McCourt is born to Malachy McCourt, Sr., who falsely claims to have been in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence, and Irish Catholic mother Angela Sheehan from Limerick. In the midst of the Great Depression, the family moves back to Ireland. Unable to find steady work in Belfast or Dublin and beset by his father’s alcoholism, the family returns to their mother’s native Limerick, where they sink even deeper into poverty.
In October 1949, at the age of 19, McCourt leaves Ireland, taking a boat from Cork to New York City. In 1951, he is drafted during the Korean War and sent to Bavaria for two years initially training dogs, then as a clerk. Upon his discharge from the US Army, he returned to New York City, where he held a series of jobs on docks, in warehouses, and in banks. Using his G.I. Bill education benefits, he talks his way into New York University by claiming he is intelligent and reads a great deal. He is admitted on one year’s probation provided he maintains a B average. He graduates in 1957 from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in English.
A New York city schoolteacher for more than thirty years, McCourt achieves literary fame later in life with his best-selling childhood memoir of the misery and squalor of his childhood, Angela’s Ashes. With a first printing of just 25,000 copies, the book becomes an instant favourite with critics and readers and is perhaps the ultimate case of the non-celebrity memoir, the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.
McCourt wins the annual Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1997 and one of the annual National Book Critics Circle Awards for the book, which is eventually published in 25 languages and 30 countries. It is a bestseller and makes him a millionaire. Three years later, a movie version of Angela’s Ashes opens to mixed reviews with Northern Irish actor Michael Legge playing McCourt as a teenager.
McCourt is also the author of ‘Tis (1999), which continues the narrative of his life, picking up from the end of Angela’s Ashes and focusing on his life after returning to New York. He subsequently writes Teacher Man (2005) which details his teaching experiences and the challenges of being a teacher.
McCourt writes the book for a 1997 musical entitled The Irish…and How They Got That Way, which features an eclectic mix of Irish music – everything from the traditional Danny Boy to U2‘s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.
It is announced in May 2009 that McCourt has been treated for melanoma and that he is in remission, undergoing home chemotherapy. On July 19, 2009, he dies from the cancer, with meningeal complications, at a hospice in Manhattan, New York City.