The Endurance of Family
Family is perhaps the central theme of Angela’s Ashes, for despite its limitations, Frank loves his family and is loyal to his parents and brothers no matter how far from them he travels. He is especially aware of his mother’s strong influence throughout his childhood, and her fortitude as a human being as well as his parent. She overcomes the challenges of her husband’s alcoholism and the resulting poverty and illness without becoming bitter or angry. Frank repays her with both his filial devotion and by following her advice to make something of himself.
Stories as Inspiration
Stories,whether about legendary Irish heroes spoken or sung of in verse, are an important part of Frank’s life. As a young child he is obsessed with Cuchulain, and later he finds comfort and joy in reading Gulliver’s Travels aloud to Mr. Timoney. Patricia Mulligan gives him the gift of poetry before dying in the hospital, and it is the Highwayman poem that in large part enables his recovery from typhoid. The familiar tales bring Frank peace and perspective as he identifies with the protagonists who defeat all odds in finding their way in an unfair world.
Destructiveness of Alcohol
Alcohol is another recurring theme, for both the escape it offers from the harsh realities of the poor, and for over indulgence in it leading down a treacherous path. Frank’s father Malachy is a hopeless alcoholic who cannot seem to learn his limits even if it means starving his family and being responsible albeit indirectly for the deaths of three of his own children. While other characters are also drawn to drink, Frank’s uncles and most neighbors are spared the final indignity of having spent the entire week’s wages on Friday and being unable to keep the job more than three weeks for missing the Saturday morning shift as a result.
Persistence of Poverty and Hunger
Poverty is a haunting motif in the book, for while there are contributing factors such as Malachy McCourt’s alcoholism, it is poverty itself that prevents the family from finding peace. Regardless of its direct and indirect causes, poverty subjects the boys to the humiliation of resoling their rubber boots and suffering without proper food for years on end.
Hunger is another important and recurring theme in Angela’s Ashes, from the gnawing pain in the pit of the children’s stomachs in New York and Limerick to the spiritual void left by their all-but-absent father. While other poor children’s families can at least afford to feed them a proper Christmas dinner, the McCourts can manage only a pig’s head to offset their usual tea and bread. Besides the physical discomfort and disease caused by malnutrition, Frank craves the parental love other boys might take for granted, and seeks to fill the space left by his alcoholic father by feeding his soul as best he can. He associates the ability to feed one’s family with high self-esteem and dignity, and yearns to provide for his mother and brothers as his father proved unable to do.
Restrictions Imposed by Social Class and Religion
Social class is another overarching theme, for the Irish Catholics of Limerick as a community suffer similar limitations to the McCourts and are trapped by the station they are born into rather than being mobile citizens able to find work easily. Because of Malachy’s northern origins, he is unable to find a job in Limerick, and is driven to drink in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that keeps the family from emerging from poverty as some of their neighbors are able to do by working in England during the war.
Guilt Imposed by Catholicism
Guilt is a haunting backdrop throughout Frank’s childhood and adolescence, a feeling he attributes primarily to growing up Catholic. He is constantly worrying about a sin he fears he may have committed, more frequently than not more concerned about its consequences for other souls than his own. Whether agonizing about his first confession or debating the likelihood that his first love Theresa Carmody is bound for hell, Frank is overcome with guilt for having sexual thoughts and impulses. He is convinced, as are most of the local priests, that he is doomed if he does not reject these impure thoughts and actions, yet he is unable to prevent their recurrence.
“Dad says I’ll understand when I grow up. He tells me that all the time now and I want to be big like him so that I can understand everything. It must be lovely to wake up in the morning and understand everything. I wish I could be like all the big people in the church, standing and kneeling and praying and understanding everything.” (108)
When Frank sees the Baby Jesus in church and asks his father about him being in heaven, he is told no, Our Lord was thirty-three when he died, and is reminded that questions are not tolerated. His brother Malachy has been reprimanded frequently for asking the meanings of words like affliction, and although the boys are honest and respectful with their questions, adults have little patience for them and instead of answering usually tell them to go out and play and stop bothering them. This attitude results in Frank hoping fervently that when he grows up the mysteries will be solved and he will understand as apparently the grown-ups do. The irony is that the questions often remain unanswered out of ignorance and impatience for children’s natural curiosity.
“The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live. My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith. Dad says they were too young to die for anything. Mam says it was disease and starvation and him never having a job. Dad says, Och, Angela, puts on his cap and goes for a long walk.” (113)
Frank is constantly told how grand it is to die for a cause, most frequently by his drunken father who comes home late and wakes his sons to march them around the house promising to die for Ireland. Thinking about his baby sister Margaret and his twin brothers Eugene and Oliver, all of whom died, Frank wonders whether anyone wants children to live. The difference in his parents’ answers to the question about why his siblings died is revealing, for his father has not assumed any responsibility for the poverty that has resulted in three of his children dying within a year.
“All right. Tell the priest if you like but the Angel on the Seventh Step said that only because you didn’t tell me first. Isn’t it better to be able to tell your father your troubles rather than an angel who is a light and a voice in your head?” (125)
Frank has been troubled over the word “piss” and the story of Emer, wife of the legendary Cuchulain, and believes hearing it has put him in a state of sin and unworthy of his First Communion. Anxious about what to do, he consults with an angel he believes speaks to him from the seventh step down from “Italy” in the family apartment and understands the response to be “Fear not” and that he can tell the priest without worrying about any drastic consequences. Frank’s father tells him that he has not sinned and need not trouble the priest, and with these words asks his son to confirm that it is preferable to talk to his father directly about these concerns, to which Frank readily agrees “’Tis, Dad.” Sadly it is not always the case that his father is available to his sons, for his drinking problem is so serious that their dominant impression of him is that of a drunkard stumbling home in song.
“I’m seven, eight, nine going on ten and still Dad has no work. He drinks his tea in the morning, signs for the dole at the Labour Exchange, reads the papers at the Carnegie Library, goes for his long walks far into the country. If he gets a job at the Limerick Cement Company or Rank’s Flour Mills he loses it in the third week. He loses it because he goes to the pubs on the third Friday of the job, drinks all his wages and misses the half day of work on Saturday morning.” (145)
Even before he is ten, Frank recognizes his father’s pattern of abusing alcohol and its devastating consequences both for his employment and the family’s survival. His description of the routine and the knowledge that even if his father is hired he will drink away the money faster than he earned it illustrates his conscientiousness at a very young age. Like his mother, Frank realizes there is no hope for his father to be “like other men,” drinking a pint or two without overindulging.
Recounting an imaginary conversation between his father and another man fond of drink, Frank even at his young age understands his father knows no limits. He is physically and psychologically unable to stop after a single pint, and after overindulging will subject his sons to the same songs and request to pledge to die for Ireland, which they do from the time they can stand and talk, even in the middle of the night.
“My heart is banging away in my chest and I don’t know what to do because I know I’m raging inside like my mother by the fire and all I can think of doing is running in and giving him a good kick in the leg and running out again but I don’t because we have the mornings by the fire when he tells me about Cuchulain and DeValera and Roosevelt and if he’s there drunk and buying pints with the baby’s money he has that look in his eyes Eugene had when he searched for Oliver and I might as well go home and tell my mother a lie that I never saw him couldn’t find him.” (185)
Frank doesn’t actually need to say a word. He knows as well as any adult that anyone who could drink away the new baby’s money is gone “beyond the beyonds” as his mother says, and that it is as pointless to find him at this stage of his drunkenness, as it is to share the predictable bad news with his mother. Frank’s thoughts turn to violence as he is angry with his father selfishly putting the rest of the family through the tortures of hunger, but he also knows he cannot kick the man who at times is indeed fatherly to him: by the fire first thing in the morning when the world is theirs and magical and peopled by legendary heroes and world leaders only a father can adequately tell about.
“I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories 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.” (210)
Even as a young boy, Frank is able to separate his father the man from Malachy the alcoholic. He cherishes their fireside chats over tea each morning, and fondly reminisces about the tales of Cuchulain and other Irish legends he appreciates thanks to his father’s storytelling. Frank is a true Catholic, and despite the church’s repeated rejections of him and of his family, he sincerely believes in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and makes a flattering comparison between this three-part Christian God and his only two-thirds redeemable parent. As a child Frank forgives his father’s serious flaws and prefers to try to understand or even pity him. It is only later, when his father wastes on drink the money wired for his new baby brother, that Frank expresses anger towards Malachy for his irresponsible behavior.
“Malachy tells Aunt Aggie one day he’s hungry and cold he have a piece of bread. She hits him with a rolled-up Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart and there are tears on his eyelashes. He doesn’t come home from school the next day and he’s still gone at bedtime. Aunt Aggie says, Well, I suppose he ran away. Good riddance. If he was hungry he’d be here. Let him find comfort in a ditch.” (248)
When their mother catches pneumonia, the boys temporarily live with Aunt Aggie until their father responds to the letter they write him asking for money for food and diapers. Aggie is not pleased to have the responsibility of caring for the three boys and the baby, and makes her distaste clear. Her physical violence further embitters Malachy, who leaves and camps out at the family residence, where Frank finds him the following day when their father appears. Two days later their mother is able to come home from the hospital, and their father is off again to England although the telegrams continue not to appear for the boys’ father drinks away his earnings abroad just as he did at home.
“I wish the boys at Leamy’s could see me now, the way I drive the horse and handle the bags, the way I do everything while Mr. Hannon rests his legs. I wish they could see me pushing the handcart to South’s pub and having my lemonade with Mr. Hannon and Uncle Pa and me all black and Bill Galvin all white. I’d like to show the world the tips Mr. Hannon lets me keep, four shillings, and the shilling he gives me for the morning’s work, five shillings altogether.” (265)
Frank is proud to be hired at age eleven to assist the neighbor, Mr. Hannon, whose bad legs no longer permit him to make coal deliveries. Frank’s mother agrees since they can use the money, though doubts the wisdom of her decision when she sees the negative effect on Frank’s eyes. He begs to keep the job, and is pleased when the boys stop calling him names and instead envy him being employed so young. He continues helping until Mr. Hannon’s legs are so bad he must be hospitalized. Mrs. Hannon calls Frank in to tell him the news and remind him his job is school. Although it lacks the glamour of staining his skin and generating income, let alone tips, Frank understands and tries to hide the tears that sting his eyes when she tells him he’s been like a son to Mr. Hannon.
“Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can’t understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again.” (325)
When he delivers a telegram to the Carmody residence, Frank meets the teenage Theresa, a victim of tuberculosis eager to lose her virginity before her early death. Although at first he doesn’t understand what is happening, the two not only have sexual intercourse on the green sofa, but also fall in love. Frank feels tenderly for Theresa and stops taking the shilling tip because he is at the house for pleasure more than work. When Theresa no longer answers the door, he knows she is in the sanatorium. When she dies he follows the funeral to the graveyard, though lacking any formal, public relationship with Theresa and her family he stays out of sight, suffering in silence and solitude the loss of his first love.