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.
Frank McCourt’s parents emigrate to New York separately in the late 1920’s, looking for work. McCourt’s father, Malachy McCourt, was from Toome, County Antrim, Ireland, and his mother, Angela Sheehan, was from Limerick. They had five children while living in New York: Francis (Frank; b. 1930), Malachy (b. 1931), Eugene and Oliver (b. 1932), and Margaret (b. 1935).
The family experiences hardship in New York because their father is unemployed and constantly drunk, and they are starving. Frank notes a distinct difference in the temperament of his father and in the climate of the house generally when his father brings home wages, a rare event. Margaret dies unexpectedly, and Angela goes into a deep depression. The family returns to Ireland and, since they are unwelcome among the McCourts in Toome and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Dublin, they go to Limerick, where Grandma Margaret Sheehan helps Angela find and temporarily pay for a furnished room for them all.
Soon after returning to Limerick, Angela loses the baby that she is carrying, Malachy goes on the dole, and they receive public assistance. Oliver dies, and the family moves to a new flat. Frank and Malachy attend Leamy’s National School. Angela is severely depressed, and Malachy tends to the children. Eugene dies of pneumonia six months after Oliver, and the McCourt family moves to a flat that is directly beside the only lavatory serving the entire lane. At Christmas, they have a pig’s head for dinner.
Michael is born in 1936. Representatives of the St. Vincent de Paul Society come to investigate whether the family has a genuine need for assistance. They determine that the situation is deplorable at the McCourt house.
On Frank’s First Communion Day, he is excited for the Collection, where he will be able to go to all of his relatives and collect money as gifts. He is very ill after Mass and misses the Collection, but is still able to see a film. Malachy, Sr., decides that Frank needs to learn the Latin Mass and teaches it to him so that he can be an altar boy, but the church turns Frank away. Angela has another boy named Alphonsus (Alphie) in 1940. Malachy drinks away the baby’s baptismal present money, and Frank feels torn about his feelings for his father when he is sober versus when he is drunk.
Immediately after being confirmed, Frank contracts typhoid fever and spends three and a half months in the hospital. There, he meets a girl named Patricia Madigan, who later dies of diphtheria, and she introduces him to Shakespeare. When Frank goes back to school, he is put in his younger brother Malachy’s class until he writes a composition titled “Jesus and the Weather,” which allows him to return back to his proper class. Frank begins to talk of going to America when he is older.
Things are changing in the lanes because of World War II. English factories need workers, and Angela will not have more babies, so Malachy goes to England to work but does not send money back home. They are penniless and again must go on public assistance.
Frank has an eye infection and returns to the hospital for a month. When he is released, Angela goes into the hospital with pneumonia. The children stay with Aunt Aggie and Uncle Pa until Malachy briefly returns and Angela gets out of the hospital. Malachy sends a money order for three pounds from England, but that is the last time he sends money to his family. The family again goes on relief, and Frank is humiliated to see his mother begging at the priest’s house for a scrap of food.
Frank gets a short-lived job with Mr. Hannon on the coal float and earns the respect of the boys at school. Malachy comes home at Christmas, stays a few days, and never returns. Destitute, Angela and the boys go to live with Angela’s cousin, Laman Griffin, who dislikes the boys and begins an affair with Angela. Frank’s teacher, Mr. O’Halloran, tells Angela that Frank should continue his education at high school and attend a university, but the Christian brothers will not accept him and he never attends high school.
Frank reaches puberty and is preoccupied with his body. He gets into a fight with Laman Griffin, who strikes him. Frank then lives with Uncle Pat, who has a house to himself since Grandma recently died. Aunt Aggie, in an uncharacteristic act of kindness, buys Frank new clothes and shoes for work. Frank earns one pound a week at as a telegram boy and saves up money from each check to fund passage to America. Angela and the boys move into Uncle Pat’s house, and Frank begins to support the family.
On the job, Frank loses his virginity to Theresa Carmody, who later dies of tuberculosis and leaves Frank heartbroken. He then meets Mrs. Finucane and works for her at night as a letter-writing debt collector. Malachy is absent when Frank turns sixteen, so Uncle Pa buys him his first pint of ale. Frank gets drunk and slaps Angela because of Laman Griffin. The next day, he confesses his sins to a Franciscan friar, who tells him that God forgives him but he needs to forgive himself.
Frank works for Eason’s and Mrs. Finucane until he is almost nineteen. By this time, Angela is working for an old man and Malachy, Jr., shovels coal with Uncle Pa. Mrs. Finucane dies, and Frank helps himself to some of her money. With it, he finally has enough money to leave, so Frank books passage on the Irish Oak, arrives in America, and agrees with a shipmate that America is a great country.