Table of contents
II. Author and background
III. The father
III.1. Characterization of Frank`s father
III.2. Frank`s relationship to his father
III.3. His father`s influence on his life
IV. The mother
IV.1. Characterization of Frank`s mother
IV.2. Frank`s relationship to his mother and her influence on his life
V. Other important people
V.1. Uncle Pa Keating
V.2. Mr. O`Halloran
V. Frank`s brothers and friends
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” (p. 1)
At the beginning of Angela`s Ashes these words summarize very briefly what this novel is about: Frank´s survival in a miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
A miserable Irish Catholic childhood? At the first glance this, of course, does not sound very attractive or exciting to anyone who might be interested in reading a good book.
This childhood was shaped by a strict religious upbringing, by poverty and starvation, humiliating experiences, diseases and death. And apart from that: is this not the fate of millions of people in the world - not just in poor Catholic Ireland of the 1930ies and 40ies? What does make this story an exception worth to be read? What is it that made Frank McCourt a kind of phenomenon and his book a bestseller?
It obviously must have to do something with "survival" the key word in this story which, despite all the misery, is a story of success.
Frank suffers from various diseases, which, however, did not kill him. Whereas his sister and two of his brothers die, he survives hunger, cold and the fatal dampness of the river Shannon.
How come the hero of this story did not go mad like one of his classmate’s mother who was regularly carried to the lunatic asylum? How come he did not resign like his mother permanently desperate over their miserable situation? Why did he not become like his father and many other Irish men described in the book, drinking their wages and singing sad songs about brave soldiers ready to die for Ireland?
Was he just lucky or where there any special factors which enabled him to come through the first 19 years of his life? What are the reasons for his pure physical but also mental survival?
Writing about Frank McCourt`s childhood memoir means, of course, above all writing about the main character - the narrator himself - and his story. But it is more than that as Angela`s Ashes is at the same time his parent`s story. It deals with their life and their marriage, their misery and suffering - but also with their joy and their love. It is a portrait of the people from the lanes of Limerick and their life between pubs, social welfare and the Church. In which way did his parents, his other relatives and all the other ones characterized in the book influence Frank`s development and his further life? And above all - how did they contribute to his survival?
This essay will attempt to find possible answers to all the questions raised above by analysing Frank`s relationship to his family, especially to his father and mother, and to the other people who played an important role in his life.
II. Author and background
Frank McCourt was born the son of Irish immigrants in New York in 1930. When he was four he and his family returned to Ireland where he spent his childhood. At the age of 19 he had saved enough money to return to New York where he has been living until now. Throughout all his life he had been dreamt of writing his memoirs. After he retired from his job as a teacher, he put this idea into practice and wrote the novel "Angela`s ashes". His book was published in 1996 and became a bestseller in many countries all over the world. In 1997 he won the Pulitzer prise for Biography. Frank McCourt has also written a sequel to “Angela`s ashes” called “`Tis” that was published in 1999 in which he describes his life after his emigration to New York.
Malachy McCourt and Angela Shehan, two Irish immigrants, meet for the first time In New York in 1929 during the Prohibition. Malachy, who is from Northern Ireland, had to leave home for "some desperate act". His favourite way of passing the time was spending his money in pubs. Angela´s own mother sent Angela to America because of being “useless”. Soon Angela became pregnant and, as she and Malachy were both Catholic, they had to marry as soon as possible. Within four years, Angela gave birth to Frank followed by four more children, one of whom died shortly after being born. Desperate over the loss of one child and penniless the family go back to Ireland to live with Angela`s relatives. There, Frank grew up in miserable living conditions. His father did not stop drinking, he was permanently unemployed and this was how the McCourt`s misery continues. Two more children die and finally the father left the family when his oldest son was ten years old. In the slums of Limerick, where - according to Frank - people only go to church because it is the driest place in town, he experiences what it means to be poor, Catholic and Irish.
III. The father
III.1.Characterization of Frank`s father
Asked to describe his father in one of his interviews, Frank McCourt cites an extract from his book, which seems to contain the essence of what his father was like. “I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him: the one in the morning with the paper, one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.” (p. 239)
Frank`s father is probably one of the most complex characters in Angela`s ashes. For his wife`s family he is “the man from the North” as he comes from Northern Ireland, a stranger with “odd manners”. Losing one job after another, he is not able to support his family. As he is too proud to ask for help it is up to his wife and later Frank to ensure the family`s survival. During the day, while Angela McCourt is queuing at the Vincent de Paul`s society for food or clothes or asking for credits at shops, he goes for long walks in the countryside. According to him, “begging is alright for women but it`s different for a man. You have to keep the dignity. Wear your collar and tie, keep up the appearance, and never ask for anything.” (p. 103)
In the evening he usually spends his money on pints in Limerick`s pubs. When he comes home in the middle of the night, singing songs about Kevin Barry and Roddy
McCorley1, he wakes up his sons and makes them promise to die for Ireland. He does not stop drinking on the day one of his sons is buried, putting his pint on the dead boy´s coffin. His addiction to alcohol makes him go “beyond the beyonds”, as his wife says, as he even drinks away the money for a new baby.
The drunk father however does not have anything to do with the sober one. Without alcohol he is a father any child can dream of. He is witty and intelligent and being able to read and write which is not very common in that area of Limerick, people come and ask him to write a letter for them. He can even speak Latin and knows the whole mass by heart “odd manners”.
“In the morning we have the world to ourselves and he never tells me I should die for Ireland.” (p. 237/ 238) This is when he is in a good mood, when he lights the fire, makes tea and sings to himself. He buys the newspaper and reads it to Frank or tells him “about the world” and the important events happening outside Limerick and Ireland. He also tells him about the way people in Ireland used to live in the past, especially about their love for stories and poetry. In a way, in Frank`s early childhood, his father is a window on the world and on the past, especially on that of Ireland. In addition, he continues the Irish tradition of storytelling by inventing stories himself. There are nights when he is a storyteller with a lot of imagination. “Before bed we sit around the fire and if we say, Dad, tell us a story, he makes up one about someone in the lane and the story will take us all over the world, up in the air, under the sea and back to the lane. Everyone in the story is a different colour and everything is upside down and backward. Motor cars and planes go under water and submarines fly through the air. Sharks sit in trees and giant salmon sport with kangaroos on the moon. Polar bears wrestle with elephants in Australia and penguins teach Zulus how to play bagpipes.” (p. 238/239)
The fact that he is a drinker and a dreamer at the same time proves that Malachy McCourt lives rather in his own world than in the real circumstances his family have to face.
III.2. Frank`s relationship to his father
One of the stories Frank is told by his father becomes a symbol of their close relationship in Frank`s early childhood. It is the story of Cuchulain2 which, however, is not the fruit of Malachy McCourt`s imagination but has its origin in Irish mythology.
1 Kevin Barry and Roddy McCorley became national heroes by fighting for an independent Irish state. Roddy McCorley, the son of a miller, was hanged after the Irish rebellion in 1798 and buried beneath the gallows. Kevin Barry was executed during the Tan Wars in 1920. Both are regarded as martyrs for the liberty of Ireland and were therefore immortalized in many Irish folk songs.
2 Cuchulain is an Iron age figure c. 2000 BC. His name at birth was Setanta but he was given the name Cuchulain in recognition for his actions. He was a warrior of his time and had the significant impact to have his name repeated 4000 years after his death. The British Isles in Cuchulains time was divided into kingdoms or tribal areas and he is presented as the champion of his people. As his acts are not recorded by historians there is doubt about the historical accuracy of his legend. That is why he is rather part of the folklore and hearsay of the Ulster people than a figure of unquestionable history.