Angela's Ashes is Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up in New York and Limerick in the 1930s and 1940s. As he says, "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood".
His parents, Angela and Malachy, meet in Brooklyn, New York at the height of the Depression. They marry when Angela is pregnant with Frank, their first child of seven. Another pregnancy soon follows and Angela struggles to make ends meet as her alcoholic husband spends his wages on drink. When Frank's much-loved baby sister dies and Malachy falls out of work, the McCourts return to Ireland.
Unable to find work in Belfast or Dublin, the family moved to Angela's hometown, Limerick. Their fortunes do not improve and they have to live in a damp, stinking, flea and rat-infested tenement. Frank's twin brothers die of pneumonia in the squalid surroundings of the slum, while Malachy continues to drink his meagre wages. Finally, he decides to go to England to find work, leaving Angela and her four surviving sons in desperate need. At first, he sends a little money home, but this does not last for long.
At ten, Frank falls ill with typhoid and has to stay in hospital for months. Here, he has a chance to read, anything and everything. He is introduced to Shakespeare by another patient, a girl who is dying of diptheria. Although he cannot understand the verse, he writes "it's like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words." It was his father who first gave him this love of language, story-telling and songs, with his tales of Irish heroes, foreign lands and the people who lived in their slum.
At 13, Frank leaves school and takes any job he can find - reading to an eccentric blind man, and delivering telegrams, newspapers and coal. Angela is sometimes forced to beg to keep her family from starving, and Frank steals what he can. However, neither of them can save the family from being evicted.
The family move in with Angela's cousin, Laman, who offers them a roof over their heads in return for sexual favours from Angela, a bargain Frank finds hard to tolerate. He is confused by his feelings of disgust and guilt about his mother which are tied up with his own adolescent sexual feelings.
Finally, Frank saves enough money for a passage to New York and the memoir ends on a note of optimism.