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Review of Human Development Themes Within Frank McCourt's "'Tis" Part 1

Updated on August 27, 2013


Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930. He immigrated back to Limerick, Ireland, the home his mother had left, with his family in 1935 following the death of his three-week-old sister Margaret. Growing up in poverty, relying on public assistance and contending with his father’s drinking, he took a job as a telegram delivery boy instead of going to high school so that he might earn the money to one day return to New York. Driven by the promise of opportunity, he sailed back across the Atlantic at the age of nineteen on board the Irish Oak. This is the story of his early and middle-adulthood development.

Late Adolescence


Though Frank McCourt was born in the United States, having been raised from five to nineteen in Ireland, when he returned to New York in 1949 his experience was very much that of the immigrant. He had a heavy Irish brogue at a time, in a city where cultural stereotypes concerning the Irish abounded. As such his ethnic identity followed him through his earliest experiences with boarding, employment, and education.

A message he received time and again was, “stick with your own kind.” Preconceptions about the Irish and about Catholics both from those that were members of other cultural groups and from other Irish Catholics, that felt an incumbency to take care of their own, shaped his access to early opportunities.

He felt great frustration at the propensity of Americans to force a bicultural identity onto every citizen wondering why, “It’s not enough to be an American. You always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you’d wonder how they’d get along if someone hadn’t invented the hyphen.” (p.91)

The first room he rented on Sixty-eighth street was from a woman who, ”can tell I’m Irish…and hopes I don’t drink.” (p.23) His first job as a houseman at the Biltmore Motel was procured for him by the Democratic Committee because, “if they can’t get a job for an Irish kid no one can.” (p.23) Incidents such as these made his ethnicity an inextricable part of his personal experience with the city of New York.


His intelligence gave him an acute sense of both pragmatic thought and cognitive-affective complexity in regard to his unpleasant employment situation and occasional bouts of loneliness. Seeing college students on the subway he, “dream(s) that someday I’ll be like them, carrying my books, listening to professors, graduating with a cap and gown, going on to a job where I’ll wear a suit and tie.” (p.64) Yet the pragmatic need to earn money both for himself and to send home to Ireland for his mother and brothers and his cognitive-affective self-deprecating thoughts concerning never attended high school act as very real obstacles to be overcome. His early alacrity for Literature and the influence of teachers like his former headmaster in Ireland who, “will be very surprised if I turn my back on books to join the shopkeepers of the world,” (p.113) combined with his artistic personality all contribute to McCourt’s aspirations within the field of education and literature.


The baggage McCourt carries from his Catholic upbringing is evidenced by a great degree of guilt concerning his own sexuality. His own degree of moral self-relevance in relationship to what his Catholic faith describes as acts of impurity place him in what he regards as an irredeemable state entirely lacking in grace. The expansion of his horizons on theological thought from the influence of his protestant friends during his station in Germany during the Korean conflict informs him that, “I should go to Mass if I want to, that the priests don’t own the Church.” This shows a rather large move from Kolberg’s punishment and obedience orientation of moral development to something more like the social contract orientation. The idea of a divinely punitive force is replaced with an increasingly flexible scheme that allows for a more harmonious universal use of the church. This move might be so large because it was made at such a late age.

He further draws on the mentors in his life such as his Uncle Pa Keating whose honesty and lack of concern for what others think become engendered in McCourt’s mode of dealing with the world. A coworker from his job on the Port warehouses, Horace, a Jamaican man working to put his own son through College in Canada, teaches him to save his emotions for the things that matter and disregard the ignorance and prejudices that pervade his experience of New York. He comes to be regarded as a kind of surrogate father to McCourt whose own father was largely absent during his childhood due to his drinking.

Early Adulthood


After returning from his experience in Europe serving in the Army, his desire to one day leave behind jobs in hotels and on docks is only increased by his perception of his own incongruence to The Social Clock. While riding the subway to work, “the train jolts and I’m thrown against passengers who give me superior looks because of my work clothes. I want to announce that this is only temporary, that one day I’ll be going to school and wearing a suit like them.” (p.132)

His own issues with substance abuse emerge during this period of despondency and a girl who he had hoped to marry gets engaged to another man after enough incidents when, “I’m supposed to meet Emer to go to a movie or eat...Sometimes after hour of drinking I call and tell her I had to work overtime but she knows better and the more I lie the colder her voice and there’s no use calling and lying anymore.” (p.133) During this period he seems acutely aware of Erikson’s early adult conflict of intimacy versus isolation remarking, “I can’t hold onto a girl, I can’t keep a job…and I wonder why I left Limerick.” (p.150)


After walking out on a burgeoning insurance career before completing the training course, at the age of twenty –three he approaches the admissions department of NYU. Though he hasn’t attended high school he is allowed to enroll because, as he tells the admissions officer, “I read books. I’ve read Dostoyevsky and I’ve read ‘Pierre, or The Ambiguities.’ It’s not as good as Moby Dick but I read it in a hospital in Munich.” (p.147) With this testimony and the help of the GI bill he embarks on his long awaited College Experience.

The psychological impact of attending a University is evident in his Introduction to Literature class when he is ridiculed by the professor for Admiring Swift for his imagination but being unaware of the satirical nature of, “Gulliver’s Travels.” This is a hard lesson in reflecting on quality of thought and the beginning of a more contemplative look at his literary interests.

He enters the NYU College of Education having maintained through the tentative period of vocation selection the desire to become a teacher. His dismay at working in jobs such as insurance and as an office temp is due most likely to his non-conventional personality type. These jobs and the misery they cause him cement his desire to work with literature and lead him into the realistic period of studying for such a career at the age of twenty-three.

Ethnic misconceptions betray themselves even in the University setting. Once his brogue is detected, “even the professors seem to think I’m I know all about Irish literature and history. If they say anything about Joyce or Yeats they look at me as if I’m an expert.” (p.179)

Despite these early adverse experiences he soon comes to distinguish himself with essays concerning his childhood. Ironically, the life structure of his poverty –ridden childhood in Limerick, from which he took such pains to distance himself, provides the subject matter to establish a sense of efficacy as a writer. The dream as described by Levinson that he had constructed for himself during his early adulthood transition to become a hardworking college student is slowly beginning to realize itself.

Close Relationships

At NYU McCourt became intimately close to a classmate named Alberta Small. In accordance with research findings, they were alike in many respects: close in age, both University students learning to become teachers, both Caucasian. And keeping with the research findings that religious similarity is another commonality, but to a lesser extent, McCourt was raised Catholic and Alberta an Episcopalian.

She develops something for him initially like companionate love, after he shares an essay about his impoverished childhood in his literature class. She remarks, “It moved so many people in the class, boys and girls…Oh, I never knew. Oh, it must have been awful.” (p.186) They begin to socialize as, “She’s invited to cocktail parties. Sometimes she takes me along and I’m confused with the way people stand nose to nose chatting…no one singing or telling a story the way they did in Limerick.” (p.203) This later develops into something resembling Sternberg’s triangular theory of love complete with intimacy, passion, and commitment when there is, “trouble with her father, she had no money and doesn’t know what to do…he punched her on the mouth…She ran from the house and there’s no going back.” (p.209) She comes to live with him in his boarding house and a more intimate relationship develops.


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