And that reminds me … Memories of McCourt

COURTESY PHOTO | Author Frank McCourt

COURTESY PHOTO | Author Frank McCourt

During my childhood in Michigan, I was surrounded by Irish relatives who were fiercely proud of their Celtic heritage. Inevitably, I was exposed, at a tender age, to the dubious charms of St. Patrick’s Day.

Such as: the obligatory wearing of the green, the sight of grown-ups getting tipsy and the lusty singing of sentimental ballads that, among other things, assured us that joy and rapture abound whenever Irish eyes are smiling.

The Saint Paddy celebrations I recall from those days were certainly festive — lots of laughter and giddy conversation — but they rarely spilled over into impropriety. Hence, I was completely unprepared for the bacchanalia I encountered years later when, as a young man, I moved to New York.

Anyone who has dared to mingle with the raucous mobs that swarm through the streets of Manhattan on St. Patrick’s Day is well aware that the experience is not for the faint of heart.

The gaudy parade on Fifth Avenue, with all its pretentious bombast and blarney, is just part of the ordeal. Far more unsettling are the scenes in bars all over town where inebriation is pursued with wretched excess, especially by young louts who have not learned how to drink adult beverages without getting sick or starting fights. Their misbehavior is no sight for the squeamish.

For decades I assumed that those boisterous revelries took their cue from memories of the way the holiday was celebrated in “the old country,” as Ireland was called by my grandparents.

But I couldn’t have been more mistaken. For as I later learned, through most of Ireland’s history extending deep into the 20th century, March 17 was strictly a religious holiday to honor the country’s patron saint.

St. Patrick, after all, is a revered figure in Irish lore. He was a deeply influential missionary who, in the fifth century, brought Christianity to an island that was then a remote backwater on the northwestern edge of Europe.

I wanted to share my discovery with others, and so it came to pass that on a March day in 2001, I put together a story for CBS News on the sharp contrast between St. Patrick’s Day in New York and the traditional holiday in Ireland.

To strengthen the piece, I reached out to a source who had experience with both the New York present and the Irish past — Frank McCourt, the celebrated author of the blockbuster memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” a heartbreaking yet highly humorous account of his dirt-poor childhood in Limerick.

I had known McCourt since the early 1970s when the two of us were among the regulars who gathered at the Lion’s Head, a lively saloon that, at the time, was a haven for journalists, aspiring literati and sundry hangers-on. To the faithful, the nightly parishioners, it was known as “the watering hole for drinkers with writing problems.”

In those days, Frank and I had little more than a nodding acquaintance — I gravitated to one clique, he to another — but through the years that followed the heyday of the Head, we kept running into each other at social occasions of one kind or another and in time became friends.

Along with his other friends, I rejoiced in the glorious success of “Angela’s Ashes.” Published in 1996, it attracted rave reviews and went on to become an international best seller of epic proportions.

Although McCourt had spent two decades teaching creative writing at the elite Stuyvesant High School, this was his first book, and what made that literary triumph all the sweeter was that it came at a time when Frank was rather long in the tooth.

I ran into him shortly after “Angela’s Ashes” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and, after congratulating him for that, I asked him a teasing question: “So tell me, Frank. What’s it like being an overnight sensation at the age of 66?”

“You have no idea,” he said with a broad grin.

McCourt went on to write a second memoir, “‘Tis,” about his struggles as a young immigrant in New York; that 1999 book also became a best seller. But in my interview with him in 2001,

I focused on his childhood in Limerick, and asked him what St. Patrick’s Day was like at that time and in that place. “Bleak, utterly bleak,” he replied in a mournful tone.

When I pressed him, he said, “Well, to begin with, all the pubs were closed because in Ireland in those years, it was a Holy Day of Obligation. Which meant that we had to get all dressed up, wear a shamrock and go to Mass.”

Frank grimaced at the memory of it all, and then said, “Of course, St. Patrick’s Day always came during Lent and that made everything even more somber.”

Brightening a bit, he told me that it all began to change about 20 years earlier. “At first gradually,” he said, “but more and more each year until now, I’m happy to say, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland has become completely Americanized.”

I asked him if I could then assume that the pubs are now open on March 17.

“Open and roaring with laughter and song all day and night,” he said. “Just as they should be.”

We then talked about how the New York version of St. Patrick’s Day has caught on in other countries as well. I told him that my wife, Phyllis, and I had recently returned from a vacation in Mexico and there, even in February, they were making plans for a lavish St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

“Well, at least Mexico is a Catholic country,” McCourt noted. “So it makes some sense there. But I was reading the other day in the Irish Times that they’re going to have a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Tokyo.”

He paused to let the wonder of that sink in, and then reiterated with more emphasis: “In Tokyo! Just imagine that!”

I suggested that perhaps Tokyo had decided to honor St. Patrick because he drove the snakes out of Japan.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s it,” Frank agreed. “And isn’t this a grand world we’ve got for ourselves now?”