Writing in the present tense, young Frank McCourt recounts his troubles since his parents moved from New York City, where he was born, to Limerick, Ireland, his mother Angela's hometown. McCourt refers to his young life as the "worst childhood possible," made more miserable by the Catholic Church, an alcoholic father, an oppressed mother and the City of Limerick's incessant Atlantic rain, which spread dampness, mold, mildew and diseases such as bronchitis far and wide: "above all, we were wet" (11).
Frank tells us why they moved to America in the first place: his father, Malachy McCourt, grew up in Northern Ireland, became involved in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and escaped to America as a fugitive after committing a crime. In America he met Angela Sheehan, Frank's mother, who had fled from Limerick after her father-who had dropped her brother Patrick on the head while drunk, inflicting brain damage-fled to Australia. Malachy and Angela marry hastily after an unplanned pregnancy, pressured by Angela's cousins Philomena and Delia, who look down upon Malachy because he is from Northern Ireland: "'Tis that sneaky little Presbyterian smile" (16). Malachy attempts to escape the marriage but drinks his fare money in the local pub. Frank, the first child, is followed by his brother Malachy; after another two years, the twins Eugene and Oliver join the McCourt clan.
Life in New York is difficult for the McCourts. Malachy's love of the New York pubs causes most of their troubles-he drinks his wages away, leaving his family to go hungry. The birth of Margaret, Angela and Malacy's first girl, temporarily quells Malachy's craving for drink, but Margaret dies soon after being born, sending Malachy into an alcoholic spiral and Angela into a deep depression. Mrs. Leibowitz and Minnie McAdorey, two of the McCourts' neighbors, call Angela's cousins about the problem; they in turn get Angela's mother in Limerick to send money for the young family to return to Ireland. As they leave New York Harbor, Frank watches Angela vomit over the side of the ship.
Back in Ireland the McCourts first go to County Antrim in the North of Ireland to visit Malachy's family. With the exception of Malachy's father, they are none too happy to meet Angela and the children. Malachy's father tells his son to apply to the IRA to request pension for his years in the service. They go to the IRA office in Dublin, where the man in charge denies Malachy's claim, stating that there is no record of his service. The McCourts spend the night on the police station floor, where, the next morning, the police take up a collection to buy them fare back to Limerick. Before they leave, Malachy shows Frank a statue of the defeated Irish hero, Cuchulain.
In Limerick, Angela's mother, though upset to see her daughter return to Limerick with a ne'er-do-well husband and four children, helps the family find a room on Windmill Street, near Angela's sister. Their first night there they share a mattress that, it turns out, is infested with bugs; they run outside scratching and screaming. Angela suffers a miscarriage and winds up in the hospital. The weekly dole of nineteen shillings is not enough for the family and Angela stands in line at the St. Vincent de Paul Society for charity with the City's other poor women. She meets Nora Molloy, who takes to Angela and sees that she isn't cheated at the grocery store. Afterwards, Frank overhears them complain about their husbands' feats of drinking in the pubs of Limerick.
Shortly after arriving in Limerick, the one-year-old Oliver is taken to the hospital. Frank, Malachy Jr. and the other twin Eugene stay with their Aunt Aggie and Uncle Pa Keating. The children find that baby Oliver has died and Frank throws stones at the jackdaws in the trees during the burial ceremony. Malachy drinks up the dole money.
The McCourts move to a room on Hartstonge Street and Frank and Malachy begin attending Leamy's National School, where their teachers dole out frequent corporal punishment. The other baby, Eugene, also dies six months after his twin brother. Angela spirals into depression and the doctor gives her pills for her nerves while Malachy gets drunk-indeed, he nearly misses the funeral because he's at a pub. Frank reckons that Eugene has been taken to heaven by an angel to visit his siblings, Oliver and Margaret.
Frank McCourt was in his sixties at the time he wrote Angela's Ashes, yet he writes as though his narrator is five years old, for instance, "We're on the seesaw...up, down, up down" (20). The effect is often poignant, as the tragic events of his early life are channeled through the innocence of a child's perspective: "Malachy and I are back in the bed where Eugene died. I hope he's not cold in that white coffin in the graveyard though I know he's not there anymore because the angels come to the graveyard and open the coffin" (90). The Irish writer James Joyce also used this method of writing from a child's-eye-view in the opening of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, another account of hardship in Ireland. McCourt thus links his own literary enterprise with that of his famous countryman. His is a story of particularly Irish misery and struggle.
This story, though often bleak, contains magical childhood moments as well, balancing horrors with humor and innocence. In a Brooklyn playground, he enjoys the wonders of a seesaw, he has breakfast with his father while his mother is in the hospital and loves when his father takes the time to tell him stories of Ireland's heroes, Cuchulain. This story is special because Malachy only shares it with Frank. His father also teaches him Irish songs to remind himself of his homeland and to educate Frank about Ireland. Angela McCourt also sings when she is happy, her favorite: "Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss" (23). And on Saturday nights when Malachy doesn't drink, Angela heats water on the stove for the children's baths and their father dries them.
However, when Malachy drinks, life becomes miserable for all of the McCourts. Malachy loses job after job and then drinks their dole money too. At one point Frank wishes he could float away up to the clouds so as not to hear his baby brothers crying from hunger. As for Angela, the tension for her is unbearable. With each new child the cost of Malachy's drinking increases; at one point, she attempts to collect the dole for her husband so he will not drink the money away. When Angela is depressed and unable to get out of bed, the children survive on food from their neighbors. Malachy does stop drinking after the death of his favorite child, Margaret, and the family is for once happy, suggesting that Malachy's alcoholism is the principal source of their misery. He soon returns to the drink, however, and thus restores desolation in his family.
McCourt never criticizes his father for his drunkenness. From his child's point-of-view, this is a normal part of daily life. However, McCourt provides metaphorical images of condemnation. For instance, the image of the glasses of black Guinness placed on the sparkling white baby's coffin suggests the root of the child's death: that his father's spending money on drink instead of food for his children. But over all Malachy's thirst is portrayed as beyond his control. He doesn't want to bring such suffering upon his family, but he is unable to help himself.
Once more McCourt contrasts his father's dark side with sweet instances of him singing and telling tales of heroes. Thus Malachy helps Frank to develop his imagination, heightening his love for words and stories and offering a means of escape from the horrors of his life. Cuchulain, who as a boy became a champion and protector of a king, grew up to be a sort of superhero with superhuman powers. He also listens to his neighbor Freddie Leibowitz's story of the Jews champion, Samson. These images of heroism help Frank to find strength in his own life, to resist the pressures of fate and fortune that seem to overwhelm his family.
All in all, the first chapters of Angela's Ashes set up an environment of intense personal and social pressures. The McCourts are scorned for being from Northern Ireland and for having lived in America; they suffer from their father's out-of-control alcohol addiction; they are robbed of three innocent babies. Yet the possibility of redemption remains even as life grows bleaker, in the form of songs, stories and acts of genuine charity.