Angela’s Ashes

by: Frank McCourt

Chapter VIII

Frank feels mixed emotions about his father. He dislikes it when Malachy drinks his dole money, but he loves his mornings alone with his father, when they read the paper and talk; he loves the stories his father tells. In this chapter, Malachy talks for the first time about school, telling Frank how in the old days the English closed Irish schools in order to keep the people ignorant, and how the Irish attended school secretly, in ditches. He also tells Frank that if he could, he would go to America and get an office job, saying, “America is not like Limerick, a gray place with a river that kills.”

Except for the protagonist’s return to the hospital to eat Christmas dinner, the rest of this chapter focuses on the terrible odors emanating from the lavatory right outside the McCourts’ door. Along with these smells, the family is plagued by rats and flies. Frank is saddened by the death of Finn the Horse, who lived in the stable close to his house.

Analysis

Running through this chapter is a current of anti-English sentiment. McCourt implies that as Frank grows older, he becomes increasingly aware of how much the grown-ups around him detest the English. Seamus thinks it’s a shame that Frank is reading a history of England, and that there are no histories of Ireland in the hospital. The nurse speaks of the “children suffering and dying here while the English feasted on roast beef and guzzled the best of wine in their big houses, little children with their mouths all green from trying to eat the grass in the fields beyond.” Despite the constant display of anti-English sentiment, this chapter also marks the first expression of an evenhanded examination of English-Irish relations. Mr. O’Halloran’s admission that the Irish committed atrocities is the first such admission Frank has heard, and it shocks him.

Another theme of this chapter is storytelling. It is now that Frank discovers the deliciousness of stories, and fiction bursts into bloom like a garden with all varieties of flowers: a line of Shakespeare, a history of England, a poem read from a book, a pub song, articles in the newspaper, Irish history, social satires by P. G. Wodehouse, fantastical stories from Malachy, and a sharp and touching essay by Frank. This outpouring of fiction is the autobiography’s first display of riches or abundance of any kind, and it comes as a relief to Frank and to the reader.

When Patricia dies, Frank is less disturbed by the fact of her death than by the fact that she will not be able to tell him how “The Highwayman” ends. His reaction to her death may seem callous, but it reminds the reader that Frank has had much more exposure to death than he has to poetry, and so for him, poetry is more powerful and moving even than death.

Frank’s understanding of his father continues to grow. When talking of his mixed feelings for Malachy, he says, “I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.” Frank demonstrates both that he understands his father and that he understands a subtle point of Catholic theology, which holds that God is three people in one—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.