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It is important to understand that Angela’s Ashes is a biographical account of the life of a dysfunctional family between their homes in the US and Ireland.
There is no doubt, right from the opening page that life was tough and sometimes it was necessary to do the unthinkable just to survive:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was of course, a miserable childhood. . . . Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
The father, Malachy McCourt, is the book’s most memorable figure and it is his drinking that almost destroys the family, except for the mother, Angela’s determination.
In Angela's Ashes a first-generation Irish-American boy and his family are forced to return to his mother’s native Limerick, an industrial city on the Irish west coast. They are trying to escape poverty due to the Great Depression. The loss of a daughter is the last straw as Angela, the mother almost abandons her remaining children.
As a poor working class family, what they find is much the same in Ireland, despite it's rural landscapes and farming communities. They adapt to an urban lifestyle, poor people living in 'homes' housing up to twelve families at any time. Angela begs and collects any discarded coal she can find just to make a little money.
The culture of the Irish, with the inherent hatred between communities based on religion - Catholic and Protestant- is prevalent in understanding the Irish culture.
Malachy, Angela's husband is a stereotype, a heavy drinker, a deadbeat, not prepared to reduce himself to begging as Angela does and lazy, except as his wife pushes him to find work. Interestingly, he goes to England in search of work, never sends any money home and is barely seen again. His character though is enduring and has a lasting effect on the relationships.
Even though Angela'a Ashes may seem to relate to pre-industrial family life, the very fact that the family had left Ireland for 'greener pastures' and then returned suggests a more urbanised family - with more knowledge than an average pre-industrial family who would have lived in compromised communities, such as this family did, but without the travel and experiences of this family. There would not have been much opportunity for a pre-industrialized family to travel to the US.
Refer to the eNotes study guide to gain an appreciation of life for the family.
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