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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Context


Irish History and Politics

Angela's Ashes takes place primarily in Limerick, Ireland, during the 1930s and 1940s. Ireland won independence from the United Kingdom after the guerilla war from 1919 to 1923 between British security forces (RCI) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Ireland's capital is Dublin. Northern Ireland, however, along with England, Wales, and Scotland, is still part of the United Kingdom. Although the Irish war of independence was considered a nationalist war, religious hostility between Protestants (aligned with the English) and Catholics (the majority religion in Ireland) likely played a role as well.

Religious conflict in Ireland is centuries old and continues today. In the 17th century under English military leader Oliver Cromwell, English Protestants colonized predominantly Catholic Ireland. In the aftermath of the 1641 Irish Rebellion, Cromwell's often cruel military campaign took the island, the siege of Limerick from 1650 to 1651, being one of the last holdouts of the Irish Army. In other battles at Drogheda and Wexford, Cromwell's troops massacred thousands of Irish soldiers, and Cromwell imposed severe restrictions on the Catholic population designed to eradicate Celtic and Catholic heritage.

Tensions never quite ceased, resurfacing again in the 1918 elections when the Sinn Féin party won an overwhelming majority, favoring home rule and independence from the United Kingdom. Sinn Féin declared a Republican parliament and supported the IRA in the ensuing war of independence.

Anti-English Sentiment and Irish Nationalism

Although Frank McCourt's father, Malachy, fought in the IRA and unquestionably was Catholic, the McCourts are outsiders in Ireland. Whereas Angela's family is from Limerick, Malachy Sr.'s is from Toome, a small town in Northern Ireland, the part of the island that sided with England during the war of independence. Consequently Angela's family harbors resentment toward her husband and, by extension, his family, illustrating the deep political and religious rift between Northern Ireland and the young Republic of Ireland. The historical invasion of Ireland by the English forces and the oppression of the Irish led to the anti-English sentiment not only of Angela's family but of Limerick as a whole. Despite his questionable birthplace, Malachy McCourt Sr. strongly supports Irish nationalism by teaching his children it is an honor to fight and die for Ireland. Until a new teacher, Mr. O'Halloran, informs his students that the Irish, too, committed atrocities during the revolution, Frank grows up believing the opposition between the Irish and English is equivalent to the distinction between good and evil.

The Great Depression and World War II

Following the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, in the United States, the world was thrust into a deep depression. Banks closed, and people lost their savings. Companies went out of business, and workers lost their jobs. With no income, people could not pay their mortgages or rents and lost their homes. Inflation, unemployment, and homeless rates were at an all-time high. Ireland, poor and primarily rural, suffered from particularly low return rates for its crops and livestock during those years. Because of widespread poverty, many Irish citizens emigrated to the United States, where opportunities seemed greater despite the Great Depression and where many had relatives.

The McCourts already lived in the United States in 1929, feeling firsthand the effects of the Great Depression. Like many other Irish immigrants at the time, Malachy Sr. was unemployed for long stretches of time. The decision to return to Ireland was prompted mostly by Angela's grief and distance from family. The family's hope for greater opportunity in their homeland may have been justified during such difficult financial times abroad; however, being from Northern Ireland, Malachy Sr. was an outsider in Limerick, and the few available jobs went to locals first.

The effects of the Great Depression lasted until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Ireland remained neutral during the war (called the Emergency in Ireland), while the United Kingdom was part of the Allied forces with the United States, France, and the Soviet Union fighting Germany and its allies Italy and Japan. The English war effort created a need for workers in munitions factories, and a large number of Irish citizens moved to England to seek employment. Indeed many neighbors of the McCourts improved their situations with money sent home by husbands and sons in England. Malachy Sr. moved to England as well but, unlike his neighbors, rarely sent money home. He spent it on alcohol, as he usually did.

Truth in Memoir

A memoir is a narrative in which the author, narrator, and main character are the same person looking back on an experience or a particular time of life. Successful memoirs, however, do more than tell an individual's story; they offer insight into overarching themes; discuss human frailties with candor and often, but not always, empathy; or celebrate the human spirit, often despite hardship.

One issue memoir writers face is how much, if any, fictionalizing is necessary. Some writers change the name of their real-life subjects, for instance, to prevent readers from knowing unhappy or unfortunate details of the subjects' lives. Others change more, raising the question of whether fictionalizing is an acceptable strategy in nonfiction writing.

Frank McCourt had his fair share of criticism for fictionalizing in Angela's Ashes. Despite the overwhelming international success of the book, Limerick residents took exception to its content, claiming McCourt greatly exaggerated the misery of his life and family's plight in Limerick, allowing his pen to follow where a grudge rather than facts would take him. The controversy over details notwithstanding, there is no doubt the McCourts were poor, that Angela raised her children with little help from her husband, and that it took tremendous determination to leave the lanes of Limerick behind.
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