A Review of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.  It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Thus begins one of the most acclaimed, popular and controversial memoirs ever written: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  It won the hearts of millions of readers, the Pulitzer Prize, and the undying hatred of many Irishmen.  It even went on create, according to The Daily Mail, a new kind of literature – the Misery Memoir, or ‘mis-lit’.

McCourt firmly connects the misery of his childhood in the slums of Limerick to the endemic poverty of pre-World War II Ireland, a country raped by the English, and the joyless and guilt-ridden Catholicism of the people.  See how in a few deft strokes he gives us a précis of the book in one paragraph.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: 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.

Frank’s “shiftless loquacious alcoholic father” is Malachy McCourt, who has fled to America with a price on his head by the English for his activities in the IRA.  There he meets young and spirited Angela Sheehan, out there on the lookout for opportunities in the New World.  It is love at first sight, and soon a “knee-trembler” (the sexual act done up against a wall) results in the conception of Frank, and Malachy has to do the right thing by the girl.

So Malachy and Angela end up wedded, and very soon, they have a large family: Frank, the eldest, Malachy, born one year later, Eugene and Oliver, the twins and Margaret, the youngest and the apple of her father’s eye.  With the birth of Margaret, her father’s shiftless ways improve, and he starts bringing home his salary on weekends: however, the child dies after a brief existence of six weeks, and Malachy returns to his old habits with a vengeance.  This consists of going to the pub directly with his salary on a Friday, spending it all there and coming fully drunk late in the night; getting his small sons out of bed, asking them to sing patriotic songs and promise to die for Ireland.  When the poverty becomes unbearable in the midst of the Great Depression, the family moves back to Ireland, in hope of greener pastures.  But they soon learn that things are worse in their home country.

First of all, the IRA refuses to acknowledge Malachy McCourt’s contribution to the war of independence, and the pension he had set his mind on evaporates into thin air.  Secondly, nobody is willing to employ him, with his Northern name and accent (in the South, the North are taken as traitors because they are mostly Protestant – a heinous crime, in the eyes of an Irishman – and the northern counties decided to stick with the Union) and “odd manner”.  And to compound it all, is Malachy’s alcoholism which is increasingly worsening.

The family settles into a miserable slum in Frank’s mother’s native town of Limerick.  The unhealthy atmosphere and poverty soon take their toll.  The twins, Eugene and Oliver, fall sick and pass away, one after the other.  Angela is hysteric, moving close to madness – and Malachy turns to his only consolation, drink, more and more often.

They move to a new house, as Angela cannot stay in the one where her children died – but it is worse than the old one.  The communal toilet, where the whole lane empties their slop buckets into, is located at the ground floor of their house, near the kitchen.  The stink is continuous.  While it rains, the whole ground floor is flooded with water, carrying in all the filth from outside: the family has to confine themselves to the bedroom upstairs (fondly nicknamed “Italy”, because of its warmth).

No one is ready to help the family.  Frank’s maternal Grandmother cannot accommodate them all in her house and Angela’s sister Aggie does not want to.  The children know precious little other than admonitions and scolding, and the hellish atmosphere of sin and punishment forever present as a miasma in their fiercely Catholic schools only adds to the woe.

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.

Frank’s mother’s family is pretty dysfunctional.  His mother and her sister are permanently at loggerheads.  They don’t like his father because he’s a Northerner.  Angela’s eldest brother Tom is not very comfortable with the family as they don’t like his wife.  The youngest brother, Pat, is mentally challenged and lives in a world of his own.  As Frank puts it (after he pukes up the sacred wafer in the backyard after his first confession):

Grandma won’t talk to Mam anymore because of what I did with God in her backyard.  Mam doesn’t talk to her sister, Aunt Aggie, or her brother Uncle Tom.  Dad doesn’t talk to anyone in Mam’s family and they don’t talk to him because he’s from the North and he has the odd manner.  No one talks to Uncle Tom’s wife, Jane, because she’s from Galway and she has the look of a Spaniard.  Everyone talks to Mam’s brother Uncle Pat, because he was dropped on the head, he’s simple, and he sells newspapers.

Death is ever-present: so is filth, sickness, sin and the threat of Hell.  Poverty and disease takes its toll on the populace so regularly that it has become a routine fact of life for the children.  (There is an incident narrated by Frank where the consumptive family members of one of his friends are dying one by one.  When his sister falls sick, the boy begs Frank and others to pray for her so that she doesn’t die during the summer recess – thus depriving him of two weeks’ time away from school!  The friends oblige, because they are promised sumptuous food at the girl’s wake: a promise on which the brother reneges.  So the kids seek vengeance, and pray that all the remaining family should die only during summer holidays.  And when the boy himself passes away the next summer, they feel that their prayers have been answered.)

Frank himself has had his dance with death immediately after his confirmation.  He’s admitted to the hospital with typhoid.  As he shuttles between life and death in the less-than-loving care of nuns, his only solace comes from the “diphtheria girl” Patricia Madigan in the next room.  They are placed far apart as a punishment for the sin of talking, but not before she teaches him the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.  However, she dies before she can recite him the whole story; and Frank has to bear the suspense until the illiterate hospital attendant Seamus learns it from somebody in a pub, and recites it to him.  The doomed love story of the highwayman and Bess, the landlord’s daughter serves as a pivotal point in the book for love, death and Frank’s own doomed first love, Patricia.

For in this depressing scenario, apart from death, there is also desire, lust and alcohol.  In fact, one of the main strengths of the memoir is how the author juxtaposes the descriptions of chamber pots filled with urine and excrement with Frank’s slowly awakening sexuality.  Lust is always mixed up with disease and death, and the sexual scenes (most of them implied rather than described) are more disturbing than exciting – for example, Frank’s public ejaculation in the park behind the library and later, his first sexual experience with the consumptive Theresa Carmody, who knows that she will not live for much longer, so is desperate for the experience.

The real downturn in the fortunes of the McCourt family begins when Malachy goes to England to work in the munitions factories during the Second World War.  It is a lucrative job, and many families grow rich outright from the money the men send from England.  But Frank’s father cannot let go of his Friday pint; and Angela and the children go from bad to worse, to the extent of pulling down the walls of their house to burn for firewood during the winter.  They are turned out of the house, and forced to move into the house of Gerard (“Laman”) Griffin, Angela’s cousin.

It is here that Frank’s world comes crashing down.  Laman is a waster, and a cruel one at that: he takes advantage of their situation, and Angela is forced to prostitute herself.  (Laman lives in the attic room, never coming down even for his primary needs.  Frank can hear Angela climbing upstairs, and the sound of “the excitement” happening up there, every night.)  But what finally proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back is Laman’s bicycle, sitting in the backyard.

Laman promises to give this to Frank for a trip to Killaloe: in return, he has to empty and clean the chamber pot every morning.  Frank agrees and carries out his part of the bargain faithfully, but the other party reneges on his promise.  When Frank questions him, Laman beats him up, even though his mothr tries to intervene.  But what really rankles Frank is what happens afterward.

I can hear Mam crying when she blows into the globe of the paraffin oil lamp and everything goes dark.  After what happened she’ll surely want to get into her own bed and I’m ready to go into the small one against the wall.  Instead, there’s the sound of her climbing the chair, the table, the chair, crying up into the loft and telling Laman Griffin, He’s only a boy, tormented with his eyes, and when Laman says, He’s a little shit and I want him out of the house, she cries and begs till there’s whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.

In awhile they are snoring in the loft and my brothers are asleep around me.  I can’t stay in this house for if Laman Griffin comes at me again I’ll take a knife to his neck.

Frank sees this as the ultimate betrayal: he does not understand that his mother has to prostitute herself to keep a roof above their heads (I wonder how many poor kids have to undergo the same humiliation on a daily basis).  He leaves home, and stays with his mentally challenged uncle in his Grandma’s house, who has passed away by this time.  Frank lands a job as telegram delivery boy in the post office – he has come to the conclusion that he has to somehow fend for himself, by hook or by crook.  He moves on to a more lucrative job with a newspaper dealer, and also takes up a part-time job as the composer and deliverer of threatening letters to defaulting debtors for a moneylender lady.  Ultimately, it is with the money stolen from her purse (technically: the lady is lying dead at that time) that Frank boards the boat to his dreamland: America.

But that is in the future yet, when Frank turns nineteen: before that, there is that distressing scene with Mam, after he had “drunk his first pint”.

…She says, That’s a nice state to come home in.

It’s hard to talk but I tell her that I had my first pint with Uncle Pa.  No father to get me the first pint.

Your Uncle Pa should know better.

I stagger to a chair and she says, Just like your father.

I try to control the way my tongue moves in my mouth.  I’d rather, rather be like my father than Laman Griffin.

She turns away from me and looks into the ashes in the range but I won’t leave her alone because I had my pint, two pints, and I’m sixteen tomorrow, a man.

Did you hear me?  I’d rather be like my father than Laman Griffin.

She stands up and faces me.  Mind your tongue, she says.

Mind your own bloody tongue.

Don’t talk to me like that.  I’m your mother.

I’ll talk to you any bloody way I like.

You have the mouth of a messenger boy.

Do I?  Do I?  Well, I’d rather be a messenger boy than the likes of Laman Griffin oul’ drunkard with the snotty nose and his loft and people climbing up there with him.

She walks away from me and I follow her upstairs to the small room.  She turns, leave me alone, leave me alone, and I keep barking at her, Laman Griffin, Laman Griffin, till she pushes me, Get out of this room, and I slap her on the cheek so that tears jump in her eyes and there’s a small whimpering sound from her, You’ll never have the chance to do that again, and I back away from her because there’s another sin on my long list and I’m ashamed of myself.

Yes, one more sin: symbolic matricide to add to theft, fornication, lying and whatnot.  The miserable Irish Catholic childhood is in full flower when Frank wanders over to the church to bid goodbye to God forever, and more particularly, the saint whose namesake he is, St. Francis of Assisi.  However, in front of the statue of the saint, what he finds is confession and consolation, in the form of a kindly Franciscan priest, Father Gregory.  As Francis confesses all to his patron saint, the father sits near him being “only a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord”, assuring him that God forgives all who repent.  Thus, we feel, a sort of peace has been made: Father Gregory has shown Frank a way out of the hellhole of guilt and sin he has been wallowing in since he could remember.

The book ends with Frank on the deck of the boat sailing into America, into New York, into the land of dreams and opportunity.  To the question of the Wireless Officer of the boat (“Isn’t this a great country altogether?”), he replies in true Irish fashion: ‘Tis.

The Controversy

This review wouldn’t be complete if I did not touch upon the controversy surrounding the book.  To be fair, not even the book’s greatest detractors say that it is badly written.  No, Frank McCourt has been criticised not for bad writing but for falsification of facts, and for making crude caricatures of Irishmen.

From The Daily Mail, 21 July 2009:

But as well as starting a publishing phenomenon, McCourt’s searing bestseller Angela’s Ashes, which has sold some five million copies, also began a terrible feud.

Locals called him ‘a conman and a hoaxer’, and claim he ‘prostituted’ his own mother in his quest for literary stardom, by turning her into a downtrodden harlot who committed incest in his book.

The article goes on to say:

Their three biggest criticisms of the book, aside from the endless grinding misery it depicts, include the description of a local boy, Willy Harold, as a Peeping Tom who spied on his naked sister. It turns out that Mr. Harold, now dead, never had a sister – which McCourt did later acknowledge.

They also disputed McCourt’s account of his sexual relations with Teresa Carmody, when he was 14. She was dying of TB at the time, and locals were outraged that he sullied her memory.

Frank Prendergast, a former Limerick mayor and local historian who grew up within 200 yards of McCourt’s house, says that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father.

‘He suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘But he has traduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’

Frank McCourt replied to these criticisms: “I can’t get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.  Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they’re kidding themselves.”

True or false?   After finishing this devastating memoir, the only thing I can say is that it is beautifully written.  McCourt may have caricatured the Irish, but I never found them comic, but largely sympathetic.  And Angela’s act of adultery (if it ever happened) only raised my esteem for her; for a lady stooping to such a depth to keep her family alive.  What an effort it must have taken her!  Poverty is very real, and people do many things which they are ashamed of later: who is one to judge?  “Judge not, lest thou should be judged.”

In closing, I do not think Frank McCourt’s memoir is entirely truthful.  Nor do I consider it outright lies.  As Julian Barnes said in The Sense of an Ending, history is most probably not the lies of the victors, nor the delusions of the defeated: they are the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

Frank McCourt was such a survivor.

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