Angela’s Ashes

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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
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Irish Social Tensions Theme Icon

As Frank McCourt portrays it, his family’s life in Ireland is dominated by the longstanding tensions between England and Ireland, between Protestantism and Catholicism, between Ireland’s North and the South, and between the wealthy and the poor. These constant tensions deeply affect Frank’s life as he grows up, and also shape the way he views the world. For example, from an early age, Frank is taught to despise the Northern Irish, most of whom are Protestants—even though Frank himself has family from the North. This is a clear sign of the prejudices he faces within his community and of his outsider status among his supposed peers.

The tensions that McCourt portrays in his memoir stretch back hundreds of years, arguably beginning when England became a Protestant nation in the early 1500s. In the following centuries, as England became a major imperial power and Ireland remained impoverished, the hatred between the two countries escalated. England was criticized for doing nothing to prevent the legendary Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century and for imposing strict and unfair taxes on Irish land. The political tension between wealthy, powerful England and impoverished Ireland then manifested itself in the religious conflict between Protestant and Catholic Irish families. From the perspective of Irish Catholics, Irish Protestants were little better than the English. There was also a strong class element in the Catholic-Protestant divide in Ireland: because Catholicism forbids birth control, Catholic families tended to be larger, and therefore poorer. Over time, the ideological, political, and cultural divide in Ireland became a physical divide as well. After 1916, Ireland was split between a large Catholic population in the South and a smaller, predominately Protestant population that was fairly loyal to England in the North. (For more information on this subject, see Background Info.)

The fierce rivalry between different kinds of Irish people is apparent in every aspect of Frank McCourt’s childhood. His father, Malachy Sr., can’t get a job in Limerick, partly because he’s a lazy alcoholic, but also because he’s from Northern Ireland. Ironically, the fact that Malachy Sr. is actually a Catholic makes no difference in Limerick. The fact that he’s from the North—the symbol of Protestantism, England, and imperialist aggression—is enough to make him despised. Frank also slowly realizes that his family is poor partly because his Catholic parents are forbidden from using any kind of birth control. As the book moves along, the McCourts gain new children which they’re financial incapable of supporting. The few Protestant families Frank knows are wealthier and more powerful, in no small part because they have fewer mouths to feed.

As Frank grows up, he feels himself being pulled in a specific direction regarding all these tensions: towards Catholicism, Southern Irish life, and poverty. Because everyone else in his life is Catholic and fiercely anti-English, he’s expected to be, as well. By trial and error, Frank learns an important lesson about social rivalries: the only kind of person more despised than an enemy is a defector. Essentially, he must choose a side in these social tensions, or else be scorned as an outsider. When Frank refuses to join a Catholic boy’s group, for instance, his coworkers and friends shun him. To live in Limerick is to be Catholic and anti-English: by refusing to go along with the rest of the group in even the smallest of ways, Frank makes himself an outsider, no better—in fact, worse—than a Northern Protestant.

In spite of the tremendous social pressure to conform and choose sides in the social tensions of Irish life, Frank is naturally drawn to outsiders—those like his friend, Mikey, who refuse to go along with the group, or even those like his father, who couldn’t go along with the group even if they wanted to. In the end, Frank refuses to build his life around the religious and social tensions of Ireland and leaves the country altogether, becoming an outsider himself.

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Irish Social Tensions Quotes in Angela’s Ashes

Below you will find the important quotes in Angela’s Ashes related to the theme of Irish Social Tensions.
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. 


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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 2 Quotes

A man with a pink patch on his eye tells us we're on the right street, Charlie Heggarty lives at number fourteen, God blast him. The man tells Dad, I can see you're a man that did his bit. Dad says, Och, I did my bit, and the man says, I did me bit, too, and what did it get me but one eye less and a pension that wouldn't feed a canary.
But Ireland is free, says Dad, and that's a grand thing.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. (speaker), Mr. Heggarty (speaker)
Page Number: 51-52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Malachy Sr. crosses paths for a former IRA official—someone who fought for Irish independence in the 1910s. The IRA was successful in achieving independence for Southern Ireland, but when Ireland was granted independence, it struggled to take care of itself. The quotation exposes some of the problems that arose after the 1910s: there were still massive problems of hunger and unemployment afflicting the country. Worse, people who'd done their "bit" (i.e., sacrificed their health and happiness to fight for Ireland) often found themselves wounded, alone, and unemployed—without reward for their service.

The irony of this quotation is clear: all the "grandness" of Irish independence doesn't amount to anything if people can't feed their families. As we'll quickly see, Malachy Sr., as an irresponsible alcoholic, focuses on the abstract glory of his country as a way of dodging responsibility for taking care of his children—but also as a way of finding hope and meaning in his rather depressing existence. We'll also see that Malachy, while lazy and ultra-patriotic, is hardly the exception among Irishmen: the Irish are an incredibly proud, patriotic people, even when patriotism gets in the way of their happiness.

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 8 Quotes

I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I'm up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won't wake up the rest of the family. Mikey Molloy stole Cuchulain, the Angel on the Seventh Step is gone someplace else, but my father in the morning is still mine. He gets the Irish Press early and tells me about the world, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. He says this war is none of our business because the English are up to their tricks again. He tells me about the great Roosevelt in Washington and the great De Valera in Dublin. In the morning we have the world to ourselves and he never tells me I should die for Ireland.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. , Angela Sheehan McCourt, Mikey Molloy
Page Number: 208-09
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complex passage, Frank tries to come to terms with his father: a man who's both a good, loving father, and an unbelievably neglectful alcoholic. Frank can't deny that his father is endangering his (Frank's) own health by spending so much money on alcohol instead of food. Yet he also admires his father for his intelligence, his talent for storytelling, and his kindness towards Frank in these private morning sessions.

So how can Frank love and hate someone at the same time? The paradox of loving and hating simultaneously lies at the heart of Frank's childhood. Again and again, he's put in a situation where he both loves and fears something, whether it's God, his father, his education, or his family. As a young man, Frank tends to move back and forth between love and hatred for his father, and it's only much later (as an adult, when he's writing this novel) that Frank looks back at his family and accepts that his father was both despicable and admirable at the same time.

Chapter 9 Quotes

And what's your name?
McCourt, sir.
That's not a Limerick name. Where did you get a name like that?
My husband, sir. He's from the North.
He's from the North and he leaves you here to get the relief from the Irish Free State. Is this what we fought for, is it?
I don't know, sir.
Why don't you go up to Belfast and see what the Orangemen will do for you, ah?
I don't know, sir.
You don't know. Of course you don't know. There's great ignorance in the world.

Related Characters: Angela Sheehan McCourt (speaker), Mr. Coffey (speaker), Mr. Kane (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr.
Page Number: 233-234
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Angela goes to the local Irish Free State office (a public place where the families of soldiers who fought for Irish independence can collect benefits) and tries to get some money to feed her family. The two men working at the office, Mr. Coffey and Mr. Kane, are polite to Angela at first, but then turn on her when they realize that she's married to Malachy, a Northern Irishman.

Coffey and Kane's taunts remind Frank of the prejudices he's forced to weather because of his father's outsider status in Limerick. Although Malachy drinks away his wages and starves his family, it's important to remember that he's not entirely to blame for his family's poverty: he can barely get a job or collect relief because his town is prejudiced against people from his part of the country. The scene is a stark reminder of the vast importance of geography, culture, and religious affiliation in Ireland.

Chapter 14 Quotes

I can't tell her about Mam and Laman Griffin and the excitement in the loft. I tell her I was thinking of staying here a while because of the great distance from Laman Griffin's house to the post office and as soon as I get on my feet we'll surely find a decent place and we'll all move on, my mother and brothers and all.
Well, she says, that's more than your father would do.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Aunt Aggie (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. , Gerard “Laman” Griffin
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank chooses to leave Laman Griffin's house, because he can't stand arguing with Laman, and can't stand the idea that his mother is sleeping with him. Instead, Frank goes to stay with his Aunt Aggie, a woman whom he dislikes greatly. Frank gives Aggie a half-truth: he claims that he's moving to be closer to work. To Frank's surprise, Aggie praises Frank for his determination and drive.

It's important to keep in mind that the compliment Aggie gives Frank ("that's more than your father would do") isn't actually much of a compliment, considering what Aggie thinks of Frank's father, Malachy Sr. Aggie seems not to expect much of Frank, because he's the son of a lazy, drunken Northerner—so she's impressed that he's making any effort at all to provide money for his family. And yet even if Aggie's compliment isn't all that kind, it reminds us that Frank is growing into a responsible young man. Instead of escaping into drink, like many in his community, he turns to hard work to support himself and offer help to his mother and siblings.

Chapter 15 Quotes

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. 

Chapter 16 Quotes

She whispers to Miss Barry and they look at me and shake their heads.
A disgrace he is to Ireland and his poor mother. I hope she never finds out. But what would you expect of one born in America and his father from the North. We put up with all that and still took him back.
She keeps talking past me again to the boys on the bench.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Mrs. O’Connell , Miss Barry
Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank has a steady job working at the local post office. But instead of attending his exams—exams that would enable him to become a postman—Frank chooses to interview for a job distributing newspapers. When Frank returns from his job interview, he's surprised to find that his employers at the post office are furious with him: they've interpreted his behavior as arrogant and irresponsible.

Although the women at the post office think of Frank as a "bad sort," they're revealing their own small-mindedness as they criticize Frank. There's nothing particularly wrong with interviewing for a newspaper job, but the women at the post office don't like it, because it suggests that Frank thinks he's "too good" for post office work. Furthermore, working at the post office is such a traditional career option for poor Irish boys that to go off the beaten path is, implicitly, to insult all of Irish culture. In short, the post office employees distrust anyone who's different from them—and they try to punish Frank for his independence with this amusingly narrow-minded sort of "guilt trip."

For his part, Frank shows that he's an original, forward-thinking young man: he refuses to take the beaten path simply because lots of other people have taken it before him. Even as a young man, he's beginning to distrust and actively resent life in Limerick: he wants a way out.

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.