As the title says, it’s an account of the author’s childhood in improvished Ireland. One wonders how he managed to survive at all (I’ve inadvertently paraphrased the author’s words) — here’s the second para of the opening page:

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood… Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

On the same page, the third para just about sums up the essence of the book:

“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bully schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Above all — we were wet.”

One does not have to be Irish or poor to appreciate this book. It’s one of those “unputdownables” (I didn’t invent this word!) — you just keep looking forward to the next page, and the next, and when the story finally ends you feel a twinge of sadness that the tale has ended.

The writing style is conversational, spiced with colloquiums and laced with self-effacing humour. McCourt coveys the poverty, injustice and bleakness without moralising.

Some who read the story may feel genuine sadness in the death of his siblings. Or baulk over the terrible living conditions; feel a sense of injustice in the mockery of the poor by those who think that they are of a higher station. We may share a sense of brotherly pride when we read how the young ones share what little they have with each other. Perhaps we may laugh with the young Frank when he worries over what to tell the priest over his first confessional.

We may even find voyeuristic embarrassment over his discovery of what might be real love, as well as his fumbling explorations of his developing (but dogmatically repressed) adolescent sexuality. It wouldn’t surprise me if we share his anger and hate over the man who took advantage of his mother’s vulnerability.

A tragic and sad story, no doubt, yet ultimately it’s really a story of hope. What makes it remarkable is that it’s a real human story — at least I don’t doubt a word of McCourt’s account of his childhood. Even if parts of it were made up, it made such wonderful reading that I can’t imagine him making any part up. I can understand why it won the 1997 Pulitzer.

Angela’s Ashes: A memoir of a childhood/ Frank McCourt
Call No.: 929.20899162073 MAC (General Non-Fiction section)

RELATED BOOKS available at NLB libraries:

  • coverThe sequel — ‘Tis: A memoir (Call No.: 974.710049162 MAC) — is also an excellent read. It continues his story of his further coming-of-age in 1949 U.S.A.
  • coverAnother related book: A monk swimming by Malachy McCourt, brother of Frank McCourt (Call No.: 304.873 MAC)

At the time of this post, all 3 titles mentioned were available at NLB libraries, under the General Non-Fiction section.