Frank McCourt grows up in a family so large and poorly taken care of that he and his siblings often go days without food, and poverty is a huge part of his experience growing up. Because Frank’s father, Malachy Sr., is too drunk and lazy to get a reliable job, the McCourts turn to other methods for making money and surviving. In the course of their struggle to make ends meet, they’re forced to confront many moral and practical challenges.
One of the most important sources of money and food for the McCourt family is the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, a charity organization that (even today) provides food, shelter, and money for the poor. Angela McCourt, Frank’s mother, goes to the de Paul Society and explains that she’s the mother of many children, without any source of income. In response, she’s provided with furniture, food, and other goods. It’s important to note that Angela doesn’t feel—or at least display—any guilt about relying on other people to survive. At the end of the day, dignity is less important than survival: Angela will take money from anyone kind enough to provide it, in the interest of feeding her children.
As the memoir goes on, the characters go to greater lengths in the interest of survival, sacrificing conventional definitions of right and wrong. At many points, Frank steals food and money from other people—sometimes people with whom his family is friendly. (He even steals money from a dead woman, which he uses to feed his family and to travel to America.) Much like his mother, Frank seems to feel almost no shame for his actions. While he confesses most of his crimes to a priest, he doesn’t continue to think about these crimes afterwards (as he does in the case of his sexual encounter with Theresa Carmody). For Frank, no less than for his mother, survival outweighs the moral rules against theft—in short, he steals first and confesses later.
And yet it would be a mistake to say that the characters in the memoir have no moral code simply because they’re starving. On the contrary, the characters work hard, take care of loved ones, and, at their worst, commit crimes that are essentially victimless. As a child, Frank shares stolen food with his brothers, and furthermore, the “victims” of his thefts are mostly prosperous storeowners or wealthy families. Even Frank’s greatest crime, the theft of more than 50 pounds, is clearly his most harmless, since the only conceivable victim is a woman who’s already dead. In Frank’s mind, there is more dignity—perhaps even more morality—in theft than in begging. Begging leaves Frank symbolically or literally reliant on other people, but by stealing, on the other hand, Frank gains a measure of independence for himself, and is able to pursue his own freedom and happiness in America.
In church, Frank and the other characters of Angela’s Ashes are taught to obey the rules of Catholicism. But in the course of their day-to-day lives, they’re faced with the far more difficult choice between doing the “right” thing and surviving. Instead of obeying an unwavering Catholic moral code, Frank—because of his extreme poverty—must navigate his way through ethical challenges for which there’s no obvious solution. In the process, he develops his own unique worldview, protecting his interests while also working hard and protecting others.
Poverty, Survival, and Morality ThemeTracker
Poverty, Survival, and Morality 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 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.
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.
The next Saturday there's no telegram nor the Saturday after nor any Saturday forever. Mam begs again at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and smiles at the Dispensary when Mr. Coffey and Mr. Kane have their bit of a joke about Dad having a tart in Piccadilly. Michael wants to know what a tart is and she tells him it's something you have with tea.
It isn't corned beef at all. It's a great lump of quivering gray fat and the only sign of corned beef is a little nipple of red meat on top. We stare at that bit of meat and wonder who will get it. Mam says, That's for Alphie. He's a baby, he's growing fast, he needs it. She puts it on a saucer in front of him. He pushes it away with his finger, then pulls it back. He lifts it to his mouth, looks around the kitchen, sees Lucky the dog and throws it to him.
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.
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.
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.