Angela's Ashes

Angela's Ashes Themes

Hunger and Food

Frank McCourt's concern with hunger and food in Angela's Ashes taps into Ireland's history and its long unease over food, or rather, its lack of food. During the early part of the twentieth century, the lack of nutritious food was one of the principle causes of early deaths in Ireland. Every chapter, except the last two when Frank reaches America, makes mention of the protagonist's overwhelming desire for food. In Clausen Avenue in Brooklyn, Frank wants food but finds only cabbage leaves floating in ice water. In Limerick he watches longingly as the teacher skins an apple, his mouth salivating for the peeling, the part many throw away. At school, he and the whole class search in vain for a raisin in their raisin buns and he makes friends with boys he doesn't like just to be invited home to get a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. He almost faints at the aromas emanating from the fish and chip shop, wanders the country stealing food and drinking milk directly from the cow's udder, steals food from rich neighborhoods, and so on, and so on. His friend Paddy Clohessy has never had a sandwich, and he's ten years old. The whole memoir is simply rife with references to food.

But Ireland has a long history of starvation. It is no accident on McCourt's part that Mr. Timoney introduces Frank to the Irish eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift's satirical "A Modest Proposal," which two hundred years earlier suggested the Irish eat their babies to solve their population problems. During the mid-nineteenth century famine, which decimated the population of Ireland through starvation and immigration when the potato crop failed, Catholics who took food in the form of soup from Protestant charity organizations were referred to as "soupers," and were ostracized from their neighbors for generations. The famine left an enormous scar on the Irish psyche and in McCourt's novel it seems as if the famine continues still.

Drinking in Irish Culture

The manifestation of drinking in Irish culture becomes clearer as the book progresses. Every street has a pub where the men gather in the evening for warmth and camaraderie. Malachy can express emotions in a manner he never could were he sober. Excessive drink also encourages familial role reversal turning the father the passive child and the child into a parental figure. Indeed, young Frank must go to the pub to make sure his father gets home.

Drink is seen as a way to escape the hardships of Irish life and even though Frank's father should never take a drink, he is often encouraged by others to do just that. For instance, after the baby Eugene dies, friends buy him drinks. Even the harsh Grandma explains he should drink because it is medicine to ease his suffering. Nothing, however, can stop the onslaught of poverty brought about by excessive drinking. And, in this era, the family was entirely dependent upon the earnings of the man and if a man's wages were not available, the family slid at lightening speed into the pit of poverty from which it was nearly impossible to emerge. Angela is helpless. In Catholic Ireland, divorce was absolutely impossible. The Catholic Church would see it as her duty to remain with her husband. With four children or more at a time to care for, it is impossible for her to get an outside job. Of paramount surprise is the hope the family retains in spite of the numerous times the drunken Malachy has failed to come home with his pay packet so they can buy food and the many times he has lost jobs because he couldn't get up in the morning in hungover state and go to work. But hope is all the family has to live on.

The Value of Education

Highly influential teachers help Frank McCourt in Limerick and motivate him ultimately to become a highly successful teacher at Manhattan's famous, fiercely competitive Stuyvesant High School and other New York schools. Almost from the beginning of his memoir, McCourt illustrates the highly influential role that teachers played in his life. After the boys come to school in shoes mended with rubber tires, the master at Leamy's school the master rescues the McCourt brothers by explaining that Jesus himself was poor and furthermore protects them by seeing to it personally that the cruel boys would be severely disciplined if the bullying continued. Over and over teachers step in to guide Frank. Mr. O'Halloran, the principal of Leamy's School, in particular proves to be a god-send for Frank. A true teacher, he encourages questions and remains unbiased in presenting facts. In addition, Mr. O'Halloran demonstrates the quality of charity by organizing a raffle for the poor boys in his class to get boots for the winter.

By the end of the book, McCourt has accumulated an impressive list of teachers who have come to his aid. Time and time again McCourt demonstrates the importance of education and lists among his teachers, the worldly Mr. Timoney who encourages him to think for himself, "outside the box," so to speak. He finds another teacher of sorts in Patricia Madigan, the fourteen year-old girl who dies from consumption but not before introducing him to Shakespeare which perhaps provided the impetus that inspired McCourt to become an English teacher. Frank is always reading and this helps him acquire the education that provided him with a good life in America and the ability to write Angela's Ashes.

The Historical Antagonism between Ireland and England

For over eight hundred years, Ireland was a British colony and didn't gain its freedom for its neighboring island until 1916. Malachy tells his son how the English at one time closed the schools and denied the Irish an education and how during the nineteenth-century famine a million Irish starved while most of the food in the land was shipped to the English who owned the land. The songs Malachy sings while drunk are warring songs against the English. At school the teachers spread hatred for the English. Indeed, it seems as if you can't be Irish if you don't hate England. Even the dying Dennis Clohessy lies upon his death bed spewing hatred towards the English.

Consequently, the Irish feelings of antagonism towards its former British colonizers remain just underneath McCourt's prose throughout the memoir. For instance, just as Frank the telegram boy criticizes the priests and nuns for for never giving him a tip, he similarly denigrates the English in the form of the protestant Mr. Harrington who has lived all his life in Limerick because he considers himself superior to the Irish and speaks with an English accent. He abuses Frank by insisting that all Irish people are starving skeletons and alcoholics and he blames them for killing his wife with consumption. To prove his point, Frank refuses an alcoholic drink and asks for lemonade instead. It's Harrington who is drunk. He also turns down the offer of food. Harrington, however, to prove he is right about "all" the Irish forces alcohol and a sandwich on Frank. And in a very telling manner, Frank vehemently vomits up the English man's food and drink. Through this act, McCourt refuses to take British orders and has Frank throw up on the roses, the symbol of England.