Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Frank McCourt, the first-person-narrator, begins his memoir with a quick overview. His parents meet and get married in New York but return to Ireland in a few years. He describes his youth there as a "miserable Irish Catholic childhood": poverty; an alcoholic, charming father; a long-suffering, ill-tempered mother; "pompous priests"; and "bullying schoolmasters."

Frank's father, Malachy McCourt, grew up in Northern Ireland fighting for the IRA but had to escape to America after committing a crime. He returned to Ireland with his family, and later goes back to Belfast, where he eventually dies. Frank's mother, Angela Sheehan, was born in Limerick at midnight on New Year's Eve. Angela escapes the Limerick slums to America, where she meets Malachy. When Angela gets pregnant, her cousins and their husbands ensure that Malachy marries her. Five months later Frank is born, then Malachy Jr., then the twins Eugene and Oliver, then Margaret—all before Frank's fifth birthday.

The McCourts can barely make ends meet because even when Malachy Sr. has a job, he often drinks his earnings away. Nonetheless, Frank remembers enjoying playing on the swings in a nearby park, or listening to his father's story about Cuchulain, a great Irish warrior.

The fifth child, Margaret, dies as a seven-week old infant. Angela falls into a deep depression and is unable to care for her family, and Malachy Sr. goes on a drinking spree. Two neighbors, Mrs. Leibowitz and Mrs. MacAdorey help feed the children and contact Angela's cousins in New York, Philomena and Delia, for help. They in turn write to Angela's mother in Limerick asking her to send money for the family's passage back to Ireland. As the ship leaves New York Harbor, Angela vomits. Frank watches the Statue of Liberty.

Analysis

McCourt immediately classifies his memoir as a coming-of-age story and introduces the themes that will permeate its pages: unrelenting and crushing poverty, religion in general and the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism in particular, his family's dual roots—here, in both Ireland and America—his father's excessive drinking, and his mother's endless struggles. All this he calls a typical Irish childhood and hence "a miserable childhood," which, he jokes, makes the telling worthwhile: "The happy childhood is hardly worth your while." From the start, McCourt's dry humor and compassion undercut the hopelessness of the family's situation, and he establishes the typical stance of the memoir: an older, presumably wiser narrating self is looking back on a younger, experiencing self. Frank McCourt the storyteller knows what will happen, and it is this informed perspective that allows the infusion of humor. His older self knows returning to Ireland was a mistake and did not solve the family's problems, yet he also knows he will be fine, and in retrospect he can make light of the hardships of his upbringing.

As the narrator McCourt uses both past and present tense to tell his story. In general he uses the past tense to provide background information and to cover longer time periods. He switches to present tense as he stops to create a specific scene so that readers get the sense the event is unfolding before their eyes, as he does with his mother's birth. In scenes in which the child Frank is present—scenes such as those in the playground and at home—McCourt uses the present tense, narrating from a child's perspective, allowing insights into his character and into the ways he views those around him. The child's perspective also allows him to describe distinctly adult experiences naively, so the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

His mother's birth at midnight on New Year's Eve represents the betweenness of the McCourt family. Angela was born a Catholic in Ireland, yet emigrated to Protestant America. Nurse O'Halloran's description of Angela as a "time straddler, born with her head in the New Year and her arse in the Old" suggests a duality in her nature. The Irish songs Frank's father sings and teaches his boys suggest the same situation: even in New York the Irish culture is ever-present. Malachy Sr. even requests his sons swear to fight and die for Ireland, as he did when he fought in the IRA.

The stories of Cuchulain, a mythical Irish folk hero, offer a connection to the Irish heritage for Frank, who was born in New York and hence is American. Furthermore Cuchulain and the other stories his father tells become both an escape from and a bulwark against the reality of Irish immigrant conditions in New York in the 1930s. In a world of poverty and want, Frank's only prize possession are stories, his only riches his imagination, and they will serve him well.

The family's Irish roots and Roman Catholicism work against them in many ways. In the midst of the Great Depression, jobs are hard to find, and immigrants go to the end of the line. It's also more difficult for them to get public assistance. And their religion's prohibitions against contraception mean they procreate frequently, making many mouths to feed. Finally, at the time, being Irish and drinking were nearly synonymous. Still, Margaret's birth represented hope in a time of crisis. Frank's father was briefly sober and the family happy. When she dies, Malachy Sr. gets drunk, and Angela stays in bed for days, leaving the four boys, all under five years old, virtually unattended. The situation is untenable; consequently, Angela's cousins ensure the family returns home to Ireland.

Frank's sadness that his sister Margaret is no longer alive to share a bowl of soup his neighbors offer shows his sensitivity. That he doesn't know what bowls are speaks to the conditions in which he has been living. His desire to be the man his mother needs to provide for her family demonstrates his insight into the family's dire situation and his empathy with his mother's plight. Indeed Frank is the one at his mother's side when she vomits upon setting sail to Ireland. This last image of Chapter 1 suggests Frank has matured beyond his age already and will be called upon as a man far too soon.

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