41 pages 1 hour read

Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


Angela’s Ashes is a 1996 memoir written by Frank McCourt. It recounts his challenging upbringing in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. At the heart of the memoir is McCourt’s account of the people and events of his childhood, and how he tried to make sense of the world around him. McCourt narrates in the present tense and follows a generally chronological order, with his time in America as a young child and then later as a young adult framing the narrative.

The memoir employs intertextuality and references stories from Irish folklore, traditional Irish ballads, English poetry, and popular Irish films and actors. There are also many references to historical events in Ireland, such as the English conquest and the Potato Famine. The memoir contains occasional vulgarity and some scenes of a graphic sexual nature. Upon publication, the book received generally positive acclaim and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography. It also caused controversy, as some of the people in the book, most notably Angela herself, disputed its veracity, claiming that McCourt fabricated and embellished the circumstances of his childhood.

The edition used for this guide is the Kindle edition, originally published by Scrivener in 1996.


The narrative begins asynchronously, with Frank immediately rewinding to a time before he was born and then to a time before his mother, Angela, was born. Once Frank situates the reader with context and backstory, the narrative generally unfolds in a chronological fashion. Frank’s parents, Angela Sheehan and Malachy McCourt, meet in New York City and quickly marry after discovering Angela is pregnant with Frank. The couple have several more children in the years that follow, but the death of their infant daughter Margaret worsens Malachy’s alcoholism and sets the family on a downward spiral. Angela’s family is concerned, and her mother (“Grandma”) pays for the family to return to Ireland.

Once there, the family struggles to find a place to live, finally settling in Limerick, where Angela’s mother also lives. Two more children (Oliver and Eugene) die, and Malachy struggles to maintain steady work, partly because he is from Northern Ireland, which the people of Limerick view with suspicion, and partly because of his ongoing drinking. When he does land a job, he often spends his wages on alcohol rather than necessities for his family.

As Frank begins school, he increasingly feels the impact of the strictly Catholic culture that surrounds him; for example, when a friend tells him a story containing a bad word, Frank, panicking and ashamed, admits to the “sin” during his first confession. Although the priest who hears this confession is good-humored, other authority figures—including most of Frank’s teachers—are less tolerant, and Frank grows up feeling fearful and guilty.

Meanwhile, Frank begins to discover a passion for words and stories. As a young boy, he has a paper route that brings him into contact with Mr. Timoney, a man who hires Frank to read aloud to him. When Frank is later hospitalized with typhoid, he befriends a fellow patient—Patricia—who introduces him to Shakespeare. Frank’s hospitalization threatens to hold him back a year, but he puts his developing writing skills to use in an essay that persuades the school to advance him.

As World War II begins, Malachy goes to England to work in a wartime factory. He fails to send his wages back when Angela expects him to, and while he continues to visit periodically, he fades out of the family’s life. Angela consequently relies on governmental assistance and charity, although it hurts her pride to do so. Frank also begins to fend for himself; when his mother is sick with pneumonia, he steals food for the first time. He later secures a job helping a man named Mr. Hannon haul coal, until the latter’s health forces him to stop.

After the family’s landlord evicts them for burning wood from the walls for heat, Angela and her children move in with a cousin named Gerard “Laman” Griffin. Frank dislikes Laman, who requires Frank to empty his chamber pot and sleeps with Frank’s mother. When an argument about borrowing a bicycle erupts into violence, Laman throws Frank out of the house.

Frank moves in with his uncle, continuing to steal to support himself until he lands a job as a telegram boy. Now 14, he meets a 17-year-old girl named Theresa on his rounds and has his first sexual experience with her. Theresa, however, has tuberculosis and dies shortly after the relationship begins, which Frank attributes to their sinful behavior.

For the next couple years, Frank continues to deliver telegrams while making money on the side by collecting debts for a woman named Mrs. Finucane. He initially intends to become a full-time post office worker, but shortly before his 16th birthday, he instead takes a job as a messenger boy at a company called Eason’s.

Angela, meanwhile, is working as a maid and no longer living with Laman. Her relationship with Frank, who looked down on her for having sex with Laman, improves somewhat. However, she must say goodbye to her son when Frank, now roughly 19, secures passage to America; he has been saving money for the journey for years. On the voyage over, he struggles with his decision, but as the memoir ends, he feels hopeful about life in a new country.

The many anecdotes McCourt provides throughout the memoir give the story a vibrancy and humor despite his childhood’s miserable conditions. Limerick as McCourt portrays it is defined by hard-scrabble existence. While there are some wealthy residents who appear in the book, most of the characters are from poor or working-class families. In many ways, the memoir is also a story of the lives of the people of Limerick during the 1903s and 1940s. These people display a modest grit and tenacity that Frank clearly admires.

The title of Angela’s Ashes suggests the image of charred remains left from a fire Angela has started; it could also imply that she has died, although this does not happen during the book’s timeframe. It evokes the biblical image of the righteous Job sitting on an ash heap, lamenting the ruin of his life. On one hand, the metaphor signals how Frank rises out of these ashes, thereby making his story into a phoenix-like story of triumph. On the other hand, when read as a lament, the memoir provides a glimpse into one family’s struggles and examines the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people.

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By Frank McCourt