Angela’s Ashes

Pdf fan
Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Irish Social Tensions Theme Icon
Poverty, Survival, and Morality Theme Icon
Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Angela’s Ashes, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon

Catholicism is a source of enormous social and political conflict in Ireland, but as a personal religious faith, it’s also the moral standard against which Frank McCourt measures himself. Throughout Angela’s Ashes, Frank comes of age by coming to terms with his Catholic education—deciding which parts of the religion he believes in, and which parts he rejects altogether. In short, Catholicism shapes the external reality of Frank’s life, but also affects his inner life and the decisions he makes.

From early on in the memoir, McCourt makes it clear that Catholicism shapes Frank’s understanding of his community and his self. Children become Catholics—which in Limerick just means true human beings—when they go through the ceremony of confirmation and confession. Confirmation Day is an important ritual for Frank and his peers. For the first time in his life, Frank must confess his sins—the most personal part of his life—to a priest. This suggests that Frank is becoming more mature; he’s being pushed to contemplate his own actions and think about doing the right thing. Moreover, just as the confirmation process gives Frank a sense of his own “inner life”—his thoughts, feelings, and sins—it also pushes Frank to realize that his peers have inner lives, too. Shortly after being confirmed, Frank strikes up a friendship with Mikey Molloy, an intelligent, thoughtful boy who was never confirmed because of his uncontrollable muscle spasms. Mikey’s indifference to Catholicism inspires Frank to question his own religion. Yet the thoughtfulness, introspection, and doubt that Frank applies to Catholicism are itself part of the Catholic process of becoming a mature, thinking man. Paradoxically, Catholicism teaches Frank how to doubt Catholicism itself.

Catholicism also shapes Frank’s understanding of sexuality, one of the most important aspects of his coming-of-age. In Catholicism, masturbation and sexual desire outside of marriage are considered sinful. Frank finds this extremely difficult to believe, especially because he often has sexual dreams—he can’t accept that it’s a sin to dream about anything. Yet in spite of his skepticism, Frank subscribes to the Catholic view of sex as original sin, as evidenced by his brief affair with Theresa Carmody, the teenaged girl to whom Frank loses his virginity. When Theresa dies shortly after having sex with Frank, Frank is terrified that she’ll be punished for her sins forever—he blames himself for damning his friend to hell. Religion has shaped Frank’s worldview to the point where he hates himself for disobeying its rules. Even if he has objections to Catholicism, he still calls himself a Catholic.

As McCourt depicts it, the process of becoming a man in Limerick is a process of learning about Catholicism, becoming a Catholic, and then grappling with its teachings. Frank is hardly alone in his sense of guilt and sexual confusion—we get the sense that every person in Limerick has gone through the same things Frank is going through. The majority of people in Limerick resolve their confusion by ultimately accepting Catholicism in their lives, but Frank does not. He leaves Ireland, arrives in New York, and promptly has sex with a young prostitute—a sure sign that Frank has replaced the tenets of Catholicism with his own freedom and curiosity. In all, Catholicism is an inescapable part of life in Limerick—until the characters of Angela’s Ashes have either embraced or moved past their religion, they haven’t truly become adults.

Get the entire Angela’s Ashes LitChart as a printable PDF.
Angela s ashes.pdf.medium

Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age appears in each chapter of Angela’s Ashes. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:

Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age Quotes in Angela’s Ashes

Below you will find the important quotes in Angela’s Ashes related to the theme of Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Frank offers a quick "preview" of the story he's about to tell us: a tour of his miserable childhood growing up in a poor Catholic family in Ireland. He lists some of the characters who made his life so miserable, such as teachers, priests, and alcoholic family members (and soon enough, he'll name and further characterize them).

Frank's tone here lies somewhere between regret and boastfulness. He's clearly saddened by many of the things he experienced as a young boy, and has been deeply affected by his painful childhood. And yet Frank is also curiously proud of his Irish Catholic upbringing: in a strange display of machismo, he contrasts his own childhood with other people's, arguing that he's been through more pain and sadness than anyone he knows (and, perhaps, is tougher and stronger as a result). The quotation is also slightly humorous, despite the misery it describes (something typical of McCourt's style). Frank has been through a lot, but now that he's a fully-grown author, he looks back on his past with a hint of amusement. 


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Angela’s Ashes quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

The minute she losses one child there is another one on the way. We don't know how she does it. She's married four years, five children and another on the way. That shows you what can happen when you marry someone from the North for they have no control over themselves up there a bunch of Protestands that they are. He goes out for work every day but we know he spends all his time in the saloons and gets a few dollars for sweeping floors and lifting barrels and spends the money right back on the drink. It's terrible, Aunt Margaret, and we all think Angela and the children would be better off in her native land. We don't have the money to buy the tickets ourselves for times is hard but you might be able to see your way. Hopping this finds you in fine form as it leaves us thank God and His Blessed Mother.

Related Characters: Delia Fortune (speaker), Philomena Flynn (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. , Angela Sheehan McCourt, Margaret Sheehan
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Angela's cousins, Delia and Philomena, write a letter to Angela's mother, Margaret, who lives in Ireland. They use the letter as an opportunity to air their grievances with regard to Angela's husband, Malachy Sr. Malachy Sr. is a drunken, lazy man—but even worse (in Delia and Philomena's eyes), he's from Northern Ireland, the part of the country that's usually associated with British culture and Protestantism—everything that Angela's Catholic family despises.

The quotation is important because it also establishes a hierarchy of loyalty—family comes even before religion and nationality. In spite of Delia and Philomena's hatred for Malachy Sr., they know that Angela is bound to stay married to him forever (due to her strong Catholic convictions), so Malachy is family now. As a result, Delia and Philomena feel a sense of duty to take care of Malachy Sr. and his children (including Frank), and ask Margaret for her help in bringing the family to Ireland. Delia and Philomena seem not to have much affection for Angela or Malachy; rather, they're acting out of a strong sense of obligation to "blood."

Chapter 3 Quotes

Easter is better than Christmas because Dad takes us to the Redemptorist church where all the priests wear white and sing. They're happy because Our Lord is in heaven. I ask Dad if the baby in the crib is dead and he says, No, He was thirty-three when He died and there He is, hanging on the cross. I don't understand how He grew up so fast that He's hanging there with a hat made of thorns and blood everywhere, dripping from His head, His hands, His feet, and a big hole near His belly.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. (speaker)
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

As Frank adjusts to his life in Ireland, he becomes increasingly familiar with the staples of Irish culture—most importantly, the Catholic church. In this quotation, Frank (who's still a little boy) tries to understand Christianity. Because he's witnessed the deaths of no less than two of his own young brothers, Frank naturally assumes that Jesus (the "baby in the crib") is dead, too. Frank's reaction to the sight of the baby Jesus demonstrates how important religion is for the miserable families of Ireland: when tragedy strikes, people turn to Christianity to come to terms with the tragedy (just as Frank does, albeit in a very crude way). And yet Christianity also seems to be an extension of the misery of life in Ireland, not an escape from it. The sight of Jesus fully grown, on the cross, terrifies the young Frank. It's key to note that Frank can't understand how baby Jesus turns into adult Jesus—by the same token, he can't understand how he, a young boy, will ever "turn into" a fully-grown man. Manhood seems so far away, and death is such a constant part of his life, that growing up seems impossible.

Chapter 4 Quotes

The priest tells Mrs. Molloy not to worry. God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform and surely He has a special purpose for Mikey, fits and all. She says, Isn't it remarkable he can swally all kinds of sweets and buns but if he has to swally the body of Our Lord he goes into a fit? Isn't that remarkable? She worries Mikey might have the fit and die and go to hell if he has any class of a sin on his soul though everyone knows he's an angel out of heaven. Mikey tells her God is not going to afflict you with the fit and then boot you into hell on top of it. What kind of a God would do a thing like that?

Related Characters: Nora Molloy (speaker), Mikey Molloy (speaker)
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Frank introduces us to Mikey Molloy, a young boy who's alienated from his peers because of his violent epileptic fits. Mikey is unable to take communion—a staple of Irish Catholic life—because of the supposed danger that he could have a fit and choke to death on the body of Christ. While technically Mikey's inability to take communion means that he's not a full Catholic, and therefore damned, Mikey insists that he'll be fine—surely no God would send him to hell for something he has no control over.

Mikey is one of the most interesting characters in Angela's Ashes, because he seems especially wise (in a childlike way) when it comes to Catholicism. Mikey can see, very clearly, that it would be wrong for God to send him to Hell simply because he was born with fits—Mikey seems to have a childlike faith in right and wrong, and a justice that extends beyond arbitrary rules. His view of Catholicism avoids the complex tangle of rules and regulations that many of the adults in the community get lost in.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Dad holds my hand going through the streets and people look at us because of the way we're saying Latin back and forth. He knocks at the sacristy door and tells Stephen Carey, This is my son, Frank, who knows the Latin and is ready to be an altar boy.
Stephen Carey looks at him, then me. He says, We don't have room for him, and closes the door.
Dad is still holding my hand and squeezes till it hurts and I want to cry out.
He says nothing on the way home. He takes off his cap, sits by the fire and lights a Woodbine. Mam is smoking, too. Well, she says, is he going to be an altar boy?
There's no room for him.

Related Characters: Malachy McCourt Sr. (speaker), Stephen Carey (speaker), Frank McCourt
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Malachy Sr. takes Frank to one of the local Catholic schools—one of the best schools in the area—and tries to obtain a place for Frank. By this time, Frank has shown aptitude as a writer and a thinker; he'd probably make an excellent student. And yet Frank is turned away from the school without any explanation beyond "We don't have room."

While McCourt never explicitly says so, it's strongly implied that Frank is turned away because of his father's unpopularity. Malachy is well-known to be a North Irishman; in spite of his proven commitment to the IRA, Irish independence, and Catholicism, nothing he does can change the fact that he's an outsider. As a result, Malachy is treated like a second-class citizen, and his children, by extension, aren't offered a good education. Malachy is a lazy, loutish man, but it's possible to feel some sympathy for him: even if Malachy were a responsible father, he'd still be treated like an enemy (and it's also probable that this treatment contributes to the alcoholic behavior that makes him a bad father).

Chapter 7 Quotes

I'm hungry but I'm afraid to go home till I find my father.
He's not in Naughton's fish and chip shop but there's a drunken man asleep at a table in the corner and his fish and chips are on the floor in their Limerick Leader wrapping and if I don't get them the cat will so I shove them under my jersey and I'm out the door and up the street to sit on the steps at the railway station eat my fish and chips watch the drunken soldiers pass by with the girls that giggle thank the drunken man in my mind for drowning the fish and chips in vinegar and smothering them in salt and then remember that if I die tonight I'm in a state of sin for stealing and I could go straight to hell stuffed with fish and chips but it's Saturday and if the priests are still in the confession boxes I can clear my soul after my feed.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr.
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Frank steals some food from a passed out drunken man, and then struggles with his Catholic sense of guilt. The scene suggests that Frank adopts something like a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude toward sinning: he doesn't make a point of sinning, but when his need is great enough, he'll sin, reasoning that he can always repent later on.

In general, the quotation dramatizes the way that Irish youths must learn to navigate their ways through poverty and religion. As a boy who never has enough food, Frank is often put in a position where he has to sin to save his own life: there are times when he has to steal food or risk starving to death. But by this point, Frank is a practicing Catholic—he has plenty of doubts about the religion, but he still goes to confession and attends church on Sundays. Frank has the strong sense that he's doing something wrong by eating the food in this scene—according to the Catholic rules he's been taught, he could be risking going to hell forever. And yet because his hunger is more pressing than his faith in this particular moment, he takes the risk.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I can't stop interfering with myself. I pray to the Virgin Mary and tell her I'm sorry I put her Son back on the cross and I'll never do it again but I can't help myself and swear I'll go to confession and after that, surely after that, I'll never never do it again. I don't want to go to hell with devils chasing me for eternity jabbing me with hot pitchforks.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker)
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

As Frank grows older, he begins to feel sexual desires. But for an Irish Catholic boy, sexual desire is a hideous sin that must be escaped at all costs. When Frank goes to church, he's told again and again that he'll go to hell for enjoying any sexual pleasures outside of marriage. (The passage seems to refer to masturbation—something that Frank believes could get him sent to Hell for eternity, and an act that also "puts Jesus back on the cross.")

The quotation is psychologically accurate in the way it shows Frank promising himself that he'll masturbate "one last time" and then give up masturbation forever. (Of course this never really happens.) In an eerie way, Frank's behavior in this scene is meant to remind readers of Malachy Sr.'s drinking: again and again, Malachy Sr. promises himself he'll give up drinking altogether, only to fall back on his old ways. (The difference is that by drinking, Malachy Sr. hurts his entire family, but when he experiences sexual pleasure, Frank hurts no one else, and probably isn't even hurting himself.) The pressures of Catholic life lead Frank to hate himself and feel a constant sense of guilt.

I can hear Mam crying when she blows into the globe of the paraffin oil lamp and everything goes dark. After what happened she'll surely want to get into her own bed and I'm ready to go to the small one against the wall. Instead, there's the sound of her climbing the chair, the table, the chair, crying up into the loft and telling Laman Griffin, He's only a boy, tormented with his eyes, and when Laman says, He's a little shit and I want him out of the house, she cries and begs till there's whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.
In awhile they're snoring in the loft and my brothers are asleep around me.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt (speaker), Gerard “Laman” Griffin (speaker)
Page Number: 294-95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Frank hears the sound of his mother sleeping in the same bed at Laman Griffin, discussing Frank's future. As Frank listens, we the readers become aware that Angela and Laman are having sex—the implication being that Angela is pleasuring her cousin in order to protect Frank; i.e, to ensure that Laman will continue to give Frank food and shelter. Frank himself, as a boy growing quickly more mature, also seems to recognize the implications of what he hears.

The quotation shows how other people in Limerick—not just Frank—struggle to reconcile their Christian faith with their real-world needs and desires. Angela is still married to Malachy Sr., meaning that she's forbidden from having sex with anyone else. And yet because of her desire to provide for Frank, her child (and also her own desire to survive), she has sex with Laman. For all her Catholic faith, Angela's priority is always her family's survival. In this way, Angela and Frank are kindred spirits: as we've seen, Frank almost always favors his own literal needs over the spiritual requirements of his religion. Angela will do anything to protect her children—even endanger her own soul.

Chapter 15 Quotes

What are you supposed to do?
You're told never never go to the post office to cash one of those money orders for anyone or you'll lose your job forever. But what are you supposed to do when an old man that was in the Boer War hundreds of years ago says his legs are gone and he'd be forever grateful if you'd […] cash the money order and keep two shillings for yourself grand boy that you are.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker)
Page Number: 317
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Frank faces another version of the conflict he's been experiencing for years in Limerick: the clash between morals and rules. Frank has a job delivering telegrams, and he's under strict instructions to do nothing but deliver them. So when an old, suffering man begs Frank to collect money on his behalf, Frank experiences a genuine crisis: clearly, it's the "right" thing to help the old man, but he's under strict instruction to help no one (and to complicate the matter, losing this job would mean losing money for his own family).

The fact that Frank phrases his dilemma in the form of a rhetorical question suggests that he's genuinely confused about what to do: he doesn't know if it's worth risking his job to do the right thing (and ultimately, he chooses to ignore the elderly man and continue delivering telegrams). At this point in the novel, Frank is still young and immature: he's not strong and capable enough to make his own rules, and this means he has to obey the commands of other people (employers, priests, parents), unfair though they might be.

We take our ease on the sofa a while till she says, Don't you have more telegrams to deliver? and when we sit up she gives a little cry, Oh, I'm bleeding.
What's up with you?
I think it's because it's the first time.
I tell her, Wait a minute. I bring the bottle from the kitchen and splash the iodine on her injury. She leaps from the sofa, dances around the parlor like a wild one and runs into the kitchen to douse herself with water.
After she dries herself she says, Lord, you're very innocent. You're not supposed to be pouring iodine on girls like that.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Theresa Carmody (speaker)
Page Number: 324
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank delivers telegrams to the Carmody house, where he encounters a pretty young girl, Theresa. In this passage, Frank has just had sex with Theresa, something neither one of them has done before. Frank notices that Theresa is bleeding, and so he tries to use iodine to make help her "wound."

Theresa's attitude toward Frank is that of an older, more experienced woman to a younger boy. Even though Frank and Theresa are equally inexperienced when it comes to sex, Theresa seems much more confident and self-possessed here: she calls Frank "innocent" (though by Catholic laws he's anything but innocent now!), and her comments about "pouring iodine on girls" suggest that Frank is sexually inexperienced as well (and has in fact caused Theresa pain with his well-intentioned iodine). The irony of the scene is that even after losing his virginity—supposedly a mark of maturity—Frank continues to feel immature, and to act in an amusingly immature way. Indeed, Frank will struggle with feelings of guilt for months to come, due in large part to his belief that any sex out of wedlock is a grievous sin. 

Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can't understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Theresa Carmody
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Theresa—the girl to whom Frank loses his virginity—has died suddenly of tuberculosis. Because Frank had sex with Theresa shortly before her death, he believes that he's condemned Theresa to an eternity spent in hell. Theresa's death represents the first time in the memoir that Frank believes his sinful actions have harmed another person. (He's stolen and masturbated, but in these cases his actions are shown to hurt no one else.)

As misplaced as Frank's guilt might seem to some readers, it's a mark of Frank's growing maturity that he's realizing that his actions have consequences for other people. As Frank explains, he's been surrounded by death for his entire life—but it's not until this moment that he feels truly responsible for another person's pain. The guilt and anxiety that Frank feels for Theresa's damnation outweighs anything he ever felt for Oliver or Eugene, his deceased brothers (although a large part of his sadness probably also comes from the outsized emotions of young love). Frank is growing into a thoughtful, mature young man, but the burden of his maturity is to feel guilty for harming others.

Chapter 17 Quotes

But I want to know about Theresa Carmody in hell, Father.
No, my child. She 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.
Are you sure, Father?
I am, my child.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Father Gregory (speaker), Theresa Carmody
Page Number: 343
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank, still wracked with guilt at having had sex with Theresa Carmody before her untimely death, confesses his sin to Father Gregory. To Frank's surprise and relief, Gregory assures Frank that Theresa would have confessed her sins to a priest before her death—in other words, her soul is in no danger of damnation.

Even more important than the information that Frank receives from Father Gregory is the fact that Frank is confessing to a priest in the first place. In the past, Frank struggles with obeying the tenets of Catholicism—indeed, McCourt suggests that some of these tenets are ridiculous and unfair. But in this passage, McCourt suggests that there are many aspects of Irish Catholicism, particularly the confession, that serve a useful purpose (particularly in the hands of an empathetic priest like Father Gregory). Frank has been feeling guilty about Theresa for months and he feels tied up in Theresa's disease and death. By finally confessing that he and Theresa had sex, then, Frank is choosing to move on from the past. Frank admits that he's sinned, and in the act of admitting this, his sins become past. No longer burdened with a sense of guilt and involvement in Limerick life, Frank is free to look forward to a new life in America.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Frieda tells the priest I had a bit of a dizziness after going to the bathroom, that's what happens when you travel and you're drinking a strange beer like Rheingold, which she believes they don't have in Ireland. I can see the priest doesn't believe her and I can't stop the way the heat is coming and going in my face. He already wrote down my mother's name and address and now I'm afraid he'll write and say your fine son spent his first night in America in a bedroom in Poughkeepsie romping with a woman whose husband was away shooting deer for a bit of relaxation after doing his bit for America in the war and isn't this a fine way to treat the men who fought for their country.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Frieda (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt, Tim Boyle
Related Symbols: America
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank sets sail from Limerick for America. When he arrives in America, he's greeted by a Catholic priest, Tim Boyle. Despite Boyle's warnings, Frank is immediately seduced by and has sex with a woman named Frieda, whose husband, Boyle tells us, is away hunting deer. In essence, Boyle represents everything that Frank has been trying to escape: Catholic guilt, family obligation, patriotism (the reference to "doing his bit" reminds us of the IRA officials who still grumble about the sacrifices they made for their country), etc.

In spite of Boyle's presence, however, Frank seems remarkably relaxed. Although Frank looks back on his time in Ireland with affection and even nostalgia, he also chooses to leave his country behind in favor of a new place. By the same token, he makes the conscious choice not to listen to the authority figures who bossed him around as a child. Thus, after years of being made to feel guilty for his sexuality, here he decides to embrace sexuality without regret. Frank's new sense of freedom and power is emphasized by the contrast with Tim Boyle. Although some of the other priests in the memoir are intimidating, larger-than-life figures who fill the young Frank with terror, Boyle only seems petty and incompetent, and one gets the sense that Frank is tuning him out. Frank isn't frightened of priests, or the rules of Catholicism, anymore. He's ready to begin a new life in America—a life that will one day result in his becoming a famous writer.