Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Education

By Frank McCourt


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?

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