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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

When the McCourts return to Ireland, they first stay in Northern Ireland with Malachy Sr.'s parents who have neither extra room nor money. The next morning the McCourts go to Dublin where Malachy Sr. asks for a stipend for his service for Ireland but is turned down because there is no record of his time at the IRA, his service having been cut short when he fled the country. When Malachy Sr. begs for money for a drink, the agent is appalled and turns him away with nothing. The family spends the night in a police station, where the officers take care of them and collect money for bus fare to Limerick. In Limerick Angela's mother has no room and little money but gives them enough to rent a room—with one bed—for two weeks. When the bed turns out to be flea infested, Malachy Sr. and Frank clean it, and the family makes do.

Angela has a miscarriage. Upon her return from the hospital she goes to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to ask for charity because the dole money is not enough to feed a family of six. At first suspicious of her because of a coat she brought from New York, the other women in line show sympathy when she tells them about the death of her baby girl. She even makes a friend, Nora, who makes sure the grocer does not cheat.

When Oliver gets ill, the boys stay with Aunt Aggie. When her husband, Pa Keating, plays with Malachy Jr., Aggie is overcome with sadness because she has "no hope of having [her] own." Oliver dies; at his funeral, Frank chases away the birds with rocks.

Because Malachy Sr. keeps spending money on drink, Angela accompanies him to the office of the Labour Exchange to take the dole from him, although she knows she will embarrass him in front of the other men. The family moves to another room with two beds, close to the school Frank and Malachy Jr. will attend. Their classmates tease them because they are Yanks, and Frank even gets into a fight with a classmate. All children try to navigate the teacher's arbitrary rules to avoid corporal punishment. Some teachers hate America, others England.

Despite his older brother's attempts to play with Eugene to keep him from remembering his twin, Eugene looks for him everywhere and dies six months later from pneumonia. Angela is medicated; Malachy Sr. drinks. On the day of the funeral Malachy Sr. takes Frank along to pick up the dole money and the coffin. When they tell everyone about the twins' deaths, people give Frank money. His father suggests Frank buy sweets while he goes to a pub. Frank buys some toffee and then goes to fetch his father. When his father puts a pint on the coffin, Frank objects, and "after the long swallow, I push it away." After the funeral Frank and Malachy Jr. eat fish and chips. Frank imagines heaven as a warm place where "all the fathers bring home the money from the Labour Exchange and you don't have to be running around to pubs to find them."

Analysis

The beginning of the chapter shows how McCourt's memoir is different from many Irish narratives: he's a stranger to Ireland, having been born in urban New York. Sights of the countryside—cows and sheep—are foreign to him and his brothers. Their accents and lack of familiarity with Irish vocabulary identify them as Americans. They suffer at school, where they are confronted with the movie stereotypes of cowboys and gangsters from their classmates and teachers. Meanwhile, at home, their family disapproves of their father's Northern Irish origins. Thus, Frank is perpetually cast as an outsider, with no hope of finding a homeland to which he can return or belong.

Both families' reluctance to help the McCourts comes not entirely from a lack of empathy, although the McCourts experience some of that feeling, but from a lack of means. Neither family has money or space to spare. Poverty in Ireland is all consuming. One more mouth to feed, let alone six, is simply too much. Out of dire need, everyone needs to fend for himself. The level of destitution is illustrated by shopkeepers stooping so low as to cheat those on charity.

Nonetheless, Angela's relatives do not hold back judgment; Malachy Sr. is a deadbeat husband and father. Angela's frustration with her husband's drinking is palpable, as is her desperation. As a mother of four, she has no choice but to go to extremes to secure food, drink, and materials to light a fire. She is even willing to humiliate herself to do so, picking up scraps of coal and wood from the street and following her husband to the Labour Office to snatch the dole money the moment he receives it.

And yet, to Frank, his family is the only safe haven in a strange country. He experiences a sense of safety and a brief moment of happiness when cuddling in bed with his family and doesn't mind if "there's the odd flea ... because it's warm in the bed with the six of us." The family sticks together and manages to laugh at the strange customs of their new home and the accents of their Irish family. Frank feels secure as he sees his father reach out for his brother as he stirs in his sleep. No matter how bad his drinking may be, his father shows his sympathetic nature when he is sober. However, the moment of reprieve is short. Days later Oliver dies, and six months later so does Eugene. All too early Frank must experience that life is fickle and happiness fleeting. Death cannot be stopped, and as the story progresses, Frank gets used to death.

Frank feels lost when facing his parents' devastation over his brothers' deaths. Everyone seems to be alone with their grief. His mother falls once again into a depression, his father once again drinks, and Frank finds comfort in imagining a heaven without poverty. Pa Keating's war story may seem out of place at first, but it shows people must deal with the unfathomable in their own way. When facing a child's death, any reaction—and none—is appropriate.

The family's situation is not as clear cut as it may seem. Malachy Sr. certainly is not a model family man: he drinks away the money and spends more time in the pub than with his grieving wife. However, he behaves this way not because he doesn't care but because he is devastated by his loss. Like his wife, he is trying what he can to help the family, yet his alcoholism gets in the way. Indeed alcohol is presented as part of the fabric of life in Ireland, treated like medicine on the one hand and an enjoyable male pastime on the other. But it is far from harmless: Frank's father chooses alcohol over food for his children. When Frank stands up to his father and removes the black pint from the white coffin meant for his brother, his father complies, although the men around him tell him to discipline his son, as if to suggest he realizes he cannot drink his sorrow away.

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