“Angela’s Ashes” is a 1996 memoir by Frank McCourt. The book won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the Boeke Prize.
The novel retells the events of McCourt’s childhood leading up to his move to America when he was 20 years old. McCourt grew up in poverty with his family in Limerick, Ireland. His mother, Angela lost many children to miscarriages and childhood illnesses and suffered from severe depression. His father, Malachy was a drunk who lost countless jobs by failing to appear for work, keeping the family locked in poverty.
Over the course of the memoir, McCourt tells tales about timeless childhood antics interspersed with devastating stories of poverty. Coming from a family of fanatical Irish Catholics, McCourt also talks about the shame he felt as a child for masturbating and having premarital sex.
At the start of World War II, McCourt’s father moved to England to work in a munitions family and after a little while stopped contacting the family. The memoir was adapted into a movie in 1999 that did not do very well at the box office.
The narrator, Frank, begins the novel by describing how his parents met and his early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, and Ireland. He notes that his childhood, with a drunken father and a downtrodden mother, was a typical “miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Frank’s father, Malachy, grew up in Northern Ireland. He eventually left to go to America when his work with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) landed him in hot water with the police.
Frank’s mother was named Angela. Her father ran off when she was very young after accidentally dropping her baby brother on his head. Angela eventually moved to America and met Malachy. When she got pregnant by him, her cousins coerced him into marrying her. Frank tried to escape the marriage by running away, but he spent all his money at the pub. Frank was soon born and then followed by his brother, also named Malachy. Then two more twin boys, Eugene and Oliver were born.
Frank recalls his time as a young child in New York. His father loved the family but he often drank and spent all his money doing so. Malachy stopped drinking for a short time when Angela gave birth to a daughter, but the baby died as an infant. After the baby died, Angela fell into a depression and everyone thought it was best if the family return to Ireland. Frank remembers watching his mother vomit from seasickness as the Statue of Liberty disappeared behind the horizon. The family goes to Franks parents in Northern Ireland. Grandma McCourt and Malachy’s sisters all greet the family coldly, but Grandpa is kind to them. Grandma tells Malachy that there are no jobs there and that he should try to get money from the IRA.
The next day the family take a bus to Ireland, the man in charge of giving out money for the IRA claims that he cannot find record of Malachy’s service and turns them away. That night, the family have to sleep in a police station to stay off the streets. The nice policemen raise money for a fare to get the family to Limerick so they can be with Angela’s mother. Angela’s mother helps them find a place to stay, though the family has to share a single flea-infested mattress. A few days later, Angela miscarries a child. She has to recover quickly so that she can stand in line with the children for charity money from the church. The women in line are suspicious of Angela at first but warm to her. She makes a new friend called Nora who goes with her to the grocery store to make sure that she is not cheated.
Frank’s brother, Oliver gets sick and dies, and six months later, his twin brother dies as well. Angela has to be prescribed medicine to deal with her depression over her lost children. Frank and little Malachy soon start school. Frank’s parents move the family around a few times over the next few months as they struggle to make money. Malachy Sr. goes off on long walks to try and find a job every day but when he makes any money, he drinks it all away.
Two weeks before Christmas, the bottom floor of their house floods. The family moves onto the second floor which they refer to as “Italy” because it is dry. Frank’s classmates make fun of him and his brother for having to collect coal from the street and only being able to get a pig’s head to eat for Christmas dinner. Angela gives birth to another boy and names him Michael who is sickly. Malachy Sr. has to suck mucus out of the babies nose to keep him breathing.
Malachy Sr. eventually gets a job at a cement factory, and everyone is pleased until he fails to come home Friday evening. Angela realizes that he took his wages to the pub and started crying. Malachy Sr. returns several hours later, drunk and Angela tells him to sleep downstairs. The next morning he misses work and loses his job.
Angela’s friend, Nora, regularly spends time in an asylum because her husband’s drinking drives her to become frantic. She has a son named Mikey, who is friends with Frank. Frank’s Catholic confirmation ceremony is coming up, and he worries that spending time with Mikey and listening to the boy tell dirty stories is a sin. When he tells his father about it, Malachy laughs and tells him that he can confess if it will make him feel better.
When Frank goes in for his communion, he has trouble getting the wafer down and later throws it up in his Grandmother’s back yard. Grandma gets furious with Frank for throwing up the wafer and drags him back to the church to ask the priest what to do. The priest also laughs and tells her to wash it away with some water but gets annoyed when Grandma asks if she should use holy water. Because of all this confusion, Frank misses his Collection (the part of First Communion where money is given to the child) and has no money to go to the movies. Mikey causes a disturbance so that Frank can sneak into the theater.
Frank talks about the silence in his neighborhood between the Irish families and the families that have helped the English or converted to Protestantism. He says that in some cases these resentments go back hundreds of years. Frank compares these silences to the ones in his own family between relatives who won’t speak to each other. For instance, Grandma won’t talk to Angela, Angela won’t talk to her siblings, etc.). A man named Bill Galvin moves into Grandma’s house as a renter and Frank is asked to deliver Bill’s daily lunch. On the first day, he eats the lunch instead because he is so hungry. Frank is scolded and punished.
Because Angela and Malachy Sr. smoke constantly, they are told that their teeth have to be removed and replaced with false teeth. Malachy Jr. steals his father’s false teeth to try on and has to be taken to the hospital to get them out. While there, a doctor tells Frank that he will have to get his tonsils removed.
Angela begins sending Frank to Irish dancing classes, but he quickly decides that he hates it and starts skipping classes to go to the movies. To assuage his parents, he makes up dances and pretends he learned them in class. This goes on until Frank’s teacher sends a note wondering where he is and Malachy Sr. has to bring Frank to church to confess.
Three years pass as Frank continues to grow up. Malachy Sr. continues to lose jobs frequently because of his drinking. Malachy wishes for his son to become and alter boy and but the church refuses them. Angela blames it on their poor appearance. Frank gets a job selling newspapers from his uncle and meets a man named Mr. Timoney who he delivers papers to. Mr. Timoney is elderly and can no longer read, so he asks Frank to stop by and read to him for money. Frank agrees and reads a copy of Jonathan Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Frank enjoys Mr. Timoney’s company because he talks to him like he is a friend instead of a child, but Mr. Timoney is soon taken away to a hospital because he is pronounced ill with dementia.
That summer, Angela gives birth to another boy and names him Alphonsus. The children call him ‘Alphie’ for short. Grandpa gives Alphie a five dollar money order and Angela sends Frank and Malachy Jr. with their father to cash it. However, after he cashes the money he immediately goes to the pub and the boy cannot stop him. Angela is furious and sends them back out to retrieve him. Frank, too is angry when he finds his father, but he assures himself that everything will change now that there is a new baby in the house.
Frank finally has his confirmation but, the next day gets ill. A doctor visits and tells him that he has typhoid fever. Frank is taken to the hospital and becomes extremely ill. He nearly dies before he starts to recover. While he is recovering, he meets a girl named Patricia who is dying of diphtheria. Patricia gives him a book that contains some of Shakespeare’s poetry. He is overwhelmed by the beauty of the language, saying that speaking the bard’s words aloud is like having jewels in his mouth. Unfortunately, the children’s nurse dislikes that they are becoming friends and moves Frank to another ward. Frank has to hear that Patricia died second hand. However, Frank’s love of reading is sparked, and he continues to read throughout his time in the hospital.
Months later, he is allowed to return home. He is now eleven years old and has to repeat his last year of school because he was sick so long. Inspired by his reading, he writes an essay about Jesus and his teachers agree to let him go on to the next grade with his friends. Malachy Sr. tells Frank that when he was a child, the English closed all of the Irish schools to keep the people ignorant. He and others had to go to school in secret locations. He says that he wants to go back to America and get a job in an office because Limerick is ‘gray’ and ‘has a river that kills.’
Soon, World War II begins. Many fathers from Frank’s street go to England to fight and are able to send more money back home as a result. Malachy decides to go to England, too and the children see him to the station on the morning that he leaves. Angela tells the children about the wonderful life they will have when Frank starts sending money back but after weeks of him being gone they still haven’t gotten anything.
Frank gets an eye infection, and Angela has to take him to see the doctor again. Frank is sent back to the hospital with conjunctivitis. Grandma blames the infection on his reading which she thinks is bad for children. In the hospital, Frank sees Mr. Timoney again who tells him to keep reading once his eyes are healed. When he returns home, Frank discovers that his father has been spending all of his money on beer. Angela is forced to apply for public aid which she thinks is shameful. Angela becomes sick and is bed bound for a while. Frank steals some food from a truck and is so delighted by his ability to do so that he steals a box full of groceries for a rich neighborhood. He and his brothers then begin stealing coal from people’s backyards to keep the house warm.
When Angela is diagnosed with pneumonia and taken to the hospital, Frank and his brothers have to stay with their aunt. Aunt Aggie hits the boys and abuses them. Frank writes to his father and Malachy Sr. returns home for a brief time to care for the boys. Malachy sends only one of his paychecks home, and Angela is forced to shamefully beg for food.
Frank decides to start a soccer team with his friends. He decides to make uniforms out of one of his mother’s favorite dresses and cuts the dress up. While he is looking through her dresses, he comes across his birth certificate that says he was born only six months after his parent’s marriage. He wonders if he was a miracle. However, Mikey tells him that he is a bastard and that this means he will not go to heaven when he dies. Mikey explains to Frank how babies are conceived and this worries Frank, who goes to the church to pray for his soul. After Frank makes a goal and wins a soccer game, however, he thinks that this is a sign from God that he is not doomed.
Frank gets a job delivering coal, but the dust from the coal irritates his eyes so much that he has to quit. Malachy returns home for Christmas and promises that he is going to stop drinking.
At school, Frank notices the “respectable boys” who will grow up to become someone important and avoids them as he thinks he and his brothers are destined to be poor forever. Frank sits outside his neighbor’s window and listens to Shakespeare on the radio. One day she invites him in and gives him lunch. They listen to American Jazz, and Frank dreams of returning to America. Since the family has no money, they have to burn one of the inside walls for firewood. Angela tells the boys not to chop it down without her, but they do anyway, and the roof starts to collapse. When the landlord sees that they chopped down the wall, he evicts them. The family goes to live with Laman, Angela’s cousin. Laman has a good job, but he treats Angela poorly.
Grandma dies of pneumonia around the same time that Malachy Jr. decides that he is going to leave Limerick and go to Dublin to join the Army School of Music. Frank’s teacher, Mr. O’Halloran, tells Angela that Frank is a smart boy and should stay in school. But Frank has to quit to work full time now that he is a teenager. Mr. O’Halloran tells Frank that he should leave for America so that he doesn’t have to work a menial job. Frank tries to apply to be a Chaplin in the Foreign Legion but is refused because he is too young.
Around this time, Angela begins sleeping with Laman so that they can continue living with him. Frank knows about this and is upset. Laman and Frank get into a fight, and Frank leaves to stay with his uncle, Ab. Little Michael begs Frank to come home, but he refuses even though it breaks his heart. He promises that he will get a good job and provide for his brothers. Uncle Ab refuses to feed Frank, so he has to steal food to get by.
Frank begins masturbating regularly but worries that he will go to hell for it. He reads a sex manual in the library and finally feels that he understands the truth about intercourse and that his parents lied to him about angels creating babies. Frank confesses to Aunt Aggie that he intends to use his money from his new post office job to support his mother and brothers. She begins treating him better after this, and when his coworkers laugh at his raggedy clothes, she takes him shopping for some new clothes.
Frank does not make much money delivering telegrams, but he is excited because it’s the most he’s ever had. Frank uses the money to take Michael out to eat. Frank only gets tips from some people and never from the rich. Some of the people he delivers to are sickly or elderly and cannot get out of bed. He helps them by bringing them their groceries although he is not supposed to. Angela, Michael and Malachy Jr. all come to live with Frank in Ab’s house. Frank gives most of his paycheck to his mother, but still enjoys working.
One day, Frank brings a telegram to a girl his age who is ill. He and the girl have sex and start a relationship until she is admitted to the hospital. She soon dies, and Frank worries that she went to hell because they had premarital sex. He goes to church to pray for her soul.
When Frank delivers to a man who is having a wake for his wife, the man asks Frank to come in and have a drink with him. Frank surreptitiously tries to baptize the Protestant woman so that she will not go to hell. However, her husband sees this and gets Frank fired. However, Frank’s priest manages to get him rehired by writing a letter.
Frank considers getting a full-time post office job, but his uncle convinces him that it will be the beginning of a boring life. Frank decides to start saving his money to go to America when he is 20.
Frank goes to the pub to have his first drink when he turns 16. He ends up getting drunk and fighting with Angela about her relationship with Laman. He ends up slapping her and feels only partially guilty for it. Frank goes to church the next day and wonders why he even bothers praying since there is so much badness in the world. He confesses all of his sins to the priest, including hitting his mother, masturbating and the premarital sex. The priest tells Frank that God forgives him and that he needs to forgive himself.
Malachy Jr. gets a job working in a Catholic school but gets fired for acting too chipper. He then moves to England and gets a job shoveling coal, promising that he will join Frank when he goes to America.
Frank spends the next three years earning (and sometimes stealing) money to earn enough to move to America. When he finally gets enough, he tells Angela he is leaving, and she cries. The night before he leaves, his family throws him a going away party. Frank feels homesick as soon as he boards the ship. He cries, and a priest comforts him by sympathizing about how hard it is to leave Ireland. Frank makes it to New York, attends a party and has sex with an American woman. One of the ship officers asks Frank “Isn’t this a great country altogether?” and the final chapter consists of his answer alone, “‘Tis.”
Frank McCourt – the main character of the story. Frank spends most of the novel growing up in an impoverished family in Limerick, Ireland. Frank is somewhat of a confusing character, and the narration that distances himself as an adult telling the story from his child self-living it can make him even more confusing. Frank can sometimes be thoughtful and kind and sometimes be cruel and thoughtless. Overall, he wants to protect and support his family and spends his time finding ways to do that.
Frank has a strained relationship with his father, Malachy. He hates that the man drinks and spends all of the families money, but he enjoys spending time with the man and getting attention from him. When Malachy moves to England and stops supporting the family, Frank seems to write him off entirely. Frank becomes very religious as a child and seems to suffer a lot of internal torture for this. Whenever he feels that he has sinned, for instance, after he masturbates or has premarital sex, he spends days fasting and praying for God’s forgiveness.
When Frank begins to grow up, he starts longing for a life outside of Ireland and poverty. He begins saving money and planning to move to America, finally achieving this goal at the end of the novel when he moves to New York by himself.
Angela McCourt – Frank’s mother. Angela McCourt is forced to deal with her families extreme poverty and her husband’s drinking habits on her own. Angela married Malachy after getting pregnant out of wedlock and moved back to Ireland with her family after she lost a child to miscarriage.
It is clear from Angela’s interactions with her browbeating mother that she did not have a happy childhood. As an adult, she still struggles to survive. Angela is often furious with her husband for spending all of his paychecks at the pub and getting fired for his drunkenness. Over the course of the novel, she loses many children to either miscarriages or childhood illness and suffers from severe depression because of this.
Frank responds harshly to his mother’s measures to feed her family, including her begging for government assistance and sleeping with Laman Griffan because he does not understand that she is trying to support them. Throughout the novel, Angela is a good mother whose main priority is her sons.
Malachy McCourt Sr. – Frank’s father. Malachy is a drunk who spends most of his money on liquor and constantly loses jobs because he misses work after drinking all night. Malachy obviously loves his family very much, but he does not show it by taking care of them and often berates his wife for finding shameful ways to get money. At the beginning of World War II, Malachy goes to England to work in a munitions factory. He never sends money home to his family, and eventually, never bothers contacting them again.
Frank McCourt Biography
Frank McCourt was born on August 19th, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. Frank’s parents were both from Ireland and the family moved back there when Frank was only four years old. The family suffered excruciating poverty and the losses of many of Frank’s siblings from childhood illnesses. Frank’s father, Malachy was a former Irish Republican Army member. Malachy was a prolific alcoholic who could not hold down a job.
After the start of World War II, Malachy went to work in a munitions factory in England and eventually abandoned the family altogether. Frank had to leave school at 13 and begin working to support his family. Eventually, he saved up enough money and moved to America when he was 19.
Frank arrived in New York City in October of 1949. He managed to get a job at the Biltmore Hotel and was allowed to stay there. He sent half of his paycheck home to his mother and brothers. Eventually, his two surviving brothers joined him in New York, and later their mother did as well.
In 1951, Frank was drafted into the Korean War. He was sent to Bavaria for the next few years afterward, returning to New York to work on the docks. Frank began attending New York University in the mid-1950’s, using his G.I. Bill. He had to convince the school to let him in, as he did not have a high school diploma. Four years later, he graduated with a bachelors degree in English. After this, he began teaching in schools all over New York, including New York City College of Technology and Seward Park High School.
In 1961, he married his first wife, Alberta Small. The couple had one daughter. Several years later in 1967, Frank decided to go back to school and earned a masters degree. Returning to Dublin, Ireland, he attempted to get his Ph.D. at Trinity College but did not manage to do so and eventually returned to New York.
In 1979, Frank and his wife divorced, and he remarried five years later to Cheryl Floyd, a psychotherapist, only to divorce again ten years later. Frank married his third and final wife, Ellen Frey in 1994 and the two lived in New York City.
In 1996, at the age of 66, McCourt wrote his first book, a memoir about his childhood in Ireland named “Angela’s Ashes.” The book was a huge success and won a Pulitzer Prize the following year. The book spawned two sequels, “Tis” in 1999 and “Teacher Man” in 2005, both continuations of Frank’s life after the end of “Angela’s Ashes.” Although neither did as well, the release of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ made Frank very wealthy. Frank has been accused of exaggerating much of the level of his families poverty in “Angela’s Ashes,” most notably by his mother, Angela who claimed it was “all a pack of lies.”
In 2009, McCourt was diagnosed with melanoma and underwent chemotherapy. He died on July 19th, 2009 at a hospice in Manhattan at the age of 78.