At an Evening of Irish Music and Poetry, Frank McCourt leaves ’em laughing

February 23, 2009 at 9:53 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

And that was after he had ’em rolling in the aisles!

Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt

Friday night’s Evening of Irish Music and Poetry was the Thirty-First such event to be presented in Howard County. This yearly celebration of Ireland’s rich cultural heritage is sponsored and organized by the wonderfully named Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Now known primarily by its short form moniker, HoCoPoLitSo, this organization was founded in 1974. Its stated mission: “To enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and the world literary heritage.”

And just how do they pursue this ambitious goal? By inviting authors to speak and sign their books. By producing and donating videos (“The Writing Life” series) to the library. And by hosting –  every year for thirty-one years now! – the hugely popular Irish Evening. Let me admit right off the bat, I’ve never before attended this event. I stand before you chastened. I mean to go every year from here on out.

After the introduction by Irish evening Chair Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes (who grew up in county Roscommon, Ireland), His Excellency Michael Collins, Ambassador from the Republic of Ireland, strode on to the stage. A courtly, distinguished gentleman, he shared some reminiscences of Frank McCourt, whom he and his wife have known since the 1980s. He then introduced the author himself.

McCourt ambled up to the podium and, with almost no preamble, began firing away. He is astonished, he told us, that Angela’s  Ashes, his book about the grinding poverty of his Irish childhood has become a bestseller and a film, and is quite possibly headed for classic status as one of the great memoirs of the postwar years. He has met all sorts of famous people – Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, etc. Yet he seems genuinely bewildered by his fame, which came quite suddenly and was utterly unanticipated. ashes

I don’t remember if he made a point of it in Angela’s Ashes, but Frank McCourt avers that even as a child, he always wanted to write. Due to his family’s extremely straitened circumstances, paper was very hard to come by. Anything he found that could be written on, he grabbed – examples he gave were paper bags and rolls of discarded wallpaper. It was necessary to conceal these items lest his mother feed them to the fire. This had nothing to do with her disapprobation and everything to do with keeping the family from freezing!

McCourt expounded on his theory of economics, which can be summed up as follows: everything someone does benefits someone else. He then went on to talk about religion, specifically the Catholicism in which he was raised. I admit I was nervous when he raised this subject. Knowing that he harbors a certain resentment toward the Church, I was afraid that he would cross the line and really let fly. But he played it for laughs instead, and always pulled back just in time.

And in between the disquisitions on economics and religion, he treated us to a  rambling commentary on masturbation. It was at times disconcerting – you never knew where he was going with it next – but mostly it was just plain hilarious.

teacher Then he got onto the subject of teaching. McCourt is very passionate about the profession that formed him as an adult and that he followed for thirty years. His first position was as an English teacher at McKee Vocational-Technical High School on Staten Island. It was a baptism by fire; his stories about the experience are very funny, but the humor bites. It was obviously a harrowing experience, which he recounts in detail in Teacher Man. (He also cheerfully heaped scorn on college professors, who, he says, teach for about two minutes a week and then have graduate students grade their class papers!)

I can’t remember exactly how long McCourt spoke, but I can  say that the time fairly flew by. Suddenly it was over. He uttered a brief thank-you and walked off the stage, all the while receiving a huge ovation from a packed house at the Rouse Theater.

Here is video of an appearance made by Frank McCourt in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in March of 2008:


The second part of the program consisted of Irish music and dancing. The music was provided by a group called the Narrowbacks, an offshoot of the famed group Celtic Thunder.


The Narrowbacks in 2005. Left to right: Jesse Winch, Tony DeMarco, Terry Winch, Linda Hickman, and Dominick Murray. In place of DeMarco and Murray, Brendan Mulvihill and Eileen Korn made up the rest of the group Friday night. They treated us to a bodhran solo, world class fiddling, and beautiful singing, especially by the velvet-voiced Eileen Korn.

The dancing was done by two dancers from the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance in Silver Spring, MD. These girls looked to be about ten or eleven years old. They demonstrated the amazingly intricate art of hard-shoe stepdancing. Here is a promotional video:

They were a joy to watch.


Here are just a few of the Irish poets and novelists who, over the years, have come to Howard County at the behest of  HoCoPoLitSo:

Anne Enright, clutching her Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering

Anne Enright, clutching her Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering

Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin

John McGahern, author of one of my favorite novels, By the Lake

John McGahern, author of one of my favorite novels, By the Lake

Nuala O'Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain

Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney has twice been the featured speaker at the Irish evening, once in 1988 and again in 1994. I’ve held him in great reverence since reading his magnificent translation of Beowulf.



  1. Frank McCourt « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] books) We have lost a true original. Many of us in the Columbia area had the privilege of hearing Frank McCourt speak this past February. He was […]

  2. Irish evening, and Claire Keegan « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Last year’s Irish evening featured a very special speaker: Frank McCourt. Although he appeared physically frail that night, McCourt had lost none of his fiery power of expression. Quite simply, he was great. […]

  3. james cassidy said,

    Frank McCourt life was an inspiration to all of humanity, his sense of humor, grace and civility was truly a gift to the power within all of the words people. Upon hearing and reading about his illness and death I, felt a sense of loss and a heart felt , understanding that all great men and women leave this world a better place, Frank were ever you I only hope we meet again and my Irish eyes will be smiling.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Well put, James; I could not agree more.

  4. Friday night, February 19: we emerge gratefully from our snowbound solitude to celebrate the Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] I should mention that Ms Keegan was introduced by His Excellency Michael Collins, the Republic of Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador Collins was also on hand last year to introduce Frank McCourt. […]

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