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Although the book's written from Frank's perspective, we think it's really Angela's story. Angela Sheehan was born in a slum in Limerick, Ireland. Frank says early on that she was born with "sad blue eyes" (1.23), a foreshadowing if there ever was one. Her alcoholic father left the family before she was born. She left school after 9th grade and couldn't find a job she was good at, so her mother decided that America was the place for her.
We don't get to learn much about Angela's early years, but we get a hint from a truly heartbreaking passage about her visit with Dennis Clohessy, dying of consumption. He might have been a childhood boyfriend. Anyway, get out your handkerchiefs.
The cough is killin' me. But I remember the nights at the Wembley Hall. Aw, Jaysus, you were a great dancer. Nights at the Wembley Hall, Angela, and the fish and chips after. Oh boys, oh boys, Angela.
My mother has tears running down her face. She says, you were a great dancer yourself, Dennis Clohessy. (6.188)
Dennis asks her to sing the song she sang for him and her friends the night before she left for America. She tries her best and can hardly finish for crying and being out of breath from smoking. The boys watch this with interest:
We walk up Patrick St. and Mam sobs all the way […]
Oh no, Michael, 'tisn't Frankie I'm crying about. 'Tis Dennis Clohessy and the dancing nights at Wembley Hall and the fish and chips after. (6.218-219)
We get a glimpse of young, lively Angela Sheehan, whose life isn't going to turn out the way she must have hoped on that last night in Limerick, singing and dancing with her friends.
It seems like the luck of the Irish skipped Angela McCourt. For starters, the poor woman arrives in America in the middle of the Great Depression. She meets Malachy Sr., a drunk fresh out of jail for stealing a truck. She thinks his "hangdog look" (1.27) is hot, they have a one-night stand, and she ends up pregnant. They're forced to marry and things go from bad to worse when she has so much trouble feeding her children (due to her husband's alcoholism) that one of them dies of malnutrition:
Her little face is there day and night, her curly black hair and her lovely blue eyes. Oh, Jesus, Dan, what will I do? Was it the hunger that killed her, Dan? (1.258)
Yet through it all—the poverty, the death of three of her kids, the good for nothing-alcoholic husband—she doesn't give up. Time and time again she's forced to sacrifice her dignity in order to provide for her family:
Mam says there's nothing left but the Dispensary and the public assistance, the relief, and she's ashamed of her life to go and ask for it. It means you're at the end of your rope and maybe one level above tinkers, knackers, and street beggars in general. (9.130)
She goes anyway, and suffers humiliation at the hands of the dispensary workers who make the woman prove that they're truly needy. Even young Frank recognizes how this affects her:
We're all very quiet, even the baby Alphie, because we all know what Mr. Kane did to our mother. (9.168)
Angela keeps up hope that her sons can succeed despite their disadvantaged circumstances. She tries to get Frank into high school; she sends him off to dance lessons; she's proud when he gets odd jobs. She tries her best to keep her rambunctious boys out of trouble, and Frank's always aware of her all-seeing eyes:
I have to go home now and worry because you can't go through the world short a tooth without your mother knowing. Mothers know everything and she's always looking into our mouths to see if there's any class of disease. (5.93)
It's clear that Angela's priority is always her children's welfare and even though she suffers from bouts of depression (and who can blame her?) she remains a steadfast and devoted Mam.
Angela doesn't have any luxuries, unless you consider cigarettes a luxury. Smoking's clearly one of her pleasures and escapes, and the family manages to buy them even during the worst times.
There may be a lack of tea or bread in the house but Mam and Dad always manage to get the fags, the Wild Woodbines. They have to have the Woodbines in the morning and anytime they drink tea. They tell us every day we should never smoke, it's bad for your lungs, it's bad for your chest, it stunts your growth, and they sit by the fire puffing away. (5.55)
Bridey laughs. Oh, Angela, you could go to hell for that and Mam says, Aren't I there already, Bridey?
And they laugh and drink their tea and smoke their Woodbines and tell one another the fag is the only comfort they have.
It may be her only comfort, but it ruins her health and her teeth—she has to have them all pulled. Angela and Malachy Sr. know that the cigarettes are a dangerous addiction, but like she said, they're her only pleasure. The image of Angela smoking and staring into the ashes in the fireplace haunts the memoir.
So remember, scholars: Keep your teeth. Smoking is bad, m'kay? 'Tis.
Now, some might say that Angela's a bad mother. After all, one might assume that if she really wanted the dole money she could've collected it for herself. Or maybe she could've gotten a job so that she didn't have to depend on her husband. The problem with that argument is that we're looking at things from a modern perspective. Life wasn't as easy for a woman during Angela's time. Here's a short list of some of the things women weren't allowed to do in Limerick during Angela's lifetime:
Remember Malachy Sr.'s comment?
[T]he good Catholic woman must perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation. (9.2)
So what's Angela supposed to do? The lady's really stuck. She has hungry mouths to feed and no way to feed them. It's a pretty desperate situation. Later in the story, Angela and her sons are evicted from their home and forced to move in with her cousin Laman, who takes advantage of Angela:
Then he calls to Mam, Angela, this chamber pit is full, and she drags chair and table to climb for the chamber pot, empty it in the lavatory outside, rinse it and climb back to the loft. Her face gets tight and she says, Is there anything else your lordship would like this day? and he laughs, woman's work, Angela, woman's work and free rent. (12.122)
To keep the family secure there and to avoid even worse abuse, she eventually engages in an affair with Laman that disgusts Frank. He may be too young to realize it, but the reader sees that this is another one of those situations that trap Angela into submitting to a man to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
Angela could have made better decisions, but the truth of the matter is that opportunities were scarce and limited during the early 1900's (see above), especially if you were poor and a woman. But Angela's strong. She steps up when her husband refuses to accept his family responsibilities due to a misplaced sense of pride.
Ahead of us, women in shawls and small children are picking up coal along the road.
There, Dad, there's coal.
Och, no, son. We won't pick coal off the road. We're not beggars.
He tells Mam the coal yards are closed tonight and we'll have to drink milk and eat bread tonight, but when I tell her about the women on the road, she passes Eugene to him.
If you're too grand to pick coal off the road I'll put on my coat and go down the dock Road. (2.205-209)
Angela isn't willing to leave her children's well-being to chance. She knows what she has to do and she does it, whatever the cost. Her tenacity is a quality she instills in her children. When Frank's denied entrance into the secondary school because of his lack of money, she reminds him that he's more than just a "messenger boy" and that he shouldn't settle for less.
You are never to let anybody slam the door in your face again.
[O]h, God, I didn't bring ye into the world to be a family of messenger boys. (13.53-54)
We think that it's this same spirit that is responsible for Frank's eventual success in America; without a doubt, he really is his mother's son. McCourt does give us glimpses of the happy woman his mother can be, one who loves to tell stories, recite poems, and used to dance; who spends hours chatting and laughing with her friend Bridey and who has moments of real tenderness with her husband. But it's the poverty, illness, and hardship—and the tenacity with which she faces them—that define her story.