Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt
  • Study Guide

Chapter I

Summary Chapter I


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.