Frank McCourt was born on 19th August, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York at the height of the Great Depression. When he was abut four, his sister Margaret died. The family subsequently returned to Limerick, Ireland, and is the main focal setting of this book, Angela's Ashes, a memoir of his childhood.
McCourt returned to New York when he was nineteen, and managed to become a teacher after studing at New York university. His brother Malachy came to New York shortly after, and went on to become an actor.
When he retired from teaching, he decided to write his memoirs. Angela's Ashes was published in 1996, and has become an international bestseller, winning many awards, including the Puiltzer Prize for Autobiography (1997). A motion picture was made based on this book, directed by Alan Parker, and starring Robert Carlyle, released in 1999. He has since written a sequel about his life in America, entitled 'Tis, A Memoir.
From the first sentence of the book, McCourt comes straight to the point. His narrative is to be a memoir about a 'miserable Irish Catholic childhood.' Since this is an autobiography, the author has the luxury of identifying at the outset his major themes as a writer, and his reason for writing this book. His themes will be poverty, alcoholism, piety, defeat, the Church, bullying schoolmasters and the sheer misery of living in Ireland. Limerick, the principal setting of most of the memoir, is immediately singled out - as a rain-soaked cold, dreary place. We get the impression from the first page that this is to be a story of misery, but to a certain degree we are deceived by this. For although the book is tinged with sadness, his tale is told with a sense of humour, determination, and remarkable forgiveness.
McCourt tells his story through the eyes of a gradually maturing child. At first the child sees only what is immediate, his family, the relationships that are the substance of his life. As his circle widens, he begins to glimpse the social and religious conditions that structured his childhood. He learns more about his parents' lives and begins to appreciate the tragedy of the unforeseen turns their lives have taken. Irish songs and myths animate his telling of the story, anchoring it culturally in the pleasure the Irish take in recitation, in the ways his own lives repeat the songs, in the interpretive lens these songs and stories must have offered his earlier childish understandings of life.
There is also a concurrent usage of thematic symbolism in the book. Mundane objects and childlike thoughts become symbols for him, for example, when he sees a dead dog in the road, he uses it to explain how his brothers and sisters die, therefore it becomes a symbol for death throughout the early stages of the book. Then on the other side there is the 'Angel on the Seventh Step' a kind of explanation not unlike 'the stork' for where children come from. Frank interprets this as a symbol for hope and new life, and so throughout the book up until Frank is about thirteen, he prays to 'his angel on the seventh step' for all the things that he cannot ask for otherwise. It is a good example of how mythology is created from a mixture of fact, superstition and religion.
Although the slum life in New York occupies the opening chapter, it is the grinding poverty of Ireland which forms our main impression after reading Angela's Ashes. Far from the 'glamorous' depiction of poverty that sometimes is portrayed in other books, here it is shown in all its endless, unrelieved squalor - the day-to-day search for food, disease and insanitation, sub-standard accommodation - the real grubby reality.
"Mam goes to the door and says why are you emptying your bucket in our lavatory?He raises his cap to her...This is not your lavatory. Sure, isn't this the lavatory for the whole lane...It gets very powerful here in the warm weather...the day will come when you'll be calling for a gas mask...Mam says...who cleans the lavatory?...These houses were built in the time of Queen Victoria and if this lavatory was ever cleaned it must have been done...when no-one was lookin'.
McCourt explodes the myth, if anyone ever took it seriously, that a lack of material goods and comforts is somehow a blessing. There is no doubt that Frank McCourt's brothers and sister would have survived if not for the terrible conditions they endured. If there is one statement to be derived from Angela's Ashes, it would be that the terrible price of poverty is a price no one should have to pay, and that everyone has a right to an adequate minimum standard of living.
Poverty also produces desperate measures - begging, stealing, and the urge to escape no matter what. McCourt tells us about he steals from the doorsteps of the rich in order to feed his family, he does not appear proud of the fact, and does not invite the reader to feel sorry for him, but we cannot shake off the reality that if he had not have done this, he and his brothers would have probably starved to death.
Many of the characters in this book show no sign of wanting to help themselves - their sense of being fated by an unkind universe compels a desperate inactivity. Frank's chronic alcoholic father Malachy is just one of many who are driven to the temporary relief and escapism that comes with the drink, only afterwards realising that the money to feed the family has now gone. Poverty, as sociologists tell us, is often self-perpetuating and vice-like in its grip on those unfortunate enough to be caught in it.
There are, of course people in Limerick who are better off than the McCourts. There are boys who go to secondary school and college, the privileged few who become altar boys, and families who "go to the Savoy Cinema where there's a better class of people eating boxes of chocolates and covering their mouths when they laugh". As time passes, other families in the lanes become reasonably well off, while the McCourts, with no working father to support them, remain the poorest of the poor, and Angela is forced to beg for food, shaming the family and her children; Frank is taunted at school for being the son of a 'beggar woman'.
Class is obviously important in Ireland. People know their station and their expectations of life are shaped accordingly, and there are almost no opportunities to move upwards into another class. Dialect and behaviours were such strong markers that one's class was obvious, and attempts to move up would be blocked. People were expected to 'know their place'; one of the reasons Frank goes to America is because there, hard work and intelligence were more likely to be rewarded, but also because it was his only chance of getting a sound education. Frank is told by his schoolmaster that he is capable of going to university, but the Christian Brothers, who run the secondary school, slam the door in his face. Even more appallingly, is the way that the Church seems to support this system, not accepting Frank as an altar boy, even though he has learned all the Latin, and then not accepting him into the school, even though he has the intelligence to study at college and get a well paid job.
Although not an obvious theme in the book, education is an important factor in Frank McCourt's life. The need for a good education, and the importance of education in allowing a person to realise his or her own potential, is subtly underlined at several stages in the book. Frank was lucky; a vital influence on a child's ability and development is to have a good teacher, who will encourage the child to expand his or her thoughts and ideas. The concept of children asking questions in order to learn had not yet been conceived. This book is set in the 1930's, a time when children were still expected to be 'seen and not heard'. The teaching model was one of instruction by a master and the child learning to repeat what he was told, and not to ask questions about it. Whether or not the child understood what was being said was irrelevant. McCourt recalls a boy nicknamed 'Question Quigley', who was known for asking difficult but nevertheless intelligent questions, and was duly reprimanded for doing so. In his last year of school, Frank gets a teacher who encourages pupils to ask questions, thus expanding his knowledge of the world around him, and so he begins to dream of finding another life based on the skills he has mastered. Angela's Ashes is not a direct argument for a good education, but the issue does emerge with sufficient regularity in the text to be regarded as a key issue.
As well as the theme of academic education, there is also Frank's spiritual one. Throughout the book, McCourt describes the Catholic religion in a somewhat sceptical way; his first communion, his confirmation, as well as being seen as important steps towards growing up, are seen by Frank McCourt in a very humorous way. There are stories of confessions, filled with hilarity and satire, as well as some serious concerns and strong feelings of guilt.
However, the most obvious thing that McCourt shows about the Irish Church is its prejudice, support of the class divisions, and its complete lack of charity towards the genuinely poor and suffering. McCourt tells us about how twice the door was slammed in his face by the church, firstly when he wanted to be an altar boy, and secondly when he wanted to join the Christian Brothers School. Then there is the bullying associated with compulsory membership of the Arch Confraternity, and the demand that every boy, however poor or hungry, must buy a catechism and a suit for First Communion. Perhaps the most horrifying is of the poor women gathered around the doors of the priest's houses to beg for scraps of leftover food from the table to feed their starving children.
'It's a grey day...the small crowd of people outside the door of the priest's house is grey. They're waiting to beg for any food left over from the priest's dinner...There... is my mother...begging...It's the worst kind of shame...if anyone from the lane...sees her the family will be disgraced entirely'
These stories are clearly not intended to show the Church as a benevolent organisation where poor people could find help. Despite it's traditional reputation for being the friend of the poor and needy, it is portrayed as an authoritarian institution which makes often unrealistic demands of people, threatens them with eternal damnation, but does very little to help the needy, even when they are desperate or starving, with either spritual or physical nourishment.
The McCourts suffer from religion as much as they benefit from it. Angela, eternally pregnant, (having no access to birth control methods) suffers from the traditional problem of women of her kind - condemmed to pregnancy and motherhood by the strict Church principles, regardless of it's effect on her health or ability to survive.
Even in the matter of Malachy's work the Church holds a dark influence. Coming from the North, he was assumed to be a Protestant. Protestants were the enemy to the Catholic religion, and so any connection to them was considered to be a curse. Therefore it was very difficult for him to obtain work, as many employers would not take on a 'northerner'.
Frank's father was consequently very rarely employed, which was mainly the reason for the McCourt's poverty. Even from a young age, Frank saw the difference between those who worked and those who didn't. Children whose fathers worked were able to have hot dinners and proper clothes and shoes, proper bedding and later on, electric lights and radios. Frank's uncles worked, and so were able to have a proper diet, instead of the bread and tea which was practically all the nourishment the family had. In addition, working brought respect, such as when Frank drove Mr Hannon's coal cart in front of the other boys at school, gaining admiration by doing a proper job, not simply delivering papers or other 'boys' jobs.
In 1930's Ireland, when this book is set, the only welfare was from charitable intitutions. People had to line up in queues, prove that they were 'deserving poor', and beg for food dockets. In these circumstances, work was highly valued as a means of keeping familes fed and clothed. The absence of work led to extreme poverty and humiliation.
Frank, seeing how his father failed to hold down a job long enough to provide for his family, and seeing the effects of this at home, made plans for ways to earn money and use it wisely.
Frank started his first paper delivery at ten, and his earnings meant that his mother had a shilling a week and Frank was able to go to the pictures on Saturdays. Even the smallest amount, like a shilling, meant a change in lifestyle, and hope for more in the future.
In the end, it is Frank's earnings which enable him to go to America, where he could continue to work and create a better life than he had known in Ireland.
Througout the book we see how important Angela is to her family, keeping them together at all costs and doing whatever she has to do to survive and provide for them. We also see how the children take care of each other, and how the two older brothers take care of their younger siblings when Angela is sick.
In this way, McCourt shows how, despite the overwhelming odds, Malachy and Angela still remained loving towards their children, although it is Angela who supports them.
Although the Sheehan family are certainly not the ideal family, they too help when they can. Despite Grandma Sheehan's constant complaining, she does try and provide support for Angela in desperate times of need.
Because they remained family, giving one another mutual support, despite their poverty, the McCourts are able to have a good time, to laugh and enjoy whatever is good in their lives. Frank comments: "To be able to turn a little food into a wonderful evening, and to be able to laugh despite misfortunes, is what real happiness is all about.
Because this is an autobiography it is important to clarify the points in Frank's life that made a difference. These are not events in a novel, but real events in his life which represented turning points. These were: the death of his sister Margaret and the move from America to Ireland, starting school, almost dying of typhiod and discovering poetry and Shakespeare; his fathergoing to England, his confirmation, his first job with Mr Hannon delivering coal, making his own decision to leave Laman's house, becoming a telegram boy, his first relationship with Theresa, leaving the Post Office and choosing risk over security, thus enabling him to leave Ireland to start a new life in America.
The pattern which unifies this account is that of Frank's growth from childhood to adulthood. We see Frank moving from innocence, ignorance, and occasional despair to a growing sense of life and how to deal with it. He has seen the worst that circumstances can bring to a family in peacetime. He has seen that individuals and their families are very much on their own, and has realised that no-one will help you if you don't help yourself. Thus, Frank learns to make something of himself. This is probably the most obvious and inspiring message of Angela's Ashes. In Frank McCourt, we see an individual who looked at incredible harshness, learnt that he had to make some efforts himself to pull himself out of the mire of poverty, and did so. To his credit, he learns wisdom, and goes on to a brighter future, providing a pattern which we can all as readers in a sense, emulate.