McCourt became a successful writer at an age when retirement beckons the majority. After a long teaching career, during which he taught creative writing to high school students, McCourt turned to his own life as the subject for his two memoirs, Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis. At first in New York, he attempted to hide his difficult childhood from others. While a student in a writing class at New York University, he was asked to write about an incident in his past. McCourt described sharing a collapsed bed, smelling of urine, with his three brothers. The instructor gave the composition high marks and asked McCourt to read it aloud to the class. He could not: He was too ashamed. Over the following decades, McCourt would write down incidents he recalled from his childhood and, with the encouragement of his third wife, Ellen, began what became Angela’s Ashes, which originally was to be a single-volume work.
Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis are written in the first-person voice, as are most memoirs. However, early in Angela’s Ashes a wonderful transition occurs in the narrative. At the beginning, McCourt writes in the first-person voice about the past as the past, as history, where he tells of his parents’ backgrounds in Ireland, their arrivals in New York, their first meeting, and subsequent marriage. Then, about twenty pages into his story, McCourt switches from narrating the past as history to narrating the past as the present in telling a vignette that occurred when he was three years old and on a seesaw with his brother Malachy. Frank got off the seesaw, causing Malachy at the high end to tumble to the ground, hurting himself, with Frank getting the blame from Angela, his mother. It is not the incident which is memorable, a common enough occurrence in childhood, but the author’s voice that captivates the reader.
From that point on, McCourt tells the story of his life as if he was experiencing it today rather than from the perspective of several decades. He explained later that writing it was like putting on a glove, and he retained that present sense of narrative immediacy throughout the memoir. McCourt’s life, particularly the years in Limerick, was filled with horrendous experiences, as have been the lives of many others. It is McCourt’s use of that present perspective and matter-of-fact narrative tone that prevents his memoirs from being merely stories of one appalling event after another.
Both Angela’s Ashes and its sequel, ’Tis, are told chronologically, although the former is more anecdotal, depending upon what themes or subjects are paramount at any given moment. Among the several themes that run through McCourt’s memoirs are religion and patriotism. Irish Catholicism was a product of centuries of Ireland’s being dominated by England and its Protestant Church of Ireland. For many, being Irish meant being Catholic. The Catholic Church in Ireland, however, was an autocratic institution, and religion permeated Irish life.
Frank and his brothers are baptized and confirmed in the Church, but the priests inspire little besides fear in young Frank. To sin, whether by stealing food or masturbating, is to take the first, inevitable step toward Hell. When a priest says it is a glorious thing to die for one’s religion, Frank silently wonders why so many big people have not died for their faith if such is the goal. His father often says that to die for Ireland is a magnificent objective, particularly when he comes home drunk at night and wakes the boys, requiring them to sing patriotic songs. Both Church and father seem to demand and expect sacrificial deaths.
Frank’s earliest books are Church books, including lives of the saints and worship missals. When Frank’s father takes him to their local parish church to apply to be an altar boy, Frank is rejected because he is only a boy from the slums, while the Church wants middle-class boys as altar boys. When Frank’s teacher urges that he attend high school, the Christian Brothers order rejects him. At the time he wrote Angela’s Ashes, McCourt stated that although he admired some individual priests and nuns, he found the institutional Church despicable. He expressed the same attitude toward radical Irish nationalism as represented by the Irish Republic Army, in which his father had fought in the 1920’s.
A predominant theme is that of grinding poverty, exacerbated by alcoholism. The elder McCourt was addicted to alcohol long before Frank was born. After he learned that Angela was pregnant, he intended to flee New York for San Francisco, but he got so drunk he missed his train. The McCourt family’s return to Ireland and the slums of Limerick mires the family in perpetual poverty. They survive on charity from the St. Vincent de Paul Society or on the government dole, picking up pieces of coal from the streets in order to heat their home...
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