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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Angela's Ashes!