Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents; he
grew up in Limerick, Ireland and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught
in various New York City high schools, including Stuyvesant HS, and in city colleges. He
lives with his wife, Ellen, in New York City and Connecticut.
Frank McCourt's 'Tis covers a 36-year-period from October 1949, when
Frank left Limerick in Ireland for New York City, to 1985, the year Frank's father died. In August
1985 the McCourt 'children' (who had all followed Frank to America) brought back their mother Angela's ashes
(hence the name of McCourt's previous novel) to be taken to her last resting place, a graveyard at Mungret Abbey
When Frank arrives in New York in 1949, he is 19 years of age and all by himself. Still suffering from
inflamed eyes ('two eyes like pissholes in the snow'), a poor education, a heavy Irish accent and being Catholic
among otherwise Protestant Americans, he takes up a menial job at the Biltmore Hotel a a houseman. To enhance
his wages he works at different warehouses and piers in New York City Harbor. As he is well aware of a good education, he
manages to enrol at NY University, although he doesn't have a high school diploma. He begins studying English to become
a teacher. Living on very little money, he lives in cheap accomodations, sometimes sleeping in shifts, sharing one
bed with somebody else.
He is drafted into the army, but fortunately enough not to be assigned to serve in the Korean War. Instead
he is sent to Lenggries, Germany where he has first-hand experience with the former concentration
camp at Dachau. From Germany he is allowed to travel to his family in Limerick. He even goes for a short visit to
the Northern Irish town of Toome where his father now lives after he returned from England. Frank's relationship
to his father is more than disturbed after the latter deserted his family and left them behind
unsupported and in deprivation.
After Frank's dismissal from the army, he takes up his studies at NYU, at the same time working in different jobs
to make ends meet. At university he makes the acquaintance of Mike Small (her real name is Alberta), a middle class girl,
who he later in the story marries. Both have a daughter. But before they marry, he finishes his studies in 1957 and takes
on a teaching job at a vocational high school and later Stuyvesant HS, an elite school in contrast to the previous one.
In his free time Frank hangs around in pubs with his brothers Malachy and Michael who have both followed Frank to NY.
He also frequents coffee houses where he meets famous people like Jack Kerouac or A. Ginsberg.
His first year at the vocational high school is a nightmare, as he can't convey his knowledge of
literature to his students, because they are simply not interested. They would do anything but read or write.
Frank has to learn that he is not a teacher but 'a cafeteria guard, a garbage supervisor, a psychologist and a babysitter'.
What's more, his principal tells him that 50% of his teaching job is bureaucratic procedure and
students are best at 'delaying tactics', i.e. they seize on any occasion to avoid the work of the day.
One of his experienced colleagues once says that the most important thing is the students are
in their seats, completely monitored and behaving themselves, and that pleases the teacher, the chairman, the principal
and his assistants, the superintendent, the Board of Education, the mayor, the governor, the President and God Himself.
No wonder that many American high school teacher complain and compare their high schools to kindergardens.
Whatever, people in America feel sorry for teachers.
Teaching becomes more pleasurable for Frank when he gets a job at Stuyvesant HS. But even there he has to
abandon his high aspirations of being able to teach conventional literature. He makes students write about what
they are best at, i.e. writing about TV commercials or their own childhood. He rather does with students
what they like instead of him heeding the curriculum. '..the only way I could do that (i.e. enjoy the act of teaching)
was to start over, teach what I loved and to hell with the curriculum'.
A class which he once taught at a college left a lasting impression on him: it was a class of mostly adult black women.
'For the ladies from the Islands (i.e. the Caribbeans and Puerto Rico) there is one relevance, education. That is
all they know. That is all I know. That is all I need to know.' In this respect Frank McCourt is one
of the best ambassadors of the message that it is education that counts in life.
The novel unfortunately ends with Frank's divorce from Alberta and the successive deaths of his mother and father.
How much sympathy he feels for his mother, he expresses in the song which he and his brothers
sing at their mother's funeral:
A mother's love is a blessing
No matter where you roam,
Keep her while she 's living,
You'll miss her when she's gone
On the whole, the story is more a personal account of Frank's experiences over a time of 36 years
(esp. his life in NY mainly as an outsider and his sometimes hilarious stories from the classroom) than
a story of historical events. The latter are always seen from Frank's personal experiences, like his military
career in Germany of the 1950s, the McCarthy era in the USA or his visit to violence-ridden
Belfast at the end of the 1960s.