Short Stories

‘Angela’s Ashes’ – By: Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh



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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,

consumptive croaks.”

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.