Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is the life experience of a Catholic Irish boy, born in New York, to Irish immigrant parents, during the United States’ worse economic period in history, the depression era. At the tender age of four years old, Frankie McCourt had the responsibility that many children beared at that time. He watched over his younger sibling [Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, almost one, and his only sister Margaret] whenever his mother, Angela, brushed him off to the neighborhood playground or left him in care, of the children, when she had to run errands. Amazingly, Frankie was able to see the humor in many, of the obstacles, within his childhood and adolescent life. It’s through his vivid description of his ordeals, in Ireland, with his parents, death, school, church, health, and work that make this book a somewhat good reference to what Irish life was like for a child. The reader becomes enthralled with images that was created, and it’s as if, the reader is right next to Frankie McCourt as he went through his afflictions.
Frankie’s father, Malachy is a real character. He was a type of father that Frankie wanted to hate and despise, yet couldn’t. As much as Frankie remembered the bad times that his father put him and his siblings through, he remembered the good times, where he sat on his father’s lap listening to a folktale. However, that didn’t make up for the family’s economic struggles, which caused them to face severe poverty and hunger that bordered on starvation and malnutrition. Malachy was an alcoholic, as were many of the men during that time frame, in order to forget the lack of employment and to magnate the pain of poverty. He genuinely loved his children but the need for a cold drink at the local pub over powered his fraternal instincts. Frankie recalled countless times when his father staggered home, stinking drunk, singing ARoddy McCorley, forcing Frankie and his brothers out of bed, and bribing them with a nickel, if they pledged to die for Ireland. (P. 25). Frankie and his brothers already knew that if they just pledge their oath to Ireland that their father would eventually leave them alone.
Employment was very hard to find in Ireland, and Malachy was constantly unemployed. Whenever Malachy was able to obtain a job, he only lasted one or two weeks at most, (a maximum of three weeks), before the craving of alcohol subdued his paternal and spousel responsibilities. McCourt recalled that whenever Malachy was able to acquire a job, it was like Christmas, within their household. Usually, the McCourt family sustained their bellies with tea and bread with jam, however, with Malachy bringing home Friday wages, that meant that the whole family was able to feast on a hearty dinner and breakfast, which was outside the norm for them.
Frankie craved and dreamed of having fried eggs on the weekends, which was a delicacy for him and his siblings. Angela (Frankie’s mother) craved something different. These wages meant that her pride could be restored and she was able to hold her head up once again, in the community, even if it was for a short time. Wages that were brought home meant that the grocery store credit could be paid off, debts could be cleared, and the family could be fed until the following week, when Malachy loses his job and once again, Angela must hang her head down in shame.
Life changed drastically for Frankie McCourt and his family when the family moved back to Ireland, after the death of Frankie’s only sister, Margaret, in New York. The family moved to the slums of Limerick where they are forced to live in squalor, due to the lack of economic means. They first lived in a flat that was infected with fleas, which feasted on the children’s skin until the bites were bloody. Six people slept in one bed. When the bed also became plagued with fleas, the boys had to sleep on the floor, curled up next to one another, desperately fighting for body heat, in order to keep warm. Yet, as long as Frankie had his father and his stories of the Cuchulail (local folktale), the life difficulties handed to him were bearable. Frankie still had a small amount of a child’s innocence when even, in the worse conditions, he felt there was hope.
The economic situation, in Ireland, was much worse that in the States. Frankie’s father had a strong sense of national identity with Ireland, which he tried to defend by serving under the old IRA. In his return to Ireland, and in need of some economic relief, he pridefully went to the IRA expecting some type of economic relief, as payment for his past services. (P. 50). However, when there wasn’t any record of him serving in the IRA, the hopes of having a good meal, quickly faded away, for Frankie.
Jobs were scares in Limerick, and chances of Malachy, of getting a job, depended upon the ALabour Exchange for theDole.(P. 63). He was openly denied many jobs because the people of Limerick would not hire a man with an accent from Northern Ireland (p. 63). The Labour Exchange paid 19 shillings a week, Awhich was less than four dollars in Americanmoney.(P. 63). Five shillings went to pay the rent, the other 14 shillings had to be stretched in order to buy food, clothing and coal to heat the home, for six people. (P. 63).
Frankie’s mother knew that 19 shillings were not enough to support them all, so she went to a local relief program called the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which gave money to family’s who were not economically stable. It seemed that Angela would do anything to put food on the table, even if it meant lowering her pride or using the death of her daughter to gain the sympathy, of those in control, of handing out weekly stipends, for food. The times were difficult in Ireland and there were many people in serious need of relief. The women who were the most pitiful and the most humble, received assistance from the Society.
When Malachy once again drank away the wages, the McCourt family had to move into a flat, where the rent was cheaper and when during the winter periods, water would flood the first level of the flat. The condition of the small flat in Roden Lane, was quite atrocious. The downstairs area of the apartment, was known asAIrelandbecause it was wet and cold, in the winter town. The warm and dry area was considered to be ALittleItalywhich was the upstairs area, of the flat. What was worse with apartments of the Lane was that indoor plumbing did not exist. The entire neighborhood would empty their refuge in the outhouse type lavatory that was located right next to the McCourt’s flat. The wretched smell would drive anyone to live upstairs, in ALittle Italy, where the family did not have to worry about chasing out the rats that usually AtormentedIreland.
In Ireland, Malachy continued to drink away whatever little money he was able to acquire, returning to his home, where he lined up his children and forcing them to promise to die for Ireland. Dying was something that everyone in the McCourt had experience with because it seemed as if everyone around and within their family, were dying. Death, in Angela’s Ashes was an integral part of everyday living. The McCourt’s children were frequently in and out of hospitals. Frankie was placed in the hospital for over a year due to a thyroid condition and it was here where he meets and loses his first love. In total, three of Frankie’s siblings died due to malnutrition complicated with a weak immune system, desolate living conditions and illness.
Throughout McCourt’s story, Malachy and Angela were different from one another, as night and day. Frankie’s father never changes. Drunk, penniless, unemployed with a starving wife and children, he did not let his pride falter. He wouldn’t be seen carrying bags because that was a woman’s job even though, his wife would be hunched over filled with pain, while carrying them, nor would he lower himself to collect coal along the roads, which was used to heat their home, because that Malachy considered that too demeaning. (P. 99). When Malachy decided to lower his pride and take a job in England, it seemed that Frankie and his family were going to finally have what others in the neighborhood had, such as light, good food, good clothing, a warm home, etc.
He hated the AwretchedEnglishand he didn’t want anything to do with them, however, since he was fired from so many jobs in Limerick, he was forced to take a job in England. Yet, he does not take the job for his family. Once again, he was looking out for his best interest and supporting a habit that would cost him his wife and family. The paychecks he was suppose to send to his family from the ammunition factory, in England, never arrived, which meant that the McCourt family had to depend on them selves to survive. On the other hand, Frankie’s mother would do anything to survive and help her children. She collected coal on the roads, became a beggar at the Repemptorist Church and it is even insinuated that she slept with a family friend (Laman Griffin, who took in Frankie and Angela when they could not pay the rent) in order to convince him, to let Frankie to stay with them and throw him out into the streets. A woman who was once filled with pride, and walked with her head high, was forced to humble herself, in order to save herself and her children.
Limerick was seen as the holiest city in Ireland because it has the AArch Confraternity of the Holy family, the biggest sodality in theworld.(P. 126). With Limerick being so holy, I would assume that the Catholic Church was a strong entity full of compassion for the poor and practiced forgiveness, do onto others, turn the other check, etc. I was flabbergasted in reading, how ill treated were the students in the Catholic schools there. The school masters beat the children with rulers, humiliated the children physically, emotionally and mentally in front of their peers, degenerating and dehumanizing them, and tantalized the students with the hopes of winning left over apple peel as a reward for a correct response.
Yet, in a way, even though that the Catholic Church ruled with an Airon fist, the Catholic people of Ireland respected the Church because they were very influential in the everyday lives, of the Irish, and in the world to come. The catholic children were sort of brain washed into believing that anyone with a different religion other than Catholicism, was damned. Frankie in all of his naivete believed this to be true. AI feel sorry for the beautiful Protestant girls, they’re doomed. That’s what the priests tell us. Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Outside the Catholic Church there is nothing butdoom.(P. 172).
By the age of eleven, Frankie McCourt had the responsibility that most children do not have at that age today. He worked in order to survive, to put food on the table, to take on the responsibilities that his father was unable to handle, and finally he worked, to get the hell out of Ireland, so that he could go to the United States. He did everything within his power to survive. If that meant stealing food from the drunkards in the street, stealing food before grocers before they opened in the morning, or stealing money from a dead woman, then he was going to do it. As much as Frankie worked, took on the obligations of an adult, felt guilty for his sins, and experienced women, he was still a young boy at heart whose dream was to go to America and make something better of himself.
It amazes me how a person could grow in such an environment and still retain such an incredible sense of humor. In reading Angela’s Ashes, my heart went out to Frankie because of all of the horrid experiences, he went through. However, I loved the book because even though Frankie faced hard times, he also saw the humor in many of his escapades. I laughed myself silly when he and his younger brother, forced their parents’ Aboxteethinto their mouths. The depiction was so funny that I truly believe that the people on the bus thought I was going crazy. AHe forces Dad’s upper teeth into his mouth and can’t get them out again. His lips are drawn back and the teeth made a big grin. He looks like a monster in a film and it makes me laugh but he pulls at them and grunts, Uck,uck.(P. 139). In that very instance, I was laughing along with Frankie as if I were there. McCourt’s writing is incredible.
McCourt best summarizes his life experience in one paragraph:
People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of
their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version:
the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious
defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying
schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for
eight hundred years. Above all, we werewet.(P. 1).
The above paragraph is true. As much as I would have like to compare my life with that of McCourt’s life, it would have been impossible. Frankie’s father was a weak man with too much pride. If he had humbled himself once in awhile, the family would have been better off financially. While the family went hungry, while the boys collected coal in the street, while his children died of hunger, Malachy always had enough for Adrinks and hisfags(cigarettes). Throughout the book, I was saddened that a parent would serve himself before his children. I do not really know when Frank loses respect for his father.
Maybe he never did, but it is strongly indicated in the story, that Frankie won’t ever turn out like his father. A man who humiliated his children and wife, forcing his son to carry around a pig’s head for Christmas supper, or using the death of his sons, to gather sympathy and get free drinks were just a few humiliations that Frankie had to experience.
Finally, I was amazed with the amount of discipline that children faced in school. A lot of the physical punishment, would be considered child abuse today. I remember getting a whack in the behind once or twice in elementary school, but never anything like getting whipped until unconscious or bloody, or both. I was disturbed that this was easily accepted by the community. This type of severe punishment was either ignored by the community, believed that it was well within the rights of the schools masters and the catholic church to inflict, and/or deserved by an errant child.
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes has been on the best seller list for almost a year, and McCourt has won the Pulitzer for his book. Overall, this was a very good book that was quite interesting to read. However, the book has been very a controversial topic in Ireland, and within the Irish American community here, in the United States. Many feel that McCourt portrays the men of Limerick, as pub going drunks who are lazy. This was not the image that McCourt wanted to illustrate to his readers.
He was painting a picture of the adversities of one family, within a period that was economically unstable. McCourt does include bits and pieces of the lives of those around him, but it was meant to show the heart wrenching experience that many had to face, in Ireland. In addition, there have been many criticisms of McCourt’s book, because many feel that he attacks the Catholic Church. I do not believe that it was his intention of openly attack the church. McCourt, quite honestly and in a humorous way, describes his treatment at the hands of various Church representatives and school masters.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I found it to be very honest, descriptive, funny and quite revealing of a child’s hard life. I would love to recommend this book to everyone. However, with such controversy surrounding the book and reports of the book being burned in Limerick, I would objectively recommend this book to those people who have an open mind and is not too judgmental. McCourt narrates the story in a tone, of a small boy, that matches Frankie’s age as the book progresses. I believe that McCourt wrote this book as a form of therapeutic release from the hardships, he experienced and I for one, am glad that I picked this book to review.