Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Worth Reading

It’s been a while since I read a book that I really, truly enjoyed. Angela’s Ashes, by Irish-American writer Frank McCourt, was considered an outstanding example of its genre immediately upon publication. Indeed, it was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996, a fact that makes me wonder if I ought to read more books that have won that particular award (my infatuation with the Man Booker Prize ended after reading Julian Barnes’ disappointing The Sense of an Ending). After all, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of my favorite novels of all time; I’ve heard nothing but good things about Interpreter of Maladies; and my sister adored A Visit from the Goon Squad.

But enough about all that. Let’s return to Frank McCourt, shall we?

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

It is 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. Recent Irish immigrants Angela and Malachy McCourt have just been joined in holy Catholic matrimony in a shotgun wedding. Frank McCourt, narrator of said memoir, is born a few months afterward, followed rapidly by his brother Malachy, twins Oliver and Eugene, and, a bit later, his sister, Margaret. They lead the typical lives of impoverished first-generation immigrants; Angela is overwhelmed with pregnancies and births, while Malachy, Frank’s father, is more concerned with drinking whiskey than with finding steady work. The family routinely has very little to eat, but at least they have a dry apartment, a relatively clean lavatory, and helpful and concerned neighbors.

The family’s fortune takes a turn for the worse when Margaret, beloved curly-haired little sister, dies only seven weeks after she is born. Angela falls into a severe bout of depression, and Frank, now age four, tries to care for his three younger brothers as best he can. Eventually, realizing that Angela isn’t going to get any better without a change in scenery, some relatives of the family write to Angela’s mother in Limerick, Ireland asking her to send money for the trans-Atlantic fare. She does, and the McCourt family, bedraggled but optimistic, commences the journey back to Ireland.

As Frank McCourt notes on the very first page of his book, “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone” (1). As bad as things were for the McCourt family in Brooklyn, they quickly devolve into unmitigated misery back in Limerick, seemingly the status quo for the poor in Ireland. Because of his Northern Ireland accent, Frank’s father, Malachy, cannot get work either in Dublin or in Limerick, and is forced to go on the dole — which is less than 1 pound per week. The damp, chilly weather and worsening living conditions cause Angela to have a miscarriage soon after they arrive, and lead to the deaths of the twins, Oliver and Eugene, in quick succession. Running an infant mortality rate of 80% (including the miscarriage), Angela moves her family into a flat on Roden Lane — an address made famous through the publication of Angela’s Ashes and the squalid descriptions therein.

Certainly, Angela’s Ashes describes poverty-induced misery in occasionally gruesome detail, but it’s far from a miserable book. It’s lighthearted rather than plodding, thanks to Frank McCourt’s ingenious tragicomical narration style. It’s extraordinarily well-written, and deftly so; it retains a forward sense of movement and contains very little repetition, a veritable feat among memoirs. Overall, it is eminently readable.

Angela's Ashes - p. 116 - "The stick will sting, boys."

Occasionally, I’d break out into laughter while reading the book. Frank is enrolled in Catholic boys’ school, which is about as progressive as you’d expect. The instructors at the school are quick with the lash and embody the old mantra, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” They’re equally concerned with history, politics, writing, and the damn English as they are with their students’ souls and ability to recite the catechism. First Communion is an enormous event, and all of the boys at Frank’s school spend weeks preparing (those passages brought back memories of my own First Communion, which was just as bizarre, if not as serious, as Frank’s). In one of my favorite passages from the book, Frank recounts his first confession:

I try to listen to Willie’s confession when he goes in but all I can hear is a hissing from the priest and when Willie comes out he’s crying.
It’s my turn. The confession box is dark and there’s a big crucifix hanging over my head…
The panel slides back before my face and the priest says, Yes, my child?
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my First Confession.
Yes, my child, and what sins have you committed?
I told a lie. I hit my brother. I took a penny from my mother’s purse. I said a curse.
Yes, my child. Anything else?
I, I listened to a story about [mythological Irish hero] Cuchulain and [his wife] Emer.
Surely that’s not a sin, my child. After all we are assured by certain writers that Cuchulain turned Catholic in his last moments as did his King, Conor MacNessa.
‘Tis about Emer, Father, and how she married him.
How was that, my child?
She won him in a pissing contest.
There is heavy breathing. The priest has his hand over his mouth and he’s making choking sounds and talking to himself, Mother o’ God.
Who, who told you that story, my child?
Mikey Molloy, Father.
And where did he hear it?
He read it in a book, Father.
Ah, a book. Books can be dangerous for children, my child. Turn your mind from those silly stories and think of the lives of the saints. Think of St. Joseph, the Little Flower, the sweet and gentle St. Francis of Assisi, who loves the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields. Will you do that, my child?
I will, Father.
Are there any other sins, my child?
No, Father.
For your penance say three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and say a special prayer for me.
I will. Father, what was the worst sin?
What do you mean?
Am I the worst of all the boys, Father?
No, my child, you have a long way to go. (141)

One of the reasons I love this passage so much is that the humor is conveyed through several levels. There’s Frank, the kid, saying weird stuff to the priest. There’s the priest himself, full of platitudes and all of the stereotypical Catholic warnings. There’s the absurdity of the old-fashioned, and mostly meaningless, ritual that both are forced to enact. And then there’s Frank McCourt, the writer, remembering the scene decades later in amusing detail. It’s extremely difficult for an adult writer to remain faithful to his or her childhood emotions, but McCourt is a master at simultaneously conveying child naiveté and adult cognition, and does so consistently throughout the book.

Of course, as McCourt warns on the first page, Angela’s Ashes is terrifyingly sad at times. Frank has a fractured relationship with his father, Malachy, who drinks the dole money more often than not. Malachy has a talent for writing and for telling stories, but has never had an opportunity to utilize those skills. Frank seems to suggest that his father drinks partly because he fully comprehends the misery of their situation, and realizes that reducing said misery is impossible. As such, most of the scenes with Malachy contain part sadness, part anger; it’s clear that Frank wants to love his father, but he has a hard time forgiving a man who will drink half a dozen pints at the bar knowing his wife and children will starve.

I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O’Connell’s shop but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I’m up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won’t wake up the rest of the family. Mikey Molloy stole Cuchulain, the Angel on the Seventh Step is gone someplace else, but my father in the morning is still mine. (237)

Eventually, when WWII commences and the German Blitzkrieg means that London is being bombed day in, day out, the English government starts recruiting Irish men to work in the factories. Despite their long-seated hatred of the English, many of the poorest residents of Limerick flock to London, the promise of bread, jam, electricity, and dignity strong enough for them to swallow their collective grievances. After much persuasion, Frank’s father decides to go as well. Instead of sending home money like the responsible fathers, though, Malachy squanders his paychecks on alcohol. He comes back once when Angela becomes gravely ill, and again for a horrifyingly depressing trip over Christmas. Functionally, though, he is entirely absent from Frank’s life, and with no income (or even the dole) to live on, Angela and her children are evicted.

I could go on, but, really, you ought to just read the book. It’s wonderful and haunting to hear Frank describe how he fell in love with Shakespeare and literature during a three-month stint in the hospital for typhoid fever. It’s hilarious and disturbing to read about Frank’s pubescent body, the guilt and gratification he experiences while committing masturbatory sins. It’s impossible to imagine how terrible Angela must have looked after cigarettes caused her teeth to rot and fall out, how bad the unwashed boys must have smelled, how thin and raggedy the entire family must have been. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while, and, for once, the lack of quotation marks doesn’t irritate me. If you’re as skilled of a writer as Frank McCourt, then quotation marks are optional.

I finished the 426-page book in a matter of days, a pace that is becoming increasingly unusual for me, and it commanded my full attention the entire time. Any lingering doubts I have about the book are mostly borne out of the usual gripes that memoirs have to face: How much of it was true? How much of it was exaggeration? Could Frank McCourt possibly be as hilarious and brilliant and humble and wonderful as he came across in his book?

To be honest, I’m not too fussed about the book’s veracity, as personal memories always find ways to warp themselves. It seems like people go out of their way to “disprove” the contents of famous memoirs, and frankly, I’m not interested in that kind of witch hunt. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it outraged some of the residents of Limerick, though. People generally don’t like it when their hometowns are the subjects of seriously negative depictions. For all of its miserable descriptions and sympathy-inducing title, Angela’s Ashes doesn’t read like a condemnation of Limerick. As Nina King observed in her review for The Washington Post,

Angela’s Ashes confirms the worst old stereotypes about the Irish, portraying them as drunken, sentimental, bigoted, bloody-minded dreamers, repressed sexually and oppressed politically, nursing ancient grievances while their children (their far-too-many children) go hungry. It confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt’s observation and the wit and beauty of his prose. (source)

That wit, after all, had to come from somewhere, and McCourt’s unique mixture of irreverence, earnestness, and humor makes me want to explore Limerick myself. Even the most outraged readers could still agree on one thing: the book is beautifully written.

Overall rating: 5/5 stars

P.S. Want to read more about Frank McCourt? Here’s a fascinating interview he gave about the public education system in the United States. His obituary in The New York Times is worth reading as well, and makes me wish I could have taken a writing class with McCourt when he was still a teacher at the Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Photos by G. 

16 thoughts on “Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Worth Reading

  1. Now this is a comprehensive review. ‘Hope you don’t mind me honoring it with a reblog. Good work!

  2. Wow Alina you’ve really made me want to read this! I’ve been to Limerick and I have to say I don’t think its changed much since then!

    Also being from Northern Ireland we learned about Cuchulain but all I can remember is him killing a huge dog that tried to eat him.

    This is an amazing review and I loved reading it.

    1. Gosh that’s pretty sad to hear about Limerick! Though I guess it’s not too surprising; after all, McCourt emphasized that Limerick folk were the type to be wary of change.
      I wish I had Cuchulain as a folk hero. All I got was Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap fighting at the Alamo. Sigh. Texas history.
      Glad you liked the review and I hope you read the book sometime! Cheers~

    1. They did, but I’m not sure if it was very good — I haven’t heard much about it. When you’re in Ireland, though (as you inevitably will be), you can go on an “Angela’s Ashes” tour in Limerick should you be so inclined!

  3. Really lovely write-up of a book I’ve always meant to read but have never gotten around to. I always wondered about the writing style but it sounds like something I would really enjoy. Nothing better than bleak Irish humour!

    1. haha yes indeed! There was a great quote from Frank McCourt that I was going to include, but I thought the review was already too long. But it’s all about that bleak Irish humour:
      “I think there’s something about the Irish experience — that we had to have a sense of humor or die,” Mr. McCourt once told an interviewer. “That’s what kept us going — a sense of absurdity, rather than humor.”

  4. I loved this book, too. Thanks for the link to his obit – I hadn’t read that before. And, I didn’t know about the films that were made by Malachy’s son.

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