ANGELA’S ASHES PLOT SUMMARY
Highlight and annotate key themes.
Angela’s Ashes is a memoir of Frank McCourt’s childhood set during the Depression and WWII
era. It begins with a description of the way his parents met in Brooklyn, New York in the 1920s. After
his mother, Angela, becomes pregnant with Frank, she marries Malachy, the father of her child. A year
later, Malachy Jnr is born, then the twins Oliver and Eugene. Angela struggles to feed the family
because Malachy spends his wages on alcohol. Although the birth of Margaret inspires Malachy to be
more responsible for while, when she dies, Angela becomes depressed and Malachy’s drinking gets
worse. The McCourts decide to return to Ireland to be closer to family. However, in Ireland, jobs are
scarce and the family faces poverty and deprivation. In Limerick, the family are treated as outsiders;
firstly because they have immigrated from America and secondly, Malachy is discriminated against
because he comes from the North. He struggles to hold down a job and continues to drink away the
family's money, leaving Angela needing to beg for food, clothing and fuel. The cold, damp climate,
malnutrition and unhygienic living conditions take their toll on the childrens’ health; as Oliver, then
McCourt describes the hardship his family faced during his childhood with lively detail and
humour rather than self-pity. When the ground floor of the house floods during the winter, Frank’s
father dubs it “Ireland,” and the family moves to the warm, cozy second floor, which they call “Italy.”
Although Malachy's alcoholism uses up all of the money for food, he earns Frank's love by entertaining
him with stories about Irish heroes such as Cuchulain.
Over the course of a few years, Angela gives birth to two sons, Michael and Alphie. When
Frank asks where the babies come from, his father tells him an angel left them on the seventh step.
Frank begins to have conversations with the “Angel on the Seventh Step”, showing he has a lively
imagination. His curiosity and intelligence are shown by the many questions he asks about religion and
death, but he rarely receives satisfying answers.
At school, the McCourt boys are teased: at first for being “Yankees” and later, for being poor.
Their school mates see them carrying a pig’s head home for Christmas dinner and wearing boots
mended with rubber tyres. Many of the school masters are shown to be cruel and unreasonable. They
punish any student who gives an answer that differs from their version of the truth. Only a few teachers,
like Mr O’Halloran encourage questioning and give an unbiased account of Ireland’s history. He is also
the only teacher who shows compassion for the students’ poverty and anger about the class divisions in
Angela gives birth to Alphie, and Grandma sends a money order for five pounds. Malachy is
sent to cash it but ends up using the money for drink. This is a turning point for Frank – the first time he
shows real anger about his father’s lack of responsibility.
The memoir highlights the influence of Catholic teachings and rituals in Frank’s life. His first
confession, communion and confirmation are major milestones of his childhood and retold in a
humorous way. Right after his confirmation, Frank falls ill with typhoid fever and nearly dies. In hospital,
he meets Patricia Madigan who introduces him to Shakespeare. She eventually dies. Later, Frank’s
friend Mickey Spellacy also dies, joining several of his siblings. Death is shown as a constant presence
in Frank’s life. However, despite poverty, illness and the presence of death, we begin to see Frank take
comfort in stories of all kinds, from poetry to movies to newspapers. By the time he returns to school,
his gift for language is obvious. He writes a story called ‘Jesus and the Weather’ and is promoted to the
With the onset of World War II, many fathers in Limerick go to England to find work and send
money back to their families. Eventually, Malachy goes as well, but he fails to send money home. Frank
begins to work for Mr. Hannon delivering coal. He associates working with being a real man, and he
dreams of saving enough to provide his family with food and clothes, unlike his father. His teacher
recommends him for further education but he is rejected. His mother is angry at the class prejudice
shown by the priests. Frank leaves school he gets a job at the post office delivering telegrams.
The McCourts get evicted from their lodgings and must move in with Angela's cousin Laman.
Frank has a stormy relationship with Laman who asks him to empty his chamber pot beats him when he
forgets. Through books and other means, Frank begins to explore sex. While working as a messenger
boy, Frank falls in love with a customer, Theresa Carmody. His first sexual experience with her also
makes him feel very guilty and sinful. She eventually dies of consumption, leaving Frank heartbroken.
Angela begins sleeping with Laman, which makes Frank angry. After he has his first pint at age
16, he gets drunk, and hits his mother after confronting her about her relationship. He goes to
confession where a kind priest tells Frank God has forgiven him and he must forgive himself.
Frank is determined to save money so he can leave Ireland and works for Mrs. Finucane (writing
threatening letters), and Mr. McCaffrey (delivering newspapers). He is singled minded and eventually
has enough money to get to New York. Though sad to leave behind Ireland and his family, Frank has
great hopes for his future in America and the books ends on an optimistic note.