Angela's Ashes

Angela's Ashes Summary and Analysis of Chapters III-V


Visions of the dead twins haunt Angela and she cannot stand to live on Harstonge Street any longer, so the family moves to a house on Roden Lane. The family feels good about the move until they realize that they must share the bathroom facilities with ten other families. When Angela asks whether the lavatory is ever cleaned her neighbors laugh at her innocence. Malachy attempts to hang a picture of Pope Leo XIII but injures himself because he used a jam jar instead of a hammer; blood pours unto the picture.

Malachy goes out every day and attempts to find work but is turned down because of his Northern Ireland accent. Even when he does find temporary employment he drinks his wages, reasoning that the family gets the dole money and he gets the work money. He comes staggering home at night singing songs about Ireland's heroes, "Roddy McCorley" or "Kevin Barry"; in his drunken state he lines the boys up and makes them promise to die for Ireland. Angela tells him to leave the children alone or "she'll brain him with the poker" (95).

Just before Christmas, Frank and his brother Malachy come home from school to find the first floor of the house under water; the McCourts are forced to flee to the warmth and dryness upstairs, which they call "Italy." Angela buys a pig's head for Christmas dinner and sends Frank to carry it home. His schoolmates, seeing the cheap fare, ridicule his family's poverty. After Christmas mass, Frank and his brother pick up coal refuse on the docks so that they can cook their meat. They run into Pa Keating, who gives them a bag of proper coal, which they lug home in the rain past the warmly lit homes of the well off. They have pig's head for Christmas dinner and happily eat their fill.

The McCourts suddenly have a new baby, Michael, whom Malachy says was left by an angel. The baby suffers from congestion and Malachy is forced to suck the mucus out of his child's nose. Meanwhile, Welfare workers come to their house and Angela asks for them for boots. Malachy despises her for begging and mends the boys' old boots with tire rubber. At school, both those with shoes and those without shun the McCourts and their teacher uses them as a lesson, saying that Jesus was poor and didn't have shoes on the cross. Meanwhile the water in their house recedes and the McCourts move down from "Italy" back to "Ireland," that is, the first floor.

Malachy finally gets a job at the Limerick Cement Factory and Angela cheerfully cleans the house. However, he fails to come home with his wages on Friday, instead getting drunk. Angela forces him to sleep downstairs in a chair. The following day Malachy is unable to go to work and loses his job.

Meanwhile, Frank receives religious instruction in preperation for his first communion. Mr. Benson, their instructor, resists the difficult questions that Frank and others, such as Brendan "Question" Quigley, ask about religious matters. Frank also makes friends with an eleven year-old, Mike Malloy or "Malloy the Fit," who knows about "dirty things." Malloy's mother Nora, whom Angela knows from the charity lines, is known for her mental breakdowns, which are likely intentional escapes from her husbands ludicrous drinking contests. Another of Frank's friends, Paddy Clohessy, who is even poorer than Frank, has no shoes and a shaved head to keep the lice away. He is thrilled when Frank gives him a single raison.

On the day of his communion, Frank is the center of his family's attention. He has trouble swallowing the communion wafer, which he later vomits, prompting his grandmother to send him to the church and ask how they should dispose of the vomited wafer. The priest tells them to wash it away with water and Grandma makes him return to ask the priest whether he should use holy water or tap water. Running back and forth to the church, Frank to misses his Collection, the time when all the youngsters traditionally collect money from friends and neighbors. He thus can't afford to go to the movies with his friends. Mikey, however, feigns a scene at the movie theater, allowing Frank to sneak in.

McCourt explores prejudice in Ireland, emphasizing its historical roots and irrational nature. He says that families are held personally responsible for the actions of their forebears-for instance, Irish people who converted to Protestantism in order to obtain food during the famine, who are known as "soupers," are still despised hundreds of years later. Frank's family suffers under this history of prejudice-his grandmother, unable to forgive him for vomiting the communion wafer, or his father for being from the north, refuses to speak with them. In contrast, Angela has a healthy communicative relationship with Bridey Hannon, to whom she confesses her continued love for Malachy. Meantime, the McCourts continue to scrap through life. Neighbors call on Malachy, who has fine handwriting and a good grasp of the English language, to write letters for them in return for sixpence. When he proudly refuses their payment they leave the money with Angela.

A border named Bill Galvin moves into Grandma's house. She learns that Galvin is a Protestant, which deeply offends her, and attempts to remove a Catholic statue in his room. He tells her that the statue reminds him of his Catholic wife and so she allows it to remain. Grandma also fixes Galvin's meals delivers them to the limekiln where he works. Frank secures the job of carrying Galvin's mid-day meal for sixpence a week. On the first day, however, the starving boy uncontrollably devours Galvin's meal. Galvin and Grandma are furious and Frank makes amends by working for two weeks without pay.

Angela and Malachy have their teeth pulled, which are rotted by constant smoking, and get false teeth. Young Malachy tries putting them in his mouth they get stuck and he must go to the hospital. While there the doctor notices that Frank is having difficulty breathing and is in need of a tonsillectomy.

Angela insists that Frank learn Irish dance against his wishes: "if my pals see my mother dragging me to an Irish dancing class, we will be disgraced entirely" (140). He doesn't like his first class and skips dance the following Saturday, instead using the money to go to the movies with his friend Billy Campbell. This continues every week and when he is asked to demonstrate his progress, he improvises the steps. After a note arrives from the dancing teacher, Malachy forces Frank to go to confession. His parents have further plans for Frank: his mother wants him to join the Arch Confraternity of the Redemptorist Church to impress the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Malachy wants Frank to be an altar boy. Frank painstakingly memorizes the Latin Mass and goes to church to apply, only to be rejected at sight. Angela blames class snobbery: "'Tis class distinction. They don't let boys from lanes on the altar" (149.


Young, imaginative Frank is anxious to grow up so that he can better understand misery and confusion all around him. He confides in the Angel on the Seventh Step when he needs a sense of order. Yet he doesn't complain about his misfortune. Indeed, he doesn't even seem to know that he's unfortunate. Frank gleefully plays along with the fantasy that they are on holiday in "Italy" when in fact their house is flooded and he gladly eats pig's head for Christmas dinner. He doesn't compare his misfortune to the fortune of others, instead remaining optimistic and thriving in his own imagination, only looking forward to the day when he is older and all things make sense to him.

While Frank's childlike voice remains optimistic, however, the story plays against the irony of this optimism, criticizing the absurd selfishness of his father, Malachy. He refuses to allow his sons to wear charity boots, instead subjecting them to the ridicule of their tire-patches. He insists that they are undignified to haul coal and pig's heads through the streets, while meanwhile neglecting to provide the means that might raise his family above such indignities. And he attempts to appear dignified, in collar and tie, as he seeks work, only to undo his dignity with his late-night drunkenness. Moreover, Angela points out the absurdity of seeking workman's jobs while dressed in a tie, as though he is better than a workman. Malachy's tragic mixture of pride and failure correspond to his ambivalent portrayal in the book. Frank adores his father and never passes judgment on him, yet he allows Malachy's own actions to stand the readers' scrutiny. We forgive Frank for viewing his father charitably, but we are far less likely to forgive Malachy's hypocrisy.

McCourt juxtaposes the sacred and the profane throughout Angela's Ashes. Frank receives his first communion alongside his exposure to the "sins of the flesh": in one ear the youngster listens to the Angel on the Seventh Step, who prompts him to be good, and in the other he listens to the "devil," Mikey, who tells him naughty stories. In Catholic Ireland it is nearly impossible for Frank to gain any accurate information about human sexuality. The Church banned books dealing in any way with references to sexuality, including the works of Ireland's most famous writer, James Joyce. As a result, sexuality is shrouded in mystery and guilt. Frank's identity is split between the prude fables of babies coming from angels and Mikey's salacious tales. This tension continues as Frank matures. On the whole, Frank is an angelic child-clear in his donation of the raison to Paddy-who suffers because he cannot think of any sins to confess (and so confesses of listening to Mikey's story of a women urinating).

Just as McCourt never overtly criticizes his father, instead letting his actions judge him, so too he doesn't explicitly criticize the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the Church, like Malachy, comes off as hypocritical. Though the purpose of first communion is an initiation into the mysteries of the Catholic faith, Frank's teachers resist the young students' questions about those very mysteries. Similarly, Frank's vomiting the Holy Communion, "the holiest thing in the world," suggests that the faith is, well, hard to swallow. This image is similar to the moment in Chapter 3 when Malachy injuries himself while hanging the picture of Pope Leo XIII. Perhaps the image captures Malachy's hypocritical position as a religious man who treats his family irreligiously; perhaps, on the other hand, it suggests that devotion to Irish Catholicism opens one up to self-injury.

As well as Catholicism, Irish history informs Frank's development. As a British colony for eight hundred years, Ireland has been largely defined by starvation. During the mid-nineteenth century famine, which decimated the population of Ireland through starvation and immigration when the potato crop failed, left an enormous scar on the Irish psyche. In McCourt's novel it seems as if the famine still continues-"soupers," who converted for food, are still widely hated. The boys dream of candy and lemonade and hunt for invisible raisins. Indeed, Frank's Grandmother is perhaps the least sympathetic character in the book simply because she refuses Frank sugar in his tea and punishes him for eating Galvin's meal, an uncontrollable response to starvation.

We also see evidence of Malachy's scholastic aptitude in this section. The neighbors come to him for help writing letters and he also has a good command of Latin, having memorized the entire mass. Later on in the book, Frank will write letters himself as a source of income. But this evidence of Malachy's ability only makes the his present life appear sadder. McCourt invites us to consider what Malachy could have been were it not for his alcoholism.