Angela's Ashes Questions and Answers
by Frank McCourt

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How does being Irish influence the family in Angela's Ashes?

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Esmeralda Keene eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Irish identity is an important theme in Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s memoir. Though there’s much to be said about this topic, we could narrow your question down to four key components. What does it mean to be Irish in this book? It has to do with Catholicism, family structure, socioeconomic status, and alcoholism. Let’s go through these four points and talk about each one and the ways they’re tied together.

Being Irish often means being Catholic. That's certainly true of the McCourt family. Religion is important to the family—and it’s part of the reason that Angela, the author’s mother, has so many children. In this case, Catholicism and family structure are intimately connected. The Catholic church advocated for large families (and did not support birth control). Angela turns to the church when her family is suffering in poverty. And the traditionally Catholic themes of penance and punishment recur in the book: when Frank and his brothers steal bread because they’re hungry, they’re painfully aware that they might not make it to to heaven.

Moving on to the next point, socioeconomic status: it’s impossible to separate this from the previous two, because having a lot of children is part of the reason that the author’s family is struggling financially. But we need to talk about the Irish potato famine, too—it’s the reason that so many Irish families left their home country for the US, as Frank’s family did. Even when they move back to Ireland, they live in a run-down home on an unpaved street. The family’s poverty, on either side of the Atlantic, is notable, and it’s tied to the hardship and lack of opportunity that was problematic for many Irish people.

Finally, let’s talk about the role of alcohol (and alcoholism) in the book. Frank’s father, Malachy, squanders plenty of the family’s income at the pub, and his alcoholism prevents him from maintaining a regular job. Even though Malachy’s children don’t have appropriate clothing or enough food to eat—partly due to their father’s addiction—he entertains them with traditional Irish stories.

Indeed, though I’ve only mentioned a few details here, this book is almost entirely about Irish identity and the way it influenced the author’s life.

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