Angela's Ashes


Angela's Ashes: A Memoir is a 1996 memoir by the Irish-American author Frank McCourt, with various anecdotes and stories of his childhood. It details his very early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes his struggles with poverty and his father's alcoholism.

The book was published in 1996 and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. A sequel, 'Tis, was published in 1999, followed by Teacher Man in 2005.


Born in Brooklyn, New York, on 19 August 1930, Frank (Francis) McCourt is the oldest son of Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan McCourt. He lives with his parents and four younger siblings: Malachy, born in 1931; twins Oliver and Eugene, born in 1932; and a younger sister, Margaret, in 1935. Margaret's birth seems to instill new life into the family: the whole family falls in love with her, and Malachy, Sr. gives up drinking and finds steady work to support the family. However, Margaret lives for only seven weeks. Malachy, Sr. plunges into an alcoholic stupor, losing his job and seeming to abandon the family, while Angela falls into a severe depression during which Frank, age six, is forced to feed and care for his younger siblings. The neighbors soon realize the family's dire straits and intervene, contacting Angela's sisters, who in turn recommend the family return to Ireland with Angela's family in Limerick.

The Great Depression has struck Ireland, particularly Limerick, even harder than it did the United States. There is little work, and conditions for poor families are miserable: the family lives in a dilapidated, unpaved lane of houses that flood regularly. The McCourts' house is in the farthest part of the lane, near the only outdoor lavatory for the entire lane, often flooding their first floor with sewage and forcing the entire family to live, sleep, and cook in a single upstairs bedroom. Within a year of the family's arrival, Oliver and Eugene also die--Oliver of what is implied to be scarlet fever and Eugene, a few months later, from grieving the loss of his twin. Frank's youngest brothers, Michael (b. 1936) and Alphie (Alphonsus, b. 1940), are born in Limerick.

Malachy Sr. is a chronic alcoholic who seldom finds work, and who frequently drinks up his wages in the pubs. Angela is forced to apply for the dole to feed and clothe her children, and even then Malachy, Sr. sometimes spends the payment before Angela can stop him. For years, the family subsists on little more than bread and tea.

At the outbreak of World War II, many Limerick men find work at a defense plant in Coventry, England, leaving their families behind and sending back money to support them. These good-paying jobs lift many of the McCourts' neighbors out of poverty. Malachy, Sr. leaves the family behind and secures a defense job. For several weeks, the payments allow the family to enjoy small luxuries such as candy and visits to the movies. But soon, the money stops coming as Malachy, Sr. resumes drinking in England, leaving the family more desperate than before as there are no jobs for women in Limerick. Angela's family refuse to help Angela because they never approved of her marriage to Malachy, Sr. Angela is forced to beg charity from the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which involves a humiliating application process and ends with the family scorned by the others in their community. Frank and his brothers begin to scavenge the streets for coal or peat turf for fuel. They also steal leftover food from restaurants at the end of the day and grocery deliveries from doorsteps.

Though his teachers encourage Frank to continue his schooling, Frank leaves school at thirteen, eager to begin working "like a man" to make up for his father's lack of support. Frank finds work as a messenger boy by lying about his age. He gives most of his earnings to his mother. The rest he saves for his planned return to America. When Frank delivers a message to a house in mourning, the grieving hosts offer him alcohol; Frank is too polite to refuse and quickly grows drunk and disgraces himself. The messenger agency fires him once they learn of his behavior.

Frank develops typhoid fever and is taken to a Catholic hospital, where for the first time he has adequate food, warmth, and access to the books he loves. Once recovered, he finds a new job delivering coal, a job he is proud of even though it exacerbates his chronic conjunctivitis. When Frank is nearly blinded, he returns to the hospital and his mother forces him to stop delivering coal. With no income, and in the middle of winter, the family takes a hatchet to a partition wall in their home and burns it for heat, an act for which they are evicted.

Angela takes the children to the home of her cousin, who resents the children's presence and treats them badly, particularly Frank, whose meek politeness he scorns. Frank and Malachy, Jr. discover that this cousin is forcing Angela to have sex with him in exchange for allowing her and her family to live with him. This abuse seems finally to take all the spirit from Angela and she loses interest in the children's well-being. When Frank confronts the cousin about his sexual abuse of their mother, the cousin kicks them out, forcing them to go on the dole again. The money is barely enough to pay their rent. Led by Frank and Malachy, the boys return to stealing in order to feed themselves. When Frank and Angela go to the Christian Brothers to inquire about further schooling for Frank, they slam the door in his face. This incident hardens Frank toward the Church and fills Angela with renewed determination to see at least one of her children escape poverty.

A few days after his 14th birthday, Frank starts his first job as a telegram delivery boy for the post office. As a telegram boy, he meets a beautiful girl named Theresa Carmody, who is dying of consumption. On his regular deliveries to Theresa's house, the two teens begin a sexual relationship that quickly turns into Frank's first love. He is devastated when she dies, fearing he has condemned her to Hell for fornications. Frank is encouraged to take the postman test at the Post Office, which would mean steady wages and a pension, but would tie him to Ireland for the rest of his life. Instead he begins delivering newspapers and magazines for Eason's.

On his sixteenth birthday, Frank's uncle takes him to the pub to buy him his first beer. Frank gets drunk and returns home, where his mother shames him for drinking the way his father did. Frank hits her, then runs away, ashamed of himself. At the nearby Church of St. Francis, the saint for whom Frank is named, he meets a kindly monk who encourages him to confess all his troubles to the statue of St. Francis. Frank spills out all the sins, hardships, and injustices of his life to St. Francis while the monk listens, finally forgiving him his sins. He also assures Frank that Theresa Carmody would have received last rites and the Sacrament of Penance before she died, insuring that she was in Heaven. Frank returns home, where he and his mother reconcile.

To earn extra money toward his voyage to the United States he also writes threatening collection letters on behalf of a local moneylender. Soon he learns that these threatening letters are being sent to his neighbors, who live in terror of receiving one; he feels guilty and ashamed, but cannot give up the opportunity to make money for writing. One day Frank returns to the moneylender's home to find she has died. Liberated, Frank takes money from her purse and throws her ledger of debtors into the river. The contents of the moneylender's purse give him enough money to return to America at the age of nineteen. Frank arrives in Poughkeepsie, New York, ready to begin a new life in the country of his birth.

Character list

McCourt family

  • Francis McCourt: The writer of the book and main character. Frank is a religious, determined, and intelligent Irish American who struggles to find happiness and success in the harsh community
  • Malachy McCourt: Frank's father and an alcoholic. Though his addiction almost ruins the family, Mr. McCourt manages to obtain his children's affection by telling Irish stories
  • Angela McCourt, née Sheehan: Frank's hardworking mother who puts her family first and holds high expectations for her children. She is also humorous and witty
  • Malachy (Jr.): Frank's younger and supposedly more attractive and charming brother
  • Oliver: Frank's brother, twin to Eugene, who dies at an early age in Ireland
  • Eugene: Frank's brother, who dies of pneumonia six months after Oliver, his twin
  • Margaret: Frank's only little sister, who dies in her sleep in the United States
  • Michael: Frank's brother
  • Alphonsus: Frank's youngest brother
  • Aunt Aggie: Frank's childless aunt. She does not approve of Angela's husband or how Angela is raising and caring for her children, but is helpful and loyal nonetheless
  • Uncle Pa Keating: Aunt Aggie's husband, who is especially fond of Eugene
  • Uncle Pat Sheehan: Angela's brother, who was dropped on the head when he was young
  • Grandma: Angela's mother and Frank's grandmother, who sends Angela money to come to Ireland


  • Paddy Clohessy: a poor boy in the same class as Frank, who considers Frank a friend after Frank shares with him a much-coveted raisin
  • Brandon "Question" Quigley: another classmate of Frank's, who often gets into trouble because of his tendency to ask too many questions
  • Fintan Slattery: a classmate of Frank's who invites Frank and Paddy over for lunch and proceeds to eat all of it in front of them without offering them any
  • Mikey Molloy: Son of Nora Molloy, who is older than Frank, has fits, and the "expert on Girls' Bodies and Dirty Things"
  • Patricia Madigan: A patient at the Fever Hospital who befriends Frank and tells him bits of poetry, notably "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, but dies before she can tell him the rest of the poem
  • Seamus: The hospital janitor who helps Frank and Patricia communicate, and who later recites poetry to Frank in the eye hospital
  • Mr. Timoney: An old man who pays Frank to read books to him
  • Dotty O’Neill: Frank's somewhat eccentric 4th class teacher who loves Euclid
  • Mr. O’Dea: Frank's 5th class teacher and headmaster
  • Theresa Carmody: A 17-year-old consumptive girl with whom Frank has a sexual relationship. Frank desperately worries about the fate of Theresa’s soul, which he thinks he is jeopardizing by having premarital sex with her
  • Mickey Spellacy: A friend of Frank's who, anticipating his sister's death, promises Frank he can come to the wake and eat some of the food[1]

After traveling to America (where the book ends), Frank ended up working at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, where he remained until 1951. Frank was drafted during the Korean war to be stationed in Bavaria, Germany. After being discharged, Frank returned to New York and dabbled with several different jobs until he was accepted into NYU. After graduating in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in English, McCourt turned to teaching in New York schools. He then obtained his master's degree and traveled to Dublin in pursuit of his PhD, which he never completed.


Angela's Ashes won several awards, including the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography,[2] the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award (Biography),[3] and the 1997 Boeke Prize.

He was elected Irish American of the Year in 1998.


McCourt was accused of greatly exaggerating his family's impoverished upbringing by many Limerick natives, including Richard Harris.[4][5][6] McCourt's own mother had denied the accuracy of his stories shortly before her death in 1981, shouting from the audience during a stage performance of his and his brother Malachy's recollections that it was "all a pack of lies."[4]


In 1999[7] a film version was released. It was co-written and directed by Alan Parker starring Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge, as the Young, Middle and Older Frank McCourt respectively and Emily Watson as McCourt's mother Angela.

The film begins when the McCourt family move back to Ireland after experiencing hardship in America. Many of the Street scenes were filmed in Cork, Ireland. The film soundtrack was composed and conducted by John Williams, and features songs by Billie Holiday and Sinéad O'Connor.


A stage musical written by Paul Hurt, with music and lyrics by Adam Howell based on the book premiered in the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick on July 6, 2017.[8]

See also
  • Misery lit
  • Wild Swans
  1. ^ McCourt, Frank (1996). Angela's Ashes. 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-87435-0. 
  2. ^ "The 1997 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Biography or Autobiography". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved December 6, 2014. 
  3. ^ "National Book Critics Circle: Awards". National Book Critics Circle. Retrieved December 6, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Telegraph "Frank McCourt " obituary. 20 July 2009
  5. ^ Grimes, William (2009-07-19). "Frank McCourt, Whose Irish Childhood Illuminated His Prose, Is Dead at 78". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-08. 
  6. ^ John McEntee (December 25, 2011). "Bitter feud between fellow Limerick men over destiny of 'Angela's Ashes'". Irish Independent. Retrieved December 27, 2011. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The reviews are in, here's what everybody thinks of Angela's Ashes the Musical". Irish Examiner. 14 July 2017. Retrieved 25 September 2017. 
Further reading
  • Hagan, Edward A. “Really an Alley Cat? Angela's Ashes and Critical Orthodoxy”, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua 4:4 (Winter 2000): 39-52.
  • Lenz, Peter. "'To Hell or to America?': Tragicomedy in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and the Irish Literary Tradition", Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philologie 118:3 (2000): 411-20.
  • McCourt, Frank. Tis: A Memoir, Scribner (August 2000)
External links
  • Frank McCourt discusses Angela's Ashes on the BBC World Book Club
  • Cullen, Kevin. “Memoir Lashed, and Loved: Angela’s Ashes Author Finds Foes, Friends in Limerick”, Limerick Globe October 29, 1997
  • Late Author’s Younger Brother Remembers Childhood Poverty Depicted in Angela’s Ashes - video report by Democracy Now!
  • Limerick Leader's Angela's Ashes tour: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
  • Booknotes interview with McCourt on Angela's Ashes, August 31, 1997

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