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.
Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age ThemeTracker
Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age 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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.