Angela's Ashes

Thema: "Dad" in Frank McCourt's Novel "Angela's Ashes"

Table of Contents

I Frank mccourt and "angela's ashes"

II Summary of "angela’s ashes - a memoir" BY FRANK MCCOURT

1. Looks and Appearance
2. Character Traits
a. His Conviction in Ireland
b. His Strong Religious Belief
c. His Greatest Value: Dignity
d. His Knowledge and His Imagination
e. His Weakness
1. Ambivalence
a. Thoughtful Father, Loved and Admired by His Son
aa. Doing Housework
ab. Attempting to Educate His Children
ac. Telling Stories
b. Careless Alcoholic
ba. Wasting the Family's Money
bb. Wanting His Son to become an Irish Martyr
bc. Breaking off Connection
2. Effects on the son
a. Adopting Father's Role
b. Trying to Make Up for His Father's Faults
Born 1930 in New York City, Frank McCourt spent most of his childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland until he returned to the United States at the age of 19.
Having had no steady job for years McCourt finally became teacher and worked at New York City public schools before retiring in 1995.
Frank McCourt had always wanted to be a novelist but the dream of creating his own memoirs was realized late, during his retirement, when he started writing encouraged by friends and students who had appreciated McCourt's stories about him growing up in Ireland.
His biography "Angela's Ashes - A Memoir", named after Frank McCourt's mother, was published in September 1996 and became, against all expectations, a bestseller. It made literary newcomer McCourt winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and various other awards, was followed by the sequel "'Tis" and formed the basis for a Hollywood movie released in 1999.
But what made the book become so successful and approved by both critics and the public? I think the reason is that McCourt tells about an Irish family facing all the adversities of life from the point of view of his childlike self without any trace of bitterness or resentment in his words but rather with wit and in this way more entertaining and accessible to the reader but nevertheless impressive.
The biographic novel starts in New York where Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan, both Irish immigrants, meet eachother and marry. They have five children there: Frank, the oldest one, Malachy, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, and Margaret, their only daughter. Unfortunately, America does not turn out to be the promised land the McCourts hoped it would be. In the time of economic depression the father rarely has a job, and if he does, spends the wages to buy alcohol instead of feeding his hungry family. The situation improves after Margaret's birth. She becomes the parents' favorite and causes the father not to waste their money any longer. But happiness does not last for the McCourts. Margaret, only a baby, dies of pneumonia, making her mother despair and her father fall back upon alcohol.
In order to help the family out of this crisis, Angela's cousins write a letter to her mother Margaret in Limerick who sends money for the two adults and four children to pay the fare to Ireland.
Having arrived there, the McCourts visit the father's parents in the north who tell him to ask for money at the IRA headquarters in Dublin because he had fought for the organisation before his emigration to the United States. But the claim is rejected so that the family has to move on to Limerick where a new beginning could hopefully be made.
Things, however, are considerably worse there than they were in New York.
Unable to find a job, the father spends the dole money in pubs while his family depends on the welfare. They live in a shabby apartment stinking from the public lavatory next door with a first floor which is flooded in the winter making the second floor the only decent place to stay at. Due to the poor nutrition and the dampness, the twins, first Oliver then Eugene, die of pneumonia while Angela is already pregnant with another boy, Michael. Later on the family's last child, Alphonsus, is born.
Finally, there seems to be a way out of poverty when the mother persuades her husband to work in a munitions factory in England during World War II. But the generous paychecks that provide other Limerick men's families a better living never arrive from Malachy McCourt. Obviously his drinking has become worse than ever. So in the following, as the father does not return even when the war is over, Frank McCourt shows his sense of responsibility by earning money for his mother and brothers as a telegram boy. In the end he fulfills his dream of returning to the United States again. Having collected, both legally and illegally, enough money for a shipping, 19 - year - old Frank arrives at America's shores happily awaiting a better future.
So this is the story of a childhood within a poor Irish family in the 1930s and 1940s.
But Frank McCourt also manages to insert into his biography the memory of his most important parent person, "Dad", Malachy McCourt whose outward appearance, character traits and attitude will be examined in the following.
As seen by his son Frank, Malachy McCourt is a middle - aged man who, although very poor, always tries to be well - dressed by wearing collar, tie and his typical cap. He has thinning hair, brown eyes and collapsing teeth which give him a certain smile that makes other people think of him being a bit odd.
Generally, Malachy McCourt's behavior among other people is reserved and evasive:
"Malachy looked from one to the other, shifted on his feet, pulled his cap down over his eyes, shoved his hands deep in his trouser pockets, said, Och, aye, the way they do in the far reaches of County Antrim, turned, hurried up Court Street to the speakeasy on Atlantic Avenue where he was sure they'd ply him with free drink in honor of his son's baptism."
(McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 18).
But whenever McCourt drinks alcohol he begins to act in an effusive way.
He "(...) comes home with the whiskey smell on him, roaring about Kevin Barry, getting hanged on a Monday morning or the Roddy McCorley song" and "(...) when he sings he marches around the table" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 31).
Whether drunk or not, Malachy McCourt can be described as an Irish patriot whose conviction in his native country is boundless.
He fought with the IRA for the sovereignity of Ireland until "(...) for some deperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 10) which reveals his tendency towards overenthusiasm whenever Irish patriotism or hatred of the English is concerned. So, for example, a lot of persuasion must be done to make him work at a factory in England during World War II because, in his opinion, no luck will come to those who take English money and he himself would never help England win a war.
Alcohol intensifies Malachy McCourt's national conviction and causes him to behave rather offensively. Standing in the middle of the street he "(...) tells the world to step outside, he's ready to fight, ready to fight and die for Ireland, which is more than he can say for the men of Limerick, who are known the length and breadth of the world for collaborating with the perfidious Saxons." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 136).
McCourt also tries to turn his sons into Irish patriots making them promise to sacrifice themselves for their native country. He comes home from the pubs yelling "Where are my troops? Where are my four warriors?" and "Up, boys, up. A nickel for everyone who promises to die for Ireland". Finally he starts to sing songs that reflect much of his national pride:
"Deep in Canadian woods we met
From one bright island flown.
Great is the land we tread, but yet
Our hearts are with our own."
(McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 26).

As a further important character trait, Malachy McCourt's strong religious belief should be mentioned.
McCourt appears as a convicted Catholic who is always anxious to have his family its religious duties obeyed. He tells his wife that "(...) The good Catholic woman must perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p.269) and educates his sons to worship God. They have to "(...) say grace before meals and grace after meals (...) because God is watching every move and the slightest disobedience will send (...) [them] straight to hell (...)"
(McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 117).
Malachy McCourt served Mass as a child so he teaches his son Frank everything he needs to know to become an altar boy which is, from the son's point of view, a rather
severe procedure:
"He takes the part of the priest for he has the whole Mass in his head and I have to know the responses. (...) Mam says he could at least let me sit but he says Latin is sacred and it is to be learned and recited on the knees."
(McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 183).
An example of Malachy McCourt's peculiarity concerning religion can be seen in the fact that the picture of a Pope is most precious for him. It shows "(...) Leo the Thirteenth, a great friend of the workingman" and McCourt "(...) brought this picture all the way from America where he found it thrown out by someone who had no time for the workingman." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 113).
Examining Malachy McCourt's character one finds dignity to be his greatest value.
He believes in certain principles which must be followed in order to keep it.
McCourt sees himself disgraced at the worst by his wife Angela accompanying him to the Labour Exchange although "a woman is never supposed to interfere with a man's dole money" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 95) and his sons are told repeatedly that as a man "You have to keep the dignity. Wear your collar and tie, keep up the appearance, and never ask for anything." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes p. 116).
Obviously, being well - dressed is very important for him, as we are informed by his son Frank that "He will never leave the house without collar and tie. A man without collar and tie is a man with no respect for himself." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 115).
Furthermore Malachy McCourt refuses to carry bags, packages or the like because, in his opinion, "If you carry such things you lose your dignity" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 120) and he will never stoop so low to beg for something. As, for example, the McCourt's cannot afford a proper Christmas dinner they have a pig's head instead which must be taken home by the son because Malachy McCourt would never act so disgracefully, asking a farmer for something to eat or carrying such ordinary objects.
Undoubtedly Malachy McCourt must also be looked upon as a smart, educated person whose knowledge is influential on his children.
While reading the newspaper in the morning he tells his son Frank "(...) about the world, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco", "(...) the great Roosevelt in Washington and the great DeValera in Dublin" and describes "(...) the old days in Ireland when theEnglish wouldn't let the Catholics have schools" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 260).
Malachy McCourt is widely respected because of him being a gifted writer, too.
Neighbors come to ask "(...) if he'll write a letter to the government or a relation in a distant place" because he is known to have "(...) a lovely way with the English language and a fine fist for the writing" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 165).
Besides his knowledge Malachy McCourt's imagination can be seen as another positive quality.
By telling imaginative stories he takes his sons away to a world of dreams where they forget their hardships which have to be faced day by day. Sitting at the fire he makes up a story "about someone in the lane" and the story will take them "all over the world, up in the air, under the sea and back to the lane" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 261).
There is also much of Malachy McCourt's imagination revealed when he explains the birth of a baby within the family by thinking out the story of an angel. He tells his son Frank that "(...) he found Michael on the seventh step of the stairs" and says "(...) that's what you have to watch for when you ask for a new baby, the Angel on the Seventh step"
(McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p.125).
However Malachy McCourt is heavily burdened with his weakness: alcoholism.
All his life McCourt does not seem to be capable of overcoming this illness. He does harm to himself and his family drinking the money and neglecting his children. No matter whether his sons are baptized or buried, he goes to the pub making his addiction to alcohol obvious. Above all Frank McCourt is affected by his father's drinking because he refers to it as "the bad thing" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 260).
Now that Malachy McCourt's character traits are revealed, a closer look has to be taken at the relationship between him and his son Frank. The two of them act and think towards eachother in an ambivalent way.
On the one hand Malachy McCourt can be seen as a thoughtful father who receives love and admiration from his son.
McCourt appears to be a house husband caring for his wife and children. In the morning he gets breakfast ready "lighting the fire, making tea, cutting the bread" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 85) and wakes up the other family members but only in case he did not drink the night before.
When Malachy McCourt fixes his sons shoes, for example, the result cannot be considered as workmanlike. However one has to admit that he does try to be a good father.
In addition to that Malachy McCourt attempts to educate his children in a proper way.
He prepares his sons for their later life by teaching them practical things. For example, he tells them "never [to] eat anything floating in water for the rot that might be in it" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 21).
Although the family is very poor, McCourt insists on his sons to go to school because, in his opinion, "there's nothing like an education" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p.94).
So he helps with their homework and motivates them to learn by telling about the opportunities they will have after school.
Furthermore, as already mentioned before, Malachy McCourt informs his son Frank about politics in Ireland and foreign countries when he reads the newspaper to him in the morning.
Above all Malachy McCourt must be looked upon as a gifted story - teller who, in this way, builds up a very close relationship to his son Frank.
Here one can see that mainly the tales about the mythical Irish hero Cuchulain represent attachment between father and son. When Frank McCourt listens to the father's stories in his early childhood he does not only feel near to him but also developes a sense of possession concerning their relationship. This becomes obvious as little Frank gets furious with his brother telling the Cuchulain tale to other boys and yells "(...) stop telling that story, it's my story" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 35). Having arrived in Dublin the McCourts visit Cuchulain's statue where an example of how much Frank is impressed by his father's stories can be found as the boy says "(...) I feel tears coming because I'm looking at him at last, Cuchulain, there on his pedestal in the G.P.O." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p.65).

Of course, there is more than Cuchulain that keeps father and son together. Imaginative Malachy McCourt makes up plenty of other stories in which "Polar bears wrestle with elephants in Australia and penguins teach Zulus how to play bagpipes"
(McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 261). These self - made tales full of fantastic ideas often are the only form of entertainment McCourt's sons enjoy.
However, on the other hand, Malachy McCourt appears as a careless, negligent father dissociating himself from his family.
No doubt that alcohol is to blame for the harm McCourt does his wife and children.
He wastes their money drinking on every occasion while his sons wander through the streets of Limerick begging for food and coal. In addition to that he goes "beyond the beyonds" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 231), as his wife says, buying alcohol with money that was meant to be used for the family's new - born chld.
If Malachy McCourt finds a job he is fired after one month at the latest but the dole money is not sufficient for his alcoholism. This becomes obvious as Frank McCourt remarks that his father often goes for long walks into the country where he asks for a job on the farms. There "he works so hard and long the farmers have to tell him to stop" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 115) earning money only to be spent for drinking.
Another effect of Malachy McCourt being a careless alcoholic shows up when he comes home from the pubs at night. Drunk and therefore acting effusively he tells his sons to "(...) jump out of that bed and line up here like two soldiers and promise to die for Ireland (..)" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 137). McCourt says that he will give them "a nickel for ice cream" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 48) if they do so but the only thing they ever get is a penny.
Frank McCourt feels guilty about taking the money because everytime his father drinks his mother "is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 260). But although Frank is never allowed to say "(...) I love you, Dad" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p.262) he still wants to have close relationship to his father whose positive traits are, in his opinion, predominant.
Finally, however, Malachy McCourt breaks off connection and leaves his family alone which a loving father would never do.
Having left Ireland to work in a factory in England he drinks all the money earned and forgets about the responsibilities he has for his wife and children. From then on until Frank McCourt's departure to the U.S.A. the father does not show up except for a few short visits. During his stays in Limerick Malachy McCourt and his son Frank are no longer able to keep up the close relationship they had before. The father tries to find excuses but his son knows that he does not care any longer as he is "(...) just drunk over there in England" (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 338). The days when Frank McCourt yearned for a close connection with his father, either by promising to die for Ireland or by listening to his stories, are gone forever.
In addition one must realize the effects of the relationship between father and son on the latter which are to be mentioned in the following.
When Malachy McCourt leaves his family to work in England his son Frank starts to adopt father's role. First of all Frank McCourt seems to have inherited his father's imagination as he makes up stories for his brothers. He tells them about his adventures
in the streets of Limerick and recites the old tales about Irish folk - heroes like his father used to do. Due to the long and close relationship with his father, Frank McCourt also emulates a few of his special likings. He gets up early in the morning, makes tea and fries bred for himself then taking long walks into the country as he once did with his father.
In contrast to that, Frank McCourt tries to make up for his father's faults by caring for his mother and brothers.
After Malachy McCourt's departure to England his son Frank immediately starts to take responsibility and becomes the family's breadwinner. While his father never had a steady job Frank, although suffering from sore eyes, starts earning money at the age of eleven by delivering coal. Later on he manages to become a telegram boy which offers him the possibility to earn both his own and his family's living. Indeed he seems to have learned from his father's mistakes as he looks after his mother and makes sure that she is always treated fair.
While Malachy McCourt resigns himself to his weakness and leaves the family behind, Frank McCourt manages to adopt the father's positive qualities at the same time making up for his faults.
In the end one should listen to Frank McCourt who describes how Malachy McCourt's life continued after he had left his family in the 1940s as follows:
"After wandering and drinking in America and England he yearned for peace in his declining years. He returned to Belfast, which erupted all around him. He said, A pox on all their houses, and chatted with the ladies of Andersontown. They tempted him with delicacies but he waved them away and drank his tea. He no longer smoked or touched alcohol, so what was the use ? It was time to go and he died in the Royal Victoria Hospital." (McCourt: Angela's Ashes, p. 11).


- McCourt, Frank, Angela's Ashes - A Memoir, New York, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1999

- Simon & Schuster, Inc., 28.12.2000

- Simon & Schuster, Inc., 28.12.2000

- The Reader's Digest Association, 28.12.2000

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