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Literature / Angela's Ashes

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Angela's Ashes is the 1996 memoir of Frank McCourt (1930—2009), an Irish-American child growing up in poverty in Ireland. It is a collection of various anecdotes and stories of his impoverished childhood and early adulthood in Limerick, Ireland.

The novel was followed by two further novels continuing McCourt's life story; 'Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005).

It was adapted into a 1999 film, directed by Alan Parker and starring Robert Carlyle as Malachy Sr and Emily Watson as Angela.

The book and film provide examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The book describes Malachy Senior as having thinning hair and collapsing teeth.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Malachy Sr.
  • Alliterative Title: Angela's Ashes.
  • Americans Are Cowboys: Some boys taunt Frank in the playground for being American, asking if he's a gangster or a cowboy.
  • Animated Adaptation: In 2017, Brown Bag Films made a half hour prequel called Angela's Christmas. About a child Angela stealing a baby Jesus statue so she can keep it warm.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: This provides perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene in the memoir when Oliver, one of the young twins dies and the other one, Eugene, keeps pathetically saying his name, wondering where he is, etc.
  • Anyone Can Die: Mostly Frank's younger siblings, but his grandmother and other characters die throughout the book. Frank himself almost dies from Typhoid.
  • Ass Shove: Pa Keating tells the kids that during the war, he shoved a pipe his arse and charged the other soldiers money to heat their water with his farts.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Angela and Malachy only married because they conceived Frank during a one-night stand, and are constantly plagued by Malachy's drinking, inability to hold a job, their resultant poverty, and their disapproving families. While the pace of children entering the family suggests they were, uh, happy enough in their earlier years, Frank describes them as constantly unhappy and stressed until Malachy finally gave up and abandoned the family when Frank was eleven. The film gives them a couple of softer moments together, but they still appear to be overall resentful and miserable.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Narrowly avoided by the McCourt children, whose father manages to repair their shoes with pieces of old tire. The mockery they get from other kids at school leads Frank to wonder if it might be better to go barefoot, since there are plenty of barefoot pupils who don't get made fun of.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Limerick residents have accused McCourt of exaggerating his poverty and even his mother stood up at a stage reading of the book and shouted that it was all a pack of lies.
  • Big Applesauce: Frank dreams of (and succeeds in) returning to New York.
  • Bumbling Dad: Malachy Sr, definitely not Played for Laughs.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: Frank and his friends regularly go to a rocky, hilly landscape in the wilderness and wank off next to each other (but apparently not 'with' each other). Being Catholic, they have to confess their sins. It helps that the old priest is mostly deaf and doesn't really pay attention to a word they said — until one day Frank slides into the booth all set to confess and finds a new and very alert priest there; the other one had died during the night.
    • A similar moment occurs when one of Frank's friends charges his classmates to spy on his older sisters as they prepare for a bath. One of the boys climbing up the spout gets a little overzealous and ends up pulling the drainpipe off the wall, causing the rest of the boys to be caught in the act as well.
  • Celebrity Lie: Frank convinces his uncle Pat that he was punched by boxer Joe Louis.
  • Childhood Brain Damage:
    • Angela's brother and Frank's uncle Pat, who is slow-minded and is said to have been "dropped on the head" as a baby.
    • In the book, Malachy Sr's mother claims he's peculiar because he was dropped as a baby.
  • Children Raise You: Frank ends up having to fill the 'man of the house' role because of his father's drinking, irresponsible behaviour, and eventual departure to England for work.
  • Confessional: The family being Catholic, there are several memorable scenes of confessionals:
    • Frank goes to Confessional for the sin of 'regurgitating God' into his backyard, as he had eaten too much from his First Communion meal and threw up because of it. He's given penance but is then sent back to the confessional by his granny to ask how to clean it up. Upon returning with the answer of 'Water', he is sent back by his granny, again, to know if they are to use normal water or Holy water to clean up the mess. The Priest, frustrated, tells him normal water and to leave him alone.
    • When Malachy Sr stops providing for the family and his wife has a complete mental collapse, ten-year-old Frank takes it upon himself to feed his starving siblings by stealing food. Naturally his conscience gets to him and he confesses his theft to a priest, who asks him why he did it. Frank innocently spills out the full extent of his family's desperate circumstances. The stunned priest, realizing he is in the presence of a suffering child, confesses that he himself feels constant guilt from pretending he is holier than people who are doing their best to survive, a lesson Frank is too young to understand. Finally the priest lets Frank go but begs him to pray for him.
  • Cool Teacher: Mr O'Halloran, a decidedly modern teacher compared to the others of the time.
  • Cool Uncle: Pa Keating is great with the children and cheers them up with his tall tales.
  • Crapsack World: Of the worst kind. There's a reason he describes it as a "miserable childhood".
  • Creator In-Joke: In interviews, author Frank McCourt often joked that Angela's Ashes (which ends with a chapter consisting of a single word: "'Tis") and its sequel 'Tis (which ends with the McCourt children scattering their late mother Angela's ashes) really should have had their titles reversed.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: When his uncle Pat notices a bruise on his face left by Laman Griffin, Frank tells him Joe Louis punched him.
  • Daddy's Girl: A tragic example; in the beginning of the book a daughter, Margaret, is born to the family. The normally alcoholic Malachy Sr dedicates himself to his daughter. A week later his daughter dies, sending Malachy Sr back to the bottle in grief.
  • Death of a Child: Many of Frank's siblings.
    • His sister, Margaret, dies in New York shortly after being born.
    • His three year old twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, who die within a few months of each other.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Angela never met her father because he ran off to Australia before she was born.
    • Malachy Sr finds work in England and eventually stops visiting or sending money to the family.
  • Doomy Dooms of Doom: Frank cynically observes at one point: "Doom. The favourite word of every priest in Limerick."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After setback after setback, Frank must leave his family behind to save himself. It's sort of a happy ending, if you ignore the part where he's painfully aware that he's just left his younger brother Malachy to take on the role of provider to their mother and three other starving, impoverished children.
  • Fat Bastard / Fat Slob: Laman Griffin, Angela's overweight cousin who forces her to sleep with him, makes Frank empty his piss pot and sloppily eats chips while refusing to share them with any of Angela's kids — they have to lick the newspaper he throws out because they are so hungry.
  • The Freelance Shame Squad: The other kids immediately notice and mock Frank's shoes, which his father has resoled with rubber from car tires.
  • The "Fun" in "Funeral": During a child's funeral, Pa entertains the kids with funny war stories. His wife chastises him but her usually grumpy mother says it's better than sitting with long faces.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Gregory, who gives Frankie hope again after his breakdown.
  • The Great Depression / The '40s: When most of the story takes place.
  • Grey Rain of Depression: Limerick is constantly being hit with rainstorms. When it's not raining, it's still miserable and grey. In fact, the only time the weather clears in the film adaptation is when Frank finally has his ticket for America bought.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: An example involving not ethnicities but nationalities. Part of the abuse and neglect that Frank and his siblings get from their mother's family is because their father is from Northern Ireland. Angela's sister Aggie refuses to take in Oliver for this reason.
    Aggie: I don't want anything of Angela's. I don't want anything that's half-Limerick half-North of Ireland!
  • Improvised Clothes: Malachy Senior repairs his sons' boots using an old bicycle tyre. This gets them mocked at school.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Theresa suffers from one. Justified, as she has tuberculosis and this is a memoir.
  • Jerkass: Mrs Finucane, the moneylender, who hires Frank to write threatening letters to those who don't pay her back when she expects to be.
    • She eventually dies, and Frank takes some of her money to help him get back to America.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Malachy Sr is a genuinely loving father and wants to do right by his family. He just messes up constantly in his efforts, mostly due to drink.
    • Aunt Aggie is often almost antagonistic towards Angela's children, but she later helps Frank out by buying him new clothes for his job at the post office.
  • Lady in Red: Angela wears a red coat that catches the eye in a city so gray.
  • Loan Shark: Mrs Finucane, who hires Frank to write threatening letters on her behalf.
  • Love Hungry: Theresa, who knows she is terminally ill and has never had a boyfriend.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Patricia Madigan.
  • Misery Lit: The memoir emerged just as the "Misery Lit" moniker became applied to this kind of literature, and lord, does it qualify. On the first page, the author himself proclaims it a tale of a "miserable childhood."
  • Mooning: Malachy Jr moons Oliver and Eugene to try and make them laugh.
  • The Needless: Malachy Sr. claims to be able to survive off tea and says that food is a shock to his system.
  • Nun Too Holy:
    • The nuns at the hospital where Frank is under care for typhoid fever are anything but compassionate. Think more along the lines of Stern Nun, only they're nurses instead of teachers.
    • Frank even says, when he is working at the post office, that you would surely die on the doorstep if you waited for a tip from the nuns for delivering their mail.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: The very last chapter is only one word: 'Tis.
  • Out with a Bang: Frank hears that girls who have contracted tuberculosis have increased sex drives, wanting to experience sex before they die. He sleeps with Theresa Carmody and she dies shortly afterwards.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Angela's mother does not approve of Malachy Sr because he is not from Limerick. Worse than that, it's because he is from Northern Ireland and they constantly accuse him of being a Presbyterian, even though he and his family in the North are devout Catholics.
  • Perpetual Poverty: The McCourts
    • There are families poorer and worse-off than the McCourts.
  • Promoted to Parent: Arguably deconstructed. When both the McCourt parents stop providing for their children, Frank takes it upon himself to feed his starving brothers by any means necessary...but it's made clear that Frank himself is only a child who barely understands how to take care of himself, much less anyone else.
  • Rasputinian Death: Frank is reading about saints and decides that his favourite is St. Christina the Astonishing because she "takes ages to die". This of course makes sense considering how many of his siblings died while still babies.
  • Sadist Teacher: Mr Benson, Frank's primary school teacher who beats up young boys with a belt.
    • Surprisingly, it may be a subversion. Except Mr O'Halloran, all the teachers beat children because this is how school was at the time. However, when Frank and Malachy Jr arrive and are mocked for their makeshift shoes, Mr Benson berates the other children for making fun of those less fortunate.
      Mr Benson: There are boys here who have to mend their shoes whatever way they can. There are boys in this class with no shoes at all. It's not their fault and it's no shame.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Angela is given a chance to give her family what they need, but she is forced to sleep with her distant cousin Laman Griffin to do so.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Malachy Sr and Angela's wedding.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Frank is conflicted between his sexual desires and his Catholic faith. He worries, for instance, that he may have jeopardized Theresa Carmody's soul by sleeping with her before she died.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: The only people in the book with any financial stability seem to be people like the lecherous, gluttonous, greedy Laman Griffin, or the well-off clients Frank sees on his delivery route who shun him because of his obvious poverty. But once you get a look at the harsh reality of poverty, you get the feeling that it wouldn't matter if you had to be a Slob or a Snob, just as long as you weren't starving.
  • The Storyteller: Malachy Sr in his good moments.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Malachy Sr. is an alcoholic who can't hold a job, Angela has a few bouts of depression that leave her all but bedridden, and by about age ten eldest child Frank is stealing food to feed the family - and even though he confesses to a priest and is hospitalized twice, no intervention is made. Justified in that this was the height of the Great Depression in a particularly impoverished Irish town, some families were even worse off than the McCourts, and assuming there had been some kind of intervention, Frank and his siblings would have likely wound up in an even grimmer orphanage situation.
  • Street Urchin: Mikey Molloy, Frank's buddy.
  • Tender Tears: Frank's family tells him his "bladder must be near to [his] eye" because of how easily he tears up.
  • There Are No Therapists: Quite literally - Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the United States in 1935, but there were no major programs in Ireland at the time for chronic alcoholism, save for hospitalization - which would have not only been extremely unpalatable to the whimsical Malachy Sr, but would have likely put the family into even worse financial straits.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Frank refers to sexual relations as 'the excitement'. He and other members of his family refer to his conception (which was up against a wall) as a 'knee trembler'.
  • Wall Bang Her: According to Frank, this was how he was conceived, and he refers to it as a 'knee trembler'.
  • Would Hit a Girl: A drunk Frank slaps his mother when she compares him to his father and immediately regrets it.

Alternative Title(s): Angelas Ashes