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					Angela's Ashes | The Portrayal of McCourt's Family
In the following essay, Rena Korb discusses the portrayal of McCourt's family in Angela's
Ashes.

On the opening page of his riveting memoir, Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt describes his
‘‘miserable Irish Catholic childhood'':

         the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the
         fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us
         for eight hundred long years.

The perils of Frankie's childhood read like a laundry list of stereotypical suffering; however, as
Michiko Kakutani so correctly writes in her review for the New York Times, ''There is not a trace
of bitterness or resentment in Angela's Ashes, though there is plenty a less generous writer might
well be judgmental about.’’ Frankie and his brothers grow up in a circle of adults who fail to
provide them life's basic essentials. A simple but touching example is the parents' enjoyment of
cigarettes: ''There may be a lack of tea or bread in the house but Mam and Dad always manage to
get the fags,’’ Frankie notes. Despite the rampant selfishness, stinginess, and even downright
meanness that surround him, Frankie loves his family; even more remarkably, he often feels true
compassion for them:

Frankie's father, Malachy McCourt, serves as the most obvious example of Kakutani's latter
assertion. An alcoholic, Malachy has little inclination to support his family. The money he does
get his hands on—whether earned, received from the dole, or in one hideous instance, given as a
gift to the new baby—goes straight to the pub. He makes countless promises to his family of
better times ahead, but his one consistency lies in disappointing them. Only eleven, Frankie
already recognizes the challenge that loving his father poses:

         I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is
         desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen
         O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that
         when I'm up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and
         makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won't wake up the
         rest of the family.

Malachy's utter irresponsibility forces Frankie to grow up quickly. ''I think my father is like the
Holy Trinity,’’ he explains, ‘‘with three people in him: the one in the morning with the paper, the
one at night with the story and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes
home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.’’ Frankie's sophisticated analysis
of his father, in which he likens his father to a schizophrenic, belies his chronological age. For a
long time, Frankie manages to hold fast to the belief that ‘‘the one in the morning is my real
father,’’ but in the end, it is the father afflicted with the ‘‘Irish thing’’ (drinking) who gains
prominence. Once Malachy leaves for England, ostensibly to earn money though ‘‘[he] didn't
send us a penny in months,’’ he only reappears in the pages of Angela's Ashes on two more
occasions.
Before his desertion of the family, Malachy does teach Frankie some important values, such as
politeness and piety and ''to be good boys at school because God is watching every move.’’
Malachy also presents Frankie a broader picture of the world outside Limerick, telling him all
about Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and ''the great [Franklin D.] Roosevelt,’’ which most
likely inflames Frankie's desire to leave Ireland. Most importantly, Malachy offers young Frank
a precious gift: a love of stories and storytelling. Malachy knows about Irish history and Kevin
Barry and Roddy McCorley and ''the old days in Ireland when the English wouldn't let the
Catholics have schools.’’ He also provides Frank a personal hero, Cuchulain, who is greater than
''Hercules or Achilles . . . [or] King Arthur and all his knights.’’ Cuchulain fought to the death
against his enemies, and from him, Frankie draws much-needed strength over the years. Through
the repetition of the story of Cuchulain, the impoverished boy also comes to feel that he has
something of his own. ''That's my story'' is Frankie's refrain as he tries to prevent his father from
telling the younger boys about Cuchulain.

The rest of Frankie's family cannot make up for Malachy's inability to support his children and,
in truth, hardly attempt to do so. Angela McCourt, though caring, proves ineffectual at providing
for her children. She willingly begs for the sake of her children from disdainful officials at the
relief organizations, skeptical shopkeepers, and the condescending post office clerks (to get
Frankie his job back). On more than one occasion, she is reduced to picking up bits of coal from
the street, a measure that her husband feels is beneath him. However, her pervading sense of
hopelessness greatly contributes to the spiritual impoverishment of Frankie's childhood; her
downtrodden spirit often renders her unable to meet the challenge of her sons' emotional needs.
This characteristic, combined with a lack of money, leads the deserted family into the home of an
emotionally abusive cousin, Laman. Angela becomes Laman's lover, even though he treats her—
''a great lump living free under his roof''—and her ‘‘pack of brats’’ no better than servants. When
Angela shares Laman's bed after he reneges on a deal to lend Frankie his bicycle, Frankie feels
utterly betrayed. At thirteen years old, he leaves home and moves in with his uncle. Only
Frankie's success as a telegram boy inspires Angela to rise above her condition, leaving Laman
and obtaining a job of her own in which she finds some measure of peace.

Frankie's extended family in America provides yet more sources of disappointment for the needy
child. Never do they receive the McCourts with any love or affection. Aunt Aggie's
pronouncement— ‘‘Ye are nothing but trouble since ye came from America’’—sums up the
general feeling that her relatives share. In almost all cases, the family resents helping out the
McCourts and only does so begrudgingly. Still, as with his parents, Frankie never chastises his
family for their actions—or lack of actions. In his silence and lack of judgment, he implicitly
recognizes the complexity of familial love.

Upon their return to Ireland, the McCourts first go to Malachy McCourt's family. These relatives
live in a nice home, offering sausage and ''all the eggs you can hold’’ because it is Easter
Sunday. However, they feel no fondness for their kin. The silence with which the relatives regard
her children reduces Angela to tears. Frankie unfavorably compares his aunts to their neighbors
in America as they ‘‘nod their heads but they don't hug us or smile.’’ The McCourts quickly send
Malachy and his family away, to the south of Ireland, saying, ‘‘No work here and, God knows,
we don't have room in this house for six more people.’’
Angela's family is no more welcoming. Frankie's first introduction to his grandmother is
inauspicious: ‘‘there she was on the platform, Grandma, with white hair, sour eyes, a black
shawl, and no smile for my mother or any of us, even my brother, Malachy, who had the big
smile and the sweet white teeth.’’ The status of the grandmother's finances is unknown.
However, she has enough money to live in a small but clean home, cut thick slices of bread, set
up her daughter's family in a furnished room, and pay for passage to and from America for
relatives. Though the boys turn to their grandmother when they need help and she finds a way to
provide some relief, her actions never demonstrate that she is giving because she wants to;
instead, she acts out of obligation. Her obliviousness to the true circumstances in which her kin
live is sharply revealed when the family is evicted. She tells Frankie to put on his coat before
they can leave, never having realized that Frankie does not own a coat. She originally sent the
unmarried Angela to America because she was ‘‘pure useless,’’ and she seems to have included
Angela's children in that opinion as well.

Another relative the children meet for the first time is Aunt Aggie, Angela's sister. Aggie lives in
comparative luxury in her warm, dry flat that has electricity. She has no children of her own, but
she still has to be impinged upon to share any of her material goods, even the minimum of food,
with the McCourts. ‘‘I don't know why we have to pay for Angela's mistakes,'' she complains.
She tells Frankie, whom she calls ‘‘scabby eyes,’’ and his brothers more than once that ''she can't
stand the sight of us another minute.’’ Forced to take in the boys while Angela is in the hospital,
one day when Frankie's brother Malachy asks for a piece of bread, she hits him with a paper.
Malachy doesn' t come home from school the next day, and her only response is, ‘‘Well, I
suppose he ran away. Good riddance.’’ However, it is Aggie who buys Frankie new clothes so he
can start his job as a telegram boy without being humiliated by his appearance, an action that
reduces him to private tears.

Frankie's uncle, the Abbott, begrudgingly allows the boy to live in his home instead of Laman's.
The Abbott forbids Frankie to turn on the light and threatens to keep track of the electric meter.
He takes pains to hide his food from Frankie, even carrying his bread in his pocket to safeguard
it. In one instance, he eats fish and chips in front of the hungry child, all the while telling him
‘‘there's no food in the house.’’ After the Abbott has gone to sleep, Frankie licks the newspaper
for the grease. It is while living with the Abbott, before his job begins, that Frankie resorts to
stealing food to survive. Despite his almost constant litany of complaints about Frankie—and the
rest of the family, who eventually move into the house—the Abbot allows him to stay.

Only Uncle Pa, Aggie's husband and not a blood relative, shows any sort of genuine affection for
Frankie and his brothers. He feeds them ham sandwiches behind his wife's back. Many times he
takes on the paternal role that Malachy has forsaken. It is Uncle Pa who lays Eugene to his final
rest in his small white coffin. It is Uncle Pa who buys Frankie his first pint to celebrate his
sixteenth birthday. ‘‘I know 'tis not the same without your father,'' Pa says,' 'but I'll get you the
first pint. 'Tis what I'd do if I had a son.’’ Frankie, for his part, ''could easily have Uncle Pa for a
father'' and share ‘‘great times’’ with him.

Frankie looks for a father figure in other men who treat him kindly as well. When a railroad
worker helps them out, Frankie wishes he ''had a father like the man in the signal tower who
gives you sandwiches and cocoa.’’ In telling his troubles to a Franciscan priest, he feels like a
‘‘child and I lean against him, little Frankie on his father's lap, tell me all about Cuchulain, Dad,
my story that Malachy can't have or Freddie Leibowitz on the swings.’’ Another special
relationship Frankie develops is with the neighbor Mr. Hannon, to whom he ‘‘gave ... the feeling
of a son.’’

Whether it be a police officer in Dublin, the railroad worker, or Mr. Hannon, many a time it is
strangers or neighbors who take nurturing acts toward the McCourt children. A barman along
Classon Avenue fills the twins' bottles with milk instead of the water with ''maybe a little sugar''
that Frankie has requested. An Italian grocer in their Brooklyn neighborhood gives the boys a
bag of fruit. A shoplady in Limerick gives the children an onion for their sick brother. Minnie
MacAdorey and Mrs. Leibowitz feed the boys after Angela becomes incapacitated by Margaret's
death. The neighbors in Brooklyn understand that family should be able to help the McCourt
boys; the Italian grocer wonders where are the ‘‘relations [that] can take care of you.’’ However,
when appealed to, the Brooklyn cousins refuse any responsibility, instead arranging for the
return of the McCourts to Ireland.

In Angela's Ashes, the very concept of the nuclear family comes under constant attack. Margaret
dies in infancy, and the twins, Oliver and Eugene, die when they are only toddlers. The younger
Malachy first leaves home to be a soldier and later to work at an English boarding school. The
older Malachy deserts his family, thus lowering their status and worsening their circumstances
even further. Angela is forced to rely on the Dispensary, ‘‘the place to apply for public assistance
when a father is dead or disappeared,’’ which means that ''you're ... maybe one level above
tinkers, knackers and street beggars in general.’’ For some time, however, the McCourts attempt
to create a caring environment. Michael has a habit of bringing home stray animals and old men.
Mam brings home women and children; she has no money to give them, but she offers them a
cup of tea, a bit of fried bread, and a place to sleep.

It is no surprise that Frankie dreams of moving to America, where he can start a new life. He
believes that the United States holds out the promise of hope and better times, as he indicates by
his choice of lines to open his memoir: ''My father and mother should have stayed in New York
where they met and married and where I was born.’’ Before he leaves, Angela holds a party for
him. All of the relatives attend, and their level of sharing has been previously unmatched and
unimagined. Aunt Aggie brings a homemade cake; the Abbot brings stout and says, ''That's all
right, Frankie, ye can all drink it as long as I have a bottle or two for meself.'' At the last moment,
Frankie feels strongly tied to the people he is leaving behind. ‘‘I'm on the ship and there goes
Ireland into the night... I want Ireland back at least I had Mam and my brothers and Aunt Aggie
bad as she was and Uncle Pa, standing me my first pint.’’ His connection to his family has
remained, despite the almost constant string of disappointments they have provided him. Frank's
accomplishments, such as earning the money to flee to America, getting his mother away from
Laman' s house, and providing a better quality of life for his younger brothers all are hard won
and demonstrate amazing self-reliance and courage. The adult McCourt wonders ''how I
managed to survive at all.’’ As Thomas Deignan writes in Commonweal, ‘‘by the time McCourt
is nineteen, we appreciate the awesome desperation in this seemingly hackneyed statement.’’

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Angela's Ashes, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The
Gale Group, 2001.

				
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