In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt tells the story of his impoverished childhood and adolescence in Limerick, Ireland, during the 1930s and 1940s. Written from the point of view of the young boy, it is a long catalogue of deprivation and hardship: the alcoholism of his father, the despair of his mother, the deaths of three of his younger siblings, the grinding poverty and unsanitary living conditions they all had to endure. The story takes place in a highly religious society in which the dogmas of Roman Catholicism are accepted without question. In addition to Catholicism, the people of Limerick exhibit a narrow provincialism, in which Protestants and anyone who comes from the north of Ireland are despised, and an Irish nationalism that is fueled by hatred of the English. And yet the effect of the story, although often poignant and sad, is not depressing. The young narrator describes the events without bitterness, anger, or blame. Poverty and hardship are treated simply as if they are a fact of life, like the weather. And in spite of the hard circumstances, many episodes are hilarious.
The combination of childhood innocence, riotous humor, and descriptions of a degree of poverty beyond anything that contemporary readers in the West could imagine made Angela's Ashes a huge commercial success. It is regarded as an outstanding contribution to the growing popularity of the genre of the memoir.