Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
A Look at Irish Culture during the Depression Era
Frank Mc Court, the author of Angela’s Ashes, was born during the Great Depression. A few years after immigrating to the United States because their families believed they would find their fortune here, his Irish family moved back to Ireland in hopes of a better life. They were met with only more hardships in their native country. His book shows the struggle and small joys of daily life with siblings, school friends, and the adults in his life. It also provides much insight into the way the people in Ireland lived at that time. The author tells the story from the viewpoint of Frank, the oldest child of a father whose background in “the North” (having been involved with the IRA) causes continual suspicion. His mother, Angela, had never known her father and her own mother is very miserly and offers no help to the woman and her children.
Through the course of telling about his own life and his family’s hard times, McCourt touches upon the fighting that went on between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and the toll this had on the Irish people. He also delved deeply into the issue of poverty among the Irish and the many ways they dealt with the hardship in their lives.
Life in the Irish city of Limerick is so hard that starvation is a way of life for most of the residents “Consumption,” pneumonia, and typhoid are rampant; children go to school barefoot or in pieces of flopping rubber; and stealing is a necessity. Frank’s baby sister and twin brothers die due to the family’s economic situation causing a lack of nutrition and medical attention. There is also “the drink”– the disease of Irish fathers who spend their weeks’ wages in the pub on Friday night. (p. 184)
Frank’s mother was forced to seek Relief,’ the Irish version of America’s welfare system. She also sought help from the Catholic and Protestant Church in feeding her family. The iron in the book was that help was not given out without an accompanying sermon, in hopes of persuasion to join one or the other. Mc Court depicts those in charge of the Relief system as being biased and unchristian type of people who looked down on those they were in a position to help. (p. 150)
There are many amusing stories in the book revolving around the way the young children had to fend for themselves while their parents sought work. In an effort to keep their apartment heated throughout an especially cold winter, the children tore apart the furniture, and when that was gone they began to use the wood from the walls. When the landlord came to see the apartment, he commented that he thought he had rented them a 4-room apartment when it was only a 3-room, not realizing they had torn out an entire wall. (p. 79)
Even those relatives who had some money were not always eager to help the family. They were critical of the drunken father and for the mother who continued having children they could not support. Ironically, however, when there was a death in the family, everyone showed up with lots of food and beer, since the deceased at that time was laid out in their family’s parlor. They children therefore grew up kind of looking forward to these events so that they could eat.
Frank did not like school too much. The teachers were very strict and often would beat the children with a stick for minor infractions or because they did not understand their lessons. The Irish children were often more concerned about filling their stomachs rather than their minds, and would cut school to go out looking for food and coal.
After experiencing a very sickly childhood and spending much of his time in a convalescent home, (p. 338) Frank leaves school to earn money for the family after his father had joined the war-time wave of work in England and did not return. Frank’s hopes were to return to America. Blessed with verbal skills and stamina, through stealth, charm and struggle he manages to save what is needed to book ship’s passage to America. As the Hudson River flows by en route to Albany, the ship’s Wireless Officer says to Frank, “My God, . . . isn’t this a great country altogether?” Frank in the single phrase making up the last chapter answers, ” ‘T is.” (p. 365)
This book was very interesting because it was written from first hand experience and it was my first experience with a culture I had heard much about through cultural events in America, but had not really learned much of its history. It is easy to see that Irish people must be strong because many of them struggled against great odds to get ahead in life. From speaking to people, Ireland today is quite different from the country depicted in Mc Court’s book, largely because of the influx of technology that has created jobs in the country. Today, Ireland enjoys good schools with education available for everyone and a government-run health care system where anyone can get equal care. Jobs are plentiful and the government’s economy is strong.