Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In the opening lines of his memoir, McCourt ascribes some of the sorrow he endured as a child to “the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.” Most of the adult characters in the memoir condemn past English invasions of Ireland and contemporary English repression of the Irish. Frank is brought up assuming that the English are essentially immoral and evil. He is taught from the start that Ireland thrived before the English came and spoiled their way of life. Once, when his father is outside trying to beat the fleas out of a mattress, a passerby watches and says that there were no fleas in “ancient Ireland”—the English brought them over to drive the Irish “out of our wits entirely.” “I wouldn’t put it past the English,” he adds. A revealing turn occurs when Frank hears Mr. O’Halloran say that the Irish, as well as the English, committed atrocities in battle. From this point on, Frank starts to question the assumption that Irishmen versus Englishmen means good versus evil.
As a young child, Frank loves listening to his father’s boundless repertoire of stories and folktales. Often Malachy returns from the bar drunk and gregarious, telling stories of the lives of great Irish heroes, or of neighbors who live down the lane. Song has a important place in Irish culture, and bits and pieces of rhymes from old tunes pervade Angela’s Ashes. Most of the songs tell of better days gone by and express regret at joy remembered in times of grave suffering. Lines like “Oh, for one of those hours of gladness, gone, alas, like our youth too soon” resound throughout the memoir. Frank later finds comfort in hearing Shakespeare, P. D. Wodehouse, and songs and poems read aloud by his friends and family.
Throughout his childhood, Frank is burdened by guilt at his own sinfulness, particularly the sinfulness of his sexual thoughts and behavior. He frequently worries that he is damned or that he has damned other people. McCourt suggests that his guilt results primarily from his Catholicism. In the days of Frank’s childhood, priests tirelessly cautioned against the evils of masturbation and sex—their admonishments haunt Frank’s thoughts. As he matures, Frank learns to use Confession to relieve himself of guilt, and he stops feeling doomed by his natural sexual impulses.