cindy capitani

cindy capitani
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wordsmith. left the paragraph factory for a private atelier. www.cindycapitani.net follow me on Twitter @cindycap

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Editor’s Pick
JULY 19, 2009 8:51PM

Author Frank McCourt taught me about being Irish Catholic

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Though he’ll always be remembered as the Pulitzer Prize winning author, whose memoir Angela’s Ashes spent over 100 weeks on the bestseller list, Frank McCourt, was primarily, a teacher. For over 30 years, he taught in the New York City school district, and though I first came to know him as the bestselling author, it is as a teacher I remember him as I learn of his death.
Frank McCourt By David Shankbone
Frank McCourt died July 19 at the age of 78, about a dozen years after the publication of Anglea’s Ashes, his first book. Two more books followed, though not nearly as successful. His brother recently said he was ill of meningitis, brought on by melanoma skin cancer. He was in a Hospice, and not expected to live long. He didn’t. The announcement came just 24 hours before.

His life’s journey brought him far, and in the end he had a house in Connecticut next to Arthur Miller’s, received an honorary Doctorate and met the Pope. There’s also an Angela’s Ashes walking tour in Limerick. That’s a lot to accomplish in a dozen years, on top of a Pulitzer and a few more books.

But what I learned from Frank McCourt is rather simple, something he might’ve hit home to his school kids, something he taught me in Angela’s Ashes, whether he meant to or not: What it means to be Irish.

I don’t eat potatoes – rarely a French Fry – so when I tell people I’m Irish, they’re a bit suspicious (my Italian last name is from a marriage that didn’t last, though I kept the name – and the children).

Despite my lack of preference for meat and potatoes, I always identified with being Irish, rather than my mom’s side of Polish, perhaps if for no other reason because the Irish side lived closer and was quite large. My sons would sometimes say at yet another introduction of a 2nd or 3rd cousin, “How many cousins do we have?”

Irish Catholics and large families are a cliché that rings so true, and even a party half attended was one quite full. Cousins were throughout Hudson County and spread into New York, city and upstate. As kids we were never alone, outings anywhere a reason to pack the station wagon front to hatchback, and off we went in a haphazard direction.

I never knew what being Irish Catholic meant, however, until I read Angela’s Ashes. Sure, my Irish grandmother in Hoboken told me – and all of us – all the time. Especially when I decided on a whim to become a Protestant.

It really wasn’t a whim, but more of a search for the truth, for god, for the meaning of life. And, being a feminist who didn’t like what Catholicism stood for, I was searching for a church that was more free-spirited and open to women and leaders … more modern.

I found it for a time, in a Congregational Church, which happened to be Protestant. I thought it was a good choice, Christian, not too far off the realm of the reality I was brought up with.

Wrong. My grandmother told me I might as well be Jewish or Muslim, believe in satan or witches. To become a Protestant of any sort, was to join some other side, a side that wasn’t us. She told me the history of the church, of Northern Ireland, even though she herself didn’t experience Ireland first-hand. To be a Protestant was, in short, to join sides with the enemy.

I tried to tell her it had nothing to do with me, with us, here in America. I tried to tell her Protestants believed in Jesus, what could be wrong with that? She was angry. I didn’t get it. She thought I was stupid and young. I thought she was stupid and old.

Then I read Angela’s Ashes, and Frank McCourt explained it to me. Sometimes it takes a third party, someone other than family, to make sense of a few years worth of family arguments. Sometimes pieces of history sewn together into the fabric of narrative, of a family story – someone else’s story – make sense of modern life in a way that conversation can’t.
 
Conversation evokes emotions, especially between family members, or anyone who has something at stake. It’s so difficult not to defend, deflect, show off and make a point. Angela’s Ashes manages to make the points my grandmother and others have tried to make about what it means to be Irish, to be Catholic.  

Points I’ve forgotten about. Until now. Even though I have no religion and church-hopped for many years. Even though the Catholic church never become a home for me again. It doesn’t matter. Catholicism is where my roots are, and where my childhood identity comes from.

Frank McCourt taught me much when his book was first published. Now, in his death, he’s reminded me of it all again. It’s a book worth a second look.

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I am Italian-Catholic, though I don't go to church. I have many quarrels with my religion of origin -- many of which you touched on in your post -- but I've not joined any other church. I believe what I believe and worship in my own way, and for me that is enough. A friend from years ago described us as "Cathoholics." His term for those of us who have issues with the Catholic church makes me smile to this day.

A wonderful post, Cindy, about a wonderful writer.
I can say exactly the same thing. My grandmother did experience Ireland first hand. She left Ulster and set sail for Montreal at age 18. Never saw her parents again. The only thing I remember her saying about Northern Ireland was that there were Help Wanted signs in the shop windows that read "Catholics need not apply."
You'd think she'd hate protestants, but she married my grandfather, he boss and a Scotch Presbyterian. She was a hard woman. When she got word her mother died, she put the letter
oops pressed post by mistake.. To continue..

Never told anyone in her family that her mother died.

But she was mean. Never told my own mother that she loved her. When my mother graduated second in her class at Mcgill, and won a scholarship to Oxford, my grandmother said only "too bad about that other girl who came first."

I really didn't like her. But when I read Angela's Ashes at least I understood what she had come from. And it explained something else, to me and my mother. Why she didn't just move south to Ireland. She would have been treated worse there.

I'm not sure her circumstances justified her meanness, but grinding poverty can change people. And I least I understood the pain she had endured better that I would have without that book.
I loved this book. Was able to attend a pre-screening of the movie. We, with some others scattered about, were the only group in the entire theatre that laughed. Then we knew who the catholics were.
Marvelous post (and marvelous commentary by Juliet Waters).
Maria, the quarrels will never end. A friend just reminded me Jimmy Breslin said "no one ever leaves the catholic church." I suppose, in a way, that's true.

Thanks, Juliet, for adding to this in an so-meaningful way! It says a lot about Ireland as a whole, and about the uniting nature of poverty, of which my grandmother was quite familiar, and how literature can bring about understanding when before there was none.

Anni, you reminded me i need to see the movie. i don't know why i never did! i can see why the catholics stood out rehardless! it never goes away!

Thanks Steve!

It is Jane -- thanks! And thanks for your post too!
Thanks for this. I hadn't heard he had died until I saw this earlier tonight while I was out walking. I can really relate to much of what you wrote here.

"Angela's Ashes" helped me to understand my own father so much better, where he had come from. Though he was born here his parents were not, and their struggles in Ireland and as new immigrants were never discussed. The ensuing ramifications and successes made endless impacts however, but were never discussed.

I trust that book started many conversations among families like mine. I will always thank him for that.
thanks you wakingupslowly for sharing your story. i so love hearing how other's lives were touched by Angela's Ashes, because at first back then, i really thought it was just me. i read the book and was so blown away, had such a family awakening and follow-up conversations, i never really saw the reviews and comments, which may have validated what i felt. of course he touched many. i know that. thanks for your input.
you're Irish!?
that explains it all....
Thanks, Cindy. McCourt's first book, written so late in life, is also a lesson for all of us. He will be missed.
Thanks, Cindy. I also learned a lot from "Angela's Ashes." I strongly recommend Peter Quinn's "Looking for Jimmy," more about the Irish-American experience (he grew up one parish over from my father's family in the Bronx.) Amazing book.
I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Frank McCourt. I too have been touched by him in so many ways. I wrote about him here the other day when it was announced he was ill, and how that hit me. For none of us knowing the man, he still feels like family.

http://open.salon.com/blog/mtam0707/2009/07/16/frank_mccourt_gravely_ill_heres_to_a_wonderful_author
If someone ever feels like their life is tough, I suggest reading Angela's Ashes for the sake of perspective. Good Lord!

The book was so gritty I can't really call reading it enjoyable, although it was definitely eye opening. And not being a glutton for punishment I made sure not to see the movie.
Frank McCourt = not bad for NYC public school teacher. Be interesting to see if this generation of teachers can inspire students the way Frank did. rated Cindy.
A fine tribute. Rated.
Frank found humor in misery, sometimes the best defense IMO. At least he wasn't a sentimental Irishman. As some have attested to, he didn't care for the rich Irish-Americans or expats who would visit for a few weeks a year just to run back to the comfort of the states. He had a strong BS detector which is why he was so critical of the Church.

And of course Frank had a lot of animosity toward the church because of the way he & his family were treated by the priests & nuns. On the flip side those same priests & nuns kept the schools running and made the Irish a literate people over centuries. Frank is no doubt a product of an Irish catholic education...and he probably had the scars to prove it. My dad got wacked numerous times in Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1930s.

Denis Leary in his book "Why We Suck" talks humorously about his parents growing up in rural Ireland and how hard life was and how easy he & his ingrate siblings had it and how they shouldn't forget it! When he first brought his future wife over to meet his mom she cracks open the photo album and there's death & gloom on every page "ahh Jimmy - got a pitchfork stuck in his chest, " "and poor Mary O'Connell, got kicked in the head by a horse." Every time Denis calls his mom she fills him in on who's the latest to got the cancer. Not McCourtian observations but still funny.
Great post Cindy. McCourt's Angela's Ashes did the same for me. It was a wonderful and important piece of literature for all. Especially those of us with Irish blood flowing through our veins.
This gets featured on the main page?? Good lord....
Your grandmother and those people in Northern Ireland that put up the Help Wanted signs would despise my parents.

My father is Catholic and my mother is Protestant.

It's sad but true that religion caused more wars than anything else.
There are some posts here that speak of discussions and awakenings in families in which garndparents moved from Ireland to the USA - I read this book while living Ireland for a few years when it came out, and everyone told me, you have to read this. Most (Irish) people I talked to then found the descriptions of the poverty and cruelness hilarious and were saying - we lived like THAT only 50 years ago, can you believe it??
We have our own share of cruel gandparents and family awakenings over here in Germany, and it always takes something like a cristallisation point or public trial to get this process going. I did not see this book as something like a public trial but is seems to be. Very Interesting.
Irish by marriage, Catholic by choice. Frank McCourt added perspective to both, but defined neither. I appreciated your tribute. He'll be missed.
Brian, what do you mean by that, hmmm?

Michael, it's so true. In his senior years, he bangs out a bestseller that wins a Pulitzer ... Ok there's still time for all of us!

Thanks for your input Joan. I will check out that book!

Mtam, I look forward to checking out your post - thanks!

So true Fins, so true. I didn't see the movie, not because I feared more "oh no" ... but I do tend to avoid books and flicks of horror and sadness. The Irish tale I needed to learn however, grit and all.

Thanks sheep. I don't know too much of his life as a teacher, but I intend to learn more.

Thanks so much "hello"

Trapvet, you're right, there was humor is Frank's writing -- and in your comment too, haha. Thanks!

Thanks Poet!

I love hearing that others were affected so much as well. Thanks Brie!

Yes Rob, it did. I'm always humbled when I'm deemed worthy. But Frank? He deserves it often. Not too many seniors write 1st time books that become best sellers that get made into a movie and win a Pulitzer. Thanks for stopping by!

NoneastCoaster, it is so true how religion causes wars and divides more than unites. Sad. So contrary to the message of peace and love religions tend to preach.

Interesting, Usommer, how a book can touch different cultures in different ways. Huh. Thanks.

Thanks Kathy, so well put!
I'm not sure her circumstances justified her meanness, but grinding poverty can change people. And I least I understood the pain she had endured better that I would have without that book.
secret saturdays season 2 episode 9
Loved this article very much! I am a new Catholic Convert. I came from a very Anti -Catholic background ( 7th Day Adventist) and I have never been happier. It was like a light went on when I became Catholic and I have never been the same. I have alway been a religious amd spiritual person but now I have found such joy in it. If you can, try and go back to church and see what happens. Try going for a month straight and see what happens. I may take a few trys to get back into the swing of things again ....so try it again for a few times. You will appreciate it more now as you are older and wiser.
From one Irish/ Scottish/ German lady to another.....Here's to Frank McCourt and his wonderful stories. May he rest in peace! :)
wow. i've never known anyone to convert to catholicism on purpose. usually it's something people are just stuck with after having been raised that way. interesting. i've thought of stopping back in, just to see ...
Cindy,
Do try and go. Things have changed so much. I attend a very large church that holds up to 1500 people during 1 Mass and sometimes I attend a church that is completely old fashioned and I love both.
I was so tired of these churches that just poped up in the 1700's and 1800's and they all seemed so made up and "MAN MADE" if you will. Catolicism appealed to me because it's been around FOREVER and the Popes go all the way back to Saint Peter. I truely felt it was a church started by Jesus. It is not a perfect church but all churches will be flawed because man is flawed. I love the bible verse that Jesus tells to Saint Peter....in Matthew 16:18 " And I tell you Peter, and on this rock will I build my church and even the gates of Hades will not overcome it." That bible verse says so much of the church. It is been around for a long time....through good and much bad but when we can overlook the bad (which is everywhere) and focus on the beauty of something, then it can really change our life. I found that in the churches we have attended that were Catholic...there was no judging like the other denominations that I knew of and attended...especially the Adventist church. In our county where we live we have had an EXPLOSION of people coming back and converting to the Catholic church. People want the tradition in thier lives and the morals of the church as they raise thier children. Society has lost thier morals and more and more in society "Sin" is harder to distinguish for the young. If you can and are a least 1/2 willing....try and go back and see how much beauty there is the Mass and if you can....Go to Confession. I found it to be the most wonderful theroputic Sacrament in the church . It does a body good and boy does it help. I thought I would hate it....but I actually like it. I love that part in the movie in Anglea's Ashes ...where the little boy is going to confession because his G-ma made him go because he threw up the body and blood of Jesus ...and he gets to the confession and he tells the priest and then asks him for his G-ma.. if she should wash away the mess with Holy water or ordinary water.
Way Funny! Anyway....to end my rambling....There is so much beauty in the Catholic church and if you go back, I'm sure you'll be glad you did. It is where I think you'll feel more at home because of your childhood. Thanks again for you article!!
PS. Your childhood is calling!! :)