Delia says something has to be done about Angela and those children for they are a disgrace, so they are, enough to make you ashamed to be related. A letter has to be written to Angela's mother. (1.307)
Point blank: appearances matter. The McNamara sisters aren't concerned about the welfare of the kids or Angela. They're just concerned about how the McCourts' poverty affects them and their social status. Where's the charity and compassion? That comes from the neighbors, who are almost as poor as the McCourts.
The woman behind the counter is pleasant to Mam in her American coat till Mam shows the St. Vincent de Paul docket. The woman says, I don't know what you're doing here at this hour of the day. I never serve charity cases before six in the evening. But this is your first time and I'll make an exception. (2.179)
The woman behind the counter assumes from Angela's coat that she's a paying customer. In McCourt's Ireland what you wear determines not only how people treat you but also how far you get in life. The family's ragged clothing immediately signals "low class."
He puts on his tie and his cap and goes to the Labour Exchange to sign for the dole. He will never leave the house without collar and tie. A man without a collar and tie is a man with no respect for himself. You never know when the clerk at the Labour Exchange might tell you there's a job going at Rank's Flour Mills or the Limerick Cement Company, and even if it's a laboring job what will they think if you appear without collar and tie? (3. 20)
Pride. Self-Respect. Dignity. This is another passage where McCourt shows the importance of clothing conveying social class. Malachy Sr. believes that with the right clothing he's more likely to get offered a job. As a Northerner, he has to be especially careful about this.
I'll tell you what it is, she says. 'Tis class distinction. They don't want boys from lanes on the altar. They don't want the ones with scabby knees and hair sticking up. Oh, no, they want the nice boys with hair oil and new shoes that have fathers with suits and ties and steady jobs. That's what it is and 'tis hard to hold on to the Faith with the snobbery that's in it. (5.126)
Getting in with The Plastics is a piece of cake compared to getting into the upper echelons of McCourt's Ireland. McCourt's no fan of the Catholic Church—he sees the well-fed, well-dressed priests as allied with the rich classes.
I'd like to be a Jesuit some day but there's no hope of that when you grow up in a lane. Jesuits are very particular. They don't like poor people. They like people with motor cars who stick out their little fingers when they pick up their teacups. (10.59)
You can see how this class consciousness destroys Frank's hope from a really early age. There are certain futures that he knows are closed to him.
My mother is a beggar now and if anyone from the lane or my school sees her the family will be disgraced entirely. My pals will make up new names and torment me in the schoolyard and I know what they'll say,
beggar woman's boy
There are levels of poverty and the McCourts have just hit rock bottom. It was bad enough when they were on the dole; it was even worse when they had to take money from the St. Vincent de Paul Society; but now it's just plain mortifying. In Limerick, sometimes it seems like starving is a better option than getting your money from the dispensary. People from the lowest class had nothing but their self-respect, so losing that by going to the dispensary was the worst. Most of the McCourts' neighbors are just as poor as they are, but we guess it makes you feel better if you can point to someone even worse off. Psychologists call this coping strategy "downward comparison," and it works. Like when you're trying to decide how good looking you are, it doesn't help to be looking at photos of Jennifer Lawrence.
Mr. O'Halloran tells the class it's a disgrace that boys like McCourt, Clarke, Kennedy, have to hew wood and draw water. He is disgusted by this free and independent Ireland that keeps a class system foisted on us by the English, that we are throwing our talented children on the dungheap. (13.58)
Mr. O'Halloran sees the injustice here. All of his good pupils just aren't "good" enough in the eyes of the system. He can't bear to see his promising students going nowhere. He blames the situation on centuries of English discrimination against the Irish Catholics. Even though in this book it's other Irish who are doing the discriminating, Mr. O'Halloran knows that the patterns of history are hard to change.
Little Barrington Street. That's a lane. Why are you calling it a street? You live in a lane, not a street.
They call it a street, Mr. McCaffrey.
Don't be getting above yourself, boy.
Oh, I wouldn't, Mr. McCaffrey.
You live in a lane and that means you have nowhere to go but up. (16.96-100)
The lane is another term for the ghetto, the slums, skid row. We don't think that Mr. McCaffrey is being mean to Frank; he's just telling Frank to become Zen with where he's from because that means he's only got one way to go: up and out of the lanes.
Mrs. O'Connell has the tight mouth and she won't look at me. She says to Miss Barry, I hear a certain upstart from the lanes walked away from the post office exam. Too good for it, I suppose.
Mrs. O'Connell talks past me to the boys waiting on the bench for their telegrams. This is Frankie McCourt who thinks he's too good for the post office.
I don't think that, Mrs. O'Connell.
And who asked you to open your gob, Mr. High and Mighty? Too grand for us, isn't he boys? (16.120; 133-135)
It's not just the upper classes that that clamp down on the poor kids who want to aim higher. There's plenty of discouragement from the working classes, too, who try to shame Frankie into giving up his dreams. Kind of reminds us of that scene in Superbad when Seth tries to shame Evan about going to an elite college, but then they make up because he realizes he loves his buddy and really wants what's best for him and they say, "I love you man," and…sorry, give us a minute to pull ourselves together.
Malachy goes to England to work in a rich Catholic boys' boarding school, and he walks around cheerful and smiling as if he's the equal of any boy in the school and everyone knows when you work in an English boarding school you're supposed to hang your head and shuffle like a proper Irish servant. They fire him for his ways and Malachy tells them they can kiss his royal Irish arse and they say that's the kind of foul language you'd expect. (17.175)
Poor Malachy's the victim of stereotypes and prejudice. He finds out what happens when you don't know your place. He's just a confident, happy guy, and they see that as "uppity." He ends up coming home and working in the coal mines. Like Frank, he sees only one escape—America.
We wait across the street. Mam lets me sit on the sidewalk with my back against the wall. She gives the twins their bottles of water and sugar but Malachy and I have to wait till she gets money from Dad and we can go to the Italian for tea and bread and eggs. (1.124)
This passage is one of our first tastes of the effects of poverty (we doubt sugar water is very high in vitamins and nutrients) in Angela's Ashes. Sadly, this is only the beginning of a long struggle against poverty.
Bed, Dan! What am I to do in bed? 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)
Baby Margaret's death was likely a result of the living conditions caused by her family's impoverished circumstances. Same with the twins, who died probably because of malnourishment, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of access to medical care. Children are more seriously affected by lack of nutrition than adults. UNICEF estimates that over 20,000 children die each day because of extreme poverty.
Mam says she'd like to have a nice Christmas dinner but what can you do when the Labour Exchange reduces the dole to sixteen shillings after Oliver and Eugene died? You pay the rent of six shillings, you have ten shillings left, and what use is that to four people? (3.19)
Ten shillings is the equivalent of a few dollars in today's money. Can you support a family of five for a week on that? Other residents in Limerick resent people on the dole, but it's not like they're living in luxury; it barely covers their basic needs. This passage is a great example of McCourt showing Frank watching his mother speak without really understanding what she's saying. He knows she's upset, but he's obviously too young to appreciate the value of ten shillings or whether you can support a family on it. He's just paying attention.
Is there anyone in this class that comes from a rich family with money galore to spend on shoes?
There are no hands.
He says, There are boys here who have to mend their shoes whatever way they can. There are boys in this class with no shoes at all. It's not their fault and it's no shame. Our Lord had no shoes. He died shoeless. Do you see him hanging on the cross sporting shoes? Do you boys? (3.106-108)
Frank's classmates make fun of him because of the crazy patch-job his father did on his shoes. Here's a rare instance of someone actually showing compassion for the poor kids. The teacher threatens to thrash anyone who jeers at Frank or Malachy because of their clothes. It works—the boys stop teasing them. Maybe bringing up the religious angle helped the teacher make his point stick.
Paddy Clohessy has no shoe to his foot, his mother shaves his head to keep the lice away, his eyes are red, his nose is always snotty. The sores on his kneecaps never heal because he picks at the scabs and puts them in his mouth. His clothes are rags he has to share with his six brothers and a sister and when he comes to school with a bloody nose or a black eye you know he had a fight over the clothes that morning. (4.51)
Frankie knows there are some people even worse off than his family, as hard as that is to believe. Paddy's a prime example of what's it like to be dirt poor. This passage is a good illustration of McCourt showing in high-def the effects of poverty. His descriptions are so stark, in fact, that some of McCourts' neighbors and acquaintances were angry about the depiction of the Limerick slums. (Source)
You never know when you might come home and find Mam sitting by the fire with a woman and child, strangers. Always a woman and child. Mam finds them wandering the streets and if they ask, Can you spare a few pennies, miss? Her heart breaks. She never has money so she invites them home for tea and a bit of fried bread and if it's a bad night she'll let them sleep by the fire in a pile of rags in the corner. The bread she gives them always means less for us and if we complain she says there are always people worse off and we can surely spare a little from what we have. (5.5)
This reminds Shmoop of the ending of The Grapes of Wrath: the almost destitute helping the totally destitute. Only the desperately poor truly appreciate the experience of desperate poverty. Frankie gets an important lesson in charity. His brother Mikey's as soft-hearted as Mam, and he brings home stray animals and sick old men. McCourt's emphasis on "always a woman and child" suggests that there are plenty of families with an alcoholic or deserting husband, and Angela can sure relate to that.
It's raining again and small children are playing in the hallway and up the stairs. Paddy says, Mind yourself, because some of the steps are missing and there is shit on the ones that are still there. He says that's because there's only one privy and it's in the backyard and children don't get down the stairs in time to put their little arses on the bowl, God help us. (6.141)
Notice how McCourt structures this passage to show how Paddy is matter-of-fact about the feces-filled house. He doesn't seem bothered by it. It's all he's known his whole life, so he's just learned to deal with it. It illustrates the sad fact that poverty can destroy any expectations from life and make the worst squalor seem normal.
Seamus likes me to tell him what I'm reading. He says that story about Mr. Ernest Bliss is a made-up story because no one in his right mind would have to go to a doctor over having too much money and not eating his egg though you never know. It might be like that in England. You'd never find the likes of that in Ireland. If you didn't eat your egg here you'd be carted off to the lunatic asylum or reported to the bishop. (8.115)
Through this comic vignette, McCourt lays out the huge gap between the desperately poor and the people who don't know hunger. Even Seamus, a grownup, can't imagine a world where someone would refuse to eat, especially an egg.
Mam comes back up to Italy and sits by the fire wondering where in God's name she'll get the money for a week's rent never mind the arrears. She'd love a cup of tea but there's no way of boiling the water till Malachy pulls loose a board off the wall between the two upstairs rooms. Mam says, Well, 'tis off now and we might as well chop it up for the fire. We boil the water and use the rest of the wood for the morning tea but what about tonight and tomorrow and ever after? Mam says, One more board from that wall, one more and not another one. She says that for two weeks till there's nothing left but the beam frame. (12.76)
This passage shows the lengths the McCourts have to go to just to keep warm. This eventually gets them evicted. We can't say we don't understand why the landlord is doing it, but it shows how the effect of poverty builds on itself. You can't afford to maintain your place so you get kicked out so you're homeless and even hungrier—a vicious cycle. The words "tonight and tomorrow and ever after" show the relentlessness of the family's trouble and the worry this causes a young boy who doesn't know what to do about it.
There they are, the priests and the nuns telling us Jesus was poor and 'tis no shame, lorries driving up to their houses with crates and barrels of whisky and wine, eggs galore and legs of ham and they telling us what we should give up for Lent. Lent, my arse. What are we to give up when we have Lent all year long? (15.62)
Mrs. Spillane hits the nail on the head when she describes the hypocrisy of the Church. It's easy to tell people not to eat when you're able to eat whatever you like, whenever you like.
They scream at me and tell me I'm filthy. I try to explain that Mam has the disease and I'm worn out trying to make ends meet, keeping the home fires burning, getting lemonade for Mam and bread for my brothers. (10.35)
This passage shows one of the many examples of Frank's precocious ability to cope. He's ready to step it up and isn't afraid of a challenge. Unfortunately, he's just eleven right now so he doesn't exactly have the means necessary to take care of a family but he exhausts himself going from house to house begging for coal, pushing the baby's pram and dragging his brothers along. All he gets for it is chewed out for looking dirty.
When the rain starts we cover ourselves with old coal bags and Mr. Hannon turns his pipe upside down in his mouth to keep the tobacco dry. He says the rain makes everything heavier but what's the use of complaining. You might as well complain about the sun in Africa. (11.72)
Mr. Hannon's strategy for dealing with misery is to be philosophical about it. He gets the "serenity to accept the things I cannot change" concept.
I don't want to empty his chamber pot but I dream of cycling miles on the road to Killaloe, fields and a sky far from this house, a swim in the Shannon, a night sleeping in a barn. I pull the table and chair to the wall. I climb up and under the bed there's the plain white chamber pot brimming with piss and shit. I lay it down gently at the edge of the loft […], bring it down, turn my face away, hold it while I step down to the table […], take the chamber pot to the lavatory, empty it, and get sick behind the lavatory until I get used to this job. (13.11)
This is a perfect example of how far Frankie will go to get what he wants. Seriously, he's emptying out Laman's chamber pot. But he keeps in mind the reason he's doing it—because Laman's promised to let him ride his bike if he does this disgusting job. He daydreams about the bike ride as a way of keeping himself motivated.
A few days later Mam tells me give my face and hands a good wash, we're going to the Christian Brothers. I tell her I don't want to go, I want to work, I want to be a man. She tells me stop the whining, I'm going to secondary school and we'll all manage somehow. I'm going to school if she has to scrub floors and she'll practice on my face. (13.41)
Angela's quite the fighter and Frankie had the good luck to inherit that spirit. Through much of the memoir, Frank experiences his mother's tenacity as just his bad luck to be prodded, scrubbed, dragged to school and dance lessons, and forced to look presentable. But we readers can see Angela's determination to keep her family together.
Her face tightens and she's angry. You are never to let anybody slam the door in your face again. Do you hear me?
She starts to cry by the fire, Oh, God, I didn't bring ye into the world to be a family of messenger boys. (13.53-54)
This passage shows Angela at her fiercest in the face of rejection and shaming. Her bright, ambitious son's been treated as a useless kid from the lanes. She can't do anything about it, but she makes sure Frank knows it's unacceptable.
I'll get money some day for a house or a flat with electric light and a lavatory and beds with sheets blankets pillows like the rest of the world. We'll have breakfast in a bright kitchen with flowers dancing in a garden beyond, delicate cups and saucers, eggcups, eggs soft in the yolk and ready to melt the rich creamery butter, a teapot with a cozy on it, toast with butter and marmalade galore. (14.9)
Frank's rich imagination is a huge help in seeing past his wretched life to a time when things might be different. This helps him keep on keepin' on.
I feel sorry for the rich people who will get up in the morning and go to the door and find their bread missing but I can't let myself starve to death. If I starve I'll never have the strength for my telegram boy job at the post office, which means I'll have no money to put back all that bread and milk and no way of saving to go to America and if I can't go to America I might as well jump into the River Shannon. (14.20)
Here's another quality that helps Frank keep trying: foresight. He's able to see that certain actions will have certain results. He keeps all this in his head when deciding how to act. His father lacks this quality big-time. He's impulsive and doesn't consider the consequences of his behavior. He can feel bad in retrospect, but he can't sustain anything positive.
I write five more letters and she gives me money for stamps. On my way to the post office I think, Why should I squander money on stamps when I have two legs to deliver the letters myself in the dead of night? (16.60)
This is the kind of thinking that makes Frankie so different from the rest. He's willing to go the extra mile (literally) just so that he can make a few extra bucks. This isn't just being smart. Malachy Sr.'s intelligent, too, but he doesn't have the motivation.
You live in a lane and that means you have nowhere to go but up. Do you understand that, McCourt? (16.100)
Mr. McCaffrey tries to put a positive spin on a bad situation, i.e., things can't get any worse. Don't tell us you haven't said that to yourselves at some point to keep from completely sinking.
I'm seventeen, eighteen, going on nineteen, working away at Easons, writing threatening letters for Mrs. Finucane. (18.1)
Frank's up at the crack of dawn, working two jobs, taking care of his family, and saving up to go to America. He has a single-minded goal and he's not letting anyone stop him. Malachy Sr. is just the opposite—he doesn't seem to have any long-term goals to keep him going. He gives in to the whim of the moment and gets nowhere. Frank's vision for his life is his motivator.
We have morals in Limerick, you know, morals. We're not like jackrabbits from Antrim, a place crawling with Presbyterians. (1. 41)
This passage shows the kind of prejudice against Northerners. The people of Limerick look down on the Northern Irish as immoral people with no sexual self-control. That's their explanation of why Malachy Sr. got Angela pregnant. Hmm—last we knew, it took two.
Angela wanted to give him a middle name, Munchin, after the patron saint of Limerick but Malachy said over his dead body. No son of his would have a Limerick name. (1.59)
Munchin could be the nicest name in the world (Munchin??), but as long as it has associations with Limerick, Malachy Sr. won't hear of it. If Malachy Sr. names his son after the patron saint of Limerick it's akin to his family losing a part of their Northern Irish identity.
Up boys, up. A nickel for everyone who promises to die for Ireland.
Where are my troops? Where are my four warriors? […] I want them up, he says. I want them ready for the day Ireland will be free from the center to the sea. (1.109, 112-114)
Malachy's quite the dreamer, especially when he drinks too much. He's stuck in his old wartime days. But his romantic notions of Ireland are no longer in line with the realities of everyday life. Try as he might to instill in his sons his patriotic spirit, the boys are of a different time. All they know is that dad wakes them up late at night singing of Ireland. Malachy Sr.'s time as an IRA fighter must have been a formative time for him. We don't learn much about it, but we see its influence. Malachy Sr. feels resentful that he "did his bit" for Ireland but no one seems to appreciate it except the other drunks in the pub.
The man tells Dad, I can see you're a man that did his bit. Dad says, Och, I did my bit, and the man says, I did me bit, too, and what did it get me but one eye less and a pension that wouldn't feed a canary.
But Ireland is free, says Dad, and that's a grand thing.
Free, my arse, the man says. I think we were better off under the English. (2.53-55)
After all the fighting, death, and destruction, Mr. Heggarty, a former IRA soldier, expresses a pretty radical idea: that all the fighting against the English was for naught. So what was the point of all the fighting?
He stands in the middle of the lane and tells the world to step outside, he's ready to fight, ready to fight and die for Ireland, which is more than he can say for the men of Limerick, who are known the length and breadth of the world for collaborating with the perfidious Saxons. (3.144)
Calm down, Malachy. The war's over.
[F]or two thousand years men, women and children have died for the Faith, the Irish have nothing to be ashamed of in the martyr department. Haven't we provided martyrs galore? Haven't we bared our necks to the Protestant ax? Haven't we mounted the scaffold, singing, as if embarking on a picnic, haven't we, boys? (4.58)
The teachers at Frank's school are constantly reminding the boys about all the cruelties the Irish have endured. In this passage, the teacher focuses on religious martyrdom rather than dying for your country. These two things are inextricably bound together in the minds of the devoutly Catholic Irish people.
There are people who don't talk to each other because their fathers were on opposite sides in the Civil War in 1922. If a man goes off and joins the English army his family might as well move to another part of Limerick where there are families with men in the English army. If anyone in your family was the least way friendly to the English in the last eight hundred years it will be brought up and thrown in your face and you might as well move to Dublin where no one cares. (5.4)
The past isn't past here in Limerick. The old grievances are fresh. 'Tis painful for the men of Limerick to have to move to England to support their families, working for the war machine of a country that oppressed them in the past.
Mikey Molloy's father said anyone who wants to die for Ireland is donkey's arse. Men have been dying for Ireland since the beginning of time and look at the state of the country. (7.1)
Is Mikey Molloy's father right? Is this kind of patriotism misguided and a waste of energy? On the other hand, USA! USA! USA!
No, says Mam, it has to be Irish. Isn't that what we fought for all these years? What's the use of fighting the English for centuries if we're going to call our children Ronald? (7.108)
Names are important in Angela's Ashes. (For more on this see "Tools of Characterization.") What's so wrong about giving your child an English name? Why do names carry such weight in Ireland?
[S]he says 'twould break your heart to think of what the English did to us, that if they didn't put the blight on the potato they didn't do much to take it off. No pity. No feeling at all for the people that died in this very ward, children suffering and dying here while the English feasted on roast beef and guzzled the best of wine in their big houses, little children with their mouths all green from trying to eat the grass in the fields beyond, God bless us and save us and guard us from future famines. (8.98)
This passage shows the anger and resentment that the Irish hold in their hearts against the English. After years of persecution at the hands of the English, is it fair to say that the Irish are now defined by what was done to them – that they have the mentality of a victim? What does a victim mentality accomplish?
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 though 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. (1.6-7)
This seems like a pretty cynical statement to us, but maybe Frank's got a point. After all, we didn't see a whole lotta charity or compassion or forgiveness on the part of the Church in Angela's Ashes.
The sisters knew what was right and they knew what was wrong and any doubts could be resolved by the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church. (1.29)
The McNamara Sisters might use religion to mask their true intentions, and they don't really care about Angela or what's right or wrong. This passage shows the black-or-white way of thinking that McCourt thought characterized the Church. Things were right or they were wrong, no doubts allowed or allowances made for difficult circumstances.
There is a picture on the wall by the range of a man with long brown hair and sad eyes. He is pointing to his chest where there is a big heart with flames coming out of it. Mam tell us, That's the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and I want to know why the man's heart is on fire and why doesn't He throw water on it? Grandma says, Don't these children know anything about their religion? and Mam tells her it's different in America. Grandma says the Sacred Heart is everywhere and there's no excuse for that kind of ignorance. (2.95)
With America's separation of church and state written into its constitution, it's hard to appreciate how much religion permeated Irish culture. Much education was religious education, and Catholic beliefs dictated laws of family life, e.g., birth control or divorce. Divorce was illegal in Ireland from 1921, when the country gained independence from Britain, until 1997. Sales of contraceptive devices were illegal from 1935-1980 (source).
Malachy says he's hungry and he wants some [communion wafers], too. Dad says, shush, that's Holy Communion, the body and blood of Our Lord.
Shush, it's a mystery.
There's no use asking more questions. If you ask a question they tell you it's a mystery, you'll understand when you grow up, be a good boy, ask your mother, ask your father, for the love o'Jesus leave me alone, go out and play. (3.130-133)
The adults in Frank's life think that the way to get a kid to believe is to insist he believe. We think Frank might be a better Catholic if he got his questions answered. Strong faith can stand up to a few questions. Then maybe his First Holy Communion would seem like more than just a chance to get candy. It might actually mean something to him.
She worries Mikey might have the fit and die and go to hell if he has any class of a sin on his soul though everyone knows he's an angel out of heaven. Mikey tells her God is not going to afflict you with the fit and then boot you into hell on top of it. What kind of a God would do a thing like that? (4.12)
Mikey believes in a merciful God, not the fire and brimstone God the priests use to scare the boys. He doesn't know that much about Church teachings; it's just his child's common sense interpretation of what he thinks God is like. You can tell that Frank thinks Mikey has a point.
[…] You're here to learn the catechism and do what you're told. You're not to be asking questions. There are too many people wandering the world and asking questions and that's what has us in the state we're in and if I find any boy in this class asking questions I won't be responsible for what happens. (4.22)
Religion as it was taught to Frank is authoritarian and rigid. It was a lot of "thou shalt nots." You get the impression that Frank sees all this as burdensome, not enlightening, even for a boy who loves to learn. And no questions allowed.
I feel sorry for the beautiful Protestant girls, they're doomed. That's what the priests tell us. Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Outside the Catholic Church there is nothing but doom. And I want to save them. Protestant girl, come with me to the True Church. You'll be saved and you won't have the doom. (7.18)
If you're not Catholic you're doomed. It's that simple. The residents of Limerick consider Protestants to be out-of-control drinkers and fornicators who think nothing of using birth control or getting divorces. It's all the fault of Henry VIII.
I wonder if the priest is asleep because he's very quiet till he says, My child, I sit here. I hear the sins of the poor. I assign the penance. I bestow absolution. I should be on my knees washing their feet. Do you understand me, my child?
I tell him I do but I don't.
Go home child, pray for me. (7.142)
Frank's come to confess his sin of stealing fish and chips because he was hungry. The priest asked why he didn't ask his mother for something to eat and he explained that he was out in the street looking for his father in the pubs after his father drank up the money for baby Alphie. The priest is speechless. He's a priest who realizes he should be helping the poor and realizes the limitations of what he can do by absolution alone. Forgiving sins is great, but it doesn't keep people from starving. Unlike the wealthy priests who look down at the poor, this man knows he should be serving them as Jesus would have done.
And why does [The Virgin Mary] weep, boys? She weeps because of you and what you are doing to her Beloved Son. She weeps when she […] beholds in horror the spectacle of Limerick boys defiling themselves, polluting themselves, interfering with themselves, abusing themselves, soiling their young bodies […]. Oh, boys, the devil wants your souls. He wants you with him in hell and know this, that every time you interfere with yourselves, […] you not only nail Christ to the cross you take another step closer to hell itself. (13.80)
Doom. That's the favorite word of every priest in Limerick. (14.17)
In case you didn't get the idea. That's what religion means to Frank. But despite the devil wanting his soul, he can't keep his hands off himself.
Theresa is a torment to me. […] every time I pass the graveyard I feel the sin growing in me like an abscess and if I don't go to confession soon I'll be nothing but an abscess riding around on bicycle with people pointing and telling each other, there he is, Frankie McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell. (16.39)
At this point, Frank still believes that going to confession would help him deal with his guilt about Theresa, but he's afraid that the priest will throw him out. He figures he'll have to wait until he gets to America, where the priests are friendly like Bing Crosby in the movie Going My Way.
He tells me God forgives me and I must forgive myself, that God loves me and I must love myself for only when you love God in yourself can you love all God's creatures. (17.69)
Frank finally can't take the guilt any longer and breaks down in tears in a Franciscan church. A priest hears him and offers to talk. Frank spills his life story. This passage jumps out at us because of how different it is when compared to the other passages on religion. This priest is nothing like most of the other priests we've encountered in Angela's Ashes. He's kind, compassionate, and most of all understanding. He gets that love and forgiveness are more powerful that guilt and blame.
Cuchulain. Say it after me, Coo-hoo-lin. I'll tell you the story when you say the name right. Coo-hoo-lin. (1.89)
Malachy Sr. is a great storyteller, but he sticks in a piece of teaching to a very young Frankie before he agrees to tell the story.
Books can be dangerous for children, my child. Turn your mind from those silly stories and think of the lives of the saints. (4.111)
According to the priest, reading can be a very bad thing, especially if it means you might learn things that go against the Bible or Catholic belief. If Frank's discouraged from reading books that aren't of a religious nature, isn't he forfeiting large chunks of knowledge? Why would the priest feel the need to discourage a young boy from reading? Maybe he'd ask questions.
He says anyone who doesn't understand the theorems of Euclid is an idiot. Now, repeat after me, Anyone who doesn't understand the theorems of Euclid is an idiot. Of course we all know what an idiot is because that's what the master kept telling us we are. (6.1)
We guess this is before the Self-Esteem Movement in education.
If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year. (8.89)
Frank's quite the autodidact. He's has the ability but never the opportunity. Once he's in the hospital and is allowed to read what he wants, his self-education takes off.
He tells us what is important and why. No master ever told us why before. If you asked why you'd be hit on the head. Hoppy doesn't call us idiots and if you ask a question he doesn't go into a rage. He's the only master who stops and says, Do ye understand what I'm talking about? Do ye want to ask a question? (8.155)
Mr. Halloran's an exception to the rule—he's not afraid of questions. He knows that's how kids learn, but his teaching style was unusual in those days. In or out of school, Frank knows he's not supposed to ask questions about adults if you didn't want to be smacked.
You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can't make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it. (8.161)
Mr. O'Halloran is right. Knowledge is power. Once you've acquired it, no one can take it away from you. Part of what's striking about Mr. O'Halloran's teaching methods is that it's in complete contrast with religious dogma. It opens discussions. It asks questions. It's unbiased. It's inspiring.
[Dad] tells me about the old days in Ireland when the English wouldn't let the Catholics have schools because they wanted to keep the people ignorant, that the Catholic children met in hedge schools in the depths of the country and learned English, Irish, Latin, and Greek. The people loved learning. They loved stories and poetry even if none of this was any good for getting a job. (8.165)
Malachy Sr. knows the value of education and doesn't want Frank to take it for granted because Irish children suffered to get an education in hedge schools and ditches. He goes on to tell Frankie to study hard and go to America where he can get an "inside job," out of the rain and cold. Some things never change, though. Malachy Sr. thought that the liberal arts can't get you a job. So, do you want chips with that?
Grandma tells me I have naked eyes and she says it's my own fault, all that eye trouble comes from sitting up there at the top of the lane under the light pole in all kinds of weather with my nose stuck in books and the same thing will happen to Malachy if he doesn't give over the reading. You can see little Michael is getting just as bad sticking his nose in books when he should be out playing like a healthy child. Books, books, books, says Grandma, ye will ruin yeer eyes entirely. (9.62)
Why do you think Grandma Sheehan is so averse to books? Is it maybe because she never had an education herself? It's heartening to see that all the McCourt boys love to read.
He tells me I should go to school and not be like him working away with the two legs rotting away under him. Go to school Frankie, and get out of Limerick and Ireland itself. […] School, Frankie, school. The books, the books, the books. Get out of Limerick before your legs rot and your mind collapses entirely. (11.76)
Frank's enjoying working for Mr. Halloran because it gets him out of school and makes him feel grownup. Mr. Halloran sees that this is a pretty short-sighted view, and encourages Frankie not to end up toiling and ruining his health like he's done. Shmoop loves the conversational tone of this passage.
Sunday nights I sit outside on the pavement under Mrs. Purcell's window listening to plays on the BBC and Radio Eireann, the Irish station. You can hear plays by O'Casey, Shaw, Ibsen and Shakespeare himself, the best of all, even if he is English. Shakespeare is like mashed potatoes, you can never get enough of him. And you can hear strange plays about Greeks plucking out their eyes because they married their mothers by mistake. (12.61)
It should come as no surprise that Frank ends up becoming an English teacher. Who do you think instilled this love of literature in Frank?
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. (1.11)
This one of the first descriptions of Malachy Sr.'s alcohol use. Clearly, he was a heavy drinker even before coming to America and having a family.
After a night of drinking porter in the pubs of Limerick he staggers down the lane singing his favorite song […].
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. (1.14-15)
Poor Uncle Pat, another casualty of alcoholism. This passage has to be one of the saddest in Angela's Ashes. Pat's one of the many kids whose lives are ruined because of their father's drinking.
When we go home Mam makes tea and bread and jam or mashed potatoes with butter and salt. Dad drinks the tea and eats nothing. Mam says, God above, How can you work all day and not eat? He says, The tea is enough. She says, You'll ruin your health, and he tells her again that food is a shock to the system. (1.106)
Alcohol has replaced food as the most necessary substance in Malachy Sr.'s life. That's one of the ways drinking kills you—drinks replace nutritious food and your body falls apart.
Dad carried the twins, Mam carried a bag in one hand and held Malachy's hand with the other. When she stopped every few minutes to catch her breath, Grandma said, Are you still smokin' them fags? Them fags will be the death of you. There's enough consumption in Limerick without people smokin' fags on top of it an' 'tis a rich man's foolishness. (2.92)
The effects of smoking weren't as widely known back then as they are now and many people died of lung cancer and emphysema. We don't usually side with Grandma Sheehan, but she does speak some sense. Besides, how are Angela and Malachy Sr. able to afford cigarettes when they can't even feed their children? That's another power of addiction—your substance of choice trumps everything.
Mikey's father, Peter is a great champion. He wins bets in the pubs by drinking more pints than anyone. All he has to do is go out to the jakes, stick his finger down his throat and bring it all up so that he can start another round. Peter is such a champion he can stand in the jakes and throw up without using his finger. […] He wins all that money but doesn't bring it home. Sometimes he's like my father and drinks the dole itself and that's why Nora Molloy is often carted off to the lunatic asylum demented with worry over her hungry famishing family. (4.8)
Another example of what alcoholism does to a family. Nora, like Angela, goes crazy (literally) trying to find the means necessary to feed her family. Peter, on the other hand, continues drinking, and is completely oblivious to the damage he's causing.
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)
Most heavy smokers know they're committing slow suicide. Angela and Malachy Sr. can't stop and they don't deny it. They didn't know about the link to lung cancer, but they knew the cigarettes made them short of breath and rotted their teeth. Get these people on the patch.
I want ye to go back down to that pub and read him out of it. I want ye to stand in the middle of the pub and tell every man your father is drinking the money for the baby. Ye are to tell the world there isn't a scrap of food in this house, not a lump of coal to start the fire, not a drop of milk for the baby's bottle. (7.150)
This episode's a turning point for Frank. Even he knows how you've hit rock bottom if you drink up money given for your baby.
Nora Molloy is inside screeching after Peter that […] if he brings that child home drunk she'll go to Scotland and disappear from the face of the earth.
Peter tells Mikey, Pay no attention to her, Cyclops. The mothers of Ireland are always enemies of the first pint. My own mother tried to kill my father with a frying pan when he took me for the first pint. (11.9-10)
Evidently, the wives of the Limerick drunks freak out at the thought of their sons being introduced to alcohol. But for the men, it's an important tradition of entering manhood at sixteen. Having your first beer doesn't have to be the beginning of a life as an alcoholic, but the tradition includes having all the men in the pub buying you a pint. Fortunately, Peter doesn't let that happen. He knows Nora would be furious, but the real reason is that he doesn't want Mikey to get sick and then never want to drink again. See our "Theme: Men and Masculinity" section for more on why a real man has to drink.
This is my wife. She may be Irish but she doesn't look it, thank God. Like you. Irish. You'll need a drink, of course. You Irish quaff at every turn. Barely weaned before you clamor for the whiskey bottle, the pint of stout. (16.6)
The Irish are stereotyped as infamous for their drinking habits. How does McCourt's memoir prove or disprove the notion that the Irish are heavy drinkers?
Uncle Pa comes in and tells me sit next to him against the wall. The barman brings the pints, Uncle Pa pays, lifts his glass, tells the men of the pub, This is my nephew, Frankie McCourt son of Angela Sheehan, the sister of my wife, having his first pint, here's to your health and long life, Frankie, may you live to enjoy the pint but not too much. (17.10)
Uncle Pa makes a good point; alcohol doesn't have to be bad just as long as it's taken in moderation. Unfortunately for Frank, he drinks way too much that night and ends up hitting his mother. This is a slippery slope for Frank, especially since alcoholism runs in the family.
It's dark on Atlantic Avenue and all the bars around the Long Island Railroad Station are bright and noisy. We go from bar to bar looking for Dad. Mam leaves us outside with the pram while she goes in or she sends me. There are crowds of noisy men and stale smells that remind me of Dad when he comes home with the smell of whiskey on him.
The man behind the bar says, Yeah, sonny, whaddya want? You're not supposeta be in here, y'know.
I'm looking for my father. Is my father here? (1.1.129-131)
Frank's introduced to the adult world at an early age due to his father's irresponsible behavior. Is it fair to say that Frank's childhood is cut short because of him?
My mother tells me all the time, Never, never leave that playground except to come home. But what am I to do with the twins bawling with the hunger in the pram? I tell Malachy I'll be back in a minute. I make sure no one is looking, grab a bunch of bananas outside the Italian grocery shop and run down Myrtle Avenue, away from the playground around the block and back to the other end where there's a hole in the fence. We push the pram to a dark corner and peel the banana for the twins. There are five bananas in the bunch and we feast on them in the dark corner. (1. 171)
This passage is another instance of Frank having to think like a grown up way before his time. From an early age, Frank learns responsibility and how to take care of his siblings. Since much of the time this involves petty thievery, it adds to the guilt Frank drags with him throughout his youth.
Dad says I'll understand when I grow up. He tells me that all the time now and I want to be big like him so that I can understand everything. It must be lovely to wake up in the morning and understand everything. I wish I could be like all the big people in the church, standing and kneeling and praying and understanding everything. (3.127)
Ah, yes, the misleading notion that life becomes clearer as we get older. If anything, life only becomes murkier. The search for "understanding" is never-ending; it's also part and parcel of being a grownup, living life without fully comprehending it. Have we mentioned that we miss being a kid?
Grandma says to Mam, Your brother Pat, bad leg an' all, was selling papers all over Limerick by the time he was eight and that Frank of yours is big and ugly enough to work.
But he's only nine and still in school.
School. 'Tis school that has him the way he is talkin' back and goin' around with the sour puss an' the odd manner like his father. (7.22)
Even Grandma's pushing Frank to grow up fast. Despite child labor laws and school attendance laws in effect at the time, lots of Limerick boys had to contribute economically to the family.
He knows the next day we'll be getting Confirmation money and if we promise to pay him a shilling each he'll let us climb up the rainspout behind his house this very night to look in the window and see his sisters' naked bodies when they take their weekly wash. I sign right away. (8.7)
This passage shows Frank's emerging sexuality. Whereas last year he wanted to use The Collection money to buy candy and go to the movies, this year he pays Quasimodo so that he can get a glimpse of a naked girl.
On the way home I see myself in the glass of a shop window all black from the coal, and I feel like a man, a man with a shilling in his pocket, a man who had a lemonade in a pub with two coal men and a lime man. I'm not a child anymore and I could easily leave Leamy's school forever […] and my mother wouldn't have to be a beggar at the Redemptorist priests' house. (11.84)
Eleven year-old Frank wants desperately to grow up fast so he can be the provider his Dad never was. He's proud to look like a coal man with money in his pocket.
I want the job. I want to bring home the shilling. I want to be a man.
You can be a man without bringing home the shilling. Go upstairs and rest your eyes or it's a blind man you'll be. (11.89-90)
Angela sees the pressure Frank's putting on himself and how it's affecting his health. Even though he's a big help to Mr. Hannon, Mrs. Hannon regrets giving Frank the job. She tells him that his job is to go to school.
Mrs. Hannon always calls me Frank now. Anyone that delivers hundredweights of coal is not a Frankie. (11.125)
A change of name is usually symbolically important in a story. It means the character has achieved something or transformed himself or herself into someone different. Kinda like how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. Or Snoop Dog becoming Snoop Lion. Or the Biblical Jacob becoming Israel.
It's hard to sleep when you know the next day you're fourteen and starting your first job as a man. (15.1)
We've all been there, the night before the big day, when getting some shut-eye seems impossible. And this is a big moment for Frank. It means he'll finally be able to make some money and start saving for America. How does Frank see his life changing when he becomes a man? What does working mean to him other than a way of making money?
The boys at the post office say I must be having a great time with the shilling tip and Theresa Carmody. I never tell them I stopped taking the shilling tip. I never tell them about the green sofa and the excitement. I never tell them of the pain that comes when she opens the door and I can see the weakness on her and all I want to do then is make tea for her and sit with my arms around her on the green sofa. (15.121)
Frank loses his virginity to Theresa, but she also awakens feelings of tenderness and protectiveness. This sexual experience is an important part of his coming-of-age, but it also brings up lots of other grown-up issues for him to grapple with: loss, guilt, and forgiveness.
I crawl into bed with Malachy and the twins. I look out at Mam at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, drinking tea, and crying. I want to get up and tell her I'll be a man soon and I'll get a job in the place with the big gate and I'll come home every Friday night with money for eggs and toast and jam and she can sing again Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss. (1.148)
Even as a boy, Frank understands that a man's most important job is to provide for his family and protect his wife and children. At least, that's what a man is expected to do in 1930s Limerick. As a child, Frank feels helpless to change the family's circumstances. Kids living in poverty are at huge risk for leaving school like Frank to get a job and help support the family.
She hopes he might bring home something from the farm, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, but he'll never bring home anything because he'd never stoop so low as to ask a farmer for anything. Mam says 'tis all right for her to be begging at the St. Vincent de Paul Society for a docket for food but he can't stick a few spuds in his pocket. He says it's different for a man. You have to keep the dignity. Wear your collar and tie, keep up the appearance, and never ask for anything. (3.23)
Talk about double standards. Poor Angela has to go begging while Malachy Sr. refuses to bring food home for his starving children just because it means he'd have to ask a few strangers for charity. Is this dignity or just unreasonable manly pride? Does begging mean you'll be seen as less of a man?
Even the poorest of the poor don't go out on Christmas Day picking coal off the road. There's no use asking Dad to go because he will never stoop that low and even if he did he won't carry things through the streets. It's a rule he has. (3.55)
Rule or no rule, Frank and Malachy Jr. could really use their father's help. It seems like many of the "rules" Malachy Sr. has are convenient for only one person: Malachy Sr., and we're not entirely sure that's how a real man would act.
In fine weather men sit outside smoking their cigarettes if they have them, looking at the world and watching us play. Women stand with their arms folded, chatting. They don't sit because all they do is stay at home, take care of the children, clean the house and cook a bit and the men need chairs. The men sit because they're worn out from walking to the Labour Exchange every morning to sign for the dole, discussing the world's problems and wondering what to do with the rest of the day. (3.125)
Okay, we've tried to remain levelheaded here, but what really gets us about this passage, is the word all. " All women do is stay at home […]." As if taking care of kids, cooking, and cleaning are simple tasks. We'd like to see the men of Limerick try to do a woman's job day in and day out. Of course, McCourt was being very deliberate in using the word in that sentence. He knows all too well who's really doing the heavy lifting in the family.
Mam slaps me across the face and sends me flying across the kitchen. My heart is pounding and I want to cry but I can't because my father isn't there and I'm the man of the family. (7.130)
Tears are a big no-no because big boys don't cry, especially since Frank's gotta fill Malachy Sr.'s shoes. That seems like a lot of pressure to put on a boy.
Dad nods and puts his hand on mine again. He looks at me, steps away, stops, comes back, kisses me on the forehead for the first time in my life and I'm so happy I feel like floating out of the bed. (8.41)
We find it pretty surprising that this is the first (and only time) that Malachy Sr. kisses his son. An affectionate kiss shared between a father and son is an unusual gesture here. What is it about physical affection between two men that is so taboo? What does it have to do with the notion of masculinity?
Seamus says, 'Tis a grand thing to be eleven because any day now you'll be a man shaving and all ready to get out and get a job and drink your pint good as any man. (8.121)
This passage shows some of the rules that a boy must follow to achieve manhood. These ideas get pounded into Frank's head pretty consistently by the men in the story. Men work, men drink.
I feel sad over the bad thing but I can't back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father and if I were in America I could say, I love you, Dad, the way they do in the films, but you can't say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at. You're allowed to say you love God and babies and horses that win, but anything else is a softness in the head (8.167)
Frankie's a sensitive and emotional boy, but he can't show it. More rules about masculinity.
Dad says, The good Catholic woman must perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation.
Really? According to Malachy Sr., the Catholic Church states that Angela has to submit to Malachy Sr.'s sexual advances, otherwise she's going not only going against her husband but she's also going to hell. Now, we don't think that's actually part of Catholic dogma, but it sure suits Malachy Sr.'s needs, right? With five brothers they can't afford to feed, abstaining from having another child seems like the smart thing to do. But what's Angela to do if she's not only going against her husband's wishes but also the Catholic Church?
Dad says a factory is no place for a woman.
Mam says, Sitting on your arse by the fire is no place for a man. (9.12-13)
In this passage Angela really puts Malachy Sr. in his place. Angela has her pride, but she's not going to let it keep her from helping her family. Her husband rationalizes his laziness and does nothing. In the U.S., World War II upended a lot of traditional labor patterns, as women did go to work in factories to replace their husbands who went to war.
Eamon says, 'Tis what my father says about men who don't drink, they're not to be trusted. Peter says if you find a man that won't drink or smoke that's a man that's not even interested in girls and you'd want to keep your hand over the hole of your arse, that's what you'd want to be doing. (17.77)
According to Eamon, a man who doesn't follow the unspoken rules of masculinity is probably a homosexual. So what are the unspoken rules? For starters, you gotta drink and smoke. In 1930s Ireland, fear of being labeled a homosexual was probably a pretty powerful incentive to follow these simplistic rules about masculinity.