Angela's Ashes Essays and Criticism
by Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes as a Coming-of-Age Story

Angela's Ashes is a coming-of-age story. It records the growth of Frankie McCourt from an impoverished childhood to his maturity at the age of nineteen, when he is able to plot his own course in life. Through the difficult circumstances of his early years Frankie grows intellectually, spiritually, and morally.

One of Frankie's first coming-of-age experiences is a more practical one, however. It concerns earning money. Given the fact that desperate poverty is rampant in Limerick, it is not surprising that Frankie's ability to supplement the family income marks a significant stage of his growth. He gets his first job helping his uncle deliver newspapers when he is only eight or nine years old. More important is when at the age of eleven he helps his neighbor Mr. Hannon deliver coal. ‘‘I'm a man now,’’ he says, and starts to take on manly domestic tasks such as lighting the fire in the morning. When he is able to put a shilling in his pocket as a reward for his labors, he proudly says, ‘‘I'm not a child anymore,’’ even though he is taunted by other boys and girls because of his coal-blackened appearance. Eventually, however, Frankie wins their respect and envy as he climbs up each day on Mr. Hannon's float "like any workingman." On payday he takes another major step to maturity when he presents his mother with the money he has earned. He is now able to do what his father would not or could not: provide a modest amount of money for the family. It is not surprising that his mother breaks down in tears.

Maturity is about more than earning wages, however. As a very young boy, Frankie is raised in an atmosphere soaked with a narrow, dogmatic Catholicism and the nationalistic myths of a pure and heroic Ireland oppressed for eight hundred years by the English. Much of his intellectual and spiritual growth will involve punching holes in these twin pillars of his upbringing.

It is the one-dimensional concept of history that is the first to go. Frankie has been hearing about Ireland and its history virtually since his birth. His drunken father comes home singing patriotic songs about Irish martyrs and tells his children they must be ready to die for Ireland. The English are blamed for just about everything that has gone wrong in Irish history. This moral culpability of Ireland's neighbors sometimes takes on comic proportions. When Frankie's uncle Pa Keating sees Malachy McCourt beating a mattress to get the fleas out, he remarks that ancient Ireland had no fleas; fleas were brought by the English for the purpose of driving the Irish out of their wits.

Frankie absorbs a similar version of history at school. He is told that whenever the Irish have been on the brink of a noble victory, they have either been betrayed by a traitor or an informer or have fallen victim to some despicable English trick.

When he is eleven years old, Frankie finally hears something different. In a history lesson given by Mr. O'Halloran, the headmaster, he hears the phrase ‘‘atrocities on both sides’’ to describe an ancient battle between the Irish and the English. He is incredulous. He asks O'Halloran if it was true that the Irish committed atrocities. O'Halloran replies that the Irish killed prisoners and were no better or worse than the English. This is a revelation for Frankie:

Mr. O'Halloran can't lie. He's the headmaster. All those years we were told the Irish were always noble and they made brave speeches before the English hanged them. Now Hoppy O'Halloran is saying the Irish did bad things. Next he'll be saying the English did good things.

O'Halloran, who seems to have been a great exception at Leamy's National School, tells the boys that they must study and learn to make up their own minds. It is a lesson Frankie takes to heart.

Frankie's religious indoctrination, however, is not to be so easily thrown off. Since he was a child, he has accepted what he has been told. As a young boy, he lacks the intellectual maturity to question. His mind is...

(The entire section is 11,068 words.)