The Books: Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt


Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:

Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt

The bare details are harrowing. Five McCourt children: Francis, Malachy, Oliver and Eugene (twins), and Margaret. Margaret died a few weeks after birth, Oliver and Eugene died a couple years after their birth, within the same year. Two more children born: Michael and Alphie. But the dead three haunt the family. Malachy McCourt (the father) married Angela Sheehan in New York (both were Irish immigrants). After Margaret died, the family, struggling to make it in the Depression ( Malachy’s drinking didn’t help), moved back to Ireland, which turned out to be a fatal mistake. There they slipped into abject poverty. They might have had a chance in the more developed United States, especially in New York with more opportunities than there were elsewhere (sorry, Ireland). Oliver and Eugene died during that first year back in Ireland. The family lived in squalor. Malachy drank up his dole wages, and filled his remaining children with a martyr complex, having them promise that they would all “die for Ireland”. A rather morbid thing to ask, when your children are actually dying. When World War Two broke out, Malachy ended up moving to England to try to get work in a munitions factory. But, essentially, he abandoned the family. He never sent back money, he would write, he came to visit once, but he never really returned, leaving his family to literally beg on the streets for food. The children grew up hard and poverty-struck, and got odd jobs (very odd) to make ends meet, and Francis (or Frank) ended up moving back to America at age 19. He got more odd jobs (very odd) until he finally became a teacher. Even though he hadn’t graduated high school, he finagled his way into New York University, and began his long teaching career throughout the boroughs of Manhattan. His brother Malachy was also in New York and had become an actor. Decades passed. Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes was published when he was 66 years old. Nothing like a late bloomer. It won the Pulitzer. It won everything. It took over the world. It is one of the reasons we are now inflicted with a surfeit of horribly written memoirs on the shelves, but McCourt isn’t to blame for that. His was the first. It was hated in Ireland (in Limerick, especially – I had a very funny conversation with a guy in Limerick about it), but embraced wholeheartedly in America. Irish-Americans bought the book in droves. It was made into a movie (which I didn’t see).

The book opens bluntly, letting us know where we are headed:

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

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.

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.

Above all – we were wet.

I love that opening because McCourt is bold enough to brag. And in that opening sequence you get the main strength of the book which is the VOICE. Yes, Irish-Americans love stories of how hard it is in the “Old Country” but hard stories are nothing if you don’t have a VOICE. Or, they’re not nothing, but they won’t win Pulitzers and be seen being read by literally everyone on the subway. McCourt had a VOICE, and the book is a masterpiece of voice. It should be taught to young writers to show them how it’s done. But it can’t be manufactured. You have to have that voice, you have to own it, whatever it is. Maybe McCourt had to be 66 years old before he was confident enough to share that voice in written form. I’m sure he regaled his friends at the pubs with these stories for many years, everyone begging him to write them down, and so, he finally did.

I met Frank McCourt many times. If you go to Irish-American events in New York, as I do, you were bound to meet him. And his brother Malachy. Staples on the Irish-American scene. I met him at the first Bloomsday celebration I went to at the ULYSSES pub downtown (which is now an annual tradition for me), and hearing him read from Joyce’s book into a microphone in lower Manhattan was one of the highlights of my life. Joyce’s words sounded different when he said them. They were like a nursery rhyme to him, something almost memorized and known so well that you barely have to look at the page. He was hilarious. No surprise there, but it was a treat to see how funny he actually was, since Angela’s Ashes, with all its relentless tragedy, is a side-splittingly funny book. I went to see him read once, I think it was at a Barnes and Noble, and he went off on the workout craze in America – randomly – it had nothing to do with anything – and he couldn’t stop himself, and the details he put into his rant, the bottled water, the girls on the treadmills through the gym windows at 10 p.m., everything, had the audience in stitches. My copy of Angela’s Ashes is signed by Frank McCourt and I treasure it.

In my crowd (meaning: my huge sprawling family), everyone read it. We all read it at the same time, so we all were talking about it constantly at family events. I remember being home, and I was in the kitchen and I would hear gales of laughter from my father in the living room as he read the book. We would swap stories: “Have you gotten to the Irish dancing section?” “How about the geometry teacher?” My dad’s perspective on the father was interesting. You want to shake Malachy McCourt while reading it. Stop drinking your wages, your children are dying, take care of your family. My dad said something like, “Well, he gave Frank the storytelling gift, though.” And that is true. The father, while irresponsible and an alcoholic, had a deadly charm, a gift of the gab, and perhaps watching three of his children die in a 2 year period caused him to go mad. It would me. But despite the poverty, he instilled in the McCourt kids a sense of pride (albeit a pride borne of martyrdom) in who they were. They came from good stock. They were Irish, dammit, be proud of that. Angela smoked by the fire, bemoaning her fate, wondering how she would cope. It had to be horrific. The conditions they lived in Limerick were horrifying. (Dude in Limerick I talked to: “Oh, he was TOtally exaggeratin’, yeah.” Ha! Still pissed off.) The book swings from tragedy to hilarity in just a sentence.

I remember sitting in my deadly quiet grad school library reading the book, and I started laughing so uncontrollably at the section where young Malachy gets his father’s false teeth stuck in his mouth that I had to get up and leave the room because I was disturbing other students. I stood out in the hallway, tears streaming down my face, as though I was trapped in some horrible purgatory where the laughter never stopped.

I have many favorite sections. I love when he is hospitalized due to his infected eyes (my own eyes itched as I read about his eyes), and it is while he is in the hospital that he discovers Shakespeare. I love when he is forced to learn riverdancing, and skips classes, but then has to MAKE UP dances to show his parents. “This is the Siege of Dingle” he announces to his Ma and Da, and then dances away, totally making it up. The Siege of Dingle. It kills me.

Angela’s Ashes is a great book. Many will try to imitate it, but very few can imitate Frank McCourt’s voice because it is so very much his own.

And here is the section that made my father howl with laughter from the other room. (“If you have something to say, shut up.” I love that: you know she really said that.)

Young Frank McCourt is making his First Confession and his First Communion. (In my day and age, these events were years apart – or at least I think they were. Maybe I have it remembered wrong). I love the priest behind the window, doing his best not to laugh outright at the child’s distress.

You can hear Frank McCourt telling this story outloud.

Excerpt from Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir

It’s my turn. The confession box is dark and there’s a big crucifix hanging over my head. I can hear a boy mumbling his confession on the other side. I wonder if there’s any use trying to talk to the Angel on the Seventh Step. I know he’s not supposed to be hanging around confession boxes but I feel the light in my head and the voice is telling me, Fear not.

The panel slides back before my face and the priest says, Yes, my child?

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my First Confession.

Yes, my child, and what sins have you committed?

I told a lie. I hit my brother. I took a penny from my mother’s purse. I said a curse.

Yes, my child. Anything else?

I, I listened to a story about Cuchulain and Emer.

Surely that’s not a sin, my child. After all we are assured by certain writers that Cuchulain turned Catholic in his last moments as did his King, Conor MacNessa.

‘Tis about Emer, Father, and how she married him.

How was that, my child?

She won him in a pissing contest.

There is heavy breathing. The priest has his hand over his mouth and he’s making choking sounds and talking to himself, Mother o’ God.

Who, who told you that story, my child?

Mikey Molloy, Father.

And where did he hear it?

He read it in a book, Father.

Ah, a book. Books can be dangerous for children, my child. Turn your mind from those silly stories and think of the lives of the saints. Think of St. Joseph, the Little Flower, the sweet and gentle St. Francis of Assisi, who loved the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Will you do that, my child?

I will, Father.

Are there any other sins, my child?

No, Father.

For your penance say three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers and say a special prayer for me.

I will. Father, was that the worst sin?

What do you mean?

Am I the worst of all the boys, Father?

No, my child, you have a long way to go. Now say an Act of Contrition and remember Our Lord watches you every minute. God bless you, my child.

First Communion day is the happiest day of your life because of The Collection and James Cagney at the Lyric Cinema. The night before I was so excited I couldn’t sleep till dawn. I’d still be sleeping if my grandmother hadn’t come banging at the door.

Get up! Get up! Get that child outa the bed. Happiest day of his life an’ him snorin’ above in the bed.

I ran to the kitchen. Take off that shirt, she said. I took off the shirt and she pushed me into a tin tub of icy cold water. My mother scrubbed me, my grandmother scrubbed me. I was raw, I was red.

They dried me. They dressed me in my black velvet First Communion suit with the white frilly shirt, the short pants, the white stockings, the black patent leather shoes. Around my arm they tied a white satin bow and on my lapel they pinned the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a picture of the Sacred Heart, with blood dripping from it, flames erupting all around it and on top a nasty-looking crown of thorns.

Come here till I comb your hair, said Grandma. Look at that mop, it won’t lie down. You didn’t get that hair from my side of the family. That’s that North of Ireland hair you got from your father. That’s the kind of hair you see on Presbyterians. If your mother had married a proper decent Limerickman you wouldn’t have this standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.

She spat twice on my head.

Grandma, will you please stop spitting on my head.

If you have something to say, shut up. A little spit won’t kill you. Come on, we’ll be late for the Mass.

We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time to see the last of the boys leaving the altar rail where the priest stood with the chalice and the host, glaring at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and blood of Jesus. At last, at last.

It’s on my tongue. I draw it back.

It stuck.

I had God glues to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master’s voice, Don’t let the host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you’ll roast in hell for eternity.

I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat.

God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.

When the Mass ended there they were at the door of the church, my mother with Michael in her arms, and my grandmother. They each hugged me to their bosoms. They each told me it was the happiest day of my life. They each cried all over my head and after my grandmother’s contribution that morning my head was a swamp.

Mam, can I go now and make The Collection?

She said, After you have a little breakfast.

No, said Grandma. You’re not making no collection till you’ve had a proper First Communion breakfast at my house. Come on.

We followed her. She banged pots and rattled pans and complained that the whole world expected her to be at their beck and call. I ate the egg, I ate the sausage, and when I reached for more sugar for my tea she slapped my hand away.

Go aisy with that sugar. Is it a millionaire you think I am? An American? Is it bedecked in glitterin’ jewelry you think I am? Smothered in fancy furs?

The food churned in my stomach. I gagged. I ran to her backyard and threw it all up. Out she came.

Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I goin’ to do? I’ll take him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.

She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession box.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s a day since my last confession.

A day? And what sins have you committed in a day, my child?

I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.

The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and the choking sounds.

Ah … ah … tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.

Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If ’tis a thing I ever find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I’ll tear the bloody kidneys outa you. Now what did he say about God in me backyard?

He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.

Holy water or ordinary water?

He didn’t say, Grandma.

Well, go back and ask him.

But, Grandma …

She pushed me back into the confessional.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it’s a minute since my last confession.

A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?

I am, Father.

What is it now?

My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?

Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again.

I told her, Ordinary water, Grandma, and he said don’t be bothering him again.

Don’t be bothering him again. That bloody ignorant bogtrotter.

I asked Mam, Can I go now and make The Collection? I want to see James Cagney.

Grandma said, You can forget about The Collection and James Cagney because you’re not a proper Catholic the way you left God on the ground. Come on, go home.

Mam said, Wait a minute. That’s my son. That’s my son on his First Communion day. He’s going to see James Cagney.

No he’s not.

Yes he is.

Grandma said, Take him then to James Cagney and see if that will save his Presbyterian North of Ireland American soul. Go ahead.

She pulled her shawl around her and walked away.

Mam said, God, it’s getting very late for The Collection and you’ll never see James Cagney. We’ll go to the Lyric Cinema and see if they’ll let you in anyway in your First Communion suit.

We met Mikey Molloy on Barrington Street. He asked if I was going to the Lyric and I said I was trying. Trying? he said. You don’t have money?

I was ashamed to say no but I had to and he said, That’s all right. I’ll get you in. I’ll create a diversion.

What’s a diversion?

I have the money to go and when I get in I’ll pretend to have the fit and the ticket man will be out of his mind and you can slip in when I let out the big scream. I’ll be watching the door and when I see you in I’ll have a miraculous recovery. That’s a diversion. That’s what I do to get my brothers in all the time.

Mam said, Oh, I don’t know about that, Mikey. Wouldn’t that be a sin and surely you wouldn’t want Frank to commit a sin on his First Communion day.

Mikey said if there was a sin it would be on his soul and he wasn’t a proper Catholic anyway so it didn’t matter. He let out his scream and I slipped in and sat next to Question Quigley and the ticket man, Frank Goggin, was so worried over Mikey he never noticed. It was a thrilling film but sad in the end because James Cagney was a public enemy and when they shot him they wrapped him in bandages and threw him in the door, shocking his poor old Irish mother, and that was the end of my First Communion day.

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9 Responses to The Books: Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

  1. kevin says:

    read the book – spent most of the book wishing to go back in time and feed them a liitle bit of something – and having read the book – no desire to see the movie

  2. Kelly says:

    Whenever it rains I think of mud flowing into their house.

  3. sheila says:

    Kelly – God, I know. And the rats.

  4. scribbler50 says:

    A truly magical book. There were times though when I actually had to put it aside it got so depressing, but reading just now the above excerpt reminds me of all the wonderful humor interspersed. That confession bit is priceless! By the way, the VOICE you refer to, and one I’d certainly never heard before and loved the minute I heard it, he said he stumbled onto once while listening to children speaking at a family gathering. He said it was their simple, straightforward way of speaking that grabbed him in that moment of epiphany, and once he applied that voice the book just flowed. (Out of the mouths of babes!)

    Another great thing about all of this is the fact that he pulled it off in his mid-sixties, as you pointed out. If that’s not a lesson it’s never too late what is?

    However it’s sad, he once said, that his book came out a little too late to be displayed on a shelf at The Lion’s Head, the literary hangout in the Village he’d frequented for years, which closed I think a year before he was published. That’s okay though, his book will still be open for decades to come.

    Great post, Sheila.

  5. milt says:

    Frank McCourt wrote two other highly enjoyable books about his life in the U.S., “Tis” and “Teacher Man”, which describes his unorthodox, and highly succesful, method of teaching high school writing classes.

  6. sheila says:

    Milt –

    I counted the days until Tis came out. (“‘Tis”, of course, is the last word of Angela’s Ashes – love that connection). Wasn’t as crazy about Tis – but I lOVED Teacher Man. Love teacher stories in general.

  7. sheila says:

    Scribbler – Hi, you! You know, come to think of it – I have a vague memory of going to some commemorative event about The Lion’s head – Pete Hamill was there – all these old-school illustrious New York writers – and McCourt was there and he told that story and I couldn’t help but feel like: GOD. A couple years earlier!! But yes, you’re right. His book will last. But still, it’s a great story.

    I agree – the book is ruthless. This one line took my breath away: “He died anyway.”

    Just horrible, you don’t know how you could bear it.

    Love that about him listening to how kids told stories – I hadn’t heard that! That really is the voice of the book. Logical, hilarious, observational, and blunt. Not sentimental.

  8. milt says:

    Sheila–

    Check out my comment at North to the Orient. It’s not about that book, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

  9. A great book. One of my friends in college bought it for me for one of my birthdays. One of the few books to come out in the last few years that deserved all the accolades it received.

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