Angela’s Ashes was written after McCourt had retired from teaching creative writing. He had jotted down his memories of various events and vignettes over the years and had unsuccessfully attempted to write a novel about his early life. When he began writing Angela’s Ashes, he envisioned that it would be one volume, culminating with his mother’s death and cremation in 1981, thus the title, but it concluded instead with McCourt’s return to America in 1949 when he was nineteen.
The book begins with the separate arrivals of McCourt’s parents in New York—Angela from Limerick and Malachy from Northern Ireland—their marriage, and the births of their first four children. Frank, the oldest, was conceived before his parents’ marriage, an event which traumatized him when he learned about it years later. The first pages of Angela’s Ashes are written from the first-person viewpoint but from the perspective of when the work was composed in the 1990’s. Then the author, by accident he claimed, began telling his story through the eyes of his young self, a technique that gives immediacy to the work.
Angela’s Ashes relates the events of Frank’s life until he was nineteen. He was born during the Great Depression, and the family’s return to Ireland when he was four was no solution to the family’s economic crisis. Settling in the Limerick slum where Angela grew up, the McCourts struggled with a litany of tribulations, including the deaths of three of Frank’s younger siblings, his alcoholic father’s inability to get and keep jobs, his mother’s depression due to the deaths of her children, and the almost impossible task of surviving with no income, little food, and miserable housing.
The McCourt boys attended Leamy’s National School, an institution for educating slum children to the age of thirteen or fourteen. Upon finishing school they would take menial jobs, such as Frank did when he delivered telegrams. The teachers were brutal taskmasters, but a few were also inspiring. At least one recognized Frank’s literary bent, encouraging him to pursue his education—an impossibility given the family’s economic plight and class status. The Catholic Church played a major role in Frank’s life, not often for the better, as the fear of damnation pursued him during his childhood and afterward.
Frank lost his virginity to an older girl, and when she soon died from a heart condition, he feared that she had gone to Hell. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, he took a position writing debt collection letters for an old woman, and when she died he stole a few pounds, adding to the money he had previously saved. All together, his funds then totaled enough to pay for ship passage to America, his birthplace, so familiar to him through Hollywood films.