Angela’s Ashes and the holy terror of a word.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is a beautiful remembrance of what seems to have been a battle won against poverty. Winner of Pultizer Prize, it is rightfully a competitor of Dickens. It reminds you even so of ‘A tree grows in Brooklyn ‘ by Betty Smith.
” ’tis a sad day for the men of Ireland when they need a bird to tell them a man is dead. “
We are narrated in an authentic Irish tone that only so much as delves in innocence. It is the story of how Frank leaves Brooklyn with his parents and siblings to return to Ireland after their sister Margaret dies, leaving his parents in a demented state, unable to put themselves back together.
” I have to make up dances and tunes to go with them the way I did a long time ago when I was young. I dance around the room with one shoe because I forgot to take it off. I try to make up words, oh, the walls of Limerick are falling down, falling down. falling down, the walls of Limerick are falling down and the River Shannon kills us. Mr. Clohessy is laughing in the bed, oh, jaysus, I never heard likes o’ that on land or sea. “
They live in a constant state of poverty because their father has a major drinking problem and fails to keep a job for longer than a week. What he earns barely survives his trip to the pub.
When they return to Ireland, they live in unhygienic conditions. They have very little to nothing to eat and drink. Angela’s Ashes seems to be telling you the tale of the unprivileged straight from the bouts of hunger. It is a tale of how people grow into adults living off of only tea and bread. Its a tale of how many people you lose, even if you do survive. The characters are real enough that you feel the void when they are no longer.
We see undying resilience and sacrifice in Angela Sheehan, who set foot in America because she was doomed to do no better. We see in her echoes of a dancing talent that never quite lived when the damp of River Shannon set in and she lost child after child.
We see Malachy McCourt, the father from North of Ireland that the South of Ireland can tolerate less than an English. We see his drinking episodes that end in him singing nauseating songs of his time as a soldier and waking his sons in the middle of the night to make them promise that they’d give their life for Ireland. We see his incapacity to keep his family fed but this man isn’t cruel. He is unlike the abusive slobs that you expect when poverty and alcohol come together. This man has very little wrong with him besides the drink. He raises his children to be faithful, kind and educated. He encourages them to do better with their lives than he did. Malachy McCourt is his own wreck but he isn’t the worst father.
” In a large ledger she gives me the names and addresses of six customers behind in their payments. Threaten ’em, by. Frighten the life out of ’em.
My First Letter.
Dear Mrs. O’Brien,
Inasmuch as you have not seem fit to pay me what you owe me I may be forced to resort to legal action. There’s your son Michael, parading around the world in his new suit which I paid for while I myself have barely a crust to keep my body and soul together. I am sure you don’t want to languish in the dungeons of Limerick jail far from friends and family.
I remain, your in litigious anticipation,
Mrs. Brigid Finucane.
She tells me, That’s a powerful letter, by, better than anything you read in the Limerick Leader. That word, inasmuch, that’s a holy terror of a word. What does it mean?
I think it means this is your last chance. “
There is Frank with a terrible innocence that not Limerick, not Shannon, not any door that was slammed on him could take away. We read his memoir to find layers of fascination, curiosity and when we least expect it, gratitude. Angela’s Ashes is him reading to us a tale of how he starved, and how he lost his brothers, how he lived despite the typhoid when his family and friends died from pneumonia and the ‘galloping consumption’ and the many classes of disease that found no distinction between the evident rich and poor, Protestant or Catholic, English or Irish. Yet we find him in his books and in his dream of going to America, bringing the home the wage and becoming a man but never really blighting the way he saw his father.
” I had God glued 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 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. “
Angela’s Ashes will you bring you the Limerick view on The Great Depression, on how Roosevelt was probably a good man, how the great war wasn’t Ireland’s problem and the English had it coming after what they did to Ireland for 800 long years. It is the tale of how Shakespeare found himself a fan base in the slums of Limerick, the holiest city of Ireland playing from a radio to blind women.
” I did not like the jackdaws that perched on the trees and gravestones and I did not want to leave Oliver with them. I threw a rock at the jackdaw that waddled over towards Oliver’s grave. Dad said I shouldn’t throw stones at jackdaws, they might be somebody’s soul. I didn’t know what a soul was but I didn’t care. Oliver was dead and I hated jackdaws. I’d be a man someday and I’d come home back with a bag of rocks and I’d leave the graveyard littered with dead jackdaws. “
It is a tale of the angel on the seventh step that brought Frank new siblings after the ones he had were taken away. The angel who told him not to be afraid.
It is prominent tale of hunger and how the how where you least expect it people share the last cigarette, the last slice of bread and sometimes even a sherry. It is the story of people who steal lemonade for their sick mother and bring home sick dogs that they give their supper to even if its the only one they’ve had in a while. It is the story of a kid who took Gulliver’s Travels to read to someone in the asylum and if I can’t sell it to you with that, you’re stupid.
” The worst thing in the world is to sleeping in your dead grandmother’s bed wearing her black dress when your uncle The Abbot falls of his arse outside the South’s pub after a night of drinking pints and people who can’t mind their own business rush to Aunt Aggie’s house to tell her so that she gets Uncle Pa Keating to help her carry The Abbot home and upstairs to where you are sleeping and she barks at you, What are you doin’ in this house, in that bed? Get up and put on the kettle for tea for your poor uncle Pat that fell down, and when you don’t move she pulls the blankets and falls backwards like one seeing a ghost and yelling Mother o’ God what are you doin’ in me dead mother’s dress? “
Angela’s Ashes broke the scale and I am forever grateful that this gem exists.