‘Angela’s Ashes’ is a semi-autobiographical memoir written by Frank McCourt, who recounts the struggles of his childhood with his mother, Angela, serving as the main protagonist of the plot, who strives to keep the family together through all odds. Born Angela Sheehan, Mrs. McCourt meets his future husband in New York when both migrate separately to the States looking for work. Malachy McCourt was born in Toome, County Antrim from Ireland; he is persuaded to marry the young Angela, who is from Limerick, when she becomes pregnant with Frank due to their romance. Frank is born in 1930 and the following next year, Malachy Jr. is also born. Altogether, the McCourts have five children in New York with the twins, Eugene and Oliver born in 1932 and a daughter, Margaret, in 1935.
While living in New York, the family encounters several hardships, mainly due to Malachy’s drinking problem which continually leads him to spend all his earned money at pubs, in a post Depression era where finding a good job is hard enough. The children suffer from poverty, leading to severe malnutrition. The family is situated in Brooklyn and a desperate Angela seeks the help of her neighbors in order to be able to feed her family. Despite her incessant attempts, due to negligence, baby Margaret dies shortly after her birth, and the grief stricken Angela falls in a depression. The death of Margaret leads to a dramatic turn in the story; the family decides to move back to Ireland in hope of a fresh start. They locate to Limerick, Angela’s hometown, where her mother assists the McCourt family in finding a home for them. She is, however, in disapproval of the current status of her daughter, who she believes, is stuck with a no-good husband.
Angela, who was pregnant at the time of the shift to Ireland, loses her unborn child while Malachy continues with his wayward habits. Things don’t change and the twins, Eugene and Oliver die from malnutrition and pneumonia respectively, six months from each other, in a household where the entire family has to sleep in one mattress that is full of fleas and the house occasionally floods when there is rain. Meanwhile, the two surviving sons, Frank and Malachy enroll in the Leamy’s National School and the family moves to a new flat. For some time, while Angela is still recovering from her miscarriage and the death of their children, Malachy sobers up and takes charge of the household. Franks reminisces about the fleeting good memories he had of his father who recounted the great tales of the Irish heroes in song verses.
In 1936, Angela gives birth again, this time to a son who is named Michael. The new flat is not much of a promotion since it is located beside the street’s sewage pipes. After Michael’s birth, authorities come looking to investigate the conditions of the McCourt household. They agree that the McCourts are not responsible to raise children.
Frank and Malachy Jr. are initially given a hard time at school since they were born in New York City but gradually in school, Frank flourishes, showing specially an aptitude for reading and writing. At the age of ten, he eagerly prepares for his confirmation while his mother has yet another baby, another son whom she names Alphonsus, or Alphie. Frank is distraught to notice that his father has spend all of the new baby’s baptismal money presents at various pubs and is conflicted in between loving his sober father and despising the drunken slob he turns into so quickly. Soon after the Confirmation, Franks falls ill with typhoid fever and is hospitalized for almost four months. During his time at the hospital, he befriends a girl who is suffering from diphtheria who is fond of reading the works of Shakespeare. Although she dies of her illness, she leaves Frank to be mesmerized by the words of the great writer, to such an extent that after being released from care, instead of staying back one grade, Frank impresses his school with his articulation, and is allowed to return to his original grade. Soon, dreams of returning to his birthplace and achieving literary success enters Frank’s mind.
The Second World War strikes upon the towns of Ireland and Malachy leaves to work in England at the factories, promising to send portions of his wages home to his family. However, although he does leaves like so many other Irish men, his wages never make its way back to his family unlike the rest of the country’s households. Only once does he send three pounds to his wife but the money stops coming after the first time. The McCourts sink deeper into poverty and Angela resorts to begging in the streets outside the Church to feed her growing sons. This causes her to fall ill and Frank, as the older son, has to take up her burdens. He does not beg but he resorts to stealing food and milk from houses in the richer neighborhoods.
As the war stresses on, the McCourt boys grow older with Frank being the main breadwinner of the house now. In addition to the public aid the family receives, wages come from Frank’s many jobs, such as delivering coal for his neighbor, Mr. Hannon. He also works as a newspaper delivery boy as well as working at the post office as the messenger boy. He reads the news for a Mr. Timoney for some meager pay and writes letters for a Mrs. Finucane. Far from being demotivated by the deplorable conditions of his family, he is in high spirits and works enthusiastically for these small wages, proud of his contribution towards the economy of the McCourt family.
At one Christmas, Malachy returns home from his work at the factories and stays a few days with his family. He leaves then and it is stated that the family never sees him again. Although Frank odes his best to support his mother and brothers, catastrophe occurs when one of the house’s wall is burnt and the family is kicked out in the streets. Now absolutely desperate, Angela takes refuge with her cousin, Laman Griffin, who offers to take in her family although he treats them with despise, especially Frank. Frank learns that his mother has begun an affair with her cousin and this creates a drift between the two. Due to Frank’s stellar grades, his teachers advise his mother to let him try to get admission at a high school so he can eventually qualify for a university but even though Frank is highly eligible, his impoverished background stands in his way and he is not accepted to attend high school by the education authorities.
The animosity between Frank and Laman reaches to such a point that after being beaten black and blue, Frank takes shelter under his uncle Pat’s home who lives by himself now that Frank’s grandmother has died. His wife buys their nephew new clothes and it is arranged for him to earn a pound a week at the telegram office. Soon, Angela and the other children move into her brother’s home, freeing herself from the tyrannies of Laman. Frank is older now and earns enough that he is able to put meals on the table as well as putting aside a few pennies each week for a one-way trip to America. Now that he is older, he gradually begins to form sexual urges but is confused since these thoughts are against the teachings of the Catholic Church. During his job at the telegram office, he meets a girl named Theresa who is suffering from tuberculosis. She is aware of the fact that she is soon to die and makes love to Frank, who is devastated at her demise afterwards. He is ridden with guilt and asks for forgiveness to God, confessing to a priest who assuages his doubts about being the cause of Theresa’s death.
All the while, Frank slowly raises money to assist his move to America, penny by penny. While he is working as a debt collector for Mrs. Finucane at the age of nineteen, she dies one night so Frank takes the opportunity to rob her money and lose the ledger she kept all the accounts in, freeing the debts of many poor people who owed her money. Now that he has enough money to go to America, he buys a ticket and boards the ship, the Irish Oak after one last farewell party in Ireland. He arrives in Albany at a stop to New York and comes down to attend a party where he has an encounter with a woman named Freida. He has sex with her without feeling guilty about it and for the first time since his arrival, he starts to let loose and dare to hope about an uncertain future, having left behind his past with his family back in Ireland. He stands with his shipmates and admires the beauty of America.