My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.
When I look back on 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.
Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling, on the chest.
From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week's wages.
The rain drove us into the church -- our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.
Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.
My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head.
When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anyone would give money for a head like that. When I was thirteen my father's mother told me a secret: as a wee lad your poor father was dropped on his head. It was an accident, he was never the same after, and you must remember that people dropped on their heads can be a bit peculiar.
Because of the price on the head he had been dropped on, he had to be spirited out of Ireland via cargo ship from Galway. In New York, with Prohibition in full swing, he thought he had died and gone to hell for his sins. Then he discovered speakeasies and he rejoiced.
After wandering and drinking in America and England he yearned for peace in his declining years. He returned to Belfast, which erupted all around him. He said, A pox on all their houses, and chatted with the ladies of Andersontown. They tempted him with delicacies but he waved them away and drank his tea. He no longer smoked or touched alcohol, so what was the use? It was time to go and he died in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
My mother, the former Angela Sheehan, grew up in a Limerick slum with her mother, two brothers, Thomas and Patrick, and a sister, Agnes. She never saw her father, who had run off to Australia weeks before her birth.
After a night of drinking porter in the pubs of Limerick he staggers down the lane singing his favorite song,
Who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?
Nobody spoke so he said it all the louder
It's a dirty Irish trick and I can lick the Mick
Who threw the overalls in Murphy's chowder.
He's in great form altogether and he thinks he'll play a while with little Patrick, one year old. Lovely little fella. Loves his daddy. Laughs when Daddy throws him up in the air. Upsy daisy, little Paddy, upsy daisy, up in the air in the dark, so dark, oh, Jasus, you miss the child on the way down and poor little Patrick lands on his head, gurgles a bit, whimpers, goes quiet. Grandma heaves herself from the bed, heavy with the child in her belly, my mother. She's barely able to lift little Patrick from the floor. She moans a long moan over the child and turns on Grandpa. Get out of it. Out. If you stay here a minute longer I'll take the hatchet to you, you drunken lunatic. By Jesus, I'll swing at the end of a rope for you. Get out.
Grandpa stands his ground like a man. I have a right, he says, to stay in me own house.
She runs at him and he melts before this whirling dervish with a damaged child in her arms and a healthy one stirring inside. He stumbles from the house, up the lane, and doesn't stop till he reaches Melbourne in Australia.
Little Pat, my uncle, was never the same after. He grew up soft in the head with a left leg that went one way, his body the other. He never learned to read or write but God blessed him in another way. When he started to sell newspapers at the age of eight he could count money better than the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself. No one knew why he was called Ab Sheehan, The Abbot, but all Limerick loved him.
My mother's troubles began the night she was born. There is my grandmother in the bed heaving and gasping with the labor pains, praying to St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of expectant mothers. There is Nurse O'Halloran, the midwife, all dressed up in her finery. It's New Year's Eve and Mrs. O'Halloran is anxious for this child to be born so that she can rush off to the parties and celebrations. She tells my grandmother: Will you push, will you, push. Jesus, Mary and holy St. Joseph, if you don't hurry with this child it won't be born till the New Year and what good is that to me with me new dress? Never mind St. Gerard Majella. What can a man do for a woman at a time like this even if he is a saint? St. Gerard Majella my arse.
My grandmother switches her prayers to St. Ann, patron saint of difficult labor. But the child won't come. Nurse O'Halloran tells my grandmother, Pray to St. Jude, patron saint of desperate cases.
St. Jude, patron of desperate cases, help me. I'm desperate. She grunts and pushes and the infant's head appears, only the head, my mother, and it's the stroke of midnight, the New Year. Limerick City erupts with whistles, horns, sirens, brass bands, people calling and singing, Happy New Year. Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and church bells all over ring out the Angelus and Nurse O'Halloran weeps for the waste of a dress, that child still in there and me in me finery. Will you come out, child, will you? Grandma gives a great push and the child is in the world, a lovely girl with black curly hair and sad blue eyes.
Ah, Lord above, says Nurse O'Halloran, this child is a time straddler, born with her head in the New Year and her arse in the Old or was it her head in the Old Year and her arse in the New. You'll have to write to the Pope, missus, to find out what year this child was born in and I'll save this dress for next year.
And the child was named Angela for the Angelus which rang the midnight hour, the New Year, the minute of her coming and because she was a little angel anyway.
Love her as in childhood
Though feeble, old and grey.
For you'll never miss a mother's love
Till she's buried beneath the clay.
At the St. Vincent de Paul School, Angela learned to read, write, and calculate and by her ninth year her schooling was done. She tried her hand at being a charwoman, a skivvy, a maid with a little white hat opening doors, but she could not manage the little curtsy that is required and her mother said, You don't have the knack of it. You're pure useless. Why don't you go to America where there's room for all sorts of uselessness? I'll give you the fare.
She arrived in New York just in time for the first Thanksgiving Day of the Great Depression. She met Malachy at a party given by Dan MacAdorey and his wife, Minnie, on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn. Malachy liked Angela and she liked him. He had a hangdog look, which came from the three months he had just spent in jail for hijacking a truck. He and his friend John McErlaine believed what they were told in the speakeasy, that the truck was packed to the roof with cases of canned pork and beans. Neither knew how to drive and when the police saw the truck lurch and jerk along Myrtle Avenue they pulled it over. The police searched the truck and wondered why anyone would hijack a truck containing, not pork and beans, but cases of buttons.
With Angela drawn to the hangdog look and Malachy lonely after three months in jail, there was bound to be a knee-trembler.
A knee-trembler is the act itself done up against a wall, man and woman up on their toes, straining so hard their knees tremble with the excitement that's in it.
That knee-trembler put Angela in an interesting condition and, of course, there was talk. Angela had cousins, the MacNamara sisters, Delia and Philomena, married, respectively, to Jimmy Fortune of County Mayo, and Tommy Flynn, of Brooklyn itself.
Delia and Philomena were large women, great-breasted and fierce. When they sailed along the sidewalks of Brooklyn lesser creatures stepped aside, respect was shown. The sisters knew what was right and they knew what was wrong and any doubts could be resolved by the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church. They knew that Angela, unmarried, had no right to be in an interesting condition and they would take steps.
Steps they took. With Jimmy and Tommy in tow they marched to the speakeasy on Atlantic Avenue where Malachy could be found on Friday, payday when he had a job. The man in the speak, Joey Cacciamani, did not want to admit the sisters but Philomena told him that if he wanted to keep the nose on his face and that door on its hinges he'd better open up for they were there on God's business. Joey said, Awright, awright, you Irish. Jeezoz! Trouble, trouble.
Malachy, at the far end of the bar, turned pale, gave the great-breasted ones a sickly smile, offered them a drink. They resisted the smile and spurned the offer. Delia said, We don't know what class of a tribe you come from in the North of Ireland.
Philomena said, There is a suspicion you might have Presbyterians in your family, which would explain what you did to our cousin.
Jimmy said, Ah, now, ah, now. 'Tisn't his fault if there's Presbyterians in his family.
Delia said, You shuddup.
Tommy had to join in. What you did to that poor unfortunate girl is a disgrace to the Irish race and you should be ashamed of yourself.
Och, I am, said Malachy. I am.
Nobody asked you to talk, said Philomena. You done enough damage with your blather, so shut your yap.
And while your yap is shut, said Delia, we're here to see you do the right thing by our poor cousin, Angela Sheehan.
Malachy said, Och, indeed, indeed. The right thing is the right thing and I'd be glad to buy you all a drink while we have this little talk.
Take the drink, said Tommy, and shove it up your ass.
Philomena said, Our little cousin no sooner gets off the boat than you are at her. We have morals in Limerick, you know, morals. We're not like jackrabbits from Antrim, a place crawling with Presbyterians.
Jimmy said, He don't look like a Presbyterian.
You shuddup, said Delia.
Another thing we noticed, said Philomena. You have a very odd manner.
Malachy smiled. I do?
You do, says Delia. I think 'tis one of the first things we noticed about you, that odd manner, and it gives us a very uneasy feeling.
'Tis that sneaky little Presbyterian smile, said Philomena.
Och, said Malachy, it's just the trouble I have with my teeth.
Teeth or no teeth, odd manner or no odd manner, you're gonna marry that girl, said Tommy. Up the middle aisle you're going.
Och, said Malachy, I wasn't planning to get married, you know. There's no work and I wouldn't be able to support...
Married is what you're going to be, said Delia.
Up the middle aisle, said Jimmy.
You shuddup, said Delia.
Malachy watched them leave. I'm in a desperate pickle, he told Joey Cacciamani.
Bet your ass, said Joey. I see them babes comin' at me I jump inna Hudson River.
Malachy considered the pickle he was in. He had a few dollars in his pocket from the last job and he had an uncle in San Francisco or one of the other California Sans. Wouldn't he be better off in California, far from the great-breasted MacNamara sisters and their grim husbands? He would, indeed, and he'd have a drop of the Irish to celebrate his decision and departure. Joey poured and the drink nearly took the lining off Malachy's gullet. Irish, indeed! He told Joey it was a Prohibition concoction from the devil's own still. Joey shrugged. I don't know nothing. I only pour. Still, it was better than nothing and Malachy would have another and one for yourself, Joey, and ask them two decent Italians what they'd like and what are you talking about, of course, I have the money to pay for it.
He awoke on a bench in the Long Island Railroad Station, a cop rapping on his boots with a nightstick, his escape money gone, the MacNamara sisters ready to eat him alive in Brooklyn.
On the feast of St. Joseph, a bitter day in March, four months after the knee-trembler, Malachy married Angela and in August the child was born. In November Malachy got drunk and decided it was time to register the child's birth. He thought he might name the child Malachy, after himself, but his North of Ireland accent and the alcoholic mumble confused the clerk so much he simply entered the name Male on the certificate.
Not until late December did they take Male to St. Paul's Church to be baptized and named Francis after his father's father and the lovely saint of Assisi. Angela wanted to give him a middle name, Munchin, after the patron saint of Limerick but Malachy said over his dead body. No son of his would have a Limerick name. It's hard enough going through life with one name. Sticking on middle names was an atrocious American habit and there was no need for a second name when you're christened after the man from Assisi.
There was a delay the day of the baptism when the chosen godfather, John McErlaine, got drunk at the speakeasy and forgot his responsibilities. Philomena told her husband, Tommy, he'd have to be godfather. Child's soul is in danger, she said. Tommy put his head down and grumbled. All right. I'll be godfather but I'm not goin' to be responsible if he grows up like his father causin' trouble and goin' through life with the odd manner for if he does he can go to John McErlaine at the speakeasy. The priest said, True for you, Tom, decent man that you are, fine man that never set foot inside a speakeasy. Malachy, fresh from the speakeasy himself, felt insulted and wanted to argue with the priest, one sacrilege on top of another. Take off that collar and we'll see who's the man. He had to be held back by the great-breasted ones and their husbands grim. Angela, new mother, agitated, forgot she was holding the child and let him slip into the baptismal font, a total immersion of the Protestant type. The altar boy assisting the priest plucked the infant from the font and restored him to Angela, who sobbed and clutched him, dripping, to her bosom. The priest laughed, said he had never seen the likes, that the child was a regular little Baptist now and hardly needed a priest. This maddened Malachy again and he wanted to jump at the priest for calling the child some class of a Protestant. The priest said, Quiet, man, you're in God's house, and when Malachy said, God's house, my arse, he was thrown out on Court Street because you can't say arse in God's house.
After baptism Philomena said she had tea and ham and cakes in her house around the corner. Malachy said, Tea? and she said, Yes, tea, or is it whiskey you want? He said tea was grand but first he'd have to go and deal with John McErlaine, who didn't have the decency to carry out his duties as godfather. Angela said, You're only looking for an excuse to run to the speakeasy, and he said, As God is my witness, the drink is the last thing on my mind. Angela started to cry. Your son's christening day and you have to go drinking. Delia told him he was a disgusting specimen but what could you expect from the North of Ireland.
Malachy looked from one to the other, shifted on his feet, pulled his cap down over his eyes, shoved his hands deep in his trouser pockets, said, Och, aye, the way they do in the far reaches of County Antrim, turned, hurried up Court Street to the speakeasy on Atlantic Avenue where he was sure they'd ply him with free drink in honor of his son's baptism.
At Philomena's house the sisters and their husbands ate and drank while Angela sat in a corner nursing the baby and crying. Philomena stuffed her mouth with bread and ham and rumbled at Angela, That's what you get for being such a fool. Hardly off the boat and you fall for that lunatic. You shoulda stayed single, put the child up for adoption, and you'd be a free woman today. Angela cried harder and Delia took up the attack, Oh, stop it, Angela, stop it. You have nobody to blame but yourself for gettin' into trouble with a drunkard from the North, a man that doesn't even look like a Catholic, him with his odd manner. I'd say that...that...Malachy has a streak of the Presbyterian in him right enough. You shuddup, Jimmy.
If I was you, said Philomena, I'd make sure there's no more children. He don't have a job, so he don't, an' never will the way he drinks. So...no more children, Angela. Are you listenin' to me?
I am, Philomena.
A year later another child was born. Angela called him Malachy after his father and gave him a middle name, Gerard, after his father's brother.
The MacNamara sisters said Angela was nothing but a rabbit and they wanted nothing to do with her till she came to her senses.
Their husbands agreed.
I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two, I'm three. We're on the seesaw.
Up, down, up, down.
Malachy goes up.
I get off.
Malachy goes down. Seesaw hits the ground. He screams. His hand is on his mouth and there's blood.
Oh, God. Blood is bad. My mother will kill me.
And here she is, trying to run across the playground. Her big belly slows her.
She says, What did you do? What did you do to the child?
I don't know what to say. I don't know what I did.
She pulls my ear. Go home. Go to bed.
Bed? In the middle of the day?
She pushes me toward the playground gate. Go.
She picks up Malachy and waddles off.
My father's friend, Mr. MacAdorey, is outside our building. He's standing at the edge of the sidewalk with his wife, Minnie, looking at a dog lying in the gutter. There is blood all around the dog's head. It's the color of the blood from Malachy's mouth.
Malachy has dog blood and the dog has Malachy blood.
I pull Mr. MacAdorey's hand. I tell him Malachy has blood like the dog.
Oh, he does, indeed, Francis. Cats have it, too. And Eskimos. All the same blood.
Minnie says, Stop that, Dan. Stop confusing the wee fellow. She tells me the poor wee dog was hit by a car and he crawled all the way from the middle of the street before he died. Wanted to come home, the poor wee creature.
Mr. MacAdorey says, You'd better go home, Francis. I don't know what you did to your wee brother, but your mother took him off to the hospital. Go home, child.
Will Malachy die like the dog, Mr. MacAdorey?
Minnie says, He bit his tongue. He won't die.
Why did the dog die?
It was his time, Francis.
The apartment is empty and I wander between the two rooms, the bedroom and the kitchen. My father is out looking for a job and my mother is at the hospital with Malachy. I wish I had something to eat but there's nothing in the icebox but cabbage leaves floating in the melted ice. My father said never eat anything floating in water for the rot that might be in it. I fall asleep on my parents' bed and when my mother shakes me it's nearly dark. Your little brother is going to sleep a while. Nearly bit his tongue off. Stitches galore. Go into the other room.
My father is in the kitchen sipping black tea from his big white enamel mug. He lifts me to his lap.
Dad, will you tell me the story about Coo Coo?
Cuchulain. Say it after me, Coo-hoo-lin. I'll tell you the story when you say the name right. Coo-hoo-lin.
I say it right and he tells me the story of Cuchulain, who had a different name when he was a boy, Setanta. He grew up in Ireland where Dad lived when he was a boy in County Antrim. Setanta had a stick and ball and one day he hit the ball and it went into the mouth of a big dog that belonged to Culain and choked him. Oh, Culain was angry and he said, What am I to do now without my big dog to guard my house and my wife and my ten small children as well as numerous pigs, hens, sheep?
Setanta said, I'm sorry. I'll guard your house with my stick and ball and I'll change my name to Cuchulain, the Hound of Culain. He did. He guarded the house and regions beyond and became a great hero, the Hound of Ulster itself. Dad said he was a greater hero than Hercules or Achilles that the Greeks were always bragging about and he could take on King Arthur and all his knights in a fair fight which, of course, you could never get with an Englishman anyway.
That's my story. Dad can't tell that story to Malachy or any other children down the hall.
He finishes the story and lets me sip his tea. It's bitter, but I'm happy there on his lap.
For days Malachy's tongue is swollen and he can hardly make a sound never mind talk. But even if he could no one is paying any attention to him because we have two new babies who were brought by an angel in the middle of the night. The neighbors say, Ooh, Ah, they're lovely boys, look at those big eyes.
Malachy stands in the middle of the room, looking up at everyone, pointing to his tongue and saying, Uck, uck. When the neighbors say, Can't you see we're looking at your little brothers? he cries, till Dad pats him on the head. Put in your tongue, son, and go out and play with Frankie. Go on.
In the playground I tell Malachy about the dog who died in the street because someone drove a ball into his mouth. Malachy shakes his head. No uck ball. Car uck kill dog. He cries because his tongue hurts and he can hardly talk and it's terrible when you can't talk. He won't let me push him on the swing. He says, You uck kill me uck on seesaw. He gets Freddie Leibowitz to push him and he's happy, laughing when he swings to the sky. Freddie is big, he's seven, and I ask him to push me. He says, No, you tried to kill your brother.
I try to get the swing going myself but all I can do is move it back and forth and I'm angry because Freddie and Malachy are laughing at the way I can't swing. They're great pals now, Freddie, seven, Malachy, two. They laugh every day and Malachy's tongue gets better with all the laughing.
When he laughs you can see how white and small and pretty his teeth are and you can see his eyes shine. He has blue eyes like my mother. He has golden hair and pink cheeks. I have brown eyes like Dad. I have black hair and my cheeks are white in the mirror. My mother tells Mrs. Leibowitz down the hall that Malachy is the happiest child in the world. She tells Mrs. Leibowitz down the hall, Frankie has the odd manner like his father. I wonder what the odd manner is but I can't ask because I'm not supposed to be listening.
I wish I could swing up into the sky, up into the clouds. I might be able to fly around the whole world and not hear my brothers, Oliver and Eugene, cry in the middle of the night anymore. My mother says they're always hungry. She cries in the middle of the night, too. She says she's worn out nursing and feeding and changing and four boys is too much for her. She wishes she had one little girl all for herself. She'd give anything for one little girl.
I'm in the playground with Malachy. I'm four, he's three. He lets me push him on the swing because he's no good at swinging himself and Freddie Leibowitz is in school. We have to stay in the playground because the twins are sleeping and my mother says she's worn out. Go out and play, she says, and give me some rest. Dad is out looking for a job again and sometimes he comes home with the smell of whiskey, singing all the songs about suffering Ireland. Mam gets angry and says Ireland can kiss her arse. He says that's nice language to be using in front of the children and she says never mind the language, food on the table is what she wants, not suffering Ireland. She says it was a sad day Prohibition ended because Dad gets the drink going around to saloons offering to sweep out the bars and lift barrels for a whiskey or a beer. Sometimes he brings home bits of the free lunch, rye bread, corned beef, pickles. He puts the food on the table and drinks tea himself. He says food is a shock to the system and he doesn't know where we get our appetites. Mam says, They get their appetites because they're starving half the time.
When Dad gets a job Mam is cheerful and she sings,
Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss,
It had to be and the reason is this
Could it be true, someone like you
Could love me, love me?
When Dad brings home the first week's wages Mam is delighted she can pay the lovely Italian man in the grocery shop and she can hold her head up again because there's nothing worse in the world than to owe and be beholden to anyone. She cleans the kitchen, washes the mugs and plates, brushes crumbs and bits of food from the table, cleans out the icebox and orders a fresh block of ice from another Italian. She buys toilet paper that we can take down the hall to the lavatory and that, she says, is better than having the headlines from the Daily News blackening your arse. She boils water on the stove and spends a day at a great tin tub washing our shirts and socks, diapers for the twins, our two sheets, our three towels. She hangs everything out on the clotheslines behind the apartment house and we can watch the clothes dance in wind and sun. She says you wouldn't want the neighbors to know what you have in the way of a wash but there's nothing like the sweetness of clothes dried by the sun.
When Dad brings home the first week's wages on a Friday night we know the weekend will be wonderful. On Saturday night Mam will boil water on the stove and wash us in the great tin tub and Dad will dry us. Malachy will turn around and show his behind. Dad will pretend to be shocked and we'll all laugh. Mam will make hot cocoa and we'll be able to stay up while Dad tells us a story out of his head. All we have to do is say a name, Mr. MacAdorey or Mr. Leibowitz down the hall, and Dad will have the two of them rowing up a river in Brazil chased by Indians with green noses and puce shoulders. On nights like that we can drift off to sleep knowing there will be a breakfast of eggs, fried tomatoes and fried bread, tea with lashings of sugar and milk and, later in the day, a big dinner of mashed potatoes, peas and ham, and a trifle Mam makes, layers of fruit and warm delicious custard on a cake soaked in sherry.
When Dad brings home the first week's wages and the weather is fine Mam takes us to the playground. She sits on a bench and talks to Minnie MacAdorey. She tells Minnie stories about characters in Limerick and Minnie tells her about characters in Belfast and they laugh because there are funny people in Ireland, North and South. Then they teach each other sad songs and Malachy and I leave the swings and seesaws to sit with them on the bench and sing,
A group of young soldiers one night in a camp
Were talking of sweethearts they had.
All seemed so merry except one young lad,
And he was downhearted and sad.
Come and join us, said one of the boys,
Surely there's someone for you.
But Ned shook his head and proudly he said
I am in love with two, Each like a mother to me,
From neither of them shall I part.
For one is my mother, God bless her and love her,
The other is my sweetheart.
Malachy and I sing that song and Mam and Minnie laugh till they cry at the way Malachy takes a deep bow and holds his arms out to Mam at the end. Dan MacAdorey comes along on his way home from work and says Rudy Vallee better start worrying about the competition.
When we go home Mam makes tea and bread and jam or mashed potatoes with butter and salt. Dad drinks the tea and eats nothing. Mam says, God above, How can you work all day and not eat? He says, The tea is enough. She says, You'll ruin your health, and he tells her again that food is a shock to the system. He drinks his tea and tells us stories and shows us letters and words in the Daily News or he smokes a cigarette, stares at the wall, runs his tongue over his lips.
When Dad's job goes into the third week he does not bring home the wages. On Friday night we wait for him and Mam gives us bread and tea. The darkness comes down and the lights come on along Classon Avenue. Other men with jobs are home already and having eggs for dinner because you can't have meat on a Friday. You can hear the families talking upstairs and downstairs and down the hall and Bing Crosby is singing on the radio, Brother, can you spare a dime?
Malachy and I play with the twins. We know Mam won't sing Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss. She sits at the kitchen table talking to herself What am I going to do? till it's late and Dad rolls up the stairs singing Roddy McCorley. He pushes in the door and calls for us, Where are my troops? Where are my four warriors?
Mam says, Leave those boys alone. They're gone to bed half hungry because you have to fill your belly with whiskey.
He comes to the bedroom door. Up, boys, up. A nickel for everyone who promises to die for Ireland.
Deep in Canadian woods we met
From one bright island flown.
Great is the land we tread, but yet
Our hearts are with our own.
Up, boys, up. Francis, Malachy, Oliver, Eugene. The Red Branch Knights, the Fenian Men, the IRA. Up, up.
Mam is at the kitchen table, shaking, her hair hanging damp, her face wet. Can't you leave them alone? she says. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, isn't it enough that you come home without a penny in your pocket without making fools of the children on top of it?
She comes to us. Go back to bed, she says.
I want them up, he says. I want them ready for the day Ireland will be free from the center to the sea.
Don't cross me, she says, for if you do it'll be a sorry day in your mother's house.
He pulls his cap down over his face and cries, My poor mother. Poor Ireland. Och, what are we going to do?
Mam says, You're pure stone mad, and she tells us again to go to bed.
On the morning of the fourth Friday of Dad's job Mam asks him if he'll be home tonight with his wages or will he drink everything again? He looks at us and shakes his head at Mam as if to say, Och, you shouldn't talk like that in front of the children.
Mam keeps at him. I'm asking you, Are you coming home so that we can have a bit of supper or will it be midnight with no money in your pocket and you singing Kevin Barry and the rest of the sad songs?
He puts on his cap, shoves his hands into his trouser pockets, sighs and looks up at the ceiling. I told you before I'll be home, he says.
Later in the day Mam dresses us. She puts the twins into the pram and off we go through the long streets of Brooklyn. Sometimes she lets Malachy sit in the pram when he's tired of trotting along beside her. She tells me I'm too big for the pram. I could tell her I have pains in my legs from trying to keep up with her but she's not singing and I know this is not the day to be talking about my pains.
We come to a big gate where there's a man standing in a box with windows all around. Mam talks to the man. She wants to know if she can go inside to where the men are paid and maybe they'd give her some of Dad's wages so he wouldn't spend it in the bars. The man shakes his head. I'm sorry, lady, but if we did that we'd have half the wives in Brooklyn storming the place. Lotta men have the drinking problem but there's nothing we can do long as they show up sober and do their work.
We wait across the street. Mam lets me sit on the sidewalk with my back against the wall. She gives the twins their bottles of water and sugar but Malachy and I have to wait till she gets money from Dad and we can go to the Italian for tea and bread and eggs.
When the whistle blows at half five men in caps and overalls swarm through the gate, their faces and hands black from the work. Mam tells us watch carefully for Dad because she can hardly see across the street herself, her eyes are that bad. There are dozens of men, then a few, then none. Mam is crying, Why couldn't ye see him? Are ye blind or what?
She goes back to the man in the box. Are you sure there wouldn't be one man left inside?
No, lady, he says. They're out. I don't know how he got past you.
We go back through the long streets of Brooklyn. The twins hold up their bottles and cry for more water and sugar. Malachy says he's hungry and Mam tells him wait a little, we'll get money from Dad and we'll all have a nice supper. We'll go to the Italian and get eggs and make toast with the flames on the stove and we'll have jam on it. Oh, we will, and we'll all be nice and warm.
It's dark on Atlantic Avenue and all the bars around the Long Island Railroad Station are bright and noisy. We go from bar to bar looking for Dad. Mam leaves us outside with the pram while she goes in or she sends me. There are crowds of noisy men and stale smells that remind me of Dad when he comes home with the smell of the whiskey on him.
The man behind the bar says, Yeah, sonny, whaddya want? You're not supposeta be in here, y'know.
I'm looking for my father. Is my father here?
Naw, sonny, how'd I know dat? Who's your fawdah?
His name is Malachy and he sings Kevin Barry.
Malachy? And he sings Kevin Barry?
He calls out to the men in the bar, Youse guys, youse know guy Malachy what sings Kevin Barry?
Men shake their heads. One says he knew a guy Michael sang Kevin Barry but he died of the drink which he had because of his war wounds.
The barman says, Jeez, Pete, I didn't ax ya to tell me history o' da woild, did I? Naw, kid. We don't let people sing in here. Causes trouble. Specially the Irish. Let 'em sing, next the fists are flying. Besides, I never hoid a name like dat Malachy. Naw, kid, no Malachy here.
The man called Pete holds his glass toward me. Here, kid, have a sip, but the barman says, Whaddya doin', Pete? Tryina get the kid drunk? Do that again, Pete, an' I'll come out an' break y'ass.
Mam tries all the bars around the station before she gives up. She leans against a wall and cries. Jesus, we still have to walk all the way to Classon Avenue and I have four starving children. She sends me back into the bar where Pete offered me the sip to see if the barman would fill the twins' bottles with water and maybe a little sugar in each. The men in the bar think it's very funny that the barman should be filling baby bottles but he's big and he tells them shut their lip. He tells me babies should be drinking milk not water and when I tell him Mam doesn't have the money he empties the baby bottles and fills them with milk. He says, Tell ya mom they need that for the teeth an' bones. Ya drink water an' sugar an' all ya get is rickets. Tell ya Mom.
Mam is happy with the milk. She says she knows all about teeth and bones and rickets but beggars can't be choosers.
When we reach Classon Avenue she goes straight to the Italian grocery shop. She tells the man her husband is late tonight, that he's probably working overtime, and would it be at all possible to get a few things and she'll be sure to see him tomorrow?
The Italian says, Missus, you always pay your bill sooner or later and you can have anything you like in this store.
Oh, she says, I don't want much.
Anything you like, missus, because I know you're an honest woman and you got a bunch o' nice kids there.
We have eggs and toast and jam though we're so weary walking the long streets of Brooklyn we can barely move our jaws to chew. The twins fall asleep after eating and Mam lays them on the bed to change their diapers. She sends me down the hall to rinse the dirty diapers in the lavatory so that they can be hung up to dry and used the next day. Malachy helps her wash the twins' bottoms though he's ready to fall asleep himself.
I crawl into bed with Malachy and the twins. I look out at Mam at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, drinking tea, and crying. I want to get up and tell her I'll be a man soon and I'll get a job in the place with the big gate and I'll come home every Friday night with money for eggs and toast and jam and she can sing again Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss.
The next week Dad loses the job. He comes home that Friday night, throws his wages on the table and says to Mam, Are you happy now? You hang around the gate complaining and accusing and they sack me. They were looking for an excuse and you gave it to them.
He takes a few dollars from his wages and goes out. He comes home late roaring and singing. The twins cry and Mam shushes them and cries a long time herself.
We spend hours in the playground when the twins are sleeping, when Mam is tired, and when Dad comes home with the whiskey smell on him, roaring about Kevin Barry getting hanged on a Monday morning or the Roddy McCorley song,
Up the narrow street he stepped
Smiling and proud and young
About the hemp-rope on his neck
The golden ringlets clung,
There's never a tear in the blue eyes
Both glad and bright are they,
As Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge of Toome today.
When he sings he marches around the table, Mam cries and the twins howl with her. She says, Go out, Frankie, go out, Malachy. You shouldn't see your father like this. Stay in the playground.
We don't mind going to the playground. We can play with the leaves piling up on the ground and we can push each other on the swings but then winter comes to Classon Avenue and the swings are frozen and won't even move. Minnie MacAdorey says, God help these poor wee boys. They don't have a glove between them. That makes me laugh because I know Malachy and I have four hands between us and one glove would be silly. Malachy doesn't know what I'm laughing at: He won't know anything till he's four going on five.
Minnie brings us in and gives us tea and porridge with jam in it. Mr. MacAdorey sits in an armchair with their new baby, Maisie. He holds her bottle and sings,
Clap hands, clap hands,
Till Daddy comes home,
With buns in his pocket
For Maisie alone.
Clap hands, clap hands,
Till Daddy comes home,
For Daddy has money
And Mammy has none.
Malachy tries to sing that song but I tell him stop, it's Maisie's song. He starts to cry and Minnie says, There, there. You can sing the song. That's a song for all the children. Mr. MacAdorey smiles at Malachy and I wonder what kind of world is it where anyone can sing anyone else's song.
Minnie says, Don't frown, Frankie. It makes your face dark and God knows it's dark enough. Some day you'll have a little sister and you can sing that song to her. Och, aye. You'll have a little sister, surely.
Minnie is right and Mam gets her wish. There's a new baby soon, a little girl, and they call her Margaret. We all love Margaret. She has black curly hair and blue eyes like Mam and she waves her little hands and chirps like any little bird in the trees along Classon Avenue. Minnie says there was a holiday in heaven the day this child was made. Mrs. Leibowitz says the world never saw such eyes, such a smile, such happiness. She makes me dance, says Mrs. Leibowitz.
When Dad comes home from looking for a job he holds Margaret and sings to her:
In a shady nook one moonlit night
A leprechaun I spied.
With scarlet cap and coat of green
A cruiskeen by his side.
'Twas tick tock tick his hammer went
Upon a tiny shoe.
Oh, I laugh to think he was caught at last,
But the fairy was laughing, too.
He walks around the kitchen with her and talks to her. He tells her how lovely she is with her curly black hair and the blue eyes of her mother. He tells her he'll take her to Ireland and they'll walk the Glens of Antrim and swim in Lough Neagh. He'll get a job soon, so he will, and she'll have dresses of silk and shoes with silver buckles.
The more Dad sings to Margaret the less she cries and as the days pass she even begins to laugh. Mam says, Look at him trying to dance with that child in his arms, him with his two left feet. She laughs and we all laugh.
The twins cried when they were small and Dad and Mam would say Whisht and Hush and feed them and they'd go back to sleep. But when Margaret cries there's a high lonely feeling in the air and Dad is out of bed in a second, holding her to him, doing a slow dance around the table, singing to her, making sounds like a mother. When he passes the window where the streetlight shines in you can see tears on his cheeks and that's strange because he never cries for anyone unless he has the drink taken and he sings the Kevin Barry song and the Roddy McCorley song. Now he cries over Margaret and he has no smell of drink on him.
Mam tells Minnie MacAdorey, He's in heaven over that child. He hasn't touched a drop since she was born. I should've had a little girl a long time ago.
Och, they're lovely, aren't they? says Minnie. The little boys are grand, too, but you need a little girl for yourself.
My mother laughs, For myself? Lord above, if I didn't nurse her I wouldn't be able to get near her the way he wants to be holding her day and night.
Minnie says it's lovely, all the same, to see a man so charmed with his little girl for isn't everyone charmed with her?
The twins are able to stand and walk and they have accidents all the time. Their bottoms are sore because they're always wet and shitty. They put dirty things in their mouths, bits of paper, feathers, shoelaces, and they get sick. Mam says we're all driving her crazy. She dresses the twins, puts them in the pram, and Malachy and I take them to the playground. The cold weather is gone and the trees have green leaves up and down Classon Avenue.
We race the pram around the playground and the twins laugh and make goo-goo sounds till they get hungry and start to cry. There are two bottles in the pram filled with water and sugar and that keeps them quiet for awhile till they're hungry again and they cry so hard I don't know what to do because they're so small and I wish I could give them all kinds of food so that they'd laugh and make the baby sounds. They love the mushy food Mam makes in a pot, bread mashed up in milk and water and sugar. Mam calls it bread and goody.
If I take the twins home now Mam will yell at me for giving her no rest or for waking Margaret. We are to stay in the playground till she sticks her head out the window and calls for us. I make funny faces for the twins to stop their crying. I put a piece of paper on my head and let it fall and they laugh and laugh. I push the pram over to Malachy playing on the swings with Freddie Leibowitz. Malachy is trying to tell Freddie all about the way Setanta became Cuchulain. I tell him stop telling that story, it's my story. He won't stop. I push him and he cries, Waah, waah, I'll tell Mam. Freddie pushes me and everything turns dark in my head and I run at him with fists and knees and feet till he yells, Hey, stop, stop, and I won't because I can't, I don't know how, and if I stop Malachy will go on taking my story from me. Freddie pushes me away and runs off, yelling, Frankie tried to kill me. Frankie tried to kill me. I don't know what to do because I never tried to kill anyone before and now Malachy, on the swing, cries, Don't kill me, Frankie, and he looks so helpless I put my arms around him and help him off the swing. He hugs me. I won't tell your story anymore. I won't tell Freddie about Coo, Coo. I want to laugh but I can't because the twins are crying in the pram and it's dark in the playground and what's the use of trying to make funny faces and letting things fall off your head when they can't see you in the dark?
The Italian grocery shop is across the street and I see bananas, apples, oranges. I know the twins can eat bananas. Malachy loves bananas and I like them myself. But you need money, Italians are not known for giving away bananas especially to the McCourts who owe them money already for groceries.
My mother tells me all the time, Never, never leave that playground except to come home. But what am I to do with the twins bawling with the hunger in the pram? I tell Malachy I'll be back in a minute. I make sure no one is looking, grab a bunch of bananas outside the Italian grocery shop and run down Myrtle Avenue, away from the playground, around the block and back to the other end where there's a hole in the fence. We push the pram to a dark corner and peel the bananas for the twins. There are five bananas in the bunch and we feast on them in the dark corner. The twins slobber and chew and spread banana over their faces, their hair, their clothes. I realize then that questions will be asked. Mam will want to know why the twins are smothered in bananas, where did you get them? I can't tell her about the Italian shop on the corner. I will have to say, A man.
That's what I'll say. A man.
Then the strange thing happens. There's a man at the gate of the playground. He's calling me. Oh, God, it's the Italian. Hey, sonny, come 'ere. Hey, talkin' to ya. Come 'ere.
I go to him.
You the kid wid the little bruddas, right? Twins?
Heah. Gotta bag o' fruit. I don' give it to you I trow id out. Right? So, heah, take the bag. Ya got apples, oranges, bananas. Ya like bananas, right? I think ya like bananas, eh? Ha, ha. I know ya like the bananas. Heah, take the bag. Ya gotta nice mother there. Ya father? Well, ya know, he's got the problem, the Irish thing. Give them twins a banana. Shud 'em up. I hear 'em all the way cross the street.
Thank you, sir.
Jeez. Polite kid, eh? Where ja loin dat?
My father told me to say thanks, sir.
Your father? Oh, well.
Dad sits at the table reading the paper. He says that President Roosevelt is a good man and everyone in America will soon have a job. Mam is on the other side of the table feeding Margaret with a bottle. She has the hard look that frightens me.
Where did you get that fruit?
The Italian man gave it to me.
Did you steal that fruit?
Malachy says, The man. The man gave Frankie the bag.
And what did you do to Freddie Leibowitz? His mother was here. Lovely woman. I don't know what we'd do without her and Minnie MacAdorey. And you had to attack poor Freddie.
Malachy jumps up and down. He din't. He din't. Din't try to kill Freddie. Din't try to kill me.
Dad says, Whisht, Malachy, whisht. Come over here. And he takes Malachy on his lap.
My mother says, Go down the hall and tell Freddie you're sorry.
But Dad says, Do you want to tell Freddie you're sorry?
My parents look at one another. Dad says, Freddie is a good boy. He was only pushing your little brother on the swing. Isn't that right?
He was trying to steal my Cuchulain story.
Och, now. Freddie doesn't care about the Cuchulain story. He has his own story. Hundreds of stories. He's Jewish.
Dad laughs. Jewish is, Jewish is people with their own stories. They don't need Cuchulain. They have Moses. They have Samson.
If you go down and talk to Freddie I'll tell you about Samson later. You can tell Freddie you're sorry and you'll never do it again and you can even ask him about Samson. Anything you like as long as you talk to Freddie. Will you?
The baby gives a little cry in my mother's arms and Dad jumps up, dropping Malachy to the floor. Is she all right? My mother says, Of course she's all right. She's feeding. God above, you're a bundle of nerves.
They're talking about Margaret now and I'm forgotten. I don't care. I'm going down the hall to ask Freddie about Samson, to see if Samson is as good as Cuchulain, to see if Freddie has his own story or if he still wants to steal Cuchulain. Malachy wants to go with me now that my father is standing and doesn't have a lap anymore.
Mrs. Leibowitz says, Oh, Frankie, Frankie, come in, come in. And little Malachy. And tell me, Frankie, what did you do to Freddie? Tried to kill him? Freddie is a good boy, Frankie. Reads his book. Listens to radio with his papa. He swinks you brother on swink. And you try to kill him. Oh, Frankie, Frankie. And you poor mother and her sick baby.
She's not sick, Mrs. Leibowitz.
Sick she is. Zat is one sick baby. I know from sick babies. I work in hoztipal. Don't tell me, Frankie. Come in, come in. Freddie, Freddie, Frankie is here. Come out. Frankie won't kill you no more. You and little Malachy. Nice Chewish name, have piece cake, eh? Why they give you a Chewish name, eh? So, glass milk, piece cake. You boys so thin, Irish don't eat.
We sit at the table with Freddie, eating cake, drinking milk. Mr. Leibowitz sits in an armchair reading the paper, listening to the radio. Sometimes he speaks to Mrs. Leibowitz and I don't understand because strange sounds come from his mouth. Freddie understands. When Mr. Leibowitz makes the strange sounds Freddie gets up and takes him a piece of cake. Mr. Leibowitz smiles at Freddie and pats his head and Freddie smiles back and makes the strange sounds.
Mrs. Leibowitz shakes her head at Malachy and me. Oy, so thin. She says Oy so much Malachy laughs and says Oy and the Leibowitzes laugh and Mr. Leibowitz says words we can understand, When Irish oyes are smiling. Mrs. Leibowitz laughs so hard her body shakes and she holds her stomach and Malachy says Oy again because he knows that makes everyone laugh. I say Oy but no one laughs and I know Oy belongs to Malachy the way Cuchulain belongs to me and Malachy can have his Oy.
Mrs. Leibowitz, my father said Freddie has a favorite story.
Malachy says, Sam, Sam, Oy. Everyone laughs again but I don't because I can't remember what comes after Sam. Freddie mumbles through his cake, Samson, and Mrs. Leibowitz tells him, Don't talk wiz you mouse full, and I laugh because she's grown-up and she says mouse instead of mouth. Malachy laughs because I laugh and the Leibowitzes look at each other and smile. Freddie says, Not Samson. My favorite story is David and the giant, Goliath. David killed him dead with a slingshot, a stone in his head. His brains was on the ground.
Were on the ground, says Mr. Leibowitz.
Papa. That's what Freddie calls his father and Dad is what I call my father.
My mother's whisper wakes me. What's up with the child? It's still early and there isn't much morning in the room but you can see Dad over by the window with Margaret in his arms. He's rocking her and sighing, Och.
Mam says, Is she, is she sick?
Och, she's very quiet and she's a wee bit cold.
My mother is out of the bed, taking the child. Go for the doctor. Go for God's sake, and my father is pulling on his trousers over his shirt, no jacket, shoes, no socks on this bitter day.
We wait in the room, the twins asleep at the bottom of the bed, Malachy stirring beside me. Frankie, I want a drink of water. Mam rocks in her bed with the baby in her arms. Oh, Margaret, Margaret, my own little love. Open your lovely blue eyes, my little leanv.
I fill a cup of water for Malachy and me and my mother wails, Water for you and your brother. Oh, indeed, Water, is it? And nothing for your sister. Your poor little sister. Did you ask if she had a mouth in her head? Did you ask if she'd like a drop of water? Oh, no. Go on and drink your water, you and your brother, as if nothing happened. A regular day for the two of you, isn't it? And the twins sleeping away as if they didn't have a care and their poor little sister sick here in my arms. Sick in my arms. Oh, sweet Jesus in heaven.
Why is she talking like this? She's not talking like my mother today. I want my father. Where is my father?
I get back into bed and start to cry. Malachy says, Why you cry? Why you cry? till Mam is at me again. Your sister is sick in my arms and you're there whining and whinging. If I go over to that bed I'll give you something to whinge about.
Dad is back with the doctor. Dad has the whiskey smell. The doctor examines the baby, prods her, raises her eyelids, feels her neck, arms, legs. He straightens up and shakes his head. She's gone. Mam reaches for the baby, hugs her, turns to the wall. The doctor wants to know, Was there any kind of accident? Did anyone drop the baby? Did the boys play too hard with her? Anything?
My father shakes his head. Doctor says he'll have to take her to examine her and Dad signs a paper. My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn't have all day. When Dad reaches for Margaret my mother pulls away against the wall. She has the wild look, her black curly hair is damp on her forehead and there is sweat all over her face, her eyes are wide open and her face is shiny with tears, she keeps shaking her head and moaning, Ah, no, ah, no, till Dad eases the baby from her arms. The doctor wraps Margaret completely in a blanket and my mother cries, Oh, Jesus, you'll smother her. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help me. The doctor leaves. My mother turns to the wall and doesn't make a move or sound. The twins are awake, crying with the hunger, but Dad stands in the middle of the room, staring at the ceiling. His face is white and he beats on his thighs with his fists. He comes to the bed, puts his hand on my head. His hand is shaking. Francis, I'm going out for cigarettes.
Mam stays in the bed all day, hardly moving. Malachy and I fill the twins' bottles with water and sugar. In the kitchen we find a half loaf of stale bread and two cold sausages. We can't have tea because the milk is sour in the icebox where the ice is melted again and everyone knows you can't drink tea without milk unless your father gives it to you out of his mug while he's telling you about Cuchulain.
The twins are hungry again but I know I can't give them water and sugar all day and night. I boil sour milk in a pot, mash in some of the stale bread, and try to feed them from a cup, bread and goody. They make faces and run to Mam's bed, crying. She keeps her face to the wall and they run back to me, still crying. They won't eat the bread and goody till I kill the taste of the sour milk with sugar. Now they eat and smile and rub the goody over their faces. Malachy wants some and if he can eat it, so can I. We all sit on the floor eating the goody and chewing on the cold sausage and drinking water my mother keeps in a milk bottle in the icebox.
After we eat and drink we have to go to the lavatory down the hall but we can't get in because Mrs. Leibowitz is inside, humming and singing. She says, Wait, chiltren, wait, darlinks. Won't be two seconds. Malachy claps his hands and dances around, singing, Wait, chiltren, wait, darlinks. Mrs. Leibowitz opens the lavatory door. Look at him. Little actor awready. So, chiltren, how's you mother?
She's in bed, Mrs. Leibowitz. The doctor took Margaret and my father went for cigarettes.
Oh, Frankie, Frankie. I said that was one sick child.
Malachy is clutching himself. Have to pee. Have to pee.
So, pee awready. You boys pee and we see you mother.
After we pee Mrs. Leibowitz comes to see Mam. Oh, Mrs. McCourt. Oy vey, darlink. Look at this. Look at these twins. Naked. Mrs. McCourt, what is mazzer, eh? The baby she is sick? So talk to me. Poor woman. Here turn around, missus. Talk to me. Oy, this is one mess. Talk to me, Mrs. McCourt.
She helps my mother sit up against the wall. Mam seems smaller. Mrs. Leibowitz says she'll bring some soup and tells me get some water to wash my mother's face. I dip a towel in cold water and pat her forehead. She presses my hand against her cheeks. Oh, Jesus, Frankie. Oh, Jesus. She won't let my hand go and I'm frightened because I've never seen her like this before. She's saying Frankie only because it's my hand she's holding and it's Margaret she's thinking about, not me. Your lovely little sister is dead, Frankie. Dead. And where is your father? She lets my hand drop. I said where is your father? Drinking. That's where he is. There isn't a penny in the house. He can't get a job but he finds money for the drink, money for the drink, money for the drink, money for the drink. She rears back, knocks her head on the wall and screams, Where is she? Where is she? Where is my little girl? Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help me this night. I'll go mad, so I will, I'll go pure mad.
Mrs. Leibowitz rushes in. Missus, missus, what is it? The little girl. Where is she?
My mother screams again, Dead, Mrs. Leibowitz. Dead. Her head drops and she rocks back and forth. Middle of the night, Mrs. Leibowitz. In her pram. I should have been watching her. Seven weeks she had in this world and died in the middle of the night, alone, Mrs. Leibowitz, all alone in that pram.
Mrs. Leibowitz holds my mother in her arms. Shush, now, shush. Babies go like that. It happens, missus. God takes them.
In the pram, Mrs. Leibowitz. Near my bed. I could have picked her up and she didn't have to die, did she? God doesn't want little babies. What is God going to do with little babies?
I don't know, missus. I don't know from God. Have soup. Good soup. Make you strong. You boys. Get bowls. I give you soup.
What's bowls, Mrs. Leibowitz?
Oh, Frankie. You don't know bowl? For the soup, darlink. You don' have a bowl? So get cups for the soup. I mix pea soup and lentil soup. No ham. Irish like the ham. No ham, Frankie. Drink, missus. Drink you soup.
She spoons the soup into my mother's mouth, wipes the dribble from her chin. Malachy and I sit on the floor drinking from mugs. We spoon the soup into the twins' mouths. It is lovely and hot and tasty. My mother never makes soup like this and I wonder if there's any chance Mrs. Leibowitz could ever be my mother. Freddie could be me and have my mother and my father, too, and he could have Malachy and the twins for brothers. He can't have Margaret anymore because she's like the dog in the street that was taken away. I don't know why she was taken away. My mother said she died in her pram and that must be like getting hit by a car because they take you away.
I wish little Margaret could be here for the soup. I could give it to her with a spoon the way Mrs. Leibowitz is giving it to my mother and she'd gurgle and laugh the way she did with Dad. She wouldn't cry anymore and my mother wouldn't be in the bed day and night and Dad would be telling me Cuchulain stories and I wouldn't want Mrs. Leibowitz to be my mother anymore. Mrs. Leibowitz is nice but I'd rather have my father telling me Cuchulain stories and Margaret chirping and Mam laughing when Dad dances with two left feet.
Minnie MacAdorey comes in to help. Mother o' God, Mrs. Leibowitz, these twins smell to the high heavens.
I don't know about Mother o' God, Minnie, but these twins need a wash. They need clean diapers. Frankie, where are the clean diapers?
I don't know.
Minnie says, They're just wearing rags for diapers. I'll get some of Maisie's. Frankie, you take off those rags and throw them out.
Malachy removes Oliver's rag and I struggle with Eugene. The safety pin is stuck and when he wriggles it comes loose, sticks him in the hip, and starts him screaming for Mam. But Minnie is back with a towel and soap and hot water. I help her wash away the caked shit and she lets me shake talcum powder on the twins' raw sore skin. She says they're good little boys and she has a big surprise for them. She goes down the hall and brings back a pot of mashed potatoes for all of us. There is plenty of salt and butter in the potatoes and I wonder if there's any chance Minnie could be my mother so that I could eat like this all the time. If I could have Mrs. Leibowitz and Minnie for mothers at the same time I'd have no end of soup and mashed potatoes.
Minnie and Mrs. Leibowitz sit at the table. Mrs. Leibowitz says something has to be done. These children are running wild and where is the father? I hear Minnie whisper he's out for the drink. Mrs. Leibowitz says terrible, terrible, the way the Irish drink. Minnie says her Dan doesn't drink. Never touches the stuff and Dan told her that when the baby died that poor man, Malachy McCourt, went mad all over Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, that he was thrown out of all the bars around the Long Island Railroad Station, that the cops would have thrown him in jail if it was anything else but the death of that lovely little baby.
Here he has four lovely little boys, says Minnie, but it's no comfort to him. That little girl brought out something in him. You know he didn't even drink after she was born and that was a miracle.
Mrs. Leibowitz wants to know where Mam's cousins are, the big women with the quiet husbands. Minnie will find them and tell them the children are neglected, running wild, sore arses and everything.
Two days later Dad returns from his cigarette hunt. It's the middle of the night but he gets Malachy and me out of the bed. He has the smell of the drink on him. He has us stand at attention in the kitchen. We are soldiers. He tells us we must promise to die for Ireland.
We will, Dad, we will.
All together we sing Kevin Barry,
On Mountjoy one Monday morning,
High upon the gallows tree,
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty.
Just a lad of eighteen summers
Sure there's no one can deny
As he marched to death that morning
How he held his head on high.
There's a knock at the door, Mr. MacAdorey. Och, Malachy, for God's sake, it's three in the morning. You have the whole house woke with the singing.
Och, Dan, I'm only teaching the boys to die for Ireland.
You can teach them to die for Ireland in the daytime, Malachy.
'Tis urgent, Dan, 'tis urgent.
I know, Malachy, but they're only children. Babies. You go to bed now like a dacent man.
Bed, Dan! What am I to do in bed? Her little face is there day and night, her curly black hair and her lovely blue eyes. Oh, Jesus, Dan, what will I do? Was it the hunger that killed her, Dan?
Of course not. Your missus was nursing her. God took her. He has his reasons.
One more song, Dan, before we go to bed.
Good night, Malachy.
Come on, boys. Sing.
Because he loved the motherland,
Because he loved the green
He goes to meet a martyr's fate
With proud and joyous mien;
True to the last, oh! true to the last
He treads the upward way;
Young Roddy McCorley goes to die
On the bridge at Toome today.
You'll die for Ireland, won't you, boys?
We will, Dad.
And we'll all meet your little sister in heaven, won't we, boys?
We will, Dad.
My brother is standing with his face pressed against a leg of the table and he's asleep. Dad lifts him, staggers across the room, places him in the bed by my mother. I climb into bed and my father, still in his clothes, lies beside me. I'm hoping he'll put his arms around me but he goes on singing about Roddy McCorley and talking to Margaret, Oh, my little curly-haired, blue-eyed love, I would dress you in silks and take you to Lough Neagh, till day is at the window and I fall asleep.
That night Cuchulain comes to me. There's a big green bird on his shoulder that keeps singing about Kevin Barry and Roddy McCorley and I don't like that bird because there's blood dripping from his mouth when he sings. In one hand Cuchulain carries the gae bolga, the spear that is so mighty only he can throw it. In the other hand he carries a banana, which he keeps offering to the bird, who just squawks and spits blood at him. You'd wonder why Cuchulain puts up with a bird like that. If the twins ever spat blood at me when I offered them a banana I think I'd hit them on the head with it.
In the morning my father is at the kitchen table and I tell him my dream. He says there were no bananas in Ireland in the old times and even if there were Cuchulain would never offer one to that bird because that was the one that came over from England for the summer and perched on his shoulder when he was dying and propped up against a stone and when the men of Erin which is Ireland wanted to kill him they were afraid till they saw the bird drinking Cuchulain's blood and then they knew it was safe to attack him, the dirty bloody cowards. So you have to be wary of birds, Francis, birds and Englishmen.
Most of the day Mam lies in bed with her face to the wall. If she drinks tea or eats anything she throws up in the bucket under the bed and I have to empty it and rinse it in the lavatory down the hall. Mrs. Leibowitz brings her soup and funny bread that is twisted. Mam tries to slice it but Mrs. Leibowitz laughs and tells her just pull. Malachy calls it pull bread but Mrs. Leibowitz says, No, it's challah, and teaches us how to say it. She shakes her head. Oy, you Irish. You'll live forever but you'll never say challah like a Chew.
Minnie MacAdorey brings potatoes and cabbage and sometimes a piece of meat. Och, times are hard, Angela, but that lovely man, Mr. Roosevelt, will find a job for everyone and your husband will have work. Poor man, it's not his fault there's a Depression. He looks for work day and night. My Dan is lucky, four years with the city and he don't drink. He grew up in Toome with your husband. Some drink. Some don't. Curse of the Irish. Now eat, Angela. Build yourself up after your loss.
Mr. MacAdorey tells Dad there's work with the WPA and when he gets the work there's money for food and Mam leaves the bed to clean the twins and to feed us. When Dad comes home with the drink smell there's no money and Mam screams at him till the twins cry, and Malachy and I run out to the playground. On those nights Mam crawls back into bed and Dad sings the sad songs about Ireland. Why doesn't he hold her and help her sleep the way he did with my little sister who died? Why doesn't he sing a Margaret song or a song that will dry Mam's tears? He still gets Malachy and me out of bed to stand in our shirts promising to die for Ireland. One night he wanted to make the twins promise to die for Ireland but they can't even talk and Mam screamed at him, You mad oul' bastard, can't you leave the children alone?
He'll give us a nickel for ice cream if we promise to die for Ireland and we promise but we never get the nickel.
We get soup from Mrs. Leibowitz and mashed potatoes from Minnie MacAdorey and they show us how to take care of the twins, how to wash their bottoms and how to wash diaper rags after they get them all shitty. Mrs. Leibowitz calls them diapers and Minnie calls them nappies but it doesn't matter what they call them because the twins get them shitty anyway. If Mam stays in the bed and Dad goes out looking for a job we can do what we like all day. We can put the twins in the small swings in the park and swing them till they get hungry and cry. The Italian man calls to me from across the street, Hey, Frankie, c'mere. Watch out crossing da street. Dem twins hungry again? He gives us bits of cheese and ham and bananas but I can't eat bananas anymore after the way the bird spat blood at Cuchulain.
The man says his name is Mr. Dimino and that's his wife, Angela, behind the counter. I tell him that's my mother's name. No kiddin', kid. Your mother is Angela? I didn't know the Irish had any Angelas. Hey, Angela, his mother's name is Angela. She smiles. She says, Thatsa nice.
Mr. Dimino asks me about Mam and Dad and who cooks for us. I tell him we get food from Mrs. Leibowitz and Minnie MacAdorey. I tell him all about the diapers and the nappies and how they get shitty anyway and he laughs. Angela, you listenin' to this? Thank God you're Italian, Angela. He says, Kid, I gotta talk to Mrs. Leibowitz. Ya gotta have relations can take care of you. Ya see Minnie MacAdorey, tell her come in see me. You kids runnin' wild.
Two big women are at the door. They say, Who are you?
Frank! How old are you?
I'm four going on five.
You're not very big for your age, are you?
I don't know.
Is your mother here?
She's in the bed.
What is she doing in the bed on a fine day in the middle of the day?
Well, we'll come in. We have to talk to your mother.
They brush past me into the room. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the smell of this place. And who are these children?
Malachy runs smiling to the big women. When he smiles you can see how white and straight and pretty his teeth are and you can see the shiny blue of his eyes, the pink of his cheeks. All that makes the big women smile and I wonder why they didn't smile when they talked to me.
Malachy says, I'm Malachy and this is Oliver and this is Eugene, they're twins, and that's Frankie over there.
The big woman with the brown hair says, Well, you're not a bit shy, are you? I'm your mother's cousin, Philomena, and this is your mother's cousin, Delia. I'm Mrs. Flynn and she's Mrs. Fortune and that's what you call us.
Good God, says Philomena. Those twins are naked. Don't you have clothes for them?
Malachy says, They're all shitty.
Delia barks. See. That's what happens. A mouth like a sewer, and no wonder with a father from the North. Don't use that word. That's a bad word, a curse word. You could go to hell using a word like that.
What's hell? says Malachy. You'll know soon enough, says Delia.
The big women sit at the table with Mrs. Leibowitz and Minnie MacAdorey. Philomena says it's terrible what happened to Angela's little baby. They heard all about it and you'd wonder, wouldn't you, what they did with the little body. You might wonder and I might wonder but Tommy Flynn didn't wonder. Tommy said that Malachy from the North got money for that baby. Money? says Mrs. Leibowitz. That's right, says Philomena. Money. They take bodies any age and do experiments on them and there's not much left to give back nor would you want back bits of baby when they can't be buried in consecrated ground in that condition.
That's terrible, says Mrs. Leibowitz. A father or mother would never give the baby for something like that.
They would, says Delia, when they have the craving for the drink. They'd give their own mothers when they have the craving so what's a baby that's dead and gone in the first place?
Mrs. Leibowitz shakes her head and rocks in her chair. Oy, she says, oy, oy, oy, The poor baby. The poor mother. I thank God my husband don' have no what you call it? Craving? Right, craving. It's the Irish have the craving.
Not my husband, says Philomena. I'd break his face if he came home with the craving. Of course, Delia's Jimmy has the craving. Every Friday night you see him slipping into the saloon.
You needn't start insulting my Jimmy, says Delia. He works. He brings home his wages.
You'd want to keep an eye on him, says Philomena. The craving could get the better of him and you'd have another Malachy from the North on your hands.
Mind your own bloody business, says Delia. At least Jimmy is Irish, not born in Brooklyn like your Tommy.
And Philomena has no answer for that.
Minnie is holding her baby and the big women say she's a lovely baby, clean, not like this pack of Angela's running around this place. Philomena says she doesn't know where Angela got her dirty habits because Angela's mother was spotless, so clean you could eat your dinner off her floor.
I wonder why you'd want to eat your dinner off the floor when you had a table and a chair.
Delia says something has to be done about Angela and these children for they are a disgrace, so they are, enough to make you ashamed to be related. A letter has to be written to Angela's mother. Philomena will write it because a teacher in Limerick told her once she had a fine fist. Delia has to tell Mrs. Leibowitz that a fine fist means good handwriting.
Mrs. Leibowitz goes down the hall to borrow her husband's fountain pen, paper and an envelope. The four women sit at the table and make up a letter to send to my mother's mother:
Dear Aunt Margaret,
I take pen in hand to write you this letter and hope this finds you as it leaves us in the best of health. My husband Tommy is in fine form working away and Delia's husband Jimmy is in fine form working away and we hope this finds you in fine form. I am very sorry to tell you that Angela is not in fine form as the baby died, the little girl that was called Margaret after yourself, and Angela has not been the same since lying in the bed with her face to the wall. To make matters worser we think she's expecting again and that's too much altogether. The minute she losses one child there is another one on the way. We don't know how she does it. She's married four years, five children and another on the way. That shows you what can happen when you marry someone from the North for they have no control over themselves up there a bunch of Protestands that they are. He goes out for work every day but we know he spends all his time in the saloons and gets a few dollars for sweeping floors and lifting barrels and spends the money right back on the drink. It's terrible, Aunt Margaret, and we all think Angela and the children would be better off in her native land. We don't have the money to buy the tickets ourselves for times is hard but you might be able to see your way. Hopping this finds you in fine form as it leaves us thank God and His Blessed Mother.
I remain your loving neice
Philomena Flynn (what was MacNamara)
and last but not least your neice
Delia Fortune (what was MacNamara, too, ha ha ha)
Grandma Sheehan sent money to Philomena and Delia. They bought the tickets, found a steamer trunk at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, hired a van to take us to the pier in Manhattan, put us on the ship, said Good-bye and good riddance, and went away.
The ship pulled away from the dock. Mam said, That's the Statue of Liberty and that's Ellis Island where all the immigrants came in. Then she leaned over the side and vomited and the wind from the Atlantic blew it all over us and other happy people admiring the view. Passengers cursed and ran, seagulls came from all over the harbor and Mam hung limp and pale on the ship's rail.
Copyright © 1996 by Frank McCourt
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive 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.”
So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy—exasperating, irresponsible, and beguiling—does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.
Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank’s survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors—yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance, and remarkable forgiveness.
Angela’s Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt’s astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.
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Reading Group Guide
- Countless memoirs have been published recently, yet Angela's Ashes stands out. What makes this memoir so unique and compelling?
- Discuss the originality and immediacy of Frank McCourt's voice and the style he employs—i.e., his sparing use of commas, the absence of quotation marks. How, through a child's voice and perspective, does McCourt establish and maintain credibility?
- Ever present in Angela's Ashes is the Catholic Church. In what ways does the Catholic Church of McCourt's Ireland hurt its members and limit their experience? How does the Church protect and nurture its followers? What is Frank's attitude toward the Church?
- McCourt writes: "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 prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland." Was this your impression of Frank McCourt's father? How can Frank write about his father without bitterness? What part did Malachy play in creating the person that Frank eventually became?
- Women—in particular mothers—play a significant role in Angela's Ashes. Recall the scenes between Angela and her children; the MacNamara sisters (Delia and Philomena) and Malachy; Aunt Aggie and young Frank; Angela and her own mother. In what ways do t