Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Setting

By Frank McCourt


New York and Limerick, Ireland

New York, New York

Malachy Sr. ended up in New York after being sneaked out of Ireland following some violent incident with the IRA that's only hinted at in the memoir. Angela's sent off to America because her family thought she was pretty useless and America had lots of room for useless women. Not exactly the Frank Sinatra version of moving to New York. When he gets older, Frank sees America as the land of opportunity. That sure isn't his family's experience, though. They live in poverty in Brooklyn, in a diverse neighborhood of Irish, Jews, and Italians. It has its share of bars, where Malachy Sr. spends plenty of time drinking up his wages and lamenting that he's not in Ireland. It also has its share of helpful neighbors, who see the dire circumstances the family's in and reach out to help. Even after Frank steals from the Italian grocer:

Oh, God, it's the Italian. Hey, sonny, come 'ere. {…] You the kid wid the little bruddahs, right? Twins?

Yes sir.

Heah, gotta bag o' fruit. I don' give it to you I trow id out, right? So heah, take the bag. Ya got apples, oranges bananas. (1.176-180)

Neighbors Mrs. MacAdorey and Mrs. Liebowitz also come to the rescue with clean diapers and chicken soup after the death of baby Margaret. They see Malachy Sr. disappearing into the pubs and the boys running wild, and they contact the family's cousins to let them know how bad things are. The cousins don't want the responsibility, and decide the family would be better off back in Ireland among their relatives. Frank's too little to understand why they're leaving, but he later reflects that this sure was a huge mistake.


Frank's memoir begins where it ends: America. But most of the story takes place in Limerick, Angela's hometown. Limerick plays such a large part in his memoir that it's almost like another character in the story. Since the story takes place between the 1930s and 1950s we're dealing with the aftermath of The Troubles, the beginnings of World War II, and the Great Depression. Frank's Limerick is a poor, rainy, damp, depressed working class town with its share of slums filled with poverty and disease. Some of his description of public lavatories and outhouses makes it seem almost like a third-world country. And did we mention the rain?

Above all, we were wet.

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.

From October to April the clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations[…]

The rain drove us into our church—our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. […]Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. (1.4-7)

Frank's Limerick has narrow alleys with rickety houses, the Labour Exchange that hands out relief money, the St. Vincent DePaul charity, plenty of churches and even more pubs. It's a staunchly Catholic town. It's filled with unemployed men, large families struggling to put food on the table, and boys playing in the street in ragged clothes using pig bladders for soccer balls. The schools and Catholic Church provide structure for the community, but just like in Brooklyn, there's a network of kind neighbors and shopkeepers that look out for the McCourts and fill in the gaps left by the formal charities. Limerick's poor seem united in their distrust of the government, the English, and the Protestants (also the English). Even the Catholic Church is seen by Limerick's poor as oblivious to what they really need.

Lots of Limerick residents were pretty angry about how their city was portrayed in McCourt's memoir. Fortunately, they've managed to get out the word about how the city looks today. Check out the Angela's Ashes reality tour.

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