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.
Irish Social Tensions ThemeTracker
Irish Social Tensions 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.
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.
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.
And what's your name?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.