Frank McCourt’s first memoir, Angela’s Ashes (Touchstone: 1999), narrates the first 19 years of the author’s life. Born in Brooklyn, New York and sent off to Limerick, Ireland during the German advance, the memoir takes us back to a time in history when having nothing was the least of your problems. The text begins with a lighthearted take on the author’s childhood as he writes from the perspective of a long-time English teacher in New York: “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.” (McCourt, 11)
The book retells the never-ending struggle of the McCourt family against material poverty, abject squalor and the difficulties of managing the deadly effects of the Great Depression with a jobless alcoholic of a father. McCourt lost several siblings in the first half of the memoir and in the end, only three siblings survived to adulthood: Malachy (named after their father, the ever-inebriated Northern Irishman who had “that habit” (mannerisms of people from the North) and “look [of a Presbyterian]”, Michael (the joker) and Alphonsus/Alphie who the author believed had “such an affliction of a name” because Alphonsus was a foreign name (not Irish).
McCourt’s humor is unique to the circumstances of his childhood and his language was carefully woven to reflect the distinct Irish circumstances of his upbringing in Limerick, a city in Ireland. Having moved houses several times because they didn’t have two pennies to rub together (a condition that remains until the end of the memoir), the McCourts find themselves in what the Irish call a “lane,” a segment of the city that was occupied by numerous poor families.
The McCourt home was rented for a few pounds a month had the misfortune of being built right next to a lavatory/toilet. There was only one lavatory in the whole lane and more than a fistful of families drained their buckets of piss and shit in the lavatory every single day. The awful smell would waft into the kitchen daily and the children had to run like mad to shut the doors and windows whenever a bucket came along. In winter, the lavatory overflowed and the putrid mush would seep underneath their door. Their mother, Angla McCourt (formerly Sheehan of Limerick), was deathly afraid of consumption and other diseases that the lavatory could bring. She begged their father to move again. Alas, dreaming and begging could only do so much when you are forced to go to charity daily for food and boots for the children to wear.
In this period (the 1930s), people in Ireland feared only a few things (because many were poor to begin with, anyway) and one of things that do cast a shadow in any family’s home is the galloping consumption or TB. Due to the commonality of the disease, people didn’t exactly avoid others with TB – they just presumed that afflicted ones “wouldn’t grow grey hair” because of course – they died after a few years of battling the galloping consumption. Frank McCourt of Limerick, he who often didn’t have a decent pair of shoes for school and wore his clothes day in and day out without changing them, feared the galloping consumption more than the average Irish boy. He avoided people with TB as much as possible, having witnessed several swift deaths in his family.
What made matters much worse was that his father couldn’t hold a steady job and when he did have a job, he often spent everything on “pints” in the seedy pubs of Limerick. When the German advance threatened England, there was a sudden boom in the demand for workers in English war factories. Malachy McCourt, Frank’s father, promised them that he would send money every two weeks when he decided to leave the family for England. He was only able to send three pounds once, after Frank’s mother Angela was admitted into the Fever Hospital for pneumonia. Frank himself nearly died after suffering from severe typhoid – bleeding out of his nose and backside for days. Nurses and nuns gave him a blood transfusion that helped him survive. The blood transfused to Frank came from the local barracks. A family acquaintance later told them that Malachy McCourt spent all his wages on beer and was often seen singing violent, sad songs about Irish history, asking people to die for Ireland.
In the hospital, Frank discovered Shakespeare from a book and thus began his permanent love affair with words. He read everything he could get his hand on and developed the kind of mindset that allowed him to outsmart “masters” or teachers at Leamy’s School so he wouldn’t have to be held back for a year, because he missed two months of school when he was down with typhoid. The author stated that like his father, he had “a good fist” or the ability to write legibly and with clarity. Like countless other writers before him, Frank McCourt used this to his advantage toward the end of the memoir. At the age of 19, Frank finally had enough money to make his one dream come true, which was to travel back to America and make something of himself. The memoir ends with the contract “tis,” a contract of it is.
The main struggle of an Irish childhood, as the author reminded, was not the poverty but having to live out your days under the gigantic shadow of Roman Catholicism. Religion pervaded everything that they did and the Catholic conscience actually plagued the author from childhood to adulthood. Impossible ideals, taught by priests and school masters, created a deranged sense of morality that was afflicted mainly on the poor of Limerick, who had to go to confession for every perceived slight against the Holy Trinity.
From Confession to Confirmation, Frank McCourt thought heavily of his sins (like lying to his mother) and always felt that he was either eternally doomed or eternally damned to hell, to be poked by devils with a pitchfork. The toxic religious environment of the times extended all the way to how people related to one another: the good Catholics would never speak willingly to Protestants or Quakers and a good Catholic is one that would always “offer up” things to the Lord. This pervasive mindset existed at a time when the local churches had wine and ham a-plenty and people were literally dying with hunger and consumption.
The McCourts as well as other poor families had a love-hate relationship with the priests and brothers of the Roman Catholic Church, being the biggest private institution in the Free State of Ireland. While the local charity was run by Catholics and gave them dockets for food, clothing and doctor’s appointments, the same system that made people believe that poverty is a noble thing is also the same system that looked down upon the poor and treated them as sub-human. The class segmentation of Limerick as a city in the 1930s is horrifyingly similar to the cosmopolitan segmentation found everywhere in the 2010s. As such we can say that not much has changed: the institutions may have evolved but in terms of class antagonisms and inequality, everything is still as feudal and filthy as it was before during the German advance in England.