cultural signifiers such as jazz. This hybrid amalgam of Irish traditional music with American innovation is a means of activating McCourt’s memory in order to develop the autobiographical nature of the narrative through allusion and reference.

McCourt’s Response to Commodified ‘Irishness’ in ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland


X, 284
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Life-writing Catholic ritual Irish-American Performance Frank McCourt
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. X, 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Margaret Eaton (Author)

Margaret Eaton was educated at the University of Derby and the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include Irish memoir, melodrama and the representation of Irish national identity in literature and film.


Title: Frank Confessions
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