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Angela's Ashes

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United States


368 pp

Originally published
5 September 1996

Followed by
'Tis: A Memoir



Publication date
5 September 1996


Frank McCourt

Biography, Memoir

Angela's Ashes t3gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcQBl1B5WAyCSZQjfD

Angela McCourt, Aunt Aggie, Malachy McCourt Jr., Uncle Pa Keating, Grandma Sheehan, Michael, Alphonsus

Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography

Works by Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography winners, Memoirs

Angelas-Ashes-(film), NVA-(film), A-Separation

Angela s ashes trailer

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir is a 1996 memoir by the American author Frank McCourt. The memoir consists of various anecdotes and stories of Frank McCourt's childhood. The memoir details his very early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes McCourt's struggles with poverty and his father's alcoholism. The book was published in 1996, and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. The sequel 'Tis was published in 1999, followed by Teacher Man in 2005.


Plot summary

Born in Brooklyn, New York on 19 August 1930, Frank (Francis) McCourt is the oldest son of Malachy 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, who dies seven weeks after birth, in 1935. Following this first tragedy, his family moves back to Ireland where Oliver and Eugene die within a year of the family's arrival and where Frank's youngest brothers, Michael (b. 1936) and Alphie (Alphonsus, b. 1940), are born.

Angela Sheehan emigrates from Ireland to the U.S. and meets Malachy McCourt after he has served a 3-month sentence for hijacking a truck. Angela becomes pregnant with Malachy's child; under pressure from Angela's cousins, Philomena and Delia MacNamara, Malachy marries Angela. Malachy does not think the marriage will last and attempts to run away to California, but spends all his traveling money at the pub. Over the next few years, Angela gives birth to Francis (Frank), then Malachy, twins Oliver and Eugene, and Margaret, who dies in infancy. Soon after Margaret's death, the McCourt family moves back to Ireland, where they both have family members who can help them.

Life in Ireland, specifically in Limerick, during the 1930s and 1940s is described in all its grittiness. The family live 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. Malachy Sr. teaches the children Irish stories and songs, but he is an alcoholic and seldom finds work. When he does, he spends his pay in the pubs. His family is forced to live on the dole since he cannot hold down a paying job for long due to his alcoholism. The father will often pick up and spend the welfare payment before Angela can get her hands on it to feed the starving children. For years the family subsists on little more than bread and tea. They are always wondering when their next real meal would be and whether the kids would have shoes for school. Despite all the hardships, many passages of the story are told with heartfelt humor and charm.

Frank's father eventually finds a job at a defense plant in Coventry, England, yet he squanders his pay rather than sending money back to his struggling family. As there are few jobs for women, their mother is forced to ask for help from the Church and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. They live in fear of not going to heaven, unless they pray or worship as often as prescribed by the Church. Sometimes, Frank and his brothers scavenge for lumps of coal or peat turf for fuel, or steal bread to survive; they also occasionally steal leftover food from restaurants at the end of the day. Angela's mother (a widow) and sister are reluctant to help her because they disapprove of her husband, as he is not from Limerick, and they felt he has the "odd manner" about him. To make up for his father's failure to support the family, Frank starts working as a messenger delivery boy when he is fourteen. He gives some of his earnings to his mother to feed the rest of the children, and the rest he saves for his planned return to America. Schooling for Frank ends at the age of thirteen, as it does for most of the poor boys in the lanes of Limerick. Though both his teacher, Mr. O’Halloran, and a librarian tell Frank to continue his schooling, he wants to begin working "like a man."

The McCourt children have insufficient clothing and shoes despite the continual rain, and suffer in the damp, cold climate of Ireland. Frank develops typhoid fever and is taken to hospital, where for the first time he has adequate food and warmth. Later, he gets a job helping a neighbor who has leg problems; he delivers coal for the neighbor, a job he is proud of and wants to continue even though it exacerbates his chronic conjunctivitis. The family is finally evicted after they take a hatchet to the walls of their rented home to burn the wood for heat. They are forced to move in with a cousin of Angela's who treats them badly and eventually forces a sexual relationship on Frank's mother, Angela. Angela is forced into this situation by a need to find accommodation for her children and she is described as staring into the ashes of the fireplace. This gives a meaning of the title of the book. Angela's potentials have been reduced to ashes. There is another more hopeful meaning in that from the ashes of Angela's life there comes the good things of children and caring for others. From the poverty of their lives the goodness of the irresponsible father is revealed.

When Frank and Angela go to the Christian Brothers to inquire about further schooling for Frank, they slam the door in his face. A few days after his 14th birthday, Frank starts his first job as a telegram delivery boy for the post office. The wry wit of Frank's narration clearly shows that he has the capacity to rise in this job, but circumstances stop him progressing. During this time, Frank has sexual relations with a young woman named Theresa Carmody, who has tuberculosis and later dies, making Frankie feel guilty about "sending her to hell" for premarital sex.

Frank is encouraged to take the postman test at the Post Office, but decides not to and instead begins delivering newspapers and magazines for Eason's. To earn extra money toward his voyage to the United States he also writes threatening collection letters on behalf of a local moneylender. When the moneylender dies, Frank takes money from her purse and throws her ledger of debtors into the river. Thus, through a combination of scrimping, saving, and stealing, Frank eventually does get enough money to travel to the U.S. The story ends with 19-year-old Frank arriving 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 hold 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
  • Others

  • 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
  • Background

    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, the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award (Biography), 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. 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."


    In 1999 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.


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