Nonfiction Classics for Students

Angela's Ashes

Angela's Ashes

Frank McCourt 1996

Author Biography
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt tells the story of his impoverished childhood and adolescence in Limerick, Ireland, during the 1930s and 1940s. Written from the point of view of the young boy, it is a long catalogue of deprivation and hardship: the alcoholism of his father, the despair of his mother, the deaths of three of his younger siblings, the grinding poverty and unsanitary living conditions they all had to endure. The story takes place in a highly religious society in which the dogmas of Roman Catholicism are accepted without question. In addition to Catholicism, the people of Limerick exhibit a narrow provincialism, in which Protestants and anyone who comes from the north of Ireland are despised, and an Irish nationalism that is fueled by hatred of the English. And yet the effect of the story, although often poignant and sad, is not depressing. The young narrator describes the events without bitterness, anger, or blame. Poverty and hardship are treated simply as if they are a fact of life, like the weather. And in spite of the hard circumstances, many episodes are hilarious.

The combination of childhood innocence, riotous humor, and descriptions of a degree of poverty beyond anything that contemporary readers in the West could imagine made Angela's Ashes a huge commercial success. It is regarded as an outstanding contribution to the growing popularity of the genre of the memoir.

Author Biography

Frank McCourt was born on August 19, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the first of seven children born to Malachy and Angela McCourt. When he was four, his sister Margaret died. In that same year, the family decided to leave New York and return to their native Ireland. They settled in Limerick in southwest Ireland.

In Limerick during the 1930s, the McCourt family was desperately poor. Malachy McCourt was an alcoholic and was frequently unemployed. McCourt's twin brothers both died of pneumonia, probably due to the unhealthy living conditions. McCourt spent three months in the hospital with typhoid fever when he was ten. In the early 1940s, during World War II, McCourt's father went to England to work in a munitions factory in Coventry, but he never sent any money back to his family. By the age of eleven, McCourt was the family breadwinner. Several years later he quit school and got a job delivering telegrams. He eventually managed to save enough money to leave Ireland for the United States. In 1949, at the age of nineteen, he arrived in New York City and got a job at the Biltmore Hotel. He was eventually fired from the Biltmore and took a series of menial jobs.

McCourt was drafted into the army during the Korean War and served in West Germany. After military service, he attended New York University under the G. I. Bill, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English. He later earned a master's degree in English at Brooklyn College.

For twenty-eight years, beginning in 1959, McCourt taught in schools in New York City. For the last fifteen of those years, he taught English and creative writing at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, which was noted for the high quality of its students and where he was known as a popular teacher.

McCourt retired in 1987. In 1994, he began writing a memoir of his life in Ireland, Angela's Ashes, which was published in 1996 by Scribner. The book was a huge success and won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1999, McCourt published 'Tis, a memoir that took up the story of his life where Angela's Ashes left off.

McCourt is married to his third wife, Ellen Frey, a publicist whom he married in 1994. They live in New York City.


Chapters 1 and 2

Frank McCourt, the narrator of Angela's Ashes, describes his family origins and his early years in Brooklyn. His Irish father fled to America after serving with the Irish Republican Army in their conflict with the British. There he married Angela Sheehan from Limerick. Within a few years, Angela gave birth to five children, one of whom died in infancy. Life is hard in Brooklyn, and relatives arrange for the McCourts to return to Ireland and settle in Limerick. In their one-room dwelling, the entire family sleeps in one flea-infested bed. Frank's father, who is an alcoholic, goes on the dole. Angela accepts charity from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but her family is miserably poor. Both twins die of pneumonia.

Chapters 3 and 4

The McCourts move to a slum house, and Angela gives birth to another boy, Michael. Frank's father tells him the baby was brought by the Angel on the Seventh Step. Sometimes Frank sits on the seventh step of the staircase in case the angel visits. Malachy gets a job in a cement factory, but on payday he spends all his money in the pub. Frank is washed and scrubbed and dressed in a new suit for his First Communion. Afterwards, Grandma makes him a special breakfast, which, to Grandma's dismay, he vomits up. His day ends with a trip to the cinema.

Chapters 5 and 6

Frank gets into trouble with Grandma when, instead of taking dinner to the lodger, he eats it himself. In a prank, Frank's brother Malachy puts his father's false teeth in his own mouth and cannot get them out, resulting in a trip to the hospital. Frank takes dance lessons but soon skips them in favor of the cinema. He reluctantly joins the Arch Confraternity and becomes an altar boy. At school the masters are bullies. With his friend Paddy Clohessy, Frank visits the home of their classmate Fintan Slattery, after which they steal apples from an orchard and drink milk directly from a cow's udder.

Chapters 7 and 8

Frank earns money by helping Uncle Pat deliver newspapers. He meets Mr. Timoney, an old man with poor eyesight, who pays Frank to read to him. Angela gives birth to another baby boy, Alphie. A classmate offers to let Frank and his friends climb the drainpipe at his house to see his sisters taking their bath. The adventure is a fiasco and they are caught. Frank catches typhoid fever and spends three months in the hospital. He talks to a young girl, Patricia Morgan, who later dies. Frank is punished for talking to her, which is against the hospital rules, by being moved to an empty ward. A cleaner named Seamus befriends him.

Chapters 9 and 10

Frank's father gets a job in a munitions factory in England but sends no money home. Frank has conjunctivitis and spends another month in the hospital. Angela is forced to seek public assistance and is humiliated by the men who dispense it. Then she gets pneumonia, and the boys are sent to live with Aunt Aggie and Uncle Pa. Aggie is cruel to them. When Angela returns from hospital, she is forced to beg for food at the priest's home.

Chapters 11 and 12

Eleven-year-old Frank gets a job helping his neighbor John Hannon deliver coal. His friends envy him, but the coal dust hurts his weak eyes. Frank's father returns for Christmas but brings no money. After his departure, the family is threatened with eviction for nonpayment of rent. They burn some loose wood from one of the walls of the rooms for heat. Frank hacks at one of the beams while his mother is out and the ceiling falls in. They are evicted and go to live with Angela's cousin Laman Griffin.

Chapters 13 and 14

At thirteen, Frank excels in school. His mother wants him to continue his education, but he is turned away from the Christian Brothers school. Laman comes home drunk and punches Frank, bruising his face. Frank goes to stay with his uncle Pat and quits school.

Chapters 15 and 16

Frank works as a telegram boy and meets Theresa Carmody, a girl who is dying of consumption. They make love. Within a short while, Theresa dies and Frank is heartbroken. Frank delivers a telegram to Mr. Harrington, who complains untruthfully to Frank's employers that Frank stole whiskey and food. A priest intervenes to save Frank's job, but Frank decides to quit anyway and takes a job distributing newspapers. He has a second job writing letters for Mrs. Finucane.

Chapters 17 and 18

Uncle Pa takes Frank for his first beer in a pub. He gets drunk and after going home hits his mother. A compassionate priest hears his confession. Frank works all winter at his new job and dreams of immigrating to America. Finally he saves enough money to buy a ticket and sail to New York.

Key Figures

Mr. Benson

Mr. Benson is a master at Leamy's National School. Fierce and short-tempered, he browbeats the boys and hits them with his stick. As Frank puts it, "He roars and spits all over us all day."

Theresa Carmody

Theresa Carmody is a seventeen-year-old girl whom Frank meets when he is delivering telegrams. Theresa has red hair and green eyes; she is dying of consumption. She and Frank make love several times, but she dies within weeks. Frank is heartbroken.

Paddy Clohessy

Paddy Clohessy is Frank's friend when they are seven years old. Paddy has six brothers and one sister, and the family is extremely poor. He goes to school barefoot, dressed in rags. In one incident, he and Frank rob an orchard and drink milk directly from a cow. Later, Paddy moves to England and works in a pub.

Declan Collopy

Declan Collopy is four years older than Frank. According to Frank, "He has lumps on his forehead that look like horns. He has thick ginger eyebrows that meet in the middle and hang over his eyes, and his arms hang down to his kneecaps." Declan is a bully who is in charge of enforcing attendance at the Confraternity that Frank joins.

Peter Dooley

Peter Dooley is known as Quasimodo because he has a hump on his back like the hunchback of Notre Dame. He is five years older than Frank. Frank says of his appearance, "His red hair sticks up in all directions. He has green eyes and one rolls around in his head so much he's constantly tapping his temple to keep it where it's supposed to be." Quasimodo cultivates an English accent and wants to be a newsreader with the BBC. He dies of consumption.

Mrs. Brigid Finucane

Mrs. Finucane employs Frank to write threatening letters to people who owe her money.

Philomena McNamara Flynn

Philomena is a cousin of Frank's mother. She is a large, intimidating woman who helps to arrange for the McCourt family to leave Brooklyn and return to Ireland.

Delia McNamara Fortune

Delia is Philomena Flynn's sister and a cousin of Frank's mother. Like Philomena, she is large, "great breasted and fierce." With her sister, she arranges for the McCourts to return to Ireland.


Grandma is Angela's mother and Frank's grandmother. She has "white hair and sour eyes" and is known for her religious devotion. She does her best to help the McCourts but spends much of her time complaining. She dies of pneumonia when Frank is thirteen.

Laman Griffin

Laman Griffin is Angela's cousin. She and her sons go to live at his house after their own is destroyed. Laman is a former officer in the Royal Navy who works as a laborer for the Electricity Supply Board. He spends much time in bed reading and smoking, and he and Angela become lovers. Sometimes he gets drunk, and in one incident he becomes angry with Frank and beats him up.

Bridey Hannon

Bridey Hannon is the McCourts' neighbor. She is unmarried and lives with her mother and father. She smokes a lot and chats with Angela by the fire for long periods.

John Hannon

John Hannon is Bridey Hannon's father. He makes a living from delivering coal, but his legs are diseased, and he has trouble continuing to work. Frank gets a job helping him.

Media Adaptations

  • Angela's Ashes has been recorded on audiotape, read by McCourt, in abridged (1996) and unabridged (1997) versions published by Simon and Schuster.
  • In 1999, Angela's Ashes was made into a film, directed by Alan Parker and starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson.

Mr. Harrington

Mr. Harrington is an Englishman whose wife has just died. He gets angry with Frank when the boy delivers a telegram, and he tries to get Frank fired from his job.

Aunt Aggie Keating

Aggie is Frank's aunt. She is large and has flaming red hair; she works in a clothing factory. Unable to have children of her own, she is jealous of her sister Angela. When the McCourt boys stay at her house, she is abusive, calling Frank "scabby eyes."

Uncle Pa Keating

Pa Keating is Frank's uncle. His skin is black from shoveling coal into the furnaces at the Limerick Gas Works. He is a veteran of World War I, in which he was a victim of poison gas. He has a fine sense of humor, and Frank finds him amusing.

Alphie McCourt

Alphie McCourt is the youngest of Frank's brothers; he is nine years old when Frank leaves for America.

Angela McCourt

Angela McCourt is Frank's mother. Formerly Angela Sheehan, she grew up with her three siblings in a Limerick slum. She never knew her father, who deserted the family before she was born. Sent by her family to New York while in her teens, Angela meets Malachy McCourt at a party. When she becomes pregnant, they marry, but it is not a happy partnership. Angela's husband is a feckless drunkard. She loses three of her seven children in infancy, and she has to feed and clothe her family in desperately poor conditions. Throughout these ordeals, Angela shows toughness and an ability to endure the blows of fate, although she frequently complains about her misfortunes.

Eugene McCourt

Eugene McCourt is Frank's younger brother, Oliver's twin. He dies of pneumonia at age two.

Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, the eldest child of Malachy and Angela McCourt, is the narrator of the story. He is raised in poverty, but this does not diminish his good spirits since he has never known life to be any different. When his twin brothers die in infancy, he is too young to understand what has happened. Attending Leamy's National School, he makes friends easily and gets involved in a number of schoolboy pranks, but he is also mocked by the other boys for his clumsily repaired shoes, which reveal his poverty. The boys make up contemptuous jingles about him. Frank also has health problems; he catches typhoid fever and nearly dies, and later he develops severe conjunctivitis. Despite these setbacks, he excels at school. On the advice of the headmaster, Frank's mother tries to have Frank enrolled in the Christrian Brothers School in order to continue his education, but he is turned down; there are few educational opportunities for a boy from the "lanes," the slum districts of Limerick. Frank is not disappointed because he wants to leave school and earn money. He is immensely proud of himself when he gets some odd jobs and brings home money for his mother. As Frank enters adolescence, he has a first love affair with a dying girl, and he learns more of the tragedies of his world when he sees his mother begging for food and also observes the pitiful condition of some of the people he encounters in his job delivering telegrams. Finally, he saves enough money to fulfill his long-held dream of emigrating to America.

Malachy McCourt

Malachy McCourt is Frank's father. He was born in Ireland and fought with the Irish Republican Army against the British. …