The narrator, Frank McCourt, describes being born in New York to a large family. Frank’s parents moved back to their original home, Ireland, when Frank was four years old. Frank is the eldest of his siblings. He has a brother, Malachy Jr., who is one year younger than he is, and two twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, who are three years younger. Frank also had a younger sister named Margaret McCourt, who died as a small child. Frank notes that his childhood was “miserable”—so miserable that he can’t imagine how he survived. The worst kind of childhood, he notes, is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
Angela’s Ashes provides an interesting twist on the usual narrative of “immigrant fiction”—here the protagonist is born in America, goes to Ireland, and then spends his early adulthood trying to go back. From the start, Frank McCourt makes it clear that his memoir is not going to be a happy one—it’s going to be about his “miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” He is direct and sometimes even humorous about the varieties of misery he experienced, however, and this keeps the book moving forward at a quick, entertaining pace.
Among all the horrors of an Irish Catholic childhood, Frank explains, “wetness” is the most common. In the city of Limerick, Ireland, there is a constant rain. The rain spreads diseases and gives people bad coughs. There is so much rain in Limerick that as a young boy Frank and his family would go to the church just to be dry.
Right away, McCourt draws a distinction between religious values and survival. He suggests that the people of Limerick go to church to survive, first, and foremost, and to learn about Christianity second. At the same time, this image also shows how important the church is to daily life in Limerick—it is the natural place to go for shelter.
Frank’s father is named Malachy McCourt (Malachy Sr.). He was born in Toome, and had a rough life, always getting in trouble. As a baby, he was dropped on his head—supposedly, this accident made him “a bit peculiar.” Malachy Sr. liked being in New York because, in spite of Prohibition (laws prohibiting any alcohol sale or consumption), there were speakeasies where he could drink. At the end of his life, Malachy moved to Belfast and gave up alcohol. He died in a hospital, unremarkably.
The first thing we learn about Malachy McCourt is that he’s a little “strange in the head.” The second thing we learn about him is that he’s an alcoholic—indeed, Malachy’s drunkenness will be his most recognizable character trait throughout the memoir. Interestingly, we’re told that Malachy gives up drinking at the end of his life—a fact that McCourt never mentions again. For the purposes of the book, however, Malachy is a drunkard through and through.
Frank’s mother, Angela Sheehan, grew up in Limerick, with a big family. She never knew her own father, who had left the family shortly before she was due to be born. Frank describes what Angela’s father might have been like, years ago. He would drink heavily, late into the night, and sing bawdy Irish songs. Once he was playing with his son, Patrick Sheehan, and dropped him on the floor, hurting him. Angela’s mother (Frank’s grandmother) was so furious that she yelled for her husband to get out of the house. He obliged, and left for Australia. As a result of being dropped on the ground, Patrick (Frank’s uncle) grew up feeble-minded.
McCourt doesn’t disguise the misery that drinking can cause—in this scene, for instance, a man drops a child on the floor, ruining the child’s brain and changing the rest of his life, simply because he’d had too much to drink. What may seem like a small indulgence at the time (a few drinks too many) can actually have profound and lasting effects on other people. This will be become all too apparent as the memoir continues, and we see the vicious cycle of drinking and misery perpetuating itself.
Angela had a rough birth, and caused her mother great pain. Frank imagines how the scene would have unfolded: Angela’s mother screaming in pain, calling out the name of Saint Jude, the patron saint of the dying. Angela was born at the exact instant that it became the New Year: her head emerged in the old year, and her body came out in the new year.
McCourt basically explains the symbolism of Angela’s birth for us. Angela is caught between the “old world” of Catholicism, strict piety, and loyalty to one’s husband, and the “new world” represented by (among many other things) America, travel, and film. While Angela herself never really explores this brave new world, her loyalty to her values makes it possible for her children to do so—she is the intermediary between old and new.
As a young girl, Angela learned basic reading and arithmetic. As a young woman, she tried various careers, but failed in all of them: she couldn’t be a maid, for example, because she didn’t know how to curtsey properly. Her mother suggested that she go to America to find a career. Angela arrived in America just after the beginning of the Great Depression. She met Malachy Sr., her future husband, at a party. She was attracted to his “hangdog look.” Together, they had a “knee-trembler,” which Frank defines as a sexual encounter in which the man pushes the woman up against the wall.
In contrast to McCourt’s more thorough descriptions of his parents’ idiosyncrasies and personalities (his father’s love for alcohol, for example), McCourt doesn’t go into much detail at all about what attracted Angela to Malachy McCourt in the first place—the “hangdog look” is his only explanation. Just as with Angela’s father’s clumsy, drunken treatment of Patrick, Angela and Malachy’s clumsy, drunken encounter seems insignificant at the time, but it ends up determining the course of both of their lives and the lives of all their children.
Frank describes how his parents were married. Malachy Sr. was an unlikely candidate for marrying Angela, because his family wasn’t respectable at all—in fact, he’d just done three months in prison when he met Angela for the first time. He was also rumored to have Presbyterians in his family—a sure sign of wickedness, supposedly. But because Frank had had sex with Angela, Angela’s cousins, Delia Fortune and Philomena Flynn, insisted that they get married, so as not to disgrace Angela any further. Malachy didn’t want to get married. He could barely support himself, much less an entire family. Nevertheless, he had nowhere to run, and in March he married Angela. That August, Angela gave birth to a child named Male. (Malachy Sr. wanted to call the child Malachy, but couldn’t spell the word.) When “Male” was baptized, the priests gave it the name Francis, after Malachy Sr.’s own father. Thus, Frank got his name.
McCourt introduces an important theme of the novel here: the divide between Northern and Southern Ireland. At this point, Angela’s family doesn’t know anything much about Malachy—all they know about him is that he’s from the North (and yet, unlike most Northerners, he’s not a Protestant). The Southern Irish saw Northerners as essentially treacherous and as being too friendly to the hated English. Angela’s family’s regional loyalties are so great that they’re reluctant to see Malachy Sr., basically a “foreigner,” marry Angela. And yet in the end, the family’s Catholic loyalties win out over their regional loyalties: Malachy may be a Northerner, but since he and Angela are Catholic, they have to get married, or else risk “living in sin.”
A year after Frank was born, Angela and Malachy Sr. had another child, Malachy Jr. Frank and Malachy grew up playing around Classon Avenue in Brooklyn. One day, Frank and Malachy were playing on a seesaw. When Frank jumped off the seesaw, Malachy fell to the ground and cut his mouth. Malachy went running to his mother, who yelled at Frank for hurting his own brother. Frank distinctly remembers this, because it was the first time he ever saw blood. Soon after, he noticed a dog that had been hit by a car: in this way, he learned that everything bleeds.
There are almost no idyllic scenes in McCourt’s description of his childhood. Indeed, the few simple, happy moments in the memoir quickly devolve into violence or misery—here, for example, a cheerful afternoon playing in the street quickly turns into a more frightening scene. It’s as if Frank’s way of looking at the world has been determined by the misery he witnessed, or experienced firsthand, as a young boy.
Growing up, Frank was an “odd child.” Even his mother told him that he was odd, just like his father. Malachy Jr., on the other hand, was a happy child, and always laughed at everything. Malachy Sr., an alcoholic, barely ate anything. Sometimes he would make money by sweeping out bars at the end of the day. He complained that his children were hungry all the time—Angela pointed out that they were starving.
As a young boy, Frank was too young to understand the unfairness of his situation: Malachy Sr. had enough money to feed his family, but instead of using the money properly, he spent it on alcohol. It’s important to note that Frank resembles his father in some ways as well, however—starting with the “oddness” Angela points out.
When Malachy Sr. brought home money for the week, everything was good. Angela would go to buy groceries, and Malachy Sr. would entertain his children by telling elaborate stories about exotic places like Brazil. There would be treats like bread and jam for the children to eat. But sometimes Malachy Sr. wouldn’t bring home food or money. Sometimes, even when he had a job, he would go drinking, and spend all the family’s money on whiskey. He’d come home very drunk and Angela would yell at him for depriving his children of food. Angela would try to save money by going to the bars where her husband worked and asking for some of the wages upfront. But this never worked—the employers wouldn’t give it up.
In this section, we see the two sides of Malachy Sr.’s personality. On one hand, he’s a loving father who enjoys entertaining his children. On the other hand, he’s a lazy, negligent parent who never works hard enough, and usually wastes his money on alcohol instead of feeding his children. McCourt conveys the difficulty of Angela’s situation: not only must she work hard to take care of her family, but she also must work against her family in some cases—i.e., she must go behind her husband’s back to ensure that he doesn’t squander his money.
Sometimes, Malachy Sr. wouldn’t come home at all. When this happened, Angela would take Frank, Malachy Jr., Oliver, and Eugene to look for her husband. They would go from bar to bar, walking along the streets of Brooklyn. Once, the family spends hours looking for Malachy Sr., traveling from bar to bar. At one bar, Angela asks a bartender to fill two jugs with sugar-water for her children. Very generously, the barman fills the jugs with milk. Finally, after hours of searching, Angela gives up and leads her children to the grocery store. There, she is able to buy food on credit, because the Italian man who runs the store trusts her.
This scene establishes an important pattern in the memoir. It’s as if the McCourt family is split into two camps: one is made up of Angela and her children, and the other consists of Malachy and Malachy alone. Also we see the way that Angela must rely on the kindness of strangers, most of whom are sympathetic to her children. Without the generosity of people like the barman, Angela and her children would probably have starved to death.
The next week, Malachy Sr. loses his job sweeping bars. He comes home on Friday with wages—but these will be his last wages for a long time. He takes some of the money and goes out to drink. He comes back later, singing loudly.
Instead of making a direct judgment on his father, McCourt describes his relationship with Malachy Sr. in spare, understated terms, the way a small child would see it. In other words, we see the injustice of Malachy Sr.’s actions, even if the young Frank McCourt isn’t fully aware of them—it’s the only way of life he’s ever known.
Several months later, Malachy Sr. comes home after a day of looking for a job. He holds Margaret McCourt, the new baby (born a few months before). He sings her a song about a leprechaun, and Margaret giggles. Angela notices that Margaret seems to cheer Malachy Sr. up—in fact, since she was born, he hasn’t had anything to drink.
Malachy Sr. gives up alcohol following the birth of his child. This reinforces the point that alcohol is a way for him to fight his feelings of depression and hopelessness—with a happy baby in his house, Malachy Sr. isn’t feeling so hopeless, and thus doesn’t need beer.
One day Frank is walking around the playground near where his family lives. He’s watching his two twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, while his mother rests. He’s not to disturb his mother until she pokes her head out the window and yells for him to come back inside. As Frank plays with his brothers, a boy named Freddie Leibowitz rushes into the playground. He starts to tell Malachy Jr. and the twins a story that Frank had told Freddie weeks before: the story of Cuchulain, the legendary Irish hero. Frank is so concerned that Freddie is stealing his story that he yells at Freddie and tries to hit him. Crying, Freddie runs away.
From an early age, Frank is interested in storytelling. He feels a strong yet irrational sense that he owns the stories he tells—as if he’s “invented” the story in the act of telling it to someone new. This mirrors the process by which Frank composed Angela’s Ashes. By writing about Limerick in the 30s and 40s, Frank asserts his authorial personality, and might be said to exercise a kind of “ownership” of the city’s history at this time.
Frank notices that his brothers are getting very hungry—in fact, they’re beginning to cry. He decides to go to the grocery store to find bananas to feed the twins. But because he has no money, he decides to steal the bananas. Just as Frank is preparing to steal, the Italian man who runs the grocery yells to Frank. He tells Frank that he has a bag of fruit that he needs to get rid of, and he offers it to Frank. The bag contains bananas, which the man suggests Frank give to the twins.
Although Frank can be proud and greedy when it comes to storytelling, he clearly has a strong protective instinct that leads him to look out for his siblings at all times. This protective instinct, coupled with his own need to survive, leads Frank to break the laws in service of his own “greater good.” Frank’s guilt at having planned to take advantage of a man who was gong to help him prefigures his experiences with Catholicism and guilt later on.
At dinner in the evening, Malachy Sr. reads the paper and says that President Franklin Roosevelt will provide every man in America with a job. Angela notices that Frank has a bag of fruit—she demands to know where he got it. Frank explains that the Italian grocer gave it to him. Angela doesn’t seem excited. Instead, she mentions that Freddie’s mother told her that Frank hit Freddie. Angela orders Frank to go apologize to Freddie. Frank explains that Freddie stole his Cuchulain story. Malachy Sr. explains that Freddie has his own stories, because he’s a Jew: he has stories about Moses and Samson.
Angela probably is “excited” to have a bag of fruit in the house, but she knows her job isn’t just to feed her family—she must also teach her children to learn right from wrong. That’s why she jumps from asking Frank about the fruit to telling him to apologize to Freddie. We’re also reminded of how personally invested Frank is in storytelling, and in the stories he considers to be his own. Malachy Sr. seems to agree with his son’s sentiments.
Frank goes to apologize to Freddie. At the Leibowitz home, located in the same building where the McCourts live, Frank is escorted inside, and he apologizes to Freddie. Freddie’s parents offer Frank some food, and he accepts cake and milk from them.
The Leibowitzes’ generosity comes as a surprise to Frank, especially because Angela’s sternness in the previous section had made him expect a confrontation. It doesn’t seem so surprising from an outside perspective, however, as all the neighbors can clearly see the McCourts’ poverty, and they naturally pity the children.
The day after Frank apologizes to Freddie, Angela wakes Frank up, explaining that something is horribly wrong with the baby, Margaret McCourt—she’s very sick. A doctor is called to the house, and he examines Margaret. The doctor seems busy and irritable—he complains that he doesn’t have all day to look at her. Without explaining what’s wrong with Margaret, he wraps the child in a thick blanket, and leaves. For the rest of the day, the family tries to care for Margaret, and Malachy Sr. begins to drink whiskey for the first time since Margaret’s birth.
The tragedy of Margaret’s death (which Frank already told us about in the first page of the book) is that she could have survived with the right medical support. It’s unclear if this particular doctor was just overworked and stressed, or if he was expressing some anti-Irish sentiment. In the face of tragedy, Malachy Sr. turns to alcohol, confirming that he drinks to ease his pain, not to bring himself pleasure.
As the day draws to a close, Angela gives a cry: Margaret McCourt has died, mysteriously. Mrs. Leibowitz, Freddie’s mother, rushes down the hall of the apartment building to comfort Angela. She tells Angela that God takes young children sometimes, and that Margaret is in a better place. Angela, weeping, whispers that her husband will start drinking again and starve his family to death.
In moments of tragedy such as this one, the characters turn to religion. Believing in heaven could be considered a coping mechanism for Angela and her family—they come to accept Margaret’s death because they know that Margaret is happier in heaven. And yet even as she clings to faith, Angela is also a harsh realist in this scene, as she knows her husband is going to start drinking again.
In the days following Margaret McCourt’s death, Malachy Sr. is barely present, and Angela barely leaves her bed. Frank tries to take care of his family, and he changes the twins’ diapers. One night, Malachy Sr. comes home late, reeking of whiskey. He orders his children to wake up and promise him that they’ll “die for Ireland.” They promise, confused, and then go back to bed.
In contrast to Angela’s realistic, measured approach to living, Malachy Sr. seems almost like a child—retreating into alcohol and melodramatic patriotism instead of meeting his problems head-on. It’s later suggested that Malachy Sr. was involved in the Easter Rising of 1916—the rebellion in Ireland that led to Irish independence from England in the South.
The night that his father makes him promise to die for Ireland, Frank dreams about Cuchulain, the Irish hero. In the dream Cuchulain waves a massive bananas at a bird. When Frank tells his father about the dream, Malachy Sr. says that Ireland has no bananas.
Frank has been raised on epic, idealized tales of Cuchulain, a mythological Irish hero—but this scene shows how little Frank still knows about the reality of Ireland.
Weeks pass, and Minnie MacAdorey, a kind neighbor in the McCourts’ building, stops by their home to offer food to the children. Mrs. Leibowitz feeds the McCourt children, as well, and even shows them how to take care of Oliver and Eugene—wipe their bottoms, change their diapers, etc. The Italian grocer offers Frank more food for his family, and Frank eagerly accepts whatever he can get. Over time, Frank learns that the man’s name is Mr. Dimino, and that he’s married to a woman named Angela—Frank’s mother’s name, too.
In Brooklyn, and later in Ireland, Frank and his family rely on the help of strangers and neighbors. Mrs. Leibowitz isn’t connected to the McCourts in any cultural or religious way (in fact, she has some reason to dislike them, since Frank attacked Freddie), and yet she is enormously generous with her time and money.
One day, Frank comes back to his home to find Mrs. Leibowitz, Minnie MacAdorey, and two large women, who introduce themselves as Angela’s cousins, Delia Fortune and Philomena Flynn. The cousins criticize Frank’s father, mentioning that he’s “from the North.” They also tell Frank and his siblings terrifying stories about Northern men who kidnap babies to “do experiments on.” After some time, Angela comes home. Frank realizes that Mrs. Leibowitz and Minnie have sent for Angela’s cousins to help the family. With Delia’s help, Philomena writes a letter to Angela’s own mother, whose name is Margaret Sheehan. Together, they write about their own husbands, criticize Malachy Sr. for his laziness, and tell Angela’s mother that Margaret McCourt, Angela’s baby, has died. In the letter, Delia insists that Angela and her children would be better off back in Ireland.
Frank slowly becomes aware of his father’s outsider status in Ireland. In a way, his childish concept of what “North” means is no more mature or intelligent than Delia and Philomena’s understanding of what it means to be Northern Irish. Indeed, both Delia and Philomena demonize Northern Ireland in an almost childish way—they’re telling Frank a fantastic story, but we can sense that on some level, they believe what they’re saying, and these kinds of prejudices will have long-lasting consequences for the family.
Shortly after the letter is sent, Margaret Sheehan sends money for Frank and his family to travel to Ireland. Everyone boards a large ship. When the ship begins its long voyage across the Atlantic, everyone on board waves goodbye, except for Angela, who leans over the side of the vessel and vomits.
The “prologue” of the memoir is over—from hereon out, the McCourts will be in Ireland. Angela’s vomiting seems like a bad omen for what’s to come in Limerick.