"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 father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years."
This is how Angela’s Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography by Frank McCourt, opens. The passage tells us, perhaps, all we need to know about the book. It is, indeed about Frank’s childhood in Ireland. It is a miserable childhood, and a tragic one, laced through with poverty, illness, bereavement, and humiliation. The cast of characters is set out for us. But, like this passage, the story is told with an indomitable humour and a spirit of joie de vivre that makes every page worth reading.
Frank McCourt starts his life in America, where his mother, the Angela of the title, finds herself pregnant by Malachy McCourt – a drinker, and worse than this, 'From the North'. Malachy attempts to skip town, but drinks up his getaway money and is frogmarched up the aisle. The couple return to Ireland after Angela is stricken with depression after the death of her daughter.
Malachy McCourt is odd-man-out in Limerick and as he repeatedly fails to find work (or to hold it when he does find it) he turns ever more to the bottle, and to his sense of injustice. When drunk, he hauls the older children out of bed to join him in singing republican songs and to lecture them on the infamy of the English, and to tell them to die for Ireland, if they have to.
At school, Frank and his younger brothers are taught the scriptures – often at the end of a strap – and indoctrinated in Catholicism. Here they are told to die for the faith if they have to. "It seems there weren't many who wanted us to live," the adult Frank comments, wryly.
Angela, meanwhile, struggles on, a martyr with a Woodbine dangling from her mouth, queuing to beg for charity at the St Vincent de Paul Society and borrowing from a rapacious widowed loan-shark to keep her shrinking family (three more of her seven children succumb to the cold and damp during the course of Frank’s childhood).
Eventually Malachy joins the exodus of Irish working men to English factories, but the weekly money the family expects fails to arrive, week after week after week. Then suddenly Malachy turns up at Christmas, bearing chocolates, to stay for a day, then disappear forever.
Frank supplements the handouts and works towards his dream of returning to America (which he remembers dimly as paradise compared to Limerick) by working. First he delivers coal, a job he has to give up when he is almost blinded by coal dust, and later, telegrams. In the latter job he meets his first love, and first lover, Theresa, the consumptive daughter in one of the houses he visits regularly. She introduces him to the joys of the flesh, and her death has a greater impact on him than that of his siblings.
The family, evicted from their shambolic slum, move to the home of a cousin of Angela’s where she becomes first their ‘benefactor’s body servant, and later his mistress, though perhaps whore might be more accurate. This is the most humiliating part of Frank’s youth – he is old enough to resent the man, who is portrayed as disgusting, gluttonous, and a wholesale villain (and no doubt he appeared so to the teenaged Frank), but too young to support the family without help. He suffers life there as long as he can bear, until finally he wearies of emptying the man’s stinking chamber-pots, rebels and runs away to stay with a somewhat simpleminded uncle.
Finally, Frank has a stroke of luck. He is employed to help Mrs Leibowitz, the moneylender
, manage her business. It seems that she owns every woman in the vicinity, and Frank simultaneously hates her, and has a sneaking admiration for her. She pays him well, and then does him an immeasurable favour. She dies suddenly, leaving no-one to inherit. Frank, elated, destroys her ledger
, thereby freeing the entire neighbourhood from debt, and appropriates her cash to give him his ticket to America. You can’t judge him harshly – the woman has no heirs, and he has been closer to her than anyone at the end of her life. You can only celebrate
This is a wonderful book, with the power to move the reader to genuine tears and delighted laughter on the same page. It’s a book everyone should read.
Alan Parker’s movie version remains true to McCourt’s book, and is enhanced by superb performances by Robert Carlyle as Malachy, Emily Watson as Angela and especially the three performers Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge, who play Frank from a small boy to a young man. Carlyle, perhaps, has the hardest job, and he gives us a Malachy who, despite his uselessness, manages to retain a modicum of dignity, so that we can see how the family can keep loving him. Even so, it is the boys, appropriately, who are the stars or Angela’s Ashes, and they shine brightly.
Parker captures the bleakness, the damp, the squalor of grinding poverty, and with an interpolation of McCourt’s words here and there, narrated by Andrew Bennett, he even manages to hold on to some of the humour and wit.
However, the film can’t help but be darker than the book, harder to get through – by making the portrayal accurate, Parker puts us in there with Frank McCourt, and we can’t help suffering along with him. However, we have to do it without the distance of survival and later success which allows the book to be affectionate about the whole horrible experience. It’s a very, very good movie, but it’s tough, and it’s not for everyone.