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Most writers struggle to achieve success. Even best-selling authors often have to
strive for many years to make a breakthrough, and we all love stories of authors who
were well advanced in years when their first book was published.
From this perspective, the case of Frank McCourt is especially remarkable, and
indeed inspiring. The Limerick-raised author was sixty-six years old when his first
book Angela’s Ashes (1996) hit the shelves. He expected only modest sales, but the
book became a phenomenon, and has sold over ten million copies. It also won the
Pulitzer Prize for best biography, and was made into a film by the director Alan
Parker in 1999.
The road to McCourt’s triumphant success was an unlikely one. “When I taught in
New York City high schools for thirty years”, he wrote, “no one but my students paid
me a scrap of attention. In the world outside the school I was invisible.” Success took
him completely by surprise: “I hoped the book would explain family history to
McCourt children and grandchildren. I hoped it might sell a few hundred copies…
Instead it jumped into the best-seller list and was translated into thirty languages and
I was dazzled.”
As well as its massive success, Angela’s Ashes generated a fair amount of
controversy. The memoir’s portrayal of Ireland, Limerick, and the Catholic Church
were far from flattering, and some accused McCourt of exaggerating the hardship of
his youth. A TV confrontation between McCourt and the Limerick broadcaster Gerry
Hannan has become famous in its own right. But, on the whole, Limerick seems to
have taken the book to its heart. In 2010, a bronze bust of McCourt was unveiled
there, and a Frank McCourt Museum opened in 2011, (closing in 2019).
Angela’s Ashes is set for the most part in the Limerick city of the thirties and forties.
It follows the misfortunes of the McCourt family, Irish-Americans who have escaped
the poverty of Depression-era New York only to find things even worse in Ireland.
The mother Angela struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food in their
stomachs as her husband Malachy consistently spends all their money on drink.
Frank (known as Frankie), his brother Malachy, and two other brothers grow up in
the school of adversity that is “the lanes” in Limerick.
Life in working-class Limerick is portrayed as a struggle for survival, with authority
figures such as teachers, priests, and employers mostly making life difficult for
Frankie and his family. The McCourts endure death (three of the children die in
infancy), hunger, humiliation, overcrowding, prejudice, sickness, and innumerable
other hardships. And then, of course, there is the ever-present rain and damp: “The
rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It
created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes,
Angela’s Ashes clearly has more than its fair share of gloom and doom. Indeed, it
has been classed as part of the “misery memoir” genre which flourished around the
time of its publication. This genre actually has a long history in Irish literature,
reaching back to books such as Peig (1936), the woe-filled personal history of a
Blasket Islander which was a staple of the Irish school syllabus for years. Such
books were satirised by Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth (1941), whose protagonist
declares “I suffered Gaelic hardship throughout my life– distress, need, ill-treatment,
adversity, calamity, foul play, misery, famine, and ill-luck”. It might also remind the
reader of many Irish folk ballads which record a catalogue of misfortunes, such as
“The Rocky Road to Dublin”.
However, Angela’s Ashes is lifted from unrelenting bleakness by several factors.
First off, there is the wonder and innocence of childhood, as we witness Frankie and
his brothers making the best of their harsh environment. There is the warmth and
solidarity of the Limerick poor, with many moments of unexpected kindness that will
bring a tear to the reader’s eye. And then there is the lyricism. Almost every
character in the book has the “gift of the gab”. Songs and stories and witty turns of
phrase fill the damp air of Frank McCourt’s Limerick.
Above all, Angela’s Ashes is lifted by its humour. While some parts of the book (such
as the deaths and funerals of the infant McCourts) are almost unbearably grim, for
the most part comedy is never very far away. In one scene, a passer-by sympathizes
with the family as they attempt to beat fleas out of a mattress in the street. He says:
“They’re a right bloody torment, an’ I should know for didn’t I grow up in Limerick,
down in the Irishtown, an’ the fleas there were so plentiful and forward that they’d sit
on the toe of your boot an’ discuss Ireland’s woeful history with you.”
Angela’s Ashes is a coming-of-age story, and in many ways resembles the most
famous coming-of-age story in Irish literature, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce. In both books, Irish patriotism and Irish Catholicism are shown in a
dim light. In Angela’s Ashes, the family’s father is a veteran of the Irish struggle for
independence, who drunkenly sings patriotic ballads and wakes his hungry children
in the middle of the night so they can promise to die for Ireland. (When the young
Frankie is told by a teacher that he should be ready to die for the Catholic faith, he
replies that: “I’m already booked to die for Ireland.”)
The picture of Catholicism is even bleaker. Sin, damnation, and religious guilt are the
backdrop of life in Angela’s Ashes. Religious fanaticism and bigotry are everywhere,
and when Frankie is being prepared for First Holy Communion, the teacher’s
approach is less than inspiring: “He tells us we’re hopeless, the worst class he ever
had for First Communion but as sure as God made little apples he’ll make Catholics
of us, he’ll beat the idler out of us and the Sanctifying Grace into us.”
One particularly striking example of religious hypocrisy is the character Brigid
Finucane, a moneylender who employs Frankie to write threatening letters to
customers who are late on their payments– all so she can save up money to have
Masses offered for her soul after death!
But not all religious figures are held up to scorn in the book. In one powerful scene,
Frankie confesses to a priest that he has stolen food because he was hungry. The
priest is moved and tells Frankie that, instead of hearing the sins of the poor, “I
should be on my knees washing their feet”. In a later confession scene, a gentle
Franciscan priest relieves Frankie of religious guilt that has been tormenting him
after a much more serious sin. But these are exceptions, and for the most part
religion is seen as an oppressive force in the book.
When it comes to literary technique, we can see that Angela’s Ashes follows two
pieces of advice often given to writers. The first is to “write what you know”. All three
of Frank McCourt’s books– Angela’s Ashes, its sequel ‘Tis, and Teacher Man– draw
directly on the author’s own life. Whatever doubts have been raised about the
accuracy of this or that detail, the immediacy of the storytelling leaves us in no doubt
that the author is describing his own experiences, as he remembers them. Indeed,
McCourt has quite an astonishing ability to remind the reader what it was like to be a
child: how sensitive children are to the moods of adults, their frustration in not having
their questions answered, their joy in simple pleasures such as chocolates or stories.
The second literary advice it illustrates is that a writer should do everything to avoid
the following “eight deadly words” forming in the mind of the reader: “I don’t care
what happens to these people”.
The reader of Angela’s Ashes never stops caring what happens to the characters.
We even feel tremendous compassion for the shiftless father Malachy who drinks his
family’s money away time after time, since he is portrayed as a three-dimensional
human being with a tender and loving side to his character. We see him reading the
paper to Frankie before he goes to work, and telling his children wonderful stories at
bedtime, causing Frankie to muse: “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.”
Like many coming-of-age stories, Angela’s Ashes is episodic in nature. It’s a series
of scenes (or vignettes) which are like short stories in themselves, but with a
continuous narrative flowing through them, slowly building to a climax.
At the beginning we see the McCourt’s in New York, where they are already
struggling with poverty and Malachy Senior’s alcoholism. The birth of a daughter is a
temporary reprieve; her father dotes on her so much that he temporarily gives up
drinking. But she dies after a few weeks.
At the prompting of relatives in New York, the McCourt family return to Ireland, where
they find themselves in even greater poverty than in New York. Malachy struggles to
find work, employers being prejudiced against his Antrim accent. Even when he does
gain employment, he often spends his whole wages on drink, to the point that Angela
sends his sons to find him in pubs and publicly shame him. Angela herself is forced
to seek money from the St. Vincent de Paul charity, who humiliate her even as they
grudgingly assist her.
Through the course of the book, we witness the deterioration of the father, who
eventually goes to work in England and loses touch with family. We see Frankie in
school, at Irish dance lessons, in hospital with an almost-fatal case of typhoid fever.
We see him leave school and go to work as a messenger boy. We see the family
evicted and forced to move in with a boorish cousin of Angela’s, who takes
advantage of her and mistreats her sons. Frankie flees the house and stays with his
uncle, while continuing to earn money at various jobs. He has his first intimate
encounter with a young woman. She dies of tuberculosis shortly afterwards, plunging
him into guilt, as he fears that their liaison has doomed her to eternal damnation.
Eventually, a gentle Fransiscan priest (mentioned above) assures him she would
have received confession in hospital before dying.
The book ends on a hopeful note, the nineteen-year-old Frankie finally having
earned enough money for his passage to America, with the intention of having his
mother and brothers follow him when he can send them the fare. It closes with his
ship about to dock in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In 1999, the film was made into a movie, directed by Alan Parker. Angela was played
by Emily Watson, Malachy Senior by Robert Carlyle, and Frankie was played by
three different actors who portrayed different stages of his growth. The film was not a
financial or critical success, and was criticized for lacking the humour of the book.
But it’s certainly worth watching.
Angela’s Ashes was criticized for its bleak portrayal of Ireland and Limerick in the
thirties and forties; “misery, misery, misery”, as Gerry Hannan put it. That, however,
is not a fair judgement. Ultimately Angela’s Ashes is an affirmation of the human
spirit. Despite battling with crushing poverty, all the characters are shown as unique
human beings, each with their distinct eccentricities, dreams, ideals and failings.
Readers will find that the story frequently brings them to tears or to laughter, often in
quick succession. It’s a book that will leave you with a deepened compassion for
your fellow human beings– and perhaps even a desire to bring more kindness into a
world which can so often be so tough for so many.