Angela's Ashes is Frank McCourt's autobiographical account of the first nineteen years or so of his life. The story takes place in two countries, America and Ireland, and there are some constant themes which run through his life in both places. Two of those ideas will shape everything about the young Frank McCourt who eventually leaves Ireland to go back to America to start a new life: religion and poverty. One impacts his mind and soul, the other impacts his body and opportunities.
It is the extreme poverty with which he grows up that creates both deprivation and actions to alleviate those deprivations. He and his brother are teased, tormented, and, perhaps worse, simply looked over by teachers and others as having any potential because they are so poor.
There is no denying that conditions in Ireland at this time are bad; without question, things would have been difficult for the McCourts even if they had had a steady flow of income into the household. The harsh reality is, however, that Frankie's father never keeps a steady job and drinks away all of the government assistance he receives, as well. Frank writes:
I'm seven, eight, nine, going on ten and still Dad has no work. He drinks his tea in the morning, signs for the dole at the Labour Exchange, reads the papers at the Carnegie Library, goes for his long walks into the country. If he gets a job at the Limerick Cement Company or Rank's Flour Mills he loses it in the third week. He loses it because he goes to the pubs on the third Friday of the job, drinks all his wages and misses the half day of work on Saturday morning.
While there are clearly jobs to be had, jobs that Frankie's dad is clearly able to do, he is not particularly interested in working them--once he gets his first paycheck, that is. When he does get these jobs, he loses them because as soon as he gets paid he gets so drunk he is unable to work the next day and thus loses the job. This creates a life of extreme poverty, fueled by the excesses of alcoholism and laziness, or at least a lack of motivation to work and provide for his family.
The negative side effects of this reality are that the McCourt children suffer the consequences of their father's actions, and Frank often gets so desperately hungry that he does things he should not do--and probably would not do if he had any alternative. On a positive note, his father's unwillingness to provide for his family makes Frank even more determined to be nothing like his father.