Frank McCourt died today.
Frank was famous for Angela's Ashes - his account of his "miserable Irish Catholic childhood". If you haven't read it, you should. He was a wonderful writer.
Mostly by chance, I had the pleasure of spending a week on a bus with Frank. Karen & I signed up for a Photo Mentor Series trek to Ireland in 2003. The Ireland trip was unique among the Photo Mentor series treks in that it had a local host who wasn't a photographer, and Frank was that host. I took the above picture of him in the pitch-dark interior of the Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle peninsula.
The photo mentors - Barbara Kinney, Jill Enfield, and Joe McNally, - were fantastic; Barbara had been Bill Clinton's White House staff photographer, Jill is a leading expert in hand-coloring photographs, and Joe shot the first digital cover for National Geographic.
Frank and Joe hit it off immediately; they were both Irish boys who'd attended Catholic school and come away with a decidedly mixed view of the experience. And they were both master storytellers. They bickered constantly from their seats in the front of the bus about whether it was a more miserable life to be a writer or a photographer. Frank's books give you a hint of what he was like, but they don't really convey how warm or how funny he was as a person.
What they do convey is what he was most passionate about: his hatred of suffering. Angela's ashes is all about that.
It showed in person, too; as we walked up to the Killarney Cathedral, a historical marker caught Frank's eye. The marker said that construction of the cathedral had begun in earnest in 1846. Frank exploded. "1846 was the WORST year of the famine...", he began. I don't even remember if he finished the sentence, but his meaning was clear. The church had spent its money piling up stones instead of feeding its faithful, suffering people.
When we sat down later in the pub, Frank said there were three things every visitor to Ireland must do: see a horse race, attend a mass, and drink a pint of Guinness. Then he narrated the ritual of the pouring and drinking of the Guinness, and remarked that the foam on the top of a properly poured pint was known to the Irish of his youth as a "collar" because of its resemblance to the priest's neckwear. A trekker asked him, this being the case, why we needed to attend the mass and drink the Guinness, and he answered "to see which of them is false".
Frank got to see the end of most of Ireland's suffering; he told us as we were preparing to leave for home that the combination of European Union money and high-tech jobs for highly literate English speakers had transformed Ireland into a place his parents could not have imagined and would not have recognized. He said that without nostalgia; he was happy to see the poverty and the misery pass away, though they had given him the wonderful stories he left for us all.
I suspect Frank would disapprove of any mention of flights of Angels, so I'll pass all that in silence. We're poorer without him.