cCourtFrank America, entitled ‘Tis, A Memoir.From the first
cCourtFrank McCourt was born on 19th August, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York at theheight of the Great Depression. When he was abut four, his sister Margaretdied. The family subsequently returned to Limerick, Ireland, and is themain focal setting of this book, Angela’s Ashes, a memoir of his childhood.McCourt returned to New York when he was nineteen, and managed to becomea teacher after studing at New York university. His brother Malachy came toNew York shortly after, and went on to become an actor.
When he retired from teaching, he decided to write his memoirs. Angela’sAshes was published in 1996, and has become an international bestseller,winning many awards, including the Puiltzer Prize for Autobiography (1997).A motion picture was made based on this book, directed by Alan Parker, andstarring Robert Carlyle, released in 1999. He has since written a sequelabout his life in America, entitled ‘Tis, A Memoir.From the first sentence of the book, McCourt comes straight to the point.His narrative is to be a memoir about a ‘miserable Irish Catholicchildhood.’ Since this is an autobiography, the author has the luxury ofidentifying at the outset his major themes as a writer, and his reason forwriting this book.
His themes will be poverty, alcoholism, piety, defeat,the Church, bullying schoolmasters and the sheer misery of living inIreland. Limerick, the principal setting of most of the memoir, isimmediately singled out – as a rain-soaked cold, dreary place. We get theimpression from the first page that this is to be a story of misery, but toa certain degree we are deceived by this. For although the book is tingedwith sadness, his tale is told with a sense of humour, determination, andremarkable forgiveness.McCourt tells his story through the eyes of a gradually maturing child.At first the child sees only what is immediate, his family, therelationships that are the substance of his life.
As his circle widens, hebegins to glimpse the social and religious conditions that structured hischildhood. He learns more about his parents’ lives and begins to appreciatethe tragedy of the unforeseen turns their lives have taken. Irish songs andmyths animate his telling of the story, anchoring it culturally in thepleasure the Irish take in recitation, in the ways his own lives repeat thesongs, in the interpretive lens these songs and stories must have offeredhis earlier childish understandings of life.There is also a concurrent usage of thematic symbolism in the book.Mundane objects and childlike thoughts become symbols for him, for example,when he sees a dead dog in the road, he uses it to explain how his brothersand sisters die, therefore it becomes a symbol for death throughout theearly stages of the book. Then on the other side there is the ‘Angel on theSeventh Step’ a kind of explanation not unlike ‘the stork’ for wherechildren come from.
Frank interprets this as a symbol for hope and newlife, and so throughout the book up until Frank is about thirteen, he praysto ‘his angel on the seventh step’ for all the things that he cannot askfor otherwise. It is a good example of how mythology is created from amixture of fact, superstition and religion.Although the slum life in New York occupies the opening chapter, it isthe grinding poverty of Ireland which forms our main impression afterreading Angela’s Ashes. Far from the ‘glamorous’ depiction of poverty thatsometimes is portrayed in other books, here it is shown in all its endless,unrelieved squalor – the day-to-day search for food, disease andinsanitation, sub-standard accommodation – the real grubby reality.
“Mam goes to the door and says why are you emptying your bucket in ourlavatory?He raises his cap to her…This is not your lavatory.
Sure, isn’tthis the lavatory for the whole lane…
It gets very powerful here in thewarm weather…the day will come when you’ll be calling for a gasmask.
..Mam says…who cleans the lavatory?.
..These houses were built in thetime of Queen Victoria and if this lavatory was ever cleaned it must havebeen done…when no-one was lookin’.
McCourt explodes the myth, if anyone ever took it seriously, that a lack ofmaterial goods and comforts is somehow a blessing. There is no doubt thatFrank McCourt’s brothers and sister would have survived if not for theterrible conditions they endured. If there is one statement to be derivedfrom Angela’s Ashes, it would be that the terrible price of poverty is aprice no one should have to pay, and that everyone has a right to anadequate minimum standard of living.
Poverty also produces desperate measures – begging, stealing, and theurge to escape no matter what. McCourt tells us about he steals from thedoorsteps of the rich in order to feed his family, he does not appear proudof the fact, and does not invite the reader to feel sorry for him, but wecannot shake off the reality that if he had not have done this, he and hisbrothers would have probably starved to death.Many of the characters in this book show no sign of wanting to helpthemselves – their sense of being fated by an unkind universe compels adesperate inactivity. Frank’s chronic alcoholic father Malachy is just oneof many who are driven to the temporary relief and escapism that comes withthe drink, only afterwards realising that the money to feed the family hasnow gone. Poverty, as sociologists tell us, is often self-perpetuating andvice-like in its grip on those unfortunate enough to be caught in it.There are, of course people in Limerick who are better off than theMcCourts. There are boys who go to secondary school and college, theprivileged few who become altar boys, and families who “go to the SavoyCinema where there’s a better class of people eating boxes of chocolatesand covering their mouths when they laugh”.
As time passes, other familiesin the lanes become reasonably well off, while the McCourts, with noworking father to support them, remain the poorest of the poor, and Angelais forced to beg for food, shaming the family and her children; Frank istaunted at school for being the son of a ‘beggar woman’.Class is obviously important in Ireland. People know their station andtheir expectations of life are shaped accordingly, and there are almost noopportunities to move upwards into another class.
Dialect and behaviourswere such strong markers that one’s class was obvious, and attempts to moveup would be blocked. People were expected to ‘know their place’; one of thereasons Frank goes to America is because there, hard work and intelligencewere more likely to be rewarded, but also because it was his only chance ofgetting a sound education. Frank is told by his schoolmaster that he iscapable of going to university, but the Christian Brothers, who run thesecondary school, slam the door in his face. Even more appallingly, is theway that the Church seems to support this system, not accepting Frank as analtar boy, even though he has learned all the Latin, and then not acceptinghim into the school, even though he has the intelligence to study atcollege and get a well paid job.
Although not an obvious theme in the book, education is an importantfactor in Frank McCourt’s life. The need for a good education, and theimportance of education in allowing a person to realise his or her ownpotential, is subtly underlined at several stages in the book. Frank waslucky; a vital influence on a child’s ability and development is to have agood teacher, who will encourage the child to expand his or her thoughtsand ideas.
The concept of children asking questions in order to learn hadnot yet been conceived. This book is set in the 1930’s, a time whenchildren were still expected to be ‘seen and not heard’. The teachingmodel was one of instruction by a master and the child learning to repeatwhat he was told, and not to ask questions about it. Whether or not thechild understood what was being said was irrelevant. McCourt recalls a boynicknamed ‘Question Quigley’, who was known for asking difficult butnevertheless intelligent questions, and was duly reprimanded for doing so.In his last year of school, Frank gets a teacher who encourages pupils toask questions, thus expanding his knowledge of the world around him, and sohe begins to dream of finding another life based on the skills he hasmastered. Angela’s Ashes is not a direct argument for a good education, butthe issue does emerge with sufficient regularity in the text to be regardedas a key issue.
As well as the theme of academic education, there is also Frank’sspiritual one. Throughout the book, McCourt describes the Catholic religionin a somewhat sceptical way; his first communion, his confirmation, as wellas being seen as important steps towards growing up, are seen by FrankMcCourt in a very humorous way. There are stories of confessions, filledwith hilarity and satire, as well as some serious concerns and strongfeelings of guilt.However, the most obvious thing that McCourt shows about the Irish Churchis its prejudice, support of the class divisions, and its complete lack ofcharity towards the genuinely poor and suffering.
McCourt tells us abouthow twice the door was slammed in his face by the church, firstly when hewanted to be an altar boy, and secondly when he wanted to join theChristian Brothers School. Then there is the bullying associated withcompulsory membership of the Arch Confraternity, and the demand that everyboy, however poor or hungry, must buy a catechism and a suit for FirstCommunion. Perhaps the most horrifying is of the poor women gathered aroundthe doors of the priest’s houses to beg for scraps of leftover food fromthe table to feed their starving children. ‘It’s a grey day…
the small crowd of people outside the door of thepriest’s house is grey. They’re waiting to beg for any food left over fromthe priest’s dinner…There…
is my mother…begging…
It’s the worst kindof shame…if anyone from the lane..
.sees her the family will be disgraced entirely’These stories are clearly not intended to show the Church as a benevolentorganisation where poor people could find help. Despite it’s traditionalreputation for being the friend of the poor and needy, it is portrayed asan authoritarian institution which makes often unrealistic demands ofpeople, threatens them with eternal damnation, but does very little to helpthe needy, even when they are desperate or starving, with either spritualor physical nourishment.
The McCourts suffer from religion as much as they benefit from it.Angela, eternally pregnant, (having no access to birth control methods)suffers from the traditional problem of women of her kind – condemmed topregnancy and motherhood by the strict Church principles, regardless ofit’s effect on her health or ability to survive.Even in the matter of Malachy’s work the Church holds a dark influence.Coming from the North, he was assumed to be a Protestant. Protestants werethe enemy to the Catholic religion, and so any connection to them wasconsidered to be a curse.
Therefore it was very difficult for him to obtainwork, as many employers would not take on a ‘northerner’.Frank’s father was consequently very rarely employed, which was mainlythe reason for the McCourt’s poverty. Even from a young age, Frank saw thedifference between those who worked and those who didn’t. Children whosefathers worked were able to have hot dinners and proper clothes and shoes,proper bedding and later on, electric lights and radios.
Frank’s unclesworked, and so were able to have a proper diet, instead of the bread andtea which was practically all the nourishment the family had. In addition,working brought respect, such as when Frank drove Mr Hannon’s coal cart infront of the other boys at school, gaining admiration by doing a properjob, not simply delivering papers or other ‘boys’ jobs.In 1930’s Ireland, when this book is set, the only welfare was fromcharitable intitutions. People had to line up in queues, prove that theywere ‘deserving poor’, and beg for food dockets. In these circumstances,work was highly valued as a means of keeping familes fed and clothed. Theabsence of work led to extreme poverty and humiliation.
Frank, seeing how his father failed to hold down a job long enough toprovide for his family, and seeing the effects of this at home, made plansfor ways to earn money and use it wisely.Frank started his first paper delivery at ten, and his earnings meantthat his mother had a shilling a week and Frank was able to go to thepictures on Saturdays. Even the smallest amount, like a shilling, meant achange in lifestyle, and hope for more in the future.
In the end, it is Frank’s earnings which enable him to go to America,where he could continue to work and create a better life than he had knownin Ireland.Througout the book we see how important Angela is to her family, keepingthem together at all costs and doing whatever she has to do to survive andprovide for them. We also see how the children take care of each other, andhow the two older brothers take care of their younger siblings when Angelais sick.In this way, McCourt shows how, despite the overwhelming odds, Malachyand Angela still remained loving towards their children, although it isAngela who supports them.Although the Sheehan family are certainly not the ideal family, they toohelp when they can. Despite Grandma Sheehan’s constant complaining, shedoes try and provide support for Angela in desperate times of need.Because they remained family, giving one another mutual support, despitetheir poverty, the McCourts are able to have a good time, to laugh andenjoy whatever is good in their lives.
Frank comments: “To be able to turna little food into a wonderful evening, and to be able to laugh despitemisfortunes, is what real happiness is all about.Because this is an autobiography it is important to clarify the points inFrank’s life that made a difference. These are not events in a novel, butreal events in his life which represented turning points. These were: thedeath of his sister Margaret and the move from America to Ireland, startingschool, almost dying of typhiod and discovering poetry and Shakespeare; hisfathergoing to England, his confirmation, his first job with Mr Hannondelivering coal, making his own decision to leave Laman’s house, becoming atelegram boy, his first relationship with Theresa, leaving the Post Officeand choosing risk over security, thus enabling him to leave Ireland tostart a new life in America.The pattern which unifies this account is that of Frank’s growth fromchildhood to adulthood. We see Frank moving from innocence, ignorance, andoccasional despair to a growing sense of life and how to deal with it. Hehas seen the worst that circumstances can bring to a family in peacetime.
He has seen that individuals and their families are very much on their own,and has realised that no-one will help you if you don’t help yourself.Thus, Frank learns to make something of himself. This is probably the mostobvious and inspiring message of Angela’s Ashes. In Frank McCourt, we seean individual who looked at incredible harshness, learnt that he had tomake some efforts himself to pull himself out of the mire of poverty, anddid so. To his credit, he learn wisdom, and goes on to a brighter future,providing a pattern which we can all as readers in a sense, emulate.