The Night Frank Sang 'Mother Machree'

Daniel Menaker remembers a summer night in Southampton, with a sky worthy of Limerick County, when Frank McCourt began singing Irish ballads.

07.21.09 6:30 AM ET

Frank McCourt was a regular at the stellar and genuinely instructive Southampton Writers Conference, along with Billy Collins, Meg Wolitzer, Matthew Klamm, Melissa Bank, etc. Last summer, also Derek Walcott.

A wealthy and generous and literary family helps to underwrite the conference, and they have a beautiful house and guest house on the beach there, where some of the visiting writers/teachers stay. Wonderful food appears as if by magic, the infinity poolhouse has chips and other snacks everywhere, a refrigerator stocked with everything you might want.

With the Atlantic crashing beyond us and Ireland seeming next door, Frank McCourt started singing sentimental Irish songs in this reedy tenor voice.

Walcott, born on St. Lucia, made his special rum punch in a sort of keg with a spigot last July, and he had to insist that one of the staff not be sent out immediately to get bitters, even though he had hoped to have them.

So these people, plus me and some others, were sitting near the pool one late afternoon, with the Atlantic crashing beyond us and Ireland seeming next door, what with Collins and McCourt there, and a Limerick County-worthy leaden sky up above, and, as he often did, Frank McCourt started singing sentimental Irish songs in this reedy tenor voice, with a strange and most moving combination of ironical humor and sincerity.

His face had a mischievous expression, and as so often happens with these Irish narrative ballads, they turned into admonitions and reminders of love’s disappointments and obligations and debts. They frequently end with a kind of so-you’d-better-be-grateful or this-is-what-happens-if-you-don’t-such-and-such verse. Implicitly and often explicitly admonitory. Frank seemed to endorse and make fun of them at the same time.

Here are a couple of verses and the chorus of a well-known song he sang that evening:

Mother Machree

There’s a spot in my heart,
Which no colleen may own.
There’s a depth in my soul,
Never sounded or known;

There’s a place in my mem’ry,
My life, that you fill,
No other can take it,
No one ever will.

cho: Sure, I love the dear silver
That shines in your hair,
And the brow that’s all furrowed,
And wrinkled with care.
I kiss the dear fingers,
So toil-worn for me,
Oh, God bless you and keep you,
Mother Machree

Later, Billy Collins made up the national anthem of St. Lucia—to an improvised melody that was, to put it kindly, rudimentary—for Walcott’s benefit. I don’t remember it, but I do remember that it consisted mainly of silly-rhymed disparagements of the other islands: Nevis as the birthplace of Beavis, for example, and St. Kitts as the pits.

Others performed other musical sillinesses—one person sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with the lyrics one or two notes behind the melody. But it was Frank McCourt’s a capella Irish songs that held the evening together. I don’t think I’ve in my life ever had a better social time.

Frank sometimes complained about New York State Income Tax people coming to get him in Connecticut, where he moved some years ago, for levies that were indeed highly questionable. In those conversations and in others, I thought I heard the residual intense insecurity of the bitter poverty he knew as a kid and finally wrote about with such supernatural readability as an adult.

It all added up to a complex but integrated personality. You could see in the way he carried his slight frame and in his childlike face—a mixture of humor, anxiety, mischief, intelligence, wariness, and genuine modesty. He’d be skeptical about the mourning tributes, like this one, that his death has occasioned. But he’d be pleased, as well. Here is one of the few people I’ve ever known about whose departure we should be allowed to be not only sad but instantly nostalgic and sentimental.

Daniel Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker for 20 years before joining Random House, where he was editor in chief from 2003 to 2007. He has won two O. Henry Awards, is the author of two collections of stories and a novel, The Treatment, and is working on a book about conversation, A Good Talk.