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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 5 | Summary



Many families in town do not speak to each other often because of age-old religious or political grudges. Some families might have been estranged for hundreds of years because somebody helped the English or became a Protestant to avoid starvation. "Dad doesn't talk to anyone in Mam's family, and they don't talk to him because he's from the North and he has the odd manner." Nonetheless, Angela remains loyal to him. In giddy conversations with her friend, Bridey Hannon, Angela recites a poem about a lover from the North. Similarly neighbors show Malachy Sr. considerable respect, asking him to write letters for them, for he is a good writer with nice penmanship.

Frank's grandmother takes in a Protestant lodger. During the summer Frank is hired to bring lunch to his work site. During the first delivery Frank eats all the food. As punishment he has to deliver the lunch for free and watch it being eaten.

His parents' smoking causes their teeth to rot, and they replace them with dentures. From then on "when they talk their teeth clack." And yet, despite the dangers to their health, "they have to have the Woodbines." Malachy Jr. tries on his father's teeth, which get stuck in his mouth. They go to the hospital, where a doctor realizes Frank needs his tonsils removed.

Frank's mother sends him to dance lessons. Embarrassed he soon skips and goes to the movies instead. When his parents find out, Malachy Sr. drags him to confession with an old priest.

Three years pass: "I'm seven, eight, nine going on ten and still Dad has no work" because he loses every job on the third Friday like clockwork. Angela complains to her friend Bridey Hannon about her husband's drinking and delusions of grandeur about his service for the IRA.

Religion continues to play an important role in daily life. To prove to the St. Vincent de Paul Society they are good Catholics, Frank must join the Arch Confraternity of the Holy Family at the Redemptorist church. Declan Collopy, head of Frank's division, is using his position with the Confraternity to get a job selling linoleum. Malachy Sr. wants Frank to become an altar boy and teaches him Latin in painstaking sessions. When Frank is ready, they dress up in their best clothes and go to church, where they are turned away immediately. Frank's mother is sure it is "class distinction. They don't want boys from lanes on the altar."


This chapter shows Frank's attempts to navigate the complicated world of adults. Religious and political differences cause great rifts even within families and over several generations. Frank learns Catholics shun Protestants and nonbelievers alike, showing a particular distaste for "soupers," those who accepted a bowl of soup from Protestants and converted. McCourt uses the memoir style to observe and report as a child would, without commentary, so readers can form their own judgments without his having to incriminate members of his family or neighbors. Division runs deep in his own family: his mother's side of the family shuns his father because he is from Northern Ireland, and some Protestants may lurk in his background. No matter how trivial—and the older McCourt tacitly acknowledges them as such although the young Frank does not—grudges and prejudices are easily developed, deep, and enduring. In fact they seem as ingrained as the class distinctions, chronic unemployment, and alcoholism that cripple the population.

Unlike his mother's family, the neighbors show respect for Malachy Sr.'s knowledge. Not only is he more educated than the others, he is also willing to help. Writing letters for those who cannot write, he lends both his penmanship and his "way with words" to help neighbors say what they want in more eloquent terms. His sophistication becomes clear when he teaches Frank Latin so he can become an altar boy. However, they are turned away because they are poor, illustrating the other great divide in town: class. As a poor family with a father from the North, Frank's family has few choices and opportunities to better themselves.

At the beginning of the chapter Angela shows loyalty to and love for her husband in her conversations with Bridey Hannon, but in a "mirror scene" toward the end she voices her frustration and despair. After three years, the family still lives off the dole and charity. Malachy Sr. has not found a steady job and instead has established a predictable pattern of losing every job he finds because he cannot control his drinking. No matter how detrimental his drinking is to his family's welfare, Malachy Sr. is unable, or unwilling, to give it up.

Similarly, neither he nor Angela can give up smoking, revealing a pattern of self-destructive behavior. In fact Angela's only pleasure is smoking, to which she is as addicted as her husband. Nor does she voice any desire to stop smoking, which, in those days, was not considered the health menace it is now.

Slowly beginning to understand the way his world turns, Frank realizes poverty is a defining crux of their existence. He seems to accept this situation and do what is expected of him to help. He joins the Confraternity to ensure continued support from the charities in town and delivers lunch to his grandmother's lodger, as told to, although he does not want to do it. And yet a quiet note of sadness, even despair, flows into Frank's narrative when he acknowledges his parents' predicament, asserting that cigarettes are "the only comfort they have."

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