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Angela's Ashes


Angela's Ashes Cover




Chapter One

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

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.

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.

Above all — we were wet.

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling, on the chest.

From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week's wages.

The rain drove us into the church — our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head.

When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anyone would give money for a head like that. When I was thirteen my father's mother told me a secret: as a wee lad your poor father was dropped on his head. It was an accident, he was never the same after, and you must remember that people dropped on their heads can be a bit peculiar.

Because of the price on the head he had been dropped on, he had to be spirited out of Ireland via cargo ship from Galway. In New York, with Prohibition in full swing, he thought he had died and gone to hell for his sins. Then he discovered speakeasies and he rejoiced.

After wandering and drinking in America and England he yearned for peace in his declining years. He returned to Belfast, which erupted all around him. He said, A pox on all their houses, and chatted with the ladies of Andersontown. They tempted him with delicacies but he waved them away and drank his tea. He no longer smoked or touched alcohol, so what was the use? It was time to go and he died in the Royal Victoria Hospital.

My mother, the former Angela Sheehan, grew up in a Limerick slum with her mother, two brothers, Thomas and Patrick, and a sister, Agnes. She never saw her father, who had run off to Australia weeks before her birth.

After a night of drinking porter in the pubs of Limerick he staggers down the lane singing his favorite song,

Who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?
Nobody spoke so he said it all the louder
It's a dirty Irish trick and I can lick the Mick
Who threw the overalls in Murphy's chowder.

He's in great form altogether and he thinks he'll play a while with little Patrick, one year old. Lovely little fella. Loves his daddy. Laughs when Daddy throws him up in the air. Upsy daisy, little Paddy, upsy daisy, up in the air in the dark, so dark, oh, Jasus, you miss the child on the way down and poor little Patrick lands on his head, gurgles a bit, whimpers, goes quiet. Grandma heaves herself from the bed, heavy with the child in her belly, my mother. She's barely able to lift little Patrick from the floor. She moans a long moan over the child and turns on Grandpa. Get out of it. Out. If you stay here a minute longer I'll take the hatchet to you, you drunken lunatic. By Jesus, I'll swing at the end of a rope for you. Get out.

Grandpa stands his ground like a man. I have a right, he says, to stay in me own house.

She runs at him and he melts before this whirling dervish with a damaged child in her arms and a healthy one stirring inside. He stumbles from the house, up the lane, and doesn't stop till he reaches Melbourne in Australia.

Little Pat, my uncle, was never the same after. He grew up soft in the head with a left leg that went one way, his body the other. He never learned to read or write but God blessed him in another way. When he started to sell newspapers at the age of eight he could count money better than the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself. No one knew why he was called Ab Sheehan, The Abbot, but all Limerick loved him.

My mother's troubles began the night she was born. There is my grandmother in the bed heaving and gasping with the labor pains, praying to St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of expectant mothers. There is Nurse O'Halloran, the midwife, all dressed up in her finery. It's New Year's Eve and Mrs. O'Halloran is anxious for this child to be born so that she can rush off to the parties and celebrations. She tells my grandmother: Will you push, will you, push. Jesus, Mary and holy St. Joseph, if you don't hurry with this child it won't be born till the New Year and what good is that to me with me new dress? Never mind St. Gerard Majella. What can a man do for a woman at a time like this even if he is a saint? St. Gerard Majella my arse.

My grandmother switches her prayers to St. Ann, patron saint of difficult labor. But the child won't come. Nurse O'Halloran tells my grandmother, Pray to St. Jude, patron saint of desperate cases.

St. Jude, patron of desperate cases, help me. I'm desperate. She grunts and pushes and the infant's head appears, only the head, my mother, and it's the stroke of midnight, the New Year. Limerick City erupts with whistles, horns, sirens, brass bands, people calling and singing, Happy New Year. Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and church bells all over ring out the Angelus and Nurse O'Halloran weeps for the waste of a dress, that child still in there and me in me finery. Will you come out, child, will you? Grandma gives a great push and the child is in the world, a lovely girl with black curly hair and sad blue eyes.

Ah, Lord above, says Nurse O'Halloran, this child is a time straddler, born with her head in the New Year and her arse in the Old or was it her head in the Old Year and her arse in the New. You'll have to write to the Pope, missus, to find out what year this child was born in and I'll save this dress for next year.

And the child was named Angela for the Angelus which rang the midnight hour, the New Year, the minute of her coming and because she was a little angel anyway.

Love her as in childhood
Though feeble, old and grey.
For you'll never miss a mother's lov

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Heather Whidden, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Heather Whidden)
Angela's Ashes is one of the most vivid memoir's I have read. It portrays the resilience of young children in severe poverty in the 1900's during World War. It is a daily slice of Irish life that portrays a variety of characters within a family; a story of despair, survival and hope.
The fact that Frank McCourt could recount his childhood with such detail shows tremendous character of heart and soul.
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A-nonymous, December 17, 2011 (view all comments by A-nonymous)
Angela’s Ashes is a book about struggle. It is a memoir of the many obstacles that Frank McCourt overcame during his childhood. Most of the story is set in Limerick, Ireland. The majority of the book takes place during the 1930s. Frank is the main character of the book, but his family members (including his parents and many siblings) are very important as well because of the roles they play in trying to survive. Frank’s family constantly struggles with their extreme poverty and barely gets by.

As a child Frank is well aware of his family’s poverty and he knows how hard things are for his mother especially. Frank does his best to help out the family. Frank works hard to find and keep jobs. When the family is especially desperate, he sometimes steals food, just so they can have something to eat. However, Frank also has a childish side to him, when he goes on adventures that the adults do not approve of. These adventures include taking apples from an orchard and being chased away by an angry farmer. Frank’s two-sidedness makes him interesting to read about and easy to relate to.

Frank’s mother is perhaps the character who suffers the most. In addition to her family’s extreme poverty she loses three of her children, all of whom died at a very young age. She cares a great deal about her children and is very persistent in her efforts to support them, doing everything she can to put food on the table. Frank’s mother gets all of the help that she can from her own mother and from Frank’s aunt. Although she doesn’t like it, she often has to beg for food and money because things are so desperate. Because of how hard Frank’s mother works and because of the extent of her suffering, it is very hard not to feel sorry for her.

Frank’s father is quite the opposite from his mother, as it is very difficult to feel sorry for him. Frank’s father is the reason for many of the family’s problems. He spends almost all of the family’s money on alcohol. He makes many promises to change, but he never does. Frank’s mother always gives him another chance, but each time he leaves her more and more discouraged and desperate.

McCourt’s writing style is interesting. He tells his stories based on what he remembers. When he does not remember everything, he makes up specific details that make his story seem more genuine and make it more interesting to read. He is always very honest about his thoughts and feelings. An example of this is shown in the following excerpt, where McCourt describes what was going through his mind, when he stole bread and lemonade to help his mother when she got sick. He writes “It’s wrong to steal from Kathleen with the way she’s always good to us but if I go in and ask her for bread she’ll be annoyed and tell me I’m ruining her morning cup of tea, which she’d like to have in peace ease and comfort thank you. It’s easier to stick the bread up under my jersey with the lemonade and promise to tell everything in confession.” McCourt’s honesty is refreshing as it makes his story seem much very personal.

Overall, Angela’s Ashes is a book that is worth reading. The combination of honesty, details, and fascinating life stories is very intriguing. This combination creates a book that achieves two goals: convincing readers that they are better off than they think, and giving people who are struggling hope of a better life. The book could be inspiring to a poor audience, and also engaging and interesting for other audiences. It can be appreciated by almost anyone.
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SarahNicoleD, July 18, 2010 (view all comments by SarahNicoleD)
This is a great read. The story moves you and you tend to feel the helplessness the character Frank conveys. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who likes reading, period.
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Product Details

McCourt, Frank
McCourt, Frank
Scribner Book Company
New York :
Historical - General
Ethnic Cultures
Irish americans
Ethnic Cultures - General
General Biography
Irish Americans -- Biography.
McCourt family
Limerick (Limerick, Ireland)
Biography-Ethnic Cultures
ireland, irish, immigrant, great depression, pulitzer, memoir, national book critics circle, book critics circle, family, family saga, colm toibin, toibin, stuyvesant high school, malaky mccourt, limerick, teacher man, tis, cuchulain, poverty, coming of a
ireland, irish, immigrant, great depression, pulitzer, memoir, national book critics circle, book critics circle, family, family saga, colm toibin, toibin, stuyvesant high school, malaky mccourt, limerick, teacher man, tis, cuchulain, poverty, coming of a
ireland, irish, immigrant, great depression, pulitzer, memoir, national book critics circle, book critics circle, family, family saga, colm toibin, toibin, stuyvesant high school, malaky mccourt, limerick, teacher man, tis, cuchulain, poverty, coming of a
ireland, irish, immigrant, great depression, pulitzer, memoir, national book critics circle, book critics circle, family, family saga, colm toibin, toibin, stuyvesant high school, malaky mccourt, limerick, teacher man, tis, cuchulain, poverty, coming of a
Edition Description:
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
May 1999
Grade Level:
8.44 x 5.5 in 11.9 oz

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Angela's Ashes Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$6.95 In Stock
Product details 368 pages Scribner Book Company - English 9780684842677 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A classic modern memoir...stunning."
"Review" by , "Every once in a while, a lucky reader comes across a book that makes an indelible impression, a book you immediately want to share with everyone around you....Frank McCourt's life, and his searing telling of it, reveal all we need to know about being human."
"Review" by , "A spellbinding memoir of childhood that swerves flawlessly between aching sadness and desperate humor...a work of lasting beauty."
"Review" by , "It is a wonder that McCourt survived his childhood in the slums of Depression-era Limerick, Ireland: three of his siblings did not, dying of minor illnesses complicated by near starvation. Even more astonishing is how generous of spirit he became and remains."
"Review" by , "A powerful, exquisitely written debut... An extraordinary work in every way. McCourt magically retrieves love, dignity, and humor from a childhood of hunger, loss, and pain."
"Review" by , "The power of this memoir is that it makes you believe the claim: that despite the rags and hunger and pain, love and strength do come out of misery — as well as a page-turner of a book. And though the experience it tells of was individual, the point — and the story — is universal."
"Review" by , "It is only the best storyteller who can so beguile his readers that he leaves them wanting more when he's done. With Angela's Ashes, McCourt proves himself one of the very best."
"Review" by , "This memoir is an instant classic of the genre...good enough to be the capstone of a distinguished writing career; let's hope it's only the beginning of Frank McCourt's."
"Review" by , "What is it that transforms a childhood blighted by poverty, death and disease into a story that shines with love and leaps off the page in language of rare energy, music and humor? In the case of Angela's Ashes, I think it must be Frank McCourt's soul. This memoir is the best I've read in years, and I'm putting it on the small shelf in the company of the few books I don't lend — lest they're gone when I want them again."
"Review" by , "Frank McCourt's lyrical Irish voice will draw comparisons to Joyce. It's that seductive, that hilarious."
"Review" by , "Frank McCourt has examined his ferocious childhood, walked around it, relived it, and with skill and care and generosity of heart, has transformed it into a triumphant work of art. This book will be read when all of us are gone."
"Synopsis" by , Angela’s Ashes, imbued on every page with the author’s astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic. “Frank McCourt’s life, and his searing telling of it, reveals all we need to know about being human” (The Detroit Free Press).
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