Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Drugs and Alcohol

By Frank McCourt

Drugs and Alcohol

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.

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