Angela’s Ashes

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Poverty, the mournful familiar of Frank McCourt’s memoir, ANGELA’S ASHES, has always occupied the thoughts of great writers. McCourt dramatizes poverty’s victims, destitute lives made ridiculous and anarchic. Yet he also carries from the pitiable circumstances of his youth in Limerick a reconciliation that is never self-pitying, always able to allow the comic in, and, above all, can say, with fellow writer Frank Sylvester, that “memory of the heart is the longest.” The book’s anchoring sentiment is contained on its opening page: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was of course, a miserable childhood. . . . Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

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Rarely has the want of some one thing so defined sadness: a piece of bread for one kind of sustenance, Frank’s, a pint of stout for another, his father’s; a penny to refresh; a pair of shoes to replace rubber-tire ones; a job for his father so his mother Angela will not have to beg and the family go back on the dole.

The McCourts dub their flooded-out and foul-smelling downstairs “Ireland” and the upstairs “Italy.” Three of Frank’s siblings die in the first eighty pages. At age ten, Frank himself nearly succumbs to typhoid. His father, Malachy McCourt, is the book’s most memorable figure although it is his reckless drinking that almost destroys the family. With the entry of the United States on the side of hated Britain, Malachy and other Irishmen decide the war is a worthy cause and join depleted work forces in England. With the absence of Malachy, the oldest son (the narrator) works as a coal hauler, then as a telegram messenger. On his bicycle, he watches the Shannon flowing on its way to America. He dreams of returning and, at nineteen, he does.

McCourt has chronicled a painful but ultimately rewarding coming of age. ANGELA’s ASHES helps raise the currently thriving genre, the memoir, to new literary heights.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. August 25, 1996, p. N13.

Chicago Tribune. October 22, 1996, V, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 4, 1996, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1996, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 15, 1996, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXXVIII, September 2, 1996, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, July 1, 1996, p. 49.

Time. CXLVIII, September 23, 1996, p. 76.

USA Today. September 10, 1996, p. D10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, September 29, 1996, p. 1.

Angela’s Ashes

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Poverty, the mournful familiar of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, has always occupied the thoughts of great writers. During the first century a.d., Juvenal wrote that “bitter poverty has no harder pang than that it makes men ridiculous.” In his preface to Major Barbara (pr. 1905), George Bernard Shaw declared that “the greatest of our evils and the worst of our crimes is poverty.” More recently, American poet William Carlos Williams, who was a practicing physician, expressed delight at the “anarchy” he found among his poor clients in Rutherford, New Jersey.

In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt dramatizes poverty’s victims, destitute lives made ridiculous, criminal, and anarchic. Yet he also carries from the pitiable circumstances of his youth in Ireland a reconciliation that is never self- pitying, always able to allow the comic in, and, above all, can say, with fellow writer Harry Sylvester, that “the memory of the heart is the longest.”

True, the book’s anchoring sentiment is contained on its opening page: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worst yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Yet, like his countryman James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) eighty years before him, McCourt has chronicled a painful but ultimately rewarding growing up. Angela’s Ashes pronounces, finally, a bittersweet “yes” to life. Frankie McCourt’s story, the longest of shots, has a happy ending.

Nothing in the memoir’s first two hundred pages gives promise of happiness. Rarely since Les Miserables Jean Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family has the want of some one thing so defined sadness: a piece of bread for one kind of sustenance, Frankie’s; a pint of stout for another, his father’s; a penny to refresh; a pair of shoes to replace his rubber-tire ones; a job for his father so his mother will not have to beg and the family go back on the dole.

The McCourts dub their flooded-out and foul-smelling downstairs “Ireland” and the upstairs “Italy” where “it’s warm in the bed with the six of us and I love the glow of the fire the way it dances on the walls and ceiling and makes the room go red and black, red and black, till it dims to white and black and all you can hear is a little cry from [the baby] turning in my mother’s arms.”

Frank believes Angela when she tells him there is an angel on the seventh step. He finds solace in conversation with God’s emissary: Will the angel bring a baby or is this just a visit? Three of his siblings die in the first eighty pages. At ten, Frank himself nearly succumbs to typhoid. His four-month hospital stay leads to his first significant conversation with a girl, Patricia Madigan, in the next room. The nuns rightly dictate that typhus and diphtheria shall not meet, but the slightly older Patricia, mortally ill, lives long enough to share her beloved book of poems and read him his first “bit of Shakespeare.”

“Every day I can’t wait for the doctors and nurses to leave me alone so I can learn a new verse from Patricia and find out what’s happening to the highwayman and the landlord’s red-lipped daughter.” Thus was born Frank McCourt’s love of language, so evident in this memoir.

Frank’s father is the book’s most memorable figure, although it is Malachy McCourt’s recklessness that continually denies his family for his pint. Sent to Coventry during World War II to work in a munitions factory, he sends home only one paycheck in three years. Still, for all his profligacy, only his father, who cannot help Frank with his Irish because he is from the North, can transport his imaginative oldest son out of the lane to lands where everyone is a different color and everything is upside down and backward.

“I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.”

Throughout his memoir, Frank McCourt attributes wry commentary on the events of his youth that must be credited to the adult looking down a fifty-year time corridor. Preparing for First Confession and First Communion, Frankie thinks of his sister and twin brothers who are dead: “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” [italics added]

Later, during Frank’s slow recovery from typhoid, the nurses and nuns severely restrict his reading. At night, he escapes into happy thoughts about Tom Brown at Rugby and the comic creations of P. G. Wodehouse. “It’s lovely to know the world can’t interfere with the inside of your head.”

Such interpolations are among the book’s strongest passages. They provide the wisdom of hindsight as the memoirist allows them to overlay the remembered spirit of the youth’s actual adventures. In semiautobiographical fiction, the first- person narrator dare not lose verisimilitude by giving an adolescent persona insights beyond his or her perceived capability. The memoir, if written with the skill of a Frank McCourt, permits a leavening palimpsest on remote memory.

The author devotes more than 300 of the memoir’s 364 pages to Frankie’s desperate years in Limerick, from age four to nineteen. The first thirty-five pages, however, reverse the conventional story of post-turn-of-century immigrants who made good. They describe the early years of the Great Depression in which, for the McCourts in their adopted Brooklyn, conditions were as bad as those they had left. Although McCourt never ties himself down to specific years—there are no dates—a good guess, reinforced by the chronology reckoned by Denis Donoghue in his review published in The New York Times Book Review, would be that Malachy McCourt immigrated to America from Ulster after the Irish civil war of 1922-1923. Donoghue doubts the story, so proudly and charmingly told by Frank, of his father’s escape from Northern Ireland with a price on his head.

On March 28, 1930, Malachy and Angela Sheehan, a recent emigrant from the slums of Limerick, were married. On August 19 of the same year, the couple had their first child, Frank. The fact of bastardy is provided the reader early—on page 17—but Frank learns about it 250 pages later, in early teens, when he discovers his birth certificate while scouring his mother’s trunk for her “red flapper dress” from America whose patterned hearts he will cut out for his football team’s insignia.

Frank’s awakening to his premature origin is, of course, innocent, but it provides clues to the boy’s reliance on Roman Catholic reference: “[I am told] the father and mother have to be married nine months before there’s a sign of a child. Here I am born into the world in half the time. That means I must be a miracle and I might grow up to be a saint with people celebrating the feast of St. Francis of Limerick.” He goes to his pal Mikey Molloy, who is sixteen and knows all about “dirty things.” Mikey tells him that “all bastards are doomed. . . . like babies that weren’t baptized. . . . sent to Limbo for eternity.”

McCourt’s inventiveness in such scenes is extraordinary. It gives voice to a generosity of spirit that redeems the stench of toilets shared by an entire street, the insults of truant officers and barflies, the ubiquity of fleas in the mattress and rats on the floor.

In the spirit of the “life” novel—the story of passage, the experience of a spiritual education—Angela’s Ashes arrives at a point when the hero’s odyssey takes a turn for the better. With the entry of the United States on the side of hated Britain, many Irishmen, as Donoghue puts it, “decided that the war was not England’s usual mischief but a worthy cause.” Malachy, among many, went south to beef up the war industries whose work forces had been depleted. Although the father drank up his wages rather than send money home and the McCourts lived on charity, the oldest son takes a variety of jobs, from cleaning chamberpots to being an assistant to a coal hauler. For the first time, he can turn over three shillings to his mother. For the first time, Frank rises in his own estimation as “more than a scabby-eyed blubber gob dancing Jap.”

In Mr. Hannon, Frank meets a Mr. Micawber figure who values him as an assistant hauler but also for his promise. “Mr. Hannon says, Up you get, and I climb up on the float like any workingman. . . . I’ll take the reins and when he hands them over I’m sure I’ll hear the boys gasping.”

At fourteen, looking at himself in a mirror, Frank almost shuns his first “big” job, that of telegram boy at the post office. He is Pip without great expectations. He wishes he could be like the young Mickey Rooney as a happy delivery boy in The Human Comedy (1943), along with James Cagney and the Dead End Kids, his favorite from the Hollywood motion pictures he saw at The Lyric. When he finishes his calls, Frank visits the ancient monastery graveyard where his mother’s relations are buried, sits on the highest wall of the ruins of Carrigogunnell Castle, watches the Shannon flowing on its way to America. Now he dreams of returning.

Frankie becomes the senior boy in the post office at about the same time he endures his ceremonial “first pint” at sixteen. He also enjoys his “first excitement” with a consumptive redhead named Theresa Carmody who, like Patricia Madigan six years earlier, seems to die on cue, providing his Catholic conscience still further guilt. Going on nineteen, he comes into a windfall with the death of an old woman, Mrs. Finucane, for whom he wrote letters for hire. Frank appropriates her informal “legacy” of fifty-seven pounds. For reasons not explained, he feels it is money due him. He can now book passage to New York.

McCourt compresses his late teens, climaxed by arrival by tugboat in the harbor of Poughkeepsie, into nine pages. The nineteen-year-old is ushered into a brothel by, of all people, a priest. He enjoys his second “excitement” before returning to the Irish Oak for the final leg of his journey.

“I stand on the deck with the Wireless Officer looking at the lights of America twinkling. He says, My God, that was a lovely night, Frank. Isn’t this a great country altogether?” Frankie’s answer, the single-word final chapter: “’Tis.”

A book such as Angela’s Ashes helps raise the currently expanding genre, the memoir, to new literary heights.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. August 25, 1996, p. N13.

Chicago Tribune. October 22, 1996, V, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 4, 1996, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1996, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 15, 1996, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXXVIII, September 2, 1996, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, July 1, 1996, p. 49.

Time. CXLVIII, September 23, 1996, p. 76.

USA Today. September 10, 1996, p. D10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, September 29, 1996, p. 1.

Historical Context

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Memoir Genre
The 1990s witnessed a huge growth in the number of personal memoirs, and the genre itself underwent significant change. Traditionally, the memoir was an autobiographical narrative, usually by a prominent person, that focused not on the personal experiences of the author but on the significant people and events he had witnessed or been involved in. In the 1990s, however, personal memoirs came to be written not only by famous people but by unknown ones, too. Many focused on a certain period in a person's life (thus distinguishing them from the more comprehensive scope of the autobiography). Often the memoir was about the growth from childhood or adolescence to young adulthood. Frequently these memoirs detailed an environment in which some deprivation or vice, such as poverty, alcoholism or sexual abuse, played a large part.

One of the most popular memoirs from the early part of the decade was Darkness Visible (1992), the account by the writer William Styron of his descent into mental illness. Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (1994) was a bestselling memoir of Kaysen's life in a mental institution. In 1995, Mary Karr published the hugely successful The Liars' Club, a memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional Texas family. In that year, approximately two hundred memoirs were published. Commentators linked the startling growth of the genre to the vogue for confessional television programs and the ‘‘tell-it-all’’ nature of popular culture. James Atlas, in his article ‘‘The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now,’’ comments on the openness that characterized the 1990s:

In an era when 'Oprah' reigns supreme and 12-step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.

It was in this literary and cultural climate that McCourt began writing Angela's Ashes in 1994. The memoir, with its tale of a family ruined by an alcoholic father, anguished by bereavement, and living with the shame of almost unimaginable poverty, fit comfortably into the genre as it was being redefined during the decade. So when Angela's Ashes was published two years later, its runaway success was perhaps not surprising.

England, Protestantism, and Ireland
Even a casual reader of Angela's Ashes could hardly fail to notice that the Irish of Limerick reserve a special hatred for the English, and they also despise Protestants. The origins of this antipathy go far back in history.

The English first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, which explains the recurring Irish complaint in the book about ''what the English did to us for eight hundred long years.''

The Protestants are associated with the English, since it was the Protestant forces of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century, followed by the Protestant army of William of Orange in 1690, that subjugated the Catholic Irish.

After a long struggle, most of Ireland won its independence in 1922. This period of Irish history is associated with the name of Eamon de Valera, the first president of the Irish Free State. In Angela's Ashes, Frank's father believes that de Valera is the greatest man in the world.

After 1922, the six predominantly Protestant northern counties of Ireland remained under British rule. This is why in Angela's Ashes anyone from the north of Ireland, even a good Catholic and an Irish nationalist like Malachy McCourt, is regarded with suspicion.

Literary Style

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Style
Angela's Ashes is narrated in the first person, and apart from the first part of chapter one, it is told in the present tense. The present tense narration serves the author's purpose well as it conveys the immediacy of the child's experience and avoids giving the impression, as a past tense might, that the story is being told by an adult reflecting on his childhood.

The language used throughout is colloquial and earthy. Slang, Irishisms, and vulgar expressions are used frequently, and these convey the way people really talked in Limerick during the author's childhood. Having a ''fine fist,'' for example, means that a person has good handwriting. To go ‘‘beyond the beyonds'' is to behave in an outrageous manner.

Some words will be unfamiliar to American ears: "gob" is slang for mouth and "fags" are cigarettes. To call someone an "eejit" is to insult them, and the expression ‘‘diddering omadhaun,’’ as used by a schoolmaster to describe a boy, is obviously not a compliment.

The Irish way of expressing themselves is apparent in such statements as ‘‘That's a great leg for the dancing you have there, Frankie,'' a compliment to young Frankie on his dancing ability. Some expressions are saltier. Mrs. O'Connor, the dance teacher, tells Frankie to stop frowning ‘‘or you'll have a puss on you like a pound of tripe.’’ Irish pronunciation is reflected in ‘‘fillum star’’ (film star), and occasionally there is a glimpse of what Frankie's father calls Limerick slumtalk, as in Uncle Pat's words, ‘‘That's me mug and don't be drinkin' your way oush of ish.’’ The last three words mean ''out of it.''

In an unusual device, there are not any quotation marks used to mark direct speech anywhere in this book, even when two people are engaged in a conversation. The effect of this is perhaps to subtly remind the reader that everything in the memoir is being filtered through the consciousness of the child narrator. It is always Frank who is reporting the speech, whether direct or indirect.

Tone
The tone of the book is often humorous. It is only rarely angry, even though Frankie might have a lot to be angry about.
The humor occurs not only in humorous situations and events but in the way young Frankie strives to understand the world and what happens in it. On one occasion, when he is eleven or twelve, he discovers his parents' marriage certificate and notes that they were married on March 28, 1930. But this mystifies him:

I was born on the nineteenth of August and Billy Campbell told me the father and mother have to be married nine months before there's a sign of a child. Here I am born into the world in half the time. That means I must be a miracle and I might grow up to be a saint with people celebrating the feast of St. Francis of Limerick.

Toward the end of the book, as Frank matures, the tone becomes compassionate, as Frank becomes more aware of the suffering of others.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Limerick, Ireland, is economically depressed, with pockets of extreme poverty. Unemployment is high.

Today: Helped by a growth in tourism and high-tech industries, Limerick flourishes. ‘‘Combat poverty'' groups have been set up, using funds from the European Union.

1930s: A common cause of death in Limerick, and Ireland as a whole, is tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is prevalent because living conditions are unsanitary and malnutrition is rife.

Today: Advances in medicine have made tuberculosis a curable, rather than a deadly, disease. In 1998, Ireland reported 424 cases of tuberculosis, down from 640 in 1991.

1930s: Although independent, Ireland is a member of the British Commonwealth. Ireland remains neutral when war breaks out between Britain and Germany in 1939 and withdraws from the Commonwealth in 1948.

Today: Relations between Britain and Ireland are cordial. The two governments work together to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Both countries are members of the European Union.

Media Adaptations

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Angela's Ashes has been recorded on audiotape, read by McCourt, in abridged (1996) and unabridged (1997) versions published by Simon and Schuster.

In 1999, Angela's Ashes was made into a film, directed by Alan Parker and starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Ascheron, Neal, ‘‘Ceremony of Innocence,’’ in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 12, July 17, 1997, pp. 24-26.

Atlas, James, ‘‘The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now,’’ in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, pp. 25-27.

Elson, John, ‘‘Reliving His Bad Eire Days,’’ in Time, Vol. 148, No. 15, September 23, 1996, p. 74.

Foster, R. F., ‘‘Tisn't: The Million-dollar Blarney of the McCourts,’’ in New Republic, November 1, 1999, p. 29.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Review in Newsweek, Vol. 128, No. 10, September 2, 1996, pp. 68-69.

Kakutani, Michiko, ''Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood,’’ in New York Times, September 17, 1996.

Further Reading
Donoghue, Denis, ‘‘Some Day I'll Be in Out of the Rain,’’ in New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 13. In this review of Angela's Ashes, Donoghue comments on his own experiences growing up in Ireland, which were similar to McCourt's.

''Fighting Irish,'' in National Review, October 26, 1998, p. 40.
This editorial describes how the publication of Angela's Ashes has contributed to an upsurge in America of interest in all things Irish.

Hughes, Carolyn T., ''Looking Forward to the Past: A Profile of Frank McCourt,’’ in Poet and Writers Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 5, September-October 1999, pp. 22-29.
This profile of McCourt describes the genesis of Angela's Ashes and McCourt's thoughts on writing and teaching.

Sullivan, Robert, ‘‘The Seanachie,’’ in New York Times Magazine, September 1, 1996, pp. 24-27.
A seanachie is a storyteller, and this profile of McCourt emphasizes the wealth of personal stories that McCourt has at his disposal. He is presented as a man who finds humor in the darkest of places.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 62

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. August 25, 1996, p. N13.

Chicago Tribune. October 22, 1996, V, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 4, 1996, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1996, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 15, 1996, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXXVIII, September 2, 1996, p. 68.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, July 1, 1996, p. 49.

Time. CXLVIII, September 23, 1996, p. 76.

USA Today. September 10, 1996, p. D10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, September 29, 1996, p. 1.

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