July 20, 2009 / 12:01 AM / in 8 years

"Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt dies at 78

<p>Author Frank McCourt poses for photographs during an interview with Reuters at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, November 14, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Segar</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Frank McCourt, the Irish American author best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Angela’s Ashes” that chronicled his impoverished upbringing, died on Sunday, The New York Times reported. He was 78.

The newspaper said the cause was metastatic melanoma, according to an executive of Scribner, the author’s publisher.

A school teacher who came to writing late in life, McCourt won acclaim with his poignant, extraordinarily bleak picture of a childhood growing up in the slums of the Irish city Limerick.

“Angela’s Ashes” brought McCourt a 1997 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and other honors. Millions of copies of the book were sold worldwide and it was adapted into a 1999 movie starring Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle.

McCourt turned to his life in the United States for subsequent books, “‘Tis” and “Teacher Man.”

Born in New York City, he was the eldest of seven children born to Irish immigrant parents.

“Angela’s Ashes” was an unsparing memoir that captured a feckless, drunkard father with a gift for story-telling. When not drunk, his father was absent, turning his back on a family so poor, McCourt wrote, that they were reduced to burning the furniture in their rented hovel to keep warm.

Already struggling when the Great Depression hit, the family moved back to Limerick, where they slipped ever deeper into poverty in the 1930s.

Three of McCourt’s siblings died of diseases worsened by hunger and the squalor of their surroundings. McCourt himself almost died of typhoid fever as a child.

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all,” McCourt wrote. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

In “Angela’s Ashes,” he wrote of hunger, a home flooded with rainwater and the grinding humiliation of seeking handouts from charities in the hardscrabble Irish city.

But his vivid prose captured the speech and quirks of a gallery of relatives, leavening a truly harrowing childhood with compassion and humor.

After leaving school at 13, McCourt supported his mother and brothers and sisters with occasional jobs and petty crime.

At 19, he returned to the United States, finding work at a New York hotel. He subsequently trained as a school teacher, only later becoming a published writer.

His brother, Malachy McCourt, is an actor and author who has appeared in numerous film, television and theater productions.

Reporting by Will Dunham and Tim Gaynor; Editing by Chris Wilson

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