The late Alphie McCourt, 75, pictured in Limerick in 2010
JUST a week before he died, aged 75, Alphie McCourt spoke of the importance of creative writing and the “innovation” of the University of Limerick in that field, at an event in New York to commemorate his brother Frank.
Professor Joseph O'Connor, who holds the Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing at UL, said Alphie, who passed away on Saturday last, “was admired and widely respected all throughout New York’s Irish community, and among the city’s writers and literary circles he was absolutely loved”.
“A gentle, funny, courteous and witty man, he was a strong supporter of UL’s inaugural Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School; indeed, he spoke at our Tribute To Frank McCourt in New York last weekend and brought the house down with the funny, heartfelt and moving speech he made with his brother Malachy.
“Alphie, a gifted writer himself, will be greatly missed by all who were blessed to know him. He was a gentleman, a very kind and good-hearted person. We send sincerest condolences to his family and close friends,” said Professor O’Connor.
In a brief video recorded at that event, Alphie spoke about his own writing process, and how as a member of the Limerick Debating Society in his youth “there were endless debates about the need for a university in Limerick”.
Then he said Limerick were the “poor relations” in terms of third level education, but he now praised the university as “forward looking and open to innovation”.
“There is nothing more forward looking or innovative than creative writing,” he added.
Since his sad passing, tributes have been paid on both sides of the Atlantic to Alphie, Frank’s youngest brother, who passed away suddenly at the age of 75.
His only surviving brother Malachy McCourt, 84, confirmed the sad news in a message on Facebook, saying he had passed away while taking an afternoon nap.
“We have no celebrations of his life or the books yet but we won't let him go gentle into the good or bad night,” Malachy added.
Dominic Taylor, of the Limerick Writers' Centre, who invited Alphie to a plaque unveiling of his brother Frank last year outside South’s bar, said he was saddened to hear this news but said “it was a privilege to have known him”.
Adam Howell, who produced the musical of Angela’s Ashes, staged for five nights in the Lime Tree theatre in Limerick in 2013, also paid tribute.
“He became a great supporter, confidant, advisor and friend. I used to joke with him that I had to pinch myself sometimes because he’d always been a ‘character’ in a book and film and now I knew the real person. He always found that funny, I think. He was extremely generous and giving,” he wrote.
Born in Limerick in July 1940, Alphie grew up in the city, before emigrating to America in 1959, spending a good part of his life in the restaurant and bar trade. During his youth he toyed with the idea of journalism, and later undertook a degree in law at University College Dublin, which he didn’t finish.
While Alphie grew up in the city’s back lanes, went to the Christian Brothers, played rugby with Young Munster and was a member of the Limerick Debating Society, he said he always felt a little bit removed from Limerick life.
He left for the land of opportunity at the age of 19, and alternated between living in New York, then Montreal in Canada, before moving down to California, and settling back in New York, with his wife Lyn and daughter Alison.
He built swimming pools in California - “a different kind of university”, and was drafted into the army for two years, where he was a food inspector.
The youngest of seven, Alphie was the last to leave Limerick, and left with his mother Angela, now immortalised in his brother's first memoir, Angela’s Ashes, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
“It was very difficult breaking away,” he recalled in an interview with the Limerick Leader in 2010, especially as there was a polite understanding with his mother that he would come back.
He also spoke about death in that interview.
“When we were landing in Dublin [Airport] I had a touch of it [nostalgia], because I began to realise all the people who aren’t here. All the time that has passed. I don’t want to get too deeply into that, but we’re here today and we’re gone tomorrow. We had our good times, enjoyed each other and made the most of each other. We’re all passing on through.”
A celebrated writer, his works have appeared in the Washington Post, and the Villager (New York), and in 2009, he published his own memoirs, entitled A Long Stone’s Throw in 2008, joking that he didn’t want to be just a footnote in his family’s history.
Frank published his trio of memoirs and a children’s book - selling more than 10 million copies to date, Malachy followed with a further two memoirs, and Alphie then succumbed to the repeated queries of “When is your book coming out?” and wrote his own version of history, which has since been reprinted.
There will be a funeral on Wednesday, July 6 at the Riverside Memorial on Amsterdam Avenue in New York. There is also a planned memorial later in the year.