A Critical Analysis of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank McCourt



Frank McCourt was born on 19th August, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York at the height of the Great Depression. When he was abut four, his sister Margaret died. The family subsequently returned to Limerick, Ireland, and is the main 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 become a teacher after studing at New York university. His brother Malachy came to New York shortly after, and went on to become an actor.


When he retired from teaching, he decided to write his memoirs. Angela’s Ashes 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, and starring Robert Carlyle, released in 1999. He has since written a sequel about 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 Catholic childhood.’ Since this is an autobiography, the author has the luxury of identifying at the outset his major themes as a writer, and his reason for writing this book. His themes will be poverty, alcoholism, piety, defeat, the Church, bullying schoolmasters and the sheer misery of living in Ireland. Limerick, the principal setting of most of the memoir, is immediately singled out – as a rain-soaked cold, dreary place. We get the impression from the first page that this is to be a story of misery, but to a certain degree we are deceived by this. For although the book is tinged with sadness, his tale is told with a sense of humour, determination, and remarkable forgiveness.


McCourt tells his story through the eyes of a gradually maturing child. At first the child sees only what is immediate, his family, the relationships that are the substance of his life. As his circle widens, he begins to glimpse the social and religious conditions that structured his childhood. He learns more about his parents’ lives and begins to appreciate the tragedy of the unforeseen turns their lives have taken. Irish songs and myths animate his telling of the story, anchoring it culturally in the pleasure the Irish take in recitation, in the ways his own lives repeat the songs, in the interpretive lens these songs and stories must have offered his 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 brothers and sisters die, therefore it becomes a symbol for death throughout the early stages of the book. Then on the other side there is the ‘Angel on the Seventh Step’ a kind of explanation not unlike ‘the stork’ for where children come from. Frank interprets this as a symbol for hope and new life, and so throughout the book up until Frank is about thirteen, he prays to ‘his angel on the seventh step’ for all the things that he cannot ask for otherwise. It is a good example of how mythology is created from a mixture of fact, superstition and religion.


Although the slum life in New York occupies the opening chapter, it is the grinding poverty of Ireland which forms our main impression after reading Angela’s Ashes. Far from the ‘glamorous’ depiction of poverty that sometimes is portrayed in other books, here it is shown in all its endless, unrelieved squalor – the day-to-day search for food, disease and insanitation, sub-standard accommodation – the real grubby reality.


“Mam goes to the door and says why are you emptying your bucket in our lavatory?He raises his cap to her…This is not your lavatory. Sure, isn’t this the lavatory for the whole lane…It gets very powerful here in the warm weather…the day will come when you’ll be calling for a gas mask…Mam says…who cleans the lavatory?…These houses were built in the time of Queen Victoria and if this lavatory was ever cleaned it must have