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Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes

Frank McCourt opens his novel, Angela's Ashes, with a startling statement: "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." Here he recounts his childhood memories from Limerick in the 1930's and early 40's.

Crowded Street in Limerick, Ireland in the 1920s
A crowded street in Limerick, Ireland in the 1920s

Frank McCourt (1930 - 2009) was an American Irish writer and teacher. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, during the Depression years. His parents, Angela and Malachy were poor Irish immigrants. As the Depression really took hold, it became impossible for his parents to make a living in the New World, and they had to swallow their pride and return to Limerick, Ireland. Here the McCourts sank even lower into poverty and had to face humiliation and prejudice. Frank's father with his background from Northern Ireland is met with hostility and suspicion in the newly founded Republic and the refuge he seeks in alcohol does not make it any easier. Angela's Ashes (1997) is the story as observed by Frank, about his poverty-stricken family from the early 1930's until Frank returns to the USA as an eighteen year old. It was adapted to film in 2000.

From New york to Limerick and Back, 43:24

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From New York to Limerick and Back, 43:24

From New York to Limerick and Back - Tasks

These tasks are based on NRK's recording of From New York to Limerick and Back and Frank McCourt's autobiographical novel, Angela's Ashes. The recording contains the author's notes and excerpts from the novel.

Part 1

Comprehension

Discuss

  1. What makes Frank say that "the miserable Irish Catholic childhood" is the worst of all childhoods? Do you agree?
  2. Push and pull factors are often mentioned in context with immigration. Based on the text, what do you think were the McCourts' push factors that eventually led to their departure from Brooklyn and return to Limerick, and what were the pull factors? If you want further information about push and pull factors, try this link:

    Waves of Immigration

  3. Compare the life of the family in Brooklyn with their situation when they returned to Ireland. What do you think made it so difficult to cope in Limerick?

Find out

  1. Use the web to trace the background of Frank's father (Malachy McCourt) from County Antrim and Frank's mother from Limerick (her maiden name was Angela Sheehan).
  2. Compare the background information about Frank's parents. How do their backgrounds differ?
  3. Use your findings about Frank's father and his background from the North. What makes him an outsider in the south (the Republic of Ireland)?
  4. Frank's father is obsessed with Irish heroes. Study the text and find information about his heroes. What does this reveal about Irish history?

Part 2

Comprehension

  1. How does Frank's mother cope with her situation? Take into account her attitude to
    • the church
    • charity organisations
    • her husband
  2. Unable to find work in Limerick, Frank's father decides to go to England to work in the munitinions industry during the war.
    1. What makes this a hard decision for him?
    2. How does he justify it?
    3. Describe the plight of his family while he is England.
  3. Frank helps out.
    1. What happens to Frank while his father is in England?
    2. How is he able to help out his own family?
    3. What advice does he get from Mr Hannon, his employer?

Tasks Based on the Whole Text

Literary Analysis

  1. What is the point of view in Angela's Ashes? How does that affect the text? Can we trust the protagonist's judgements?
  2. Analyse how Frank looks upon his parents.

See Characters and Characterization and Point of View in the link collection.

Find Out

  1. Information about the political division of Ireland and why the country was divided in 1922.
  2. What is the present situation?
  3. Limerick is not only a place name. What else is it? Explain.

Write

  1. Use impressions from your study of From New York to Limerick and Back as a source of inspiration to compose your own limerick.
  2. In an exam paper from 2006 the candidates were given the assignments provided below. It refers to "Vedlegg", but you can use From New York to Limerick and Back as a basis for your work.

Frank McCourt, a son of Irish immigrants to America, was born in New York, but his family decided to move back to Limerick when he was a small child. After years of misery in Limerick he decided to return to the country where he was born.

  • Based on the text extracts in "Vedlegg" and your knowledge of immigration to the English speaking world, explain the protagonist's contrasting illustrations of Limerick and New York.
  • Write an article where you discuss problems and opportunities facing poor immigrants living in the USA or the UK today.

(Utdrag fra Utdanningsdirektoratet, eksamensoppgaver V06, engelsk 1+2)

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