Writer’s Wednesday: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt became an almost instant bestseller when it was first published in 1996, and has won the Pulitzer Price, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Royal Society of Literature Award (amongst others). I think I watched the movie years ago, but I can’t remember much of it.
Finally picked up the book though, and it is beautifully and lyrically written, funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
When I look back at my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
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; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Above all – we were wet.
Born in New York in 1930 to a mum from Limerick and a dad from the North, his family was forced to move back to Ireland because of his dad’s alcoholism and the poverty it caused. Things didn’t get better back in Ireland though:
…On our way to school Leamy’s boys laugh at us because the tire pieces are so thick they add a few inches to our height and the boys say, How’s the air up there? There are six or seven barefoot boys in my class and they don’t say anything and I wonder if it’s better to have shoes with rubber tires that make you trip and stumble or to go barefoot. If you have no shoes at all you’ll have all the barefoot boys on your side. If you have rubber tires on your shoes you’re all alone with your brother and you have to fight your own battles…
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 the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.
I feel sad over the bad thing but I can’t back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father and if I were in America I could say, I love you, Dad, the way they do in the films, but you can’t say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at . You’re allowed to say you love God and babies and horses that win but anything else is a softness in the head.
We go to school through lanes and back streets so that we won’t meet the respectable boys who go to the Christian Brothers’ School or the rich ones who go to the Jesuit school, Crescent College. The Christian Brothers’ boys wear tweed jackets, warm woolen sweaters, shirts, ties and shiny new boots. We know they’re the ones who will get jobs in the civil service and help the people who run the world. The Crescent College boys wear blazers and school scarves tossed around their necks and over their shoulders to show they’re the cock o’ the walk. They have long hair which falls across their foreheads and over their eyes so that they can toss their quiffs like Englishmen. We know they’re the ones who will go to university, take over the family business, run the government, run the world. We’ll be the messenger boys on bicycles who deliver their groceries or we’ll go to England to work on the building sites. Our sisters will mind their children and scrub their floors unless they go off to England, too. We know that. We’re ashamed of the way we look and if boys from the rich schools pass remarks we’ll get into a fight and wind up with bloody noses or torn clothes. Our masters will have no patience with us and our fights because their sons go to the rich schools and, Ye have no right to raise your hands to a better class of people so ye don’t.
But somehow McCourt manages to mix the tragic with the comedic, so half the time you don’t know whether to laugh or cry:
We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time to see the last of the boys leaving the altar rail where the priest stood with the chalice and the host, glaring at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and blood of jesus. At last, at last.
It’s on my tongue. I draw it back.
I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master’s voice, Don’t let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you’ll roast in hell for eternity.
I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat.
God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.
I look out the back window to make sure the evening sun is drying my clothes. Other backyards have lines with clothes that are bright and colorful and dance in the wind. Mine hang from the line like dead dogs.
The sun is bright but it’s cold and damp in the house and I wish I had something to wear in the bed. I have no other clothes and if I touch anything of The Abbot’s he’ll surely run to Aunt Auggie. All I can find in the wardrobe is Grandma’s old black woolen dress. You’re not supposed to wear your Grandmother’s old dress when she’s dead and you’re a boy but what does it matter if it keeps you warm and you’re in bed under the blankets where no one will ever know. The dress has the smell of old dead grandmother and I worry she might rise from the grave and curse me before the whole family and all assembled. I pray to St. Francis, ask him to keep her in the grave where she belongs, promise him a candle when I start my job, remind him the robe he wore himself wasn’t too far from a dress and no one ever tormented him over it and fall asleep with the image of his face in my dream.
The worst thing in the world is to be sleeping in your dead grandmother’s bed wearing her black dress when your uncle The Abbott falls on his arse outside South’s pub after a night of drinking pints and people who can’t mind their own business rush to Aunt Aggie’s house to tell her so that she gets Uncle Pa Keating to help her carry The Abbott home and upstairs to where you’re sleeping and she barks at you, What are you doin’ in this house, in that bed? Get up and put on the kettle for tea for your poor uncle Pat that fell down, and when you don’t move she pulls the blankets and falls backward like one seeing a ghost and yelling Mother o’God what are you doin’ in me dead mother’s dress?
That’s the worst thing of all because it’s hard to explain that you’re getting ready for the big job in your life, that you washed your clothes, they’re drying abroad on the line, and it was so cold you had to wear the only thing you could find in the house, and it’s even harder to talk to Aunt Aggie when The Abbot is groaning in the bed, Me feet is like a fire, put water on me feet, and Uncle Pa Keating is covering his mouth with his hand and collapsing against the wall laughing and telling you that you look gorgeous and black suits you and would you ever straighten your hem. You don’t know what to do when Aunt Aggie tells you, Get out of that bed and put the kettle on downstairs for tea for your poor uncle. Should you take off the dress and put on a blanket or should you go as you are? One minute she’s screaming, What are you doin’ in me poor mother’s dress? the next she’s telling you put on that bloody kettle. I tell her I washed my clothes for the big job.
What big job?
Telegram boy at the post office.
She says if the post office is hiring the likes of you they must be in a desperate way altogether, go down and put on that kettle.
The next worst thing is to be out in the backyard filling the kettle from the tap with the moon beaming away and Kathleen Purcell from next door perched up on the wall looking for her cat. God, Frankie McCourt, what are you doin’ in your grandmother’s dress? and you have to stand there in the dress with the kettle in your hand and explain how you washed your clothes which are hanging there on the line for all to see and you were so cold in the bed you put on your grandmother’s dress and your uncle Pat, The Abbot, fell down and was brought home by Aunt Aggie and her husband, Pa Keating, and she drove you into the backyard to fill this kettle and you’ll take off this dress as soon as ever your clothes are dry because you never had any desire to go through life in your dead grandmother’s dress.
Now Kathleen Purcell lets out a scream, falls of the wall, forgets the cat and you can hear her giggling into her blond mother. Mammy, Mammy, wait till I tell you about Frankie McCourt abroad in the backyard in his dead grandmother’s dress. You know that once Kathleen Purcell gets a bit of scandal the whole lane will know it before morning, and you might as well stick your head out the window and make a general announcement about yourself and the dress problem.
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