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.
As Angela’s Ashes opens, Frank describes how his parents meet and marry in New York, then eventually move back to Ireland with their four sons. He characterizes his upbringing as a typical “miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” complete with a drunken father and a downtrodden, browbeaten mother. He tells of Limerick’s interminable rain, which spreads disease throughout the town.
Frank then backtracks and tells the story of his mother and father’s lives before the birth of their children. Malachy McCourt, Frank’s father, grows up in the north of Ireland, fights for the Old IRA, and commits a crime (unspecified by the narrator) for which a price is placed on his head. Malachy escapes to America to avoid being killed. After indulging his drinking habit in the States and in England for many years, he returns to Belfast, where he drinks tea and waits to die.
Angela Sheehan, Frank’s mother, grows up in a Limerick slum. She is named after the Angelus (midnight bells rung to honor the New Year), because she was born as the bells rang. Her father drops her baby brother on his head and runs off to Australia. Ab Sheehan, Angela’s brother, is never the same after being dropped, but Frank recalls that all of Limerick loved him.
Angela later emigrates to America, where she meets Malachy, who had just served three months in jail for the theft of a truck carrying buttons. Angela becomes pregnant by Malachy. Angela’s cousins, the McNamara sisters, coerce Malachy into marrying Angela. He plots to escape the marriage by moving to California, but he foils his own plot by spending his train fare at the pub. The McNamara sisters mock Malachy for his strange ways and intimate that he has a “streak of the Presbyterian” in him. Frank is born and baptized, and is joined a year later by a brother, Malachy. A couple of years later, Angela gives birth to twin boys, Eugene and Oliver.
The rest of the chapter describes the difficulties and the joys of Frank’s early childhood in New York. Frank remembers playing with Malachy in the park near their home, and listening to his father’s patriotic songs and folk tales. He recalls particularly liking one story about a great Irish warrior named Cuchulain, and jealously guarding this story as his own. Even though Frank’s father loves his children, he constantly drinks and loses jobs. He often spends his wages at the pub, and as a result Angela has no money to buy dinner for her children.
Angela has a beautiful daughter, Margaret, who inspires Malachy to stop drinking for a while, but by the end of the chapter Margaret dies. The death of her daughter drives Angela into a state of depression and causes her to neglect her children. Despite the best attempts of two of the McCourts’ neighbors, Mrs. Leibowitz and Minnie McAdorey, the situation does not improve. The women decide to inform Delia and Philomena McNamara of their cousin’s troubles. The McNamara sisters write to Angela’s mother, asking for money to pay for the McCourts’ passage back to Ireland. The chapter ends with four-year-old Frank watching as his mother vomits over the side of the ship and the Statue of Liberty recedes in the distance.
McCourt’s wry humor undercuts the bleakness of his early years, as he jokes that a happy childhood “is hardly worth your while.” In spite of the hardship he endured, Frank remembers the occasional happiness of his childhood in New York, playing with boys from the neighborhood and listening to his father’s tales of Ireland. The introductory paragraphs of Angela’s Ashes help to distinguish Frank, the child telling his story in the present tense, from McCourt, the grown man looking back on his life with the informed perspective of an adult.
McCourt interrupts the flow of his narrative with snippets of folk songs and old Irish tales, so that Ireland seems eternally present in the world of New York. The theme of telling tales, and the impact tales have on Frank, returns throughout the novel. The narrator comes to depend on these imaginative excursions to provide insulation from the cold realities of his life. Frank is fascinated by Freddie Leibowitz’s tale of Samson, and is highly protective of his own and all the neighboring children’s right to individual stories. For instance, he scolds his brother Malachy for singing a song that Frank thinks belongs to Maisie MacAdorey. Also, Frank’s tale of Cuchulain unites him with his father. The narrator suggests that in a world where material possessions are scarce, ownership of songs and stories is crucial.
Malachy’s alcoholism—referred to only half-jokingly as the “Curse of the Irish”—runs through this chapter. Frank recalls only one period of respite from Malachy’s incessant drinking: the few weeks following Margaret’s birth. The happiness of the McCourt family around this time is poignant in contrast to the despair they endure after the baby’s death. Angela, until this point a gritty, loving, and responsible mother, is made miserable by the death. Food brought by kind neighbors becomes a solace to Frank in his physical and emotional state of need. However, even as he relishes Mrs. Leibowitz’s soup, the boy wishes that his baby sister could be there to enjoy it too. Such details shape our reaction to Frank as much as they inform us of the events of his early childhood. Frank comes across as loving, intelligent, and deeply sensitive to the emotions of those around him.
McCourt conveys his childhood impressions of New York with sensitivity and humor, while remaining true to the language and sentiments of a four-year-old boy. For example, McCourt describes his twin brothers’ diapers as “shitty” and includes all the silly jokes he can recall sharing with his brother Malachy. McCourt’s word choice and humor in this introductory chapter create a tone that is both knowing and naïve.