For the characters in Angela’s Ashes, life is—to use McCourt’s own word—miserable. The characters are often too poor to feed themselves, their children and loved ones die of horrible diseases, and there’s a general sense that their lives will never get any better. Why don’t the people of Limerick collapse in despair? How do they find happiness in their miserable lives?
The single most common way that people in Angela’s Ashes cope with sadness is drinking. Almost all the men in the book, and some of the women, too, frequent the pubs of Limerick late at night, spending their wages on pints of beer. Alcohol is an important way to cope with misery because it allows the drinker to retreat into nostalgia or sentimentality and forget about the present. Drinking at a pub, we see again and again, is a way to escape into the past, where things seems simpler and better. Even Malachy Sr., who’s often thrown out of the pubs where he drinks, likes to come home drunk and force his children to swear that they’d die for Ireland—a patriotic, even nostalgic gesture that distracts Malachy Sr. from the harsh reality that he’s currently unemployed and half-starved. The problem with drinking away one’s sorrows, of course, is that it’s a vicious cycle. Drinking doesn’t just relieve sadness; it creates new sadness, since drinking heavily means spending most of one’s money, and therefore remaining poor. Alcohol is also a depressant, meaning that Malachy Sr.’s drinking may make him feel happy in the short term, but ultimately it only makes him more depressed and more likely to drink again.
Another common way for the people of Limerick to relieve their suffering is escapism, particularly through religion and the idea of heaven. Catholicism teaches that those who lead good, pious lives will be rewarded in heaven forever. There are many times when a character in the book loses a loved one, and the character’s only relief is the belief that the loved one is “in a better place now.” If there’s a flaw in this way of coping with tragedy, it’s that religion encourages people to accept their misery instead of trying to get rid of it or better their situations. In general, the characters in Angela’s Ashes turn to various forms of “escapism” to cope with tragedy: instead of trying to fight tragedy, they try to forget about it. Even Frank adopts his own form of escapism by going to watch movies at the cinema when he’s had a troubling experience.
Although Frank indulges in his own forms of escapism, he also refuses to accept the state of constant misery in his own life and instead works to change things. The movies Frank sees at the cinema are almost always from America, an early sign that Frank aspires to travel to the United States one day, and—more abstractly—that Frank wants to improve his situation instead of quietly accepting it as inevitable. Through hope, ambition, and hard work, Frank manages to save enough money to pay for a ticket to America, where (as the last word of the book suggests), he’s happier. As the book draws to a close, we realize that Frank has refused to drown his sorrows in religion, alcohol, or escapism (as most everyone in Limerick does)—instead he’s faced his misery head-on, and fought it off.
Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape ThemeTracker
Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape Quotes in Angela’s Ashes
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.
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.
Grandma whispers to Aunt Aggie, Who'll put the child in the coffin? and Aunt Aggie whispers, I won't. That's the job for the mother.
Uncle Pat hears them. I'll put the child in the coffin, he says. He limps to the bed and places his arms around Mam's shoulders. She looks up at him and her face is drenched. He says, I'll put the child in the coffin, Angela.
Dad stands for a minute, swaying, and puts the penny back in his pocket. He turns toward Mam and she says, You're not sleeping in this bed tonight. He makes his way downstairs with the candle, sleeps on a chair, misses work in the morning, loses the job at the cement factory, and we're back on the dole again.
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.
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.
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.
He's not coming, Mam. He doesn't care about us. He's just drunk over there in England.
Don't talk about your father like that.
The Irish army is looking for boys who are musical and would like to train in the Army School of Music. They accept my brother, Malachy, and he goes off to Dublin to be a soldier and play the trumpet.
Now I have only two brothers at home and Mam says her family is disappearing before her very eyes.
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.
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.
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.
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.