Frank McCourt 1996Introduction
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
- 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 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 is the youngest of Frank's brothers; he is nine years old when Frank leaves for America.
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 is Frank's younger brother, Oliver's twin. He dies of pneumonia at age two.
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 is Frank's father. He was born in Ireland and fought with the Irish Republican Army against the British. Then he became a fugitive and made his way to New York, where he married Angela Sheehan. Malachy has a weakness for drink and cannot hold a job for more than a few weeks. When unemployed, Malachy often spends his dole money at the pub, coming home late singing patriotic Irish songs. Malachy is fond of his children, however, and entertains them with colorful stories that he makes up on the spot. He tells them they must be prepared to die for Ireland. Eventually, Malachy departs for England to work in a factory during World War II, but he sends no money back to his family. He returns briefly one Christmas, promising presents for everyone, but when his wife opens the box of chocolates he brings, she finds that he has eaten half of them himself.
Malachy McCourt is Frank's brother, one year younger than Frank. Malachy is the first brother to leave home. He enrolls in the Army School of Music and moves to Dublin. He gives that up and gets various jobs in England: a Catholic boarding school, a gas works, and, finally, the stockroom of a garage. He wants to follow Frank to America.
Margaret McCourt is Frank's sister who dies in infancy in Brooklyn.
Michael McCourt is six years younger than his brother Frank. At age six he shows a compassionate nature, bringing home stray dogs and homeless old men.
Oliver McCourt is Frank's youngest brother and Eugene's twin. He dies of pneumonia at age two.
Mikey Molloy is the son of Peter and Nora Malloy and a friend of Frank's. He has epileptic fits and is known as Malloy the Fit. He is two years older than Frank and is known as "the expert in the lane on Girls' Bodies and Dirty Things in General."
Nora Molloy is Peter Molloy's wife and a friend of Frank's mother. She is sometimes so demented with worry over how she is going to feed her family that she is admitted to the lunatic asylum.
Peter Molloy is Nora Malloy's husband. He is a champion beer drinker, and he sometimes drinks away his dole money. According to Frank, Peter "doesn't give a fiddler's fart about what the world says."
Mr. O'Dea is a master at Frank's school. He is especially good at hurting and shaming the boys.
Mr. Thomas O'Halloran
Mr. O'Halloran is the headmaster of Leamy's National School. The boys call him Hoppy because he has a short leg and hops when he walks. He is the hardest master in the school because he makes the boys learn everything by heart.
Mr. O'Neill is a master at Frank's school. He is called Dotty by the boys because he is small, like a dot. He loves Euclidean geometry and teaches it even when he is not supposed to.
Brendan Quigley is a classmate of Frank's. He is always asking questions, so he's known as Question Quigley.
See Peter Dooley
Seamus is a cleaner at the hospital where Frank recovers from typhoid fever. He befriends Frank and brings him books to read.
Uncle Pat Sheehan
Uncle Pat Sheehan is Frank's uncle. He was dropped on his head when he was a baby and, as a result, is simple-minded. He is also called Ab, short for The Abbot. He is illiterate but makes a living selling newspapers.
Fintan Slattery is a classmate of Frank's. He and his mother are very pious Catholics. He says he wants to be a saint when he grows up.
Mr. Timony is an old man with poor eyesight who pays Frank to read to him. He claims to be a Buddhist.
The theme of poverty is pervasive. In Limerick, poverty is accepted as a fact of life; although there is a charitable society and a rudimentary system of public assistance, neither does much to lift the poor out of their misery. For the McCourts, the dole money is never sufficient. When they first settle in Limerick, Malachy receives a mere nineteen shillings a week, for a family of six. "Just enough for all of us to starve on," says Angela. The family often goes hungry.
Not only is food scarce; living conditions are appalling. The McCourts must deal with fleas, rats, flies, and lice. There is only one lavatory for the whole lane of eleven families, and it is directly outside their door. In summer the stench is unbearable. Malnutrition and bad living conditions are probably responsible for the deaths of the twin boys.
The children often have to dress in rags. At Leamy's School, six or seven boys go barefoot. Frank's shoes are falling to pieces, which leads to a comical episode in which his father, after being told by his wife that he is useless, attempts to repair the shoes using on old bicycle tire.
The family's poverty worsens when Frank's father goes to work in England but fails to send any money home. The children sleep on piles of rags. The downward cycle reaches its lowest point when Angela is forced to beg for food at the door of the priest's house, an incident that makes clear the link between poverty and humiliation.
Limerick is a town that is damp, not only from the incessant rain; it is also awash in alcohol. The evenings that the men spend at the pub drinking pints of beer—usually referred to as stout or porter—as well as whiskey, are almost like religious rituals. These evenings give the men a chance to enjoy male camaraderie and forget the hardness of their lives (as well as their wives).
The worship of beer is quickly passed from man to boy. When Frank is about six, he accompanies his father to a pub, and his uncle Pa Keating explains to him, "Frankie, this is the pint. This is the staff of life. This is the best thing for nursing mothers and for those who are long weaned." In what amounts to a rite of passage, boys in Limerick are initiated into beer drinking on their sixteenth birthday when their fathers take them to the pub for a pint.
Beer drinking is also a competitive activity in Limerick. Pa Keating boasts that he is the champion pint-drinker. He wins bets by drinking more than anyone else, a feat he accomplishes by making himself vomit in the restroom, which enables him to go back to the bar and drink more beer. His son Mikey longs to emulate him.
The destructive effects of alcohol are apparent in Frank's father, the stereotypical Irish drunk. He ruins his life, and the lives of his family, by his addiction. Another character whose drinking causes suffering for others is Angela's cousin Laman Griffin, who beats Frank up one night in a drunken rage. After his first two pints on his sixteenth birthday, Frank himself argues with his mother and hits her.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the history of Ireland's relations with England. Why do some Irish feel such bitterness toward their larger neighbor? Why has the conflict in Northern Ireland been so difficult to end?
- Discuss the different kinds of relief available for the poor in the Limerick of McCourt's youth. How does that assistance differ from the help that is available to the poor in America today?
- Investigate the topic of alcoholism. What causes it? Is it on the increase? Why do some people who drink alcohol become alcoholics but others do not?
- If you were to write a memoir of your own childhood, how would it resemble or differ from McCourt's memoir?
The people of Limerick are steeped in the rites and dogmas of Roman Catholicism, which they accept without question. These beliefs reach Frank's youthful mind as he listens to grown-up conversation or tries to make sense of what he is told at home or at school. The results are often comical. For example, he looks forward to his First Communion for weeks because the masters at school tell him it will be the happiest day of his life. He thinks that is because after First Communion boys are allowed to go around collecting money from relatives and neighbors, which they can then use to buy sweets and go to the Lyric Cinema. When the big day arrives, the priest puts the wafer, which according to Catholic dogma is the body of Christ, on Frank's tongue. To Frank's dismay, it sticks: "I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master's voice, Don't let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you'll roast in hell for eternity." However, the crisis passes. "God was good," Frank says. "He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner."
When Frank is confused about religion, he simply connects the bits and pieces he has heard until he has something that makes sense to him. When his little brother Eugene dies, he wonders whether he is cold in his coffin in the graveyard, but then he remembers that angels come and open the coffin and take Eugene up to the sky where he joins his other dead siblings and they have plenty of fish and chips and toffee.
As for the adults, they seem content with a narrow faith in which only Catholics are saved. Protestants and others are doomed to hell, and even unbaptized children languish forever in Limbo. "Otherwise," says Frank's grandmother, "you'd have all kinds of babies clamorin' to get into heaven, Protestants an' everything, an' why should they get in after what they did to us for eight hundred years?"
Angela's Ashes is narrated in the first person, and apart from the first part of chapter one, it is told in the present tense. The present tense narration serves the author's purpose well as it conveys the immediacy of the child's experience and avoids giving the impression, as a past tense might, that the story is being told by an adult reflecting on his childhood.
The language used throughout is colloquial and earthy. Slang, Irishisms, and vulgar expressions are used frequently, and these convey the way people really talked in Limerick during the author's childhood. Having a "fine fist," for example, means that a person has good handwriting. To go "beyond the beyonds" is to behave in an outrageous manner.
Some words will be unfamiliar to American ears: "gob" is slang for mouth and "fags" are cigarettes. To call someone an "eejit" is to insult them, and the expression "diddering omadhaun," as used by a schoolmaster to describe a boy, is obviously not a compliment.
The Irish way of expressing themselves is apparent in such statements as "That's a great leg for the dancing you have there, Frankie," a compliment to young Frankie on his dancing ability. Some expressions are saltier. Mrs. O'Connor, the dance teacher, tells Frankie to stop frowning "or you'll have a puss on you like a pound of tripe." Irish pronunciation is reflected in "fillum star" (film star), and occasionally there is a glimpse of what Frankie's father calls Limerick slum-talk, as in Uncle Pat's words, "That's me mug and don't be drinkin' your way oush of ish." The last three words mean "out of it."
In an unusual device, there are not any quotation marks used to mark direct speech anywhere in this book, even when two people are engaged in a conversation. The effect of this is perhaps to subtly remind the reader that everything in the memoir is being filtered through the consciousness of the child narrator. It is always Frank who is reporting the speech, whether direct or indirect.
The tone of the book is often humorous. It is only rarely angry, even though Frankie might have a lot to be angry about. The humor occurs not only in humorous situations and events but in the way young Frankie strives to understand the world and what happens in it. On one occasion, when he is eleven or twelve, he discovers his parents' marriage certificate and notes that they were married on March 28, 1930. But this mystifies him:
I was born on the nineteenth of August and Billy Campbell told me the father and mother have to be married nine months before there's a sign of a child. Here I am born into the world in half the time. That means I must be a miracle and I might grow up to be a saint with people celebrating the feast of St. Francis of Limerick.
Toward the end of the book, as Frank matures, the tone becomes compassionate, as Frank becomes more aware of the suffering of others.
The 1990s witnessed a huge growth in the number of personal memoirs, and the genre itself underwent significant change. Traditionally, the memoir was an autobiographical narrative, usually by a prominent person, that focused not on the personal experiences of the author but on the significant people and events he had witnessed or been involved in. In the 1990s, however, personal memoirs came to be written not only by famous people but by unknown ones, too. Many focused on a certain period in a person's life (thus distinguishing them from the more comprehensive scope of the autobiography). Often the memoir was about the growth from childhood or adolescence to young adulthood. Frequently these memoirs detailed an environment in which some deprivation or vice, such as poverty, alcoholism or sexual abuse, played a large part.
One of the most popular memoirs from the early part of the decade was Darkness Visible (1992), the account by the writer William Styron of his descent into mental illness. Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (1994) was a bestselling memoir of Kaysen's life in a mental institution. In 1995, Mary Karr published the hugely successful The Liars' Club, a memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional Texas family. In that year, approximately two hundred memoirs were published. Commentators linked the startling growth of the genre to the vogue for confessional television programs and the "tell-itall" nature of popular culture. James Atlas, in his article "The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now," comments on the openness that characterized the 1990s:
In an era when 'Oprah' reigns supreme and 12-step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.
It was in this literary and cultural climate that McCourt began writing Angela's Ashes in 1994. The memoir, with its tale of a family ruined by an alcoholic father, anguished by bereavement, and living with the shame of almost unimaginable poverty, fit comfortably into the genre as it was being redefined during the decade. So when Angela's Ashes was published two years later, its runaway success was perhaps not surprising.
England, Protestantism, and Ireland
Even a casual reader of Angela's Ashes could hardly fail to notice that the Irish of Limerick reserve a special hatred for the English, and they also despise Protestants. The origins of this antipathy go far back in history.
The English first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, which explains the recurring Irish complaint in the book about "what the English did to us for eight hundred long years."
Compare & Contrast
1930s: Limerick, Ireland, is economically depressed, with pockets of extreme poverty. Unemployment is high.
Today: Helped by a growth in tourism and high-tech industries, Limerick flourishes. "Combat poverty" groups have been set up, using funds from the European Union.
1930s: A common cause of death in Limerick, and Ireland as a whole, is tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is prevalent because living conditions are unsanitary and malnutrition is rife.
Today: Advances in medicine have made tuberculosis a curable, rather than a deadly, disease. In 1998, Ireland reported 424 cases of tuberculosis, down from 640 in 1991.
1930s: Although independent, Ireland is a member of the British Commonwealth. Ireland remains neutral when war breaks out between Britain and Germany in 1939 and withdraws from the Commonwealth in 1948.
Today: Relations between Britain and Ireland are cordial. The two governments work together to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Both countries are members of the European Union.
The Protestants are associated with the English, since it was the Protestant forces of Oliver Cromwellin the seventeenth century, followed by the Protestant army of William of Orange in 1690, that subjugated the Catholic Irish.
After a long struggle, most of Ireland won its independence in 1922. This period of Irish history is associated with the name of Eamon de Valera, the first president of the Irish Free State. In Angela's Ashes, Frank's father believes that de Valera is the greatest man in the world.
After 1922, the six predominantly Protestant northern counties of Ireland remained under British rule. This is why in Angela's Ashes anyone from the north of Ireland, even a good Catholic and an Irish nationalist like Malachy McCourt, is regarded with suspicion.
Angela's Ashes was a massive success, becoming one of the most highly acclaimed nonfiction works of the decade. The book won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for biography. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years.
Almost all reviewers praised the book generously. The vividness with which McCourt evoked his childhood was particularly appreciated, as was the hilarity of much of the book. Writing for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised McCourt's skill as a storyteller:
McCourt … waited more than four decades to tell the story of his childhood, and it's been well worth the wait. With Angela's Ashes, he has used the storytelling gifts he inherited from his father to write a book that redeems the pain of his early years with wit and compassion and grace.
Kakutani noted that the book contained little of the resentment or bitterness that a reader might expect to find in the memoirs of a man who had endured almost unimaginable poverty and deprivation in his early years. She also commented favorably on McCourt's descriptive skill:
Writing in prose that's pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we've walked its streets and crawled its pubs.
The verdict of Malcolm Jones Jr., in Newsweek, was equally positive: "It is only the best storyteller who can so beguile his readers that he leaves them wanting more when he's done. With Angela's Ashes, McCourt proves himself one of the very best."
In Time, John Elson described Angela's Ashes as a "spunky, bittersweet memoir," noting that in spite of the bleakness of the story, McCourt's humor leaves a deeper impression: "Like an unpredicted glimmer of midwinter sunshine, cheerfulness keeps breaking into this tale of Celtic woe." Elson picked out McCourt's descriptions of his First Communion and his adventures as a post-office messenger as "riotously funny."
Neal Ascheron, in the New York Review of Books, called Angela's Ashes a "wonderful" memoir and pointed out that the central figure is not the Angela of the title but Frank's father, Malachy, whom Ascheron saw as a poignant, almost tragic figure: "McCourt shows a man who is almost literally dissolving, physically and mentally, in a world which has no time or means to help him."
One of the few dissenting voices in this chorus of praise was that of R. F. Foster, a professor of Irish history, writing in New Republic. Although he acknowledged that some of the images and events in the book were "marvelously realized," Foster pointed out what he believed to be obvious flaws:
[I]t all goes on for too long. … its author lacks an internal editor, a sense of developing structure. The language is monotonous and the incidents are repetitive. The characterizations are perfunctory: people are identified by formulaic straplines, which are trundled out again and again each time they appear.
Foster also questioned whether all the incidents were as factual as McCourt claimed. He pointed out that when McCourt's father attempts to secure an IRA pension, he has to visit the back streets of a Dublin suburb, but in reality such pensions were administered by a government department.
Foster's skepticism, however, was not shared by readers, who bought the book in huge numbers. Angela's Ashes has been translated into nineteen languages and has sold more than four million copies worldwide.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he discusses Angela's Ashes as a coming-ofage story.
Angela's Ashes is a coming-of-age story. It records the growth of Frankie McCourt from an impoverished childhood to his maturity at the age of nineteen, when he is able to plot his own course in life. Through the difficult circumstances of his early years Frankie grows intellectually, spiritually, and morally.
One of Frankie's first coming-of-age experiences is a more practical one, however. It concerns earning money. Given the fact that desperate poverty is rampant in Limerick, it is not surprising that Frankie's ability to supplement the family income marks a significant stage of his growth. He gets his first job helping his uncle deliver newspapers when he is only eight or nine years old. More important is when at the age of eleven he helps his neighbor Mr. Hannon deliver coal. "I'm a man now," he says, and starts to take on manly domestic tasks such as lighting the fire in the morning. When he is able to put a shilling in his pocket as a reward for his labors, he proudly says, "I'm not a child anymore," even though he is taunted by other boys and girls because of his coal-blackened appearance. Eventually, however, Frankie wins their respect and envy as he climbs up each day on Mr. Hannon's float "like any workingman." On payday he takes another major step to maturity when he presents his mother with the money he has earned. He is now able to do what his father would not or could not: provide a modest amount of money for the family. It is not surprising that his mother breaks down in tears.
Maturity is about more than earning wages, however. As a very young boy, Frankie is raised in an atmosphere soaked with a narrow, dogmatic Catholicism and the nationalistic myths of a pure and heroic Ireland oppressed for eight hundred years by the English. Much of his intellectual and spiritual growth will involve punching holes in these twin pillars of his upbringing.
It is the one-dimensional concept of history that is the first to go. Frankie has been hearing about Ireland and its history virtually since his birth. His drunken father comes home singing patriotic songs about Irish martyrs and tells his children they must be ready to die for Ireland. The English are blamed for just about everything that has gone wrong in Irish history. This moral culpability of Ireland's neighbors sometimes takes on comic proportions. When Frankie's uncle Pa Keating sees Malachy McCourt beating a mattress to get the fleas out, he remarks that ancient Ireland had no fleas; fleas were brought by the English for the purpose of driving the Irish out of their wits.
Frankie absorbs a similar version of history at school. He is told that whenever the Irish have been on the brink of a noble victory, they have either been betrayed by a traitor or an informer or have fallen victim to some despicable English trick.
When he is eleven years old, Frankie finally hears something different. In a history lesson given by Mr. O'Halloran, the headmaster, he hears the phrase "atrocities on both sides" to describe an ancient battle between the Irish and the English. He is incredulous. He asks O'Halloran if it was true that the Irish committed atrocities. O'Halloran replies that the Irish killed prisoners and were no better or worse than the English. This is a revelation for Frankie:
Mr. O'Halloran can't lie. He's the headmaster. All those years we were told the Irish were always noble and they made brave speeches before the English hanged them. Now Hoppy O'Halloran is saying the Irish did bad things. Next he'll be saying the English did good things.
O'Halloran, who seems to have been a great exception at Leamy's National School, tells the boys that they must study and learn to make up their own minds. It is a lesson Frankie takes to heart.
Frankie's religious indoctrination, however, is not to be so easily thrown off. Since he was a child, he has accepted what he has been told. As a young boy, he lacks the intellectual maturity to question. His mind is filled with the religious platitudes he hears from the adults around him and the more systematic dogmas in which he is instructed at school. Much of the comic effect of Angela's Ashes comes when religious dogma, on its way into the child's mind, gets hopelessly garbled. For the most part, Frankie simply does not have any understanding of what he is being told. He grows up, for example, with the idea that everyone who is not a Catholic is doomed. The word doom fascinates him, and he is astute enough to observe that it is the favorite word of priests. When he sees a group of Protestants going to church, he feels sorry for them, especially the girls. He knows they are doomed and he wants to save them: "Protestant girl come with me to the True Church. You'll be saved and you won't have the doom." The inappropriate use of the definite article ("the doom") contributes to the odd way he uses the term, as if doom is something that one catches, like influenza. It shows that young Frankie does not have the slightest understanding of what he is talking about.
What Do I Read Next?
- 'Tis: A Memoir (1999) is McCourt's sequel to Angela's Ashes. It takes up McCourt's life story from his arrival in America in 1949.
- A Monk Swimming (1998) is a memoir written by McCourt's younger brother, Malachy, about his life mainly in New York City from 1952 to 1963. It is full of amusing stories about his experiences and the people he met.
- Reading in the Dark (1998), by Seamus Deane, is a novel about an Irish boy growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in Derry, a town near the border of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and a focal point for conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
- A Dublin Girl: Growing Up in the 1930s (1999), by Elaine Crowley, is a memoir of Crowley's childhood in a slum district of Dublin. Reviewers compared it to Angela's Ashes ; it has humor and poignancy, although the atmosphere is not as bleak as in McCourt's memoir.
Understood or not, Catholic teachings sink deeply into Frankie's mind. His eventual liberation from the confines of Catholic theology is connected to his emerging awareness of his sexuality. The acquiring of sexual knowledge is central to most coming-of-age stories, and Angela's Ashes is no exception.
As he reaches puberty, Frankie discovers the pleasures of masturbation. But this is not a guilt-free pleasure. He and the other boys of his age have to endure a chilling denunciation of "self-abuse" hurled at them by a priest:
Our Lady weeps over these abominations knowing that every time you interfere with yourself you nail to the cross her Beloved Son, that once more you hammer into His dear head the crown of thorns, that you reopen those ghastly wounds.
For a short while afterwards, Frankie allows himself to feel guilty about his acts of "self-defilement"; he prays to the Virgin Mary and promises not to do it again. But then, only a few months later, he climbs to the top of an old castle on a hill, from where he has a panoramic view of the River Shannon and the surrounding countryside. There, "in full view of Ireland" he defiantly commits the same "sin" of masturbation. It is a moment of self-liberation. Although he knows that he still faces "the doom," he no longer seems to care.
It is a different matter when he has his first experience of sex with a girl. When he makes love to Theresa Carmody, who later dies of consumption, he feels extremely guilty because he knows that their lovemaking was sinful and that Theresa is now in hell. And it is his fault. On this occasion he is saved from the torments of guilt not by his own independent thinking but by Father Gregory, a kindly Franciscan priest to whom he confesses. This priest, who seems to possess more humanity than many of the others who populate the pages of Angela's Ashes, assures him that Theresa "is surely in heaven. She suffered like the martyrs in olden times and God knows that's penance enough. You can be sure the sisters in the hospital didn't let her die without a priest." This is enough to convince Frank. He frees himself from guilt and learns that there is more than one way of interpreting the dogmas of Catholicism.
Along with his spiritual growth, Frankie also exhibits moral growth. The latter is shown by several incidents that take place when he works as a telegram boy. He is fourteen and regards this as his first job "as a man" (his earlier work delivering coal notwithstanding). His employers tell him that he must do no favors for anyone; his job is to deliver the telegrams and leave. But Frankie is moved by the plight of many of the people he encounters on his rounds. He feels compassion for Mrs. Gertrude Daly, an old woman who dresses in rags and is starving and very ill. He feels sympathy also for a veteran of the Boer War who can hardly walk and lives in a freezing house where there is little food. The plight of a woman named Mrs. Spillane, who is attempting to raise her two crippled children in direst poverty, also touches his heart. So moved is Frank by the suffering of these people that he agrees to run errands for them, such as cashing a money order at the post office and buying groceries, even though he knows that this could cost him his job if he is caught. He is prepared to defy authority and obey his conscience—a sign of integrity and maturity.
These experiences are significant because up to that point, the suffering of others has not seemed to have made much impression upon him. But now the presence of suffering raises questions that make him reflect and consider: "What are you supposed to do?" he asks himself. Although he is moved more by the promptings of his heart than his head, he makes a conscious decision to take action based on a moral imperative to help others. This is of great value because it is a position he has reached himself, rather than one he has merely accepted in the form of the religious platitudes that have swirled around him since the day he was born.
"Frank's eventual liberation from the confines of Catholic theology is connected to his emerging awareness of his sexuality. The acquiring of sexual knowledge is central to most coming-of-age stories, and Angela's Ashes is no exception."
It has been a hard upbringing for Frankie McCourt in the slums of Limerick. He has experienced more than enough deprivation for one lifetime. He has known sickness and poverty and the deaths of siblings and his first lover. But he has also developed survival skills, learning how to be independent and how to earn a living. He has developed the ability to think for himself and has discovered a sympathy and compassion for others. All these qualities will stand him in good stead as he achieves his long-held ambition of immigrating to America, the land of promise.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Angela's Ashes, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the portrayal of McCourt's family in Angela's Ashes .
On the opening page of his riveting memoir, Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt describes his "miserable Irish Catholic childhood":
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 long years.
The perils of Frankie's childhood read like a laundry list of stereotypical suffering; however, as Michiko Kakutani so correctly writes in her review for the New York Times,"There is not a trace of bitterness or resentment in Angela's Ashes, though there is plenty a less generous writer might well be judgmental about." Frankie and his brothers grow up in a circle of adults who fail to provide them life's basic essentials. A simple but touching example is the parents' enjoyment of cigarettes: "There may be a lack of tea or bread in the house but Mam and Dad always manage to get the fags," Frankie notes. Despite the rampant selfishness, stinginess, and even downright meanness that surround him, Frankie loves his family; even more remarkably, he often feels true compassion for them:
Frankie's father, Malachy McCourt, serves as the most obvious example of Kakutani's latter assertion. An alcoholic, Malachy has little inclination to support his family. The money he does get his hands on—whether earned, received from the dole, or in one hideous instance, given as a gift to the new baby—goes straight to the pub. He makes countless promises to his family of better times ahead, but his one consistency lies in disappointing them. Only eleven, Frankie already recognizes the challenge that loving his father poses:
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.
Malachy's utter irresponsibility forces Frankie to grow up quickly. "I think my father is like the Holy Trinity," he explains, "with three people in him: the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the story and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland." Frankie's sophisticated analysis of his father, in which he likens his father to a schizophrenic, belies his chronological age. For a long time, Frankie manages to hold fast to the belief that "the one in the morning is my real father," but in the end, it is the father afflicted with the "Irish thing" (drinking) who gains prominence. Once Malachy leaves for England, ostensibly to earn money though "[he] didn't send us a penny in months," he only reappears in the pages of Angela's Ashes on two more occasions.
Before his desertion of the family, Malachy does teach Frankie some important values, such as politeness and piety and "to be good boys at school because God is watching every move." Malachy also presents Frankie a broader picture of the world outside Limerick, telling him all about Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and "the great [Franklin D.] Roosevelt," which most likely inflames Frankie's desire to leave Ireland. Most importantly, Malachy offers young Frank a precious gift: a love of stories and storytelling. Malachy knows about Irish history and Kevin Barry and Roddy McCorley and "the old days in Ireland when the English wouldn't let the Catholics have schools." He also provides Frank a personal hero, Cuchulain, who is greater than "Hercules or Achilles … [or] King Arthur and all his knights." Cuchulain fought to the death against his enemies, and from him, Frankie draws much-needed strength over the years. Through the repetition of the story of Cuchulain, the impoverished boy also comes to feel that he has something of his own. "That's my story" is Frankie's refrain as he tries to prevent his father from telling the younger boys about Cuchulain.
The rest of Frankie's family cannot make up for Malachy's inability to support his children and, in truth, hardly attempt to do so. Angela McCourt, though caring, proves ineffectual at providing for her children. She willingly begs for the sake of her children from disdainful officials at the relief organizations, skeptical shopkeepers, and the condescending post office clerks (to get Frankie his job back). On more than one occasion, she is reduced to picking up bits of coal from the street, a measure that her husband feels is beneath him. However, her pervading sense of hopelessness greatly contributes to the spiritual impoverishment of Frankie's childhood; her downtrodden spirit often renders her unable to meet the challenge of her sons' emotional needs. This characteristic, combined with a lack of money, leads the deserted family into the home of an emotionally abusive cousin, Laman. Angela becomes Laman's lover, even though he treats her—"a great lump living free under his roof"—and her "pack of brats" no better than servants. When Angela shares Laman's bed after he reneges on a deal to lend Frankie his bicycle, Frankie feels utterly betrayed. At thirteen years old, he leaves home and moves in with his uncle. Only Frankie's success as a telegram boy inspires Angela to rise above her condition, leaving Laman and obtaining a job of her own in which she finds some measure of peace.
Frankie's extended family in America provides yet more sources of disappointment for the needy child. Never do they receive the McCourts with any love or affection. Aunt Aggie's pronouncement—"Ye are nothing but trouble since ye came from America"—sums up the general feeling that her relatives share. In almost all cases, the family resents helping out the McCourts and only does so begrudgingly. Still, as with his parents, Frankie never chastises his family for their actions—or lack of actions. In his silence and lack of judgment, he implicitly recognizes the complexity of familial love.
Upon their return to Ireland, the McCourts first go to Malachy McCourt's family. These relatives live in a nice home, offering sausage and "all the eggs you can hold" because it is Easter Sunday. However, they feel no fondness for their kin. The silence with which the relatives regard her children reduces Angela to tears. Frankie unfavorably compares his aunts to their neighbors in America as they "nod their heads but they don't hug us or smile." The McCourts quickly send Malachy and his family away, to the south of Ireland, saying, "No work here and, God knows, we don't have room in this house for six more people."
Angela's family is no more welcoming. Frankie's first introduction to his grandmother is inauspicious: "there she was on the platform, Grandma, with white hair, sour eyes, a black shawl, and no smile for my mother or any of us, even my brother, Malachy, who had the big smile and the sweet white teeth." The status of the grandmother's finances is unknown. However, she has enough money to live in a small but clean home, cut thick slices of bread, set up her daughter's family in a furnished room, and pay for passage to and from America for relatives. Though the boys turn to their grandmother when they need help and she finds a way to provide some relief, her actions never demonstrate that she is giving because she wants to; instead, she acts out of obligation. Her obliviousness to the true circumstances in which her kin live is sharply revealed when the family is evicted. She tells Frankie to put on his coat before they can leave, never having realized that Frankie does not own a coat. She originally sent the unmarried Angela to America because she was "pure useless," and she seems to have included Angela's children in that opinion as well.
Another relative the children meet for the first time is Aunt Aggie, Angela's sister. Aggie lives in comparative luxury in her warm, dry flat that has electricity. She has no children of her own, but she still has to be impinged upon to share any of her material goods, even the minimum of food, with the McCourts. "I don't know why we have to pay for Angela's mistakes," she complains. She tells Frankie, whom she calls "scabby eyes," and his brothers more than once that "she can't stand the sight of us another minute." Forced to take in the boys while Angela is in the hospital, one day when Frankie's brother Malachy asks for a piece of bread, she hits him with a paper. Malachy doesn't come home from school the next day, and her only response is, "Well, I suppose he ran away. Good riddance." However, it is Aggie who buys Frankie new clothes so he can start his job as a telegram boy without being humiliated by his appearance, an action that reduces him to private tears.
"Whether it be a police officer in Dublin, the railroad worker, or Mr. Hannon, many a time, it is strangers or neighbors who take nurturing acts toward the McCourt children."
Frankie's uncle, the Abbott, begrudgingly allows the boy to live in his home instead of Laman's. The Abbott forbids Frankie to turn on the light and threatens to keep track of the electric meter. He takes pains to hide his food from Frankie, even carrying his bread in his pocket to safeguard it. In one instance, he eats fish and chips in front of the hungry child, all the while telling him "there's no food in the house." After the Abbott has gone to sleep, Frankie licks the newspaper for the grease. It is while living with the Abbott, before his job begins, that Frankie resorts to stealing food to survive. Despite his almost constant litany of complaints about Frankie—and the rest of the family, who eventually move into the house—the Abbot allows him to stay.
Only Uncle Pa, Aggie's husband and not a blood relative, shows any sort of genuine affection for Frankie and his brothers. He feeds them ham sandwiches behind his wife's back. Many times he takes on the paternal role that Malachy has forsaken. It is Uncle Pa who lays Eugene to his final rest in his small white coffin. It is Uncle Pa who buys Frankie his first pint to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. "I know 'tis not the same without your father," Pa says, "but I'll get you the first pint. 'Tis what I'd do if I had a son." Frankie, for his part, "could easily have Uncle Pa for a father" and share "great times" with him.
Frankie looks for a father figure in other men who treat him kindly as well. When a railroad worker helps them out, Frankie wishes he "had a father like the man in the signal tower who gives you sandwiches and cocoa." In telling his troubles to a Franciscan priest, he feels like a "child and I lean against him, little Frankie on his father's lap, tell me all about Cuchulain, Dad, my story that Malachy can't have or Freddie Leibowitz on the swings." Another special relationship Frankie develops is with the neighbor Mr. Hannon, to whom he "gave … the feeling of a son."
Whether it be a police officer in Dublin, the railroad worker, or Mr. Hannon, many a time it is strangers or neighbors who take nurturing acts toward the McCourt children. A barman along Classon Avenue fills the twins' bottles with milk instead of the water with "maybe a little sugar" that Frankie has requested. An Italian grocer in their Brooklyn neighborhood gives the boys a bag of fruit. A shop-lady in Limerick gives the children an onion for their sick brother. Minnie MacAdorey and Mrs. Leibowitz feed the boys after Angela becomes incapacitated by Margaret's death. The neighbors in Brooklyn understand that family should be able to help the McCourt boys; the Italian grocer wonders where are the "relations [that] can take care of you." However, when appealed to, the Brooklyn cousins refuse any responsibility, instead arranging for the return of the McCourts to Ireland.
In Angela's Ashes, the very concept of the nuclear family comes under constant attack. Margaret dies in infancy, and the twins, Oliver and Eugene, die when they are only toddlers. The younger Malachy first leaves home to be a soldier and later to work at an English boarding school. The older Malachy deserts his family, thus lowering their status and worsening their circumstances even further. Angela is forced to rely on the Dispensary, "the place to apply for public assistance when a father is dead or disappeared," which means that "you're … maybe one level above tinkers, knackers and street beggars in general." For some time, however, the McCourts attempt to create a caring environment. Michael has a habit of bringing home stray animals and old men. Mam brings home women and children; she has no money to give them, but she offers them a cup of tea, a bit of fried bread, and a place to sleep.
It is no surprise that Frankie dreams of moving to America, where he can start a new life. He believes that the United States holds out the promise of hope and better times, as he indicates by his choice of lines to open his memoir: "My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born." Before he leaves, Angela holds a party for him. All of the relatives attend, and their level of sharing has been previously unmatched and unimagined. Aunt Aggie brings a homemade cake; the Abbot brings stout and says, "That's all right, Frankie, ye can all drink it as long as I have a bottle or two for meself." At the last moment, Frankie feels strongly tied to the people he is leaving behind. "I'm on the ship and there goes Ireland into the night … I want Ireland back at least I had Mam and my brothers and Aunt Aggie bad as she was and Uncle Pa, standing me my first pint." His connection to his family has remained, despite the almost constant string of disappointments they have provided him. Frank's accomplishments, such as earning the money to flee to America, getting his mother away from Laman's house, and providing a better quality of life for his younger brothers all are hard won and demonstrate amazing self-reliance and courage. The adult McCourt wonders "how I managed to survive at all." As Thomas Deignan writes in Commonweal,"by the time McCourt is nineteen, we appreciate the awesome desperation in this seemingly hackneyed statement."
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Angela's Ashes, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Karen D. Thompson
Thompson is a freelance writer who writes primarily in the education field. In this essay, she discusses McCourt's gifted use of some of the traditional elements of fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction and nonfiction seem unquestionably to be mutually exclusive categories. In a library, the figurative dividing line between the two becomes a literal division created by open space, shelves, or, at the very least, a printed sign. Despite the obvious division between the two genres, authors have perpetually married the two in a union that sometimes enhances its separate parts and sometimes diminishes them. Thus there is historical fiction, a full-fledged joining of fiction and nonfiction, along with a complete spectrum that ranges from fiction liberally sprinkled with fact to make it believable to nonfiction embellished by the traditional elements of fiction.
In Angela's Ashes, author Frank McCourt manages to create the perfect marriage of fiction and nonfiction elements. His skillful presentation of dialogue creates a three-dimensional portrait, richly textured. He manages to create an illusion of dialect without relying solely on phonetic or invented spellings. He uses a finely tuned sense of irony and a well-chosen title to give his book a literary quality not often found in works of nonfiction. Ultimately, his narrative voice is so pure that his readers cannot discern if Angela's Ashes is the result of a child telling a story with an adult's vocabulary and perception or the memoir of a man who has the remarkable ability to recollect his childhood with crystalline clarity.
Readers immediately notice a structural oddity in this volume: quotation marks do not appear in it. Yet after the first few pages, readers become aware that they have witnessed several conversations. Though some time might be necessary to adjust to the absence of quotation marks as a method of separating speakers, the effectiveness of their omission soon becomes apparent. Because no quotation marks appear, no visual barriers separate the different speakers. Voices sound over and around each other without the intrusive formality of punctuation marks. Two voices converse without the standard convention of taglines—"she interrupted," "he paused mid-sentence"—or dashes or ellipses to show breaks in dialogue. The lack of punctuation marks also allows the reader to see a mental picture of several characters simultaneously. With quotation marks, speakers are so clearly set apart that only two mental pictures are possible. In the first, the character speaking at any given time might appear in the imagination as a talking head, speaking in isolation or simply having words assigned to him or her as in a cartoon strip. In the second possibility, several characters may be present in the scene, but one speaks as the others stand or sit inanimately. The result is a fractured feeling that does not allow for the recreation of natural dialogue and multi-layered conversation.
Another aspect of dialogue, dialect, also becomes an effective storytelling tool in McCourt's hands. Authors tend to present dialect in different degrees. Some, as Mark Twain did in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, develop a complete yet specific vocabulary that, on the one hand, speaks for an entire region and, on the other hand, is as individual as each character. In that case, the dialectical spellings are carried throughout the book, and the eye as well as the ear became used to each character's unique voice. Some authors choose to begin a work by using particular spellings to indicate specific dialect and then taper off their use of it as the book continues. In this case, the author hopes that he or she has sufficiently drawn a character so that the character's unique dialect stays in the reader's mind either consciously or subconsciously.
McCourt uses the writer's rule of "show don't tell" to implant the sound of his characters—if "characters" is an appropriate designation for real people—in the mind. He and his family have Irish accents. The oldest brothers, Malachy and Frank, have accents that are enough Irish to make them distinct in New York and "Yank" enough to distinguish them from the native Irish. Frank's father has a strong North Ireland accent that marks him immediately an outsider whether in New York or in the southern parts of Ireland. McCourt establishes the weight of the Irish accents in different ways. Early on he sprinkles in such dialectical phrases as "half five" (half past five o'clock) in sentences whose context allows no room for misunderstanding. Later, he allows the stories themselves to impress the accents upon the reader's consciousness. When Malachy McCourt decided it was time to register Frank's birth, he took his infant son to the clerk for a birth certificate. The clerk was so confused by McCourt's alcoholic mumbling and "North of Ireland accent" that "he simply entered the name Male on the certificate."
If Frank McCourt had presented other accents in his book in the same manner he presented the Irish accents, he would have removed the one seam that is apparent in the whole cloth of the book. For some reason, however, he chose to portray thick New York accents by resorting to typical alterations of spelling. Thus, a New York bartender speaks of the "history o' da woild" and a shopkeeper exclaims, "Jeez. Polite kid, eh? Where ja loin dat?" Later, when the family returns to Ireland, McCourt continues this distracting, contrived method of achieving the sound of the Dublin dialect. When the McCourt family, tired and penniless, is allowed to spend a night in the police station, they are subjected to the jibes and questions of the drunken prisoners: "Jasus, will ye listen to them. They sound like bloody fillum stars. Did yez fall outa the sky or what?" The effect of such manipulated language is equivalent to seeing the wires and machines on a stage that allow the players to fly. It is sad that McCourt did not realize his dialogue could fly on its own.
Tight, natural-sounding dialogue is not usually an element found in nonfiction. Nonfiction is often narrated in an objective voice that reports rather than recreates conversation and action. Other elements usually not apparent in nonfiction permeate Angela's Ashes and give it the sometimes magical quality of fiction. One of these conventions is a liberal use of irony—the difference between what is expected and what actually occurs. There is a difference in how irony presents itself in fiction and in how irony presents itself in this work of nonfiction. In fiction, irony can appear artificial, manufactured strictly to entertain or serve some function of plot. In those instances the stories become unbelievable. The same is not true of irony encountered in real life. Though we might be astonished or amazed by multiple ironies in a single person's life, we do not disbelieve what we have witnessed. For this reason we can accept at face value the many ironies in McCourt's life. When a fifth child is born to the already impoverished McCourts, the expectation is that the senior McCourt will have more motivation than ever to forget his responsibilities under the influence of alcohol and keep himself away from home more than ever. Yet the birth of his fifth child, a daughter, brings about just the opposite in him. He finds a job, keeps it, and brings home his pay regularly. One irony that presents itself as a theme (another element ascribed to works of fiction) is the irony of young Frank feeling proprietary about certain myths and stories. Since his birth, Frank had lived in squalid poverty and never owned anything, not even adequate clothing. Even so, he believes himself to be the owner of the great heroes of Ireland and their stories. He believes in his heart that he owns the story of Cuchulain.
"Some people may be quick to dismiss Frank McCourt's gift for narrative by saying that his strength is his story, not his storytelling."
Another area in which McCourt seems to use elements of fiction to his advantage is with his title. Often the title of a nonfiction work is functional and provides simply the topic of the work. In fiction, an author often achieves extra effect from the title choice. For example, Steinbeck used East of Eden to prepare readers for a vast Biblical metaphor. McCourt does not directly explain the source of his title, but one can make a reasonable guess. Frank's life was colored by his family's Catholicism, and his title hints at the ashes associated with Ash Wednesday and the self-denial and sacrifice that begin on the first day of the Lenten season. Additionally, the title brings to mind the "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" verses in the Old Testament of the Bible and could be meant to indicate the futility of trying to change the quality of life since eventually everything returns to its original state. Most probably the title points to the mythical phoenix and what ultimately became Frank McCourt's rise from the ruins, or ashes, of his mother's life. When Frank leaves Ireland for America, fortune has finally smiled on him, but fortune has not cast a smile upon Angela beyond what her son provides.
One final element of fiction, especially dramatic fiction, that McCourt appropriates is the element of comic relief. Some of Shakespeare's most memorable scenes are those provided for comic relief, a chance for the audience to take an emotional break from the intensity of the drama. McCourt is able to use comic relief to great benefit. When his family is faced with more death than should be any family's due, when the rent is unpaid, when his father has drunk the dole money, when rain and sewage has turned one half of their home into a cesspool, McCourt provides comic relief for readers. He does this not through invention or artifice. He does this by becoming a child and writing the scenes through a child's eyes. Accordingly, rather than being continually appalled by Frank's and his brothers' treatment at the hands of their alcoholic father who wakes them in the middle of the night and makes them swear to die for Ireland and incensed by the oppressive teachers who exhort them to die for the Faith, readers are encouraged to laugh at them all while laughing with young Frank who exclaims, "I wonder if there's anyone in the world who would like us to live."
Frank McCourt seems to use to his advantage many elements of fiction in his memoir, but he additionally uses the advantages inherent in nonfiction. For example, within the story, readers encounter several "mistakes" in McCourt's account. In one passage, McCourt describes how he earned the privilege of riding Laman Griffin's bicycle. His purpose for borrowing the bicycle was to accompany a group of boys from his school on a cycling trip to Killaloe. However, in a later passage, when Frank tries to secure a job as a telegram boy, the supervisor asks if he knows how to cycle. Frank's reply is "I lie that I do." If this type of error were found in a piece of fiction, someone would bear the responsibility for shoddy work. Either the writer would be criticized for lack of attention to plot development, or the editor would be criticized for ineptly allowing such a mistake to slip through. In a nonfiction work of this kind, however, such oversights can be forgiven if the author has simply established trustworthiness at the beginning. If readers believe that the author is not engaged in intentionally trying to mislead them, mild anachronisms and misstatements will be forgiven. Readers realize that human memories are imperfect and somewhat subjective. Often, accurate family histories are compiled only after many family members make a concerted effort to fill in their pieces of the mosaic. Because McCourt establishes himself as honest and trustworthy early in the book, his lapses in recollection can be excused.
None of the preceding examples fully explain why Angela's Ashes is such a compelling work. The secret lies in a statement the young Frank McCourt makes when he witnesses his young brother Eugene trying in vain to understand that his twin, Oliver, has died. Young Frankie states that Eugene cannot understand because he "doesn't have the words and that's the worst thing in the whole world." Young McCourt realized even then the power and the gift of words.
Some people may be quick to dismiss Frank McCourt's gift for narrative by saying that his strength is his story, not his storytelling. Certainly his family's tragic history presented him with a unique, captivating story to tell, but it is his unique talent that makes this work a certain classic. If all that was needed to tell a good story were to be present while one unfolded, there would be thousands of books chronicling every event. But there aren't. Though some books written by untalented writers make it to publication, they do not endure.
Stories by themselves do not capture readers. If they did, readers would spend their time reading and rereading newspaper accounts and history texts. But they don't, of course. They read and reread and tell their friends only about the stories that move them somehow. When this happens, it is the result of a worthwhile story and a skillful narrator. True, Frank McCourt was given the raw material of a childhood filled with tragedy, pain, and poverty; but readers would never know, and thus they could never care, if he were not also given the gift of storytelling.
Karen D. Thompson, Critical Essay on Angela's Ashes, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
R. F. Foster
In the following review, Foster examines the McCourt phenomenon, and casts doubt on the veracity of some parts of Angela's Ashes.
What makes a publishing phenomenon—not merely a "best-seller seller," but a million-seller, a prize-gatherer, a cult-former, a legend still ensconced in the hardback charts when it goes straight to the very top of the paperback charts? It seems clear that hitting the jackpot requires not so much that people read a book as that "readers" buy a book to satisfy a felt or perceived need. Actually finishing the book may not be necessary. One suspects that very few people know how Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, or Jung Chang's Wild Swans, or Dava Sobel's Longitude, ends.
The jaw-dropping success of those books testifies to the eternal human sense of gratification through self-betterment; mingled, perhaps, with the equally eternal human tendency to console ourselves by reading about the efforts and the tribulations of others. The actual readability of the book, let alone its literary quality, seems comparatively irrelevant—even (or especially) to prize committees. Much of this applies, certainly, to the phenomenon of Angela's Ashes, though there are peculiar variation in this case: the traditional Irish readiness to commercialize the past, for example, and the complex attitude of the United States to what it expects the Irish to be, and the enduring pride and reassurance that Americans find in hot water and flush lavatories.
The paperback edition of Angela's Ashes comes garlanded with pages and pages of ecstatic reviewers' quotations. Connoisseurs of the genre may note that the heavyweight names are often there in the guise of kind friends rather than dispassionate critics, but those who nailed their colors to the mast of, say, the Clarion-Ledger or the Detroit Free Press are no less enthusiastic: "Frank McCourt has seen hell, but found angels in his heart," "Frank McCourt's life, and his searing telling of it, reveal all we need to know about being human," and so on. It may seem like party-pooping to ask what this kind of bilge actually means (which is less than nothing). It is perhaps fairer to look at the significance of the book itself, and its spin-offs. These now stretch to its sequel, 'Tis, and the autobiography of Frank's brother Malachy, A Monk Swimming, and a forthcoming film, and the name of at least one pub in Limerick.
Angela's Ashes began it all. In the beginning it was alternately identified as fiction and as autobiography, but by the time of publication it had settled down as "a memoir." It is the sort of memoir in which the protagonist can—like Tristram Shandy—retain absolutely concrete memories from the time of his conception, and retail word-for-word conversations exchanged and letters written from the age of three. Clearly the conventions of magical realism and post-structuralist flannel have had a striking effect on the genre of autobiography. This may be presented as a liberation from the tyranny of the ascertainable fact, but it makes for some confusion as far as the reader is concerned.
Thus (according to 'Tis) Frank McCourt is born into a poor but feel-good immigrant community in Brooklyn in 1931. There are kind Italian shopkeepers. There are wonderful Jewish neighbors. Father is a sentimental Northern Irish republican who sings rebel ballads, and Mother is the regulation-issue Irish mammy. Cliché is invoked on the very first page of Angela's Ashes, a way that apparently promises subversion:
Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
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 long years.
But what we hear is exactly what we will get, from the moment the author's parents leave America. Both go slightly off the rails (drink, depression) when their daughter dies, and they return to Ireland and a cold welcome: first of all in the North, then to the slums of Limerick.
Angela's Ashes records (or at least reimagines) Frank's youth in a downward spiral of poverty and misery, until he escapes back to America in October 1949, shortly after his nineteenth birthday. (This would actually make him born in 1930: magical realism may have to be invoked again.) It appears from McCourt's new book that he started using the awful privations of his childhood quite early, in essays at night school at New York University. Certainly the vividness of certain images and events is marvelously realized: the fleas, the mother's miscarriage, the mentally unbalanced neighbor begging all over Limerick for flour to bake bread for her children before she is taken away to the asylum. The poor are not always mutually supportive.
The father's Northern background is held against him, Republican though he is: he drinks and comes and goes and eventually goes for good. With incessant rain and the rising river Shannon, the slum floods; and when this happens, the family withdraws to the upstairs room, which they call "Italy." There is a lot about sex, and even more about dirt, defecation, shared privies in the back lane, and the indignity of emptying chamber pots.
Mam goes to the door and says, Why are you emptying your bucket in our lavatory? He raises his cap to her. Your lavatory, missus? Ah, no. You're making a bit of a mistake there, ha, ha. This is not your lavatory. Sure, isn't this the lavatory for the whole lane. You'll see passing your door here the buckets of eleven families and I can tell you it gets very powerful here in the warm weather, very powerful altogether.
Charity is cold, the kindness of strangers is almost non-existent, and the remnant of the family end up living with a repulsive cousin, with whom the passive and exhausted mother is forced to sleep: a step for which her writer sons do not forgive her, then or—apparently—later.
But it all goes on for too long. Angela's Ashes is not and will never be (pace the New York Times) "a classic memoir," because its author lacks an internal editor, a sense of developing structure. The language is monotonous and the incidents are repetitive. The characterizations are perfunctory: people are identified by formulaic straplines, which are trundled out again and again each time they appear. One uncle, a jovial cynic, is never introduced without declaring that he doesn't give "a fiddler's fart" for respectable opinion. Still, the level of intellectual give-and-take is reassuringly high, and there is usually someone at hand to descant on a Cuchulain or a Jonathan Swift:
Next morning, Mr. Timoney says, Wait till we get to Gulliver, Francis. You'll know Jonathan Swift is the greatest Irish writer that ever lived, no, the greatest man to put pen to parchment. A giant of a man, Francis. He laughs all through A Modest Proposal and you'd wonder what he's laughing at when it's all about cooking Irish babies.
Yeats's invocation to Cuchulain's wife, "greatbladdered Emer," is also surprisingly common currency in the McCourt household.
Angela's Ashes goes on at relentless length, and is actually quite a job to finish. Laboring through it, the reader also begins to feel certain nagging irritations and doubts. One concerns the relation of the text to fact. Frank McCourt has guaranteed in interviews that "all the facts are true," but some incidents surely stretch credulity. The father's claim of an IRA pension, for instance, is presented as a venture into a strange underworld, involving trips to back rooms in seedy suburbs. In Ireland in the mid-1930s, however, these pensions were a matter of strict and official record, done through a government department, now preserved (though not always accessible) in the National Archives.
Some doubt has also been expressed in Ireland at the likelihood of quite so many boys attending Leamy's School in Limerick in bare feet in midwinter, or of open sewers coursing down the streets; but this may simply be injured local pride. It is certainly hard to credit the urban slum boys, escaped into the countryside, being able to sustain themselves by milking cows in the fields. (The cows even thoughtfully stand still enough for a small child to lie underneath them, imbibing the milk directly from the udder.)
Our hero also talks regularly to an angel, just as prescribed by Hollywood. This being is strangely conjured up by Frank's father, a bewildering mixture of sensitive soul, good housekeeper, and drunken layabout. The angel materializes on the seventh step of the slum stairs and strengthens Frank's resolve to confess his sins at First Communion. This puts his father straight into self-help councilor mode:
Isn't it better to be able to tell your father your troubles rather than an angel who is a light and a voice in your head?
"And this uncertain and fantastic element is compounded by an eerie sense that this 'memoir' has been recalled through the prism of subsequent reading."
And this uncertain and fantastic element is compounded by an eerie sense that this "memoir" has been recalled through the prism of subsequent reading. There is a fire-breathing priest's sermon to guilt-ridden boys that is straight out of A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. There is a doomed love affair with a glamorous sixteen-year-old consumptive girl that is very reminiscent of Michael MacLiammoir's autobiography, All for Hecuba (where it was, given MacLiammoir's redoutably unabashed homosexuality, an even less likely incident). There is an aged female moneylender, for whom the young McCourt writes improbably high-flown dunning letters, who owes a large literary debt to Dostoevsky and Dickens.
Over it all, finally, hovers the inspiration—and the convention—of Sean O'Casey's autobiographies. O'Casey's memoirs are—as his biographers have pointed out—notoriously unreliable as records of his early life, but they were—as McCourt himself notes—the first Irish memoirs to exploit the full potential of childhood deprivation. Of course, O'Casey's background was the tenements of late Victorian Dublin rather than the Limerick of fifty years ago.
In 'Tis, which follows, straight on from Angela's Ashes, McCourt describes his education in America. It is a classic subject, but it is disappointingly handled. McCourt does point out, revealingly, that as he began to read more and more omnivorously, situations encountered in great novels seemed to parallel his own experience. He epitomizes the Irish hunger for education, and the Irish reliance on self-supporting communities and aggressive camaraderie, which makes the story of Irish America so cheering. He is also honest—self-deprecatingly so—about the national predilection to seek solace and absolution in alcohol, and its effect on his own marriage, though his first wife remains among the most unreal characters in the book.
McCourt's rise from floor-sweeper and lavatory-cleaner, via a spell as a G.I. in Germany, to high-school teacher and night-school lecturer, is impressive in its own terms. But with the best will in the world, it is not very interesting, and the terrible weaknesses of Angela's Ashes also bedevil 'Tis. The characterizations come straight from central casting: the pedophile priest, the angry-but-noble communist, the saintly and paternal black warehouseman. There are encounters that once again strike echoes of other autobiographies. (The inevitable meeting with Billie Holiday is strongly reminiscent of an incident in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.) And the chronological context wavers curiously: McCourt's night-school students in the early 1970s go home to watch Jane Fonda exercise videos, and Irish Americans ask each other in 1958 (eleven years before Northern Ireland erupted) why Catholics and Protestants are at war in "the old country."
McCourt's return visits to Ireland betray equally skewed powers of observation and a fuzzy air of anachronism. This is more important than it might seem, because there is some danger that America is ready to believe in Ireland, past and present, as interpreted through the memories of the McCourt family. Malachy McCourt has already got in on the act, with a book which—it is fair to suppose—would never have seen the light of day without his brother's precedent. This is the literary equivalent of the demographic phenomenon known as "chain migration."
From the awkward pun in the title—Amongst Women, get it?—to the slack, whoozy, flatulent style, the book is an embarrassment. It is a mediocre and self-adoring account of boozing and weeping and whoring and—intermittently—acting. McCourt himself ran a successful New York bar, after leaving Limerick unable (he says) "to do anything but tell lies." He also went on the stage, and fell an early victim of the curse of minor celebrity and major dipsomania. His tedious memoir is a much more unattractive performance than either of his brother's volumes, as well as a far less literate one. It is maniacally class-obsessed—the New York bourgeoisie show off by "yawning at incomprehensible operas" and "yelping over museums." bad cess to 'em—and violently anti-British. These predictable bigotries are by and large absent even from Frank's somewhat jaundiced worldview.
Still, one of the unintentionally interesting elements in A Monk Swimming concerns the author's relationship to the English language. The publishers have the temerity to declare that he "makes the English language do tricks the British never intended." (Hyperion's editors certainly carry the trick through, allowing a passage in which female lips are "ermined" rather than—presumably—"carmined," the legendary Fleet Street bar El Vino is Americanized as "Alvino's," and a bit from J. M. Synge is quoted in so garbled a form as to be senseless.) McCourt himself believes that the Irish "took a dull tongue, English, and made it roar." Here is a sample of his own roaring;
I averred it was a sight to gladden the eyes, the heart, and the internal organs of any decent man walking the earth this day. "Stop the yap." sez the bould Mitchum, "and get it inside of you." He had done a few movies in Ireland, and therefore knew the lingo, and how it could interfere with the quaffing.
In A Monk Swimming, the quaffing has interfered drastically with the lingo. Stage-Irishry leans heavily on a catechism of the tiredest ersatz-English archaisms: almost everything is "ye olde," exchanges are "quoth," things happen "ere long," sex involves "dipping the wick" (though masturbation is "shaking hands with the unemployed"), the author "hies him off" (not often enough), beer is "the chilled amber beverage," Muhammad Ali is "Mr M. Ali of fisticuffs fame," and Jews are "of the Hebraic persuasion."
Malachy McCourt is a professed admirer of J. P. Donleavy and P. G. Wodehouse—neither of them a writer who should be imitated, for exactly opposite reasons. His literary, voice comes through as a misheard echo, looking for sympathy and a seat on the bandwagon. From time to time, though, Malachy McCourt's book does convey something of New York in the 1950s and 1960s, as it must have appeared to a healthy and hungry young immigrant: a Manhattan at once intimate and glamorous, pre-crack, pre-Giulani, pre-Tribeca.
By contrast, one of the strange nullities at the heart of Frank McCourt's autobiographies is the lack of a sense of place—outside, that is, the recalled actuality of Limerick. Frank McCourt's Dublin is pure cardboard. There is, for instance, a very odd interlude in the Shelburne Hotel. This is actually an elegant and venerable Irish institution, with something of the atmosphere of the old Biltmore and the establishment cachet of the Plaza; but in Frank McCourt's memory it is transformed into a place where babies' prams are parked outside, and the bar is peopled by yelling Kerry farmers. Similarly, his time in Germany is never described in terms of the place itself.
In 'Tis, there is not a single New York institution that is sharply realized, with the possible exception of the Staten Island Ferry. Despite wheeling out the odd mandatory jazzman or bum, this Village in these 1950s could be anywhere. McCourt's memoir carries off neither a Proustian recreation of the past through the writer's perfect internal absorption in it, nor the Isherwood trick of becoming an unblinking camera. The voice in the ear wavers, the focus is off-beam.
And yet it is what millions of people want to read (or at least to buy). It confirms the traditional and comforting belief that the Old World is a sow who devours her own farrow, and everything will eventually come right in America, along with creature comforts, blonde women, and hot running water. It fulfills the stereotype of the Irish as brawlers and boozers, excluded from the effete WASP world, at one with their fellow underdogs, with a tear and a smile always at the ready, and a miraculous way with words—as Malachy McCourt must put it, "warm words, serried words, glittering, poetic, harsh, and even blasphemous words."
In a moment of unwitting and damning confession, Malachy McCourt also remarks that "they're all mad in America—they pay you for talking." But they would probably not pay you very much for talking about the new Euro-Ireland. They probably would not pay you for apostrophizing the efficient, moneymaking, politically ruthless Irish-America that was already broaching the country clubs when the brothers McCourt were invading the saloons, and is by now firmly fixed in the yuppie hierarchy of the Upper East Side.
The true story of the Irish in contemporary America could provide just as inspiring a narrative in its own way, but it conforms less to the comfortable old straitjackets of the stories that have gone before. Evelyn Waugh once remarked that to the Irishman there are only two ultimate realities: hell and the United States. The McCourt version postulates that you have to suffer the first in order to be redeemed by the second. It may be a welcome parable for many, especially to the accountants at Simon and Schuster, but it is very, very far from the whole story.
R. F. Foster, "The Million-Dollar Blarney of the McCourts," in New Republic, Vol. 221, No. 18, November 1, 1999, pp. 29-32.
In the following review of Angela's Ashes, Shannon calls it "the most refreshingly unsociological account of poverty I have ever read."
Early last November, high in the Catskills, I attended a celebration of Irish music and dance, the Green Linnet Twentieth Anniversary Festival. Green Linnet is a surprisingly successful record company and organized the event to promote the sale of its tapes and CDs, advertising the weekend in the spirit of secular ecumenism that gladly welcomes the credit cards of every race, creed, and color. But they forgot, perhaps, that this was an Irish party, and nothing Irish ever happens without some kind of fight. The culture war that America has exported to Ireland played itself out quietly in two talks delivered on the margins of the music and dancing: one by the writer Frank McCourt, the other by the priest Father Charlie Coen.
A first-time author at the age of sixty-six, Frank McCourt earned a spot on the Green Linnet roster thanks to the astonishing success of Angela's Ashes, a memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn and Limerick that has spent months on the bestseller lists and recently won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. McCourt has spent most of his unpublished adult life living in the shadow of his brother Malachy, a New York celebrity known as a hard-drinking, Irish literary raconteur, a modernist stage-Irish act of the type perfected by Brendan Behan. McCourt's own public statements, and the initial critical reception of the book, seemed to place it firmly within the tradition of Irish modernist anti-Catholicism. The Irish masses have traditionally not taken kindly to Irish modernism's take on Ireland: the plays of John Synge and Sean O'Casey occasionally met with public riots when they premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theater. In the spirit of riots past, a resident of Limerick is reported to have informed the McCourt brothers, "There are people in this town who would joyfully slit yereffin' throats."
In fact, despite the pious proclamations of the Irish Tourist Board, modern Irish writing remains where it has always been: a long, long way from the spirit of traditional Irish music. I was curious as to how McCourt's anti-Irish Irishman act would play at a weekend devoted to the celebration of Irish culture. McCourt's reading began with a laundry list of Irish pathologies: the drunken father, the helpless mother, the pompous priest, the bullying schoolmaster. As he continued, however, it oddly began to appear that the real blame for his miserable Irish Catholic childhood lay with the weather: "Above all—we were wet." The rain "created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges." I had not read the book, and nothing in the reviews prepared me for McCourt's reading. A friend who had read the book was equally surprised. What she, and many reviewers, had thought of as a serious expression of "raw pain" now sounded more like a comic defiance of death.
Having attended McCourt's reading, I can only conclude that the critical reception of Angela's Ashes says more about the expectations of "serious" Irish writing than about the book itself. Serious Irish writing must involve a solitary hero coming to self-consciousness, throwing off the dead weight of tradition (especially Catholicism), and having sex happily ever after. Critics have mistakenly read the book through the lenses of modernist sociology and psychology. Tough-guy New York newspaperman Pete Hamill praised the book as a scathing indictment of the "culture of poverty" (yes, he really uses this phrase) fostered by "Famon de Valera's Ireland," while the literary critic Denis Donoghue, writing in the New York Times, presented the book in much the same way (though he clearly lacks Hamill's enthusiasm for the story).
It is true that McCourt refuses no gruesome detail in his account of the poverty he experienced as a child in Limerick. But I nonetheless found Angela's Ashes to be the most refreshingly unsociological account of poverty I have ever read. Like premodern folk tales, McCourt's stories present extreme suffering more as a fact of life than a problem to be solved. The childlike voice of the narrator invests poverty with an almost natural quality akin to the weather. People certainly complain about the weather, but they do not criticize it.
I think Hamill, Donoghue, and nearly every other of the American critics who praised Angela's Ashes have equally misread the book as a chronicle of a young man's liberation from a "smothering Irish parochialism." In what is ostensibly a coming-of-age story, the narrator never really shows psychological development. Young Frank discovers Swift and Shakespeare, but reading plays almost no part in the story. Young Frank discovers sex, but sexual awakening appears simply as an awakening to sex, not to some salvific knowledge. In a world where nothing is hidden, nothing can be revealed. The book does conclude with a pseudo-Joycean sexual epiphany, but it appears slapped on as a matter of convention—as that which is expected of an Irish writer. Refreshingly, the book offers not another Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but a fascinating and straightforward Portrait of the Young Man as a Young Man.
This strength is also its weakness. Angela's Ashes leaves one with a sense of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. The book offers a lively sampling of urban folk stories held together only by a sentimental rejection of all things Irish. In this way, it stands as a kind of evil twin to Green Linnet Records, which offers a lively sampling of great musical stories held together only by a sentimental affirmation of all things Irish. Angela's Ashes and Green Linnet Records both speak of a culture still alive with stories but lacking a story.For most of the twentieth century, Ireland has had a story—a cultural story of tradition against modernity; a political story of nationalism and agrarian republicanism against colonialism; and above all a religious story of Catholicism against Protestantism. These three dimensions of Ireland's story came together in the symbolic politics of the Easter Rising of 1916, which offered to the Irish a link between Ireland's secular struggle for independence and the sacred story of Jesus Christ. I held little hope of hearing this story in the Catskills. And then I went to Mass on Sunday.
Even the most secular Irish festival has to have a Mass, if only for the old-timers. Presiding was Fr. Charlie Coen, a Galway native who has served as a parish priest in the greater New York area since his ordination in 1968. Fr. Coen also happens to be a world-class concertina player, with several recordings released through Green Linnet Records. As a Green Linnet artist, Fr. Coen was a natural choice to say the Mass. As a priest, he could not have been further from the spirit of Green Linnet Records.
Fr. Coen is an Irish storyteller who dares to tell the Story. He began his sermon with some good-natured sarcasm concerning the medieval kitsch of the Friar Tuck Inn in which the festival was held. He then placed himself in the role of court chaplain. In medieval times, he told us, a king would often have a personal chaplain for his court. The court chaplain had to be careful—if he said anything to offend the king, he might lose his job. Fr. Coen then proceeded to give a sermon that would have cost a court chaplain not only his job, but his life.
I cannot do justice to the grace and humor with which Fr. Coen delivered his hard message, I can only summarize the content of his sermon: "No one enjoys playing a tune or singing a song more than 1. We should all be grateful to Green Linnet Records for providing the opportunity for us to come together in celebration of Irish music and dance. I fear, however, that Irish culture is in great danger. Irish people have turned away from the faith that sustained them through centuries of oppression. Yes, priests and nuns have done many bad things, but they have done much good as well. When I was a boy in Ireland, people were poor, but they were happy. Today's affluent generation in Ireland and America gloat over the scandals that have rocked the Church and boast of their new-found freedom. This freedom has not brought happiness, only broken families and broken lives. This freedom leads to death, as witnessed most recently by President Clinton's veto of the ban on partial-birth abortions."
I have never heard the battle lines of today's culture war drawn so eloquently. Appropriately enough, Fr. Coen left the last word on this war to the language of song. In response to repeated requests, Fr. Coen consented to sing a song before he gave the final blessing at the end of the Mass. It began simply enough, a nice melody telling a story of lost love. It soon became clear, however, that the song was addressed from a father to a daughter: "One lovely year is all we had, until the sickness came. And stole the roses from her cheeks, my tears they fell like rain. For nine long months she carried you, but in the end she died. She chose to go that you might live. Long, long before your time."
The Irish-American press has been tripping all over itself with praise for Frank McCourt. I have not come across a single review of the Green Linnet weekend that even mentions Fr. Coen. For those who envision a brave new post-Christian Ireland, I offer the contrast of Coen and McCourt. Fr. Coen tells a story of death that affirms life; Frank McCourt tells a story of death that ultimately affirms only Frank McCourt.
Christopher Shannon, "Rising from the Ashes," in First Things, No. 75, August/September 1997, pp. 68-70.
"Refreshingly, the book offers not another Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but a fascinating and straightforward Portrait of the Young Man as a Young Man."
Ascheron, Neal, "Ceremony of Innocence," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 12, July 17, 1997, pp. 24-26.
Atlas, James, "The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now," in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, pp. 25-27.
Elson, John, "Reliving His Bad Eire Days," in Time, Vol. 148, No. 15, September 23, 1996, p. 74.
Foster, R. F., "Tisn't: The Million-dollar Blarney of the McCourts," in New Republic, November 1, 1999, p. 29.
Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Review in Newsweek, Vol. 128, No. 10, September 2, 1996, pp. 68-69.
Kakutani, Michiko, "Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood," in New York Times, September 17, 1996.
Donoghue, Denis, "Some Day I'll Be in Out of the Rain," in New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 13.
In this review of Angela's Ashes, Donoghue comments on his own experiences growing up in Ireland, which were similar to McCourt's.
"Fighting Irish," in National Review, October 26, 1998, p. 40.
This editorial describes how the publication of Angela's Ashes has contributed to an upsurge in America of interest in all things Irish.
Hughes, Carolyn T., "Looking Forward to the Past: A Profile of Frank McCourt," in Poet and Writers Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 5, September—October 1999, pp. 22-29.
This profile of McCourt describes the genesis of Angela's Ashes and McCourt's thoughts on writing and teaching.
Sullivan, Robert, "The Seanachie," in New York Times Magazine, September 1, 1996, pp. 24-27.
A seanachie is a storyteller, and this profile of McCourt emphasizes the wealth of personal stories that McCourt has at his disposal. He is presented as a man who finds humor in the darkest of places.