Angela's Ashes (1999) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Based on the best-selling autobiography by Irish expatriate Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes follows the experiences of young Frankie and his family as they try against all odds to escape the poverty endemic in the slums of pre-war Limerick. The film opens with the family in Brooklyn, but following the death of one of Frankie's siblings, they return home, only to find the situation there even worse. Prejudice against Frankie's Northern Irish father makes his search for employment in the Republic difficult despite his having fought for the I.R.A., and when he does find money, he spends it on drink.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Five-year-old Francis "Frankie" McCourt (Joe Breen) is the eldest son of Irish immigrants Malachy (Robert Carlyle) and Angela (Emily Watson). Frankie and his brothers (Malachy Jr., a year younger, and two-year-old twins Oliver and Eugene) were all American-born, and the family resides in a small apartment in Brooklyn. In 1935, Angela gives birth to a daughter, Margaret, who survives only a few days. Angela becomes depressed and sick, and the boys start to rely on neighbors for food. Angela's relatives visit and arrange for the family to move back to Angela's hometown of Limerick, Ireland. They make the trip, although Angela's family does not approve of Malachy and generally shun him.

    Money is scarce in Limerick and the living conditions are nearly squalid. The McCourts move into their new house, in which they encounter problems such as flea-ridden mattresses. The nearby Shannon River, combined with constant rain and unsanitary conditions, cause disease to be rampant. Little Oliver suddenly becomes ill and dies. The family, still recovering from Margaret's death, is forced to bury another child. Frankie and Malachy Jr. spend extra time with the remaining twin, Eugene, but he soon succumbs as well.

    Angela, who has lost three children in five months and is pregnant again, cannot bear the memories that linger in their current house. The family moves, though their new home is no improvement. Their house is right next to the lavatory used by the whole block, which provides a constant stink. Frankie and young Malachy (Shane Murray-Cocoran) are sent to school, where they receive strict religious lessons and frequent corporal punishment from their teachers. Frankie begins to prepare for his first communion.

    Malachy, though a loving husband and father, is an alcoholic and cannot control his vices. He eventually finds a job at a cement factory, and his family's hopes are high. After his first day he goes to the pub, spends all his wages on liquor, comes stumbling home late, misses work the next morning, and is fired. Though his sons love him, they are dismayed and angered by his behavior.

    Angela has another son, Michael. Frankie endures a comically fussy first communion, due to his grandmother's religious superstitions. He and Malachy Jr. begin to make friends with other boys in the lane, who teach them about "girls bodies, and dirty things in general."

    When Frankie is ten (now played by Ciaran Owens), his mother enrolls him in Irish dancing class, which he despises. Eventually, he and his friend Paddy simply go to the movies instead, and Frankie makes up dance routines when he gets home, making his parents think he went to class. The boys often skip school, running around the countryside and wreaking havoc on nearby farms. Angela has her final child, another son called Alphonsus, or "Alphie." Frankie develops typhoid, and is given a blood transfusion and hospitalized for two months. While in the hospital, he develops a love for reading Shakespeare.

    When he is well enough to return to school, Frankie is held back a year because of the time he missed. He is miserable and ashamed to be in the same class as his younger brother, and he prays for a miracle to move him up a grade. He is given a special assignment to write an essay about how Jesus Christ might have grown up if he had been born in Limerick. Frankie writes a paper explaining that the cold, wet climate would have given Jesus consumption and he would have died much younger, leading to no crucifixion and no Catholic church, and no one having to write papers about him in school. The teachers, impressed with his creativity and writing skills, return him to the sixth form.

    Malachy, along with many other Limerick men, goes to England to find work. However, he sends money to his family only once. Desperate, Angela joins crowds of women in begging outside the church for the priests' leftovers. Frankie gets a job helping an elderly man deliver coal, but the coal dust gives Frankie severe conjunctivitis and his mother forces him to quit.

    Several years later, Malachy has not returned from England. Angela and her sons break down a wall in their apartment for firewood, and are evicted for the damage. They move in with a distant cousin, Laman Griffin, who is cruel and disgusting, and soon forces a sexual relationship on Angela. Frankie (Michael Legge), now fifteen, refuses to live under Griffin's roof, and moves in with Angela's brother Pat. Frankie gets a job as a telegram boy for the post office, and his irritable Aunt Aggie surprises him by buying him a suit of new clothes for his first day. At one of his telegram stops, Frankie meets a teenage girl named Theresa who suffers from consumption. Despite her condition, they begin to make love whenever Frankie stops by with a telegram. When Theresa finally succumbs, Frankie fears his actions have sent her to hell.

    Though racked with guilt over Theresa, Frankie goes with his uncle to the pub for his fist pint on his sixteenth birthday. Frankie comes home drunk (just as his father had done for so many years), and gets into a heated argument with the visiting Angela. In a drunken rage, he slaps her. The next day, Frankie goes to church to pray for forgiveness, admitting to the priest that he had hit his mother and had sent Theresa to hell because of his sins. The priest comforts him by saying that the nuns at the hospital would not have let Theresa die without her last rites, and so she was surely sent to heaven. Frankie knows he must keep his wits about him if he does not want to end up like his father.

    Frankie is hired by the town moneylender to write threatening letters to customers with overdue payments. He hates the stingy old woman, but is determined to earn enough money to travel to America. Soon afterward the moneylender dies (of natural causes, while Frankie is out doing her shopping), and he takes cash and her logbook from her house. The logbook, which contains the names of everyone in the vicinity who owed money, lists everyone that Frankie knows. He throws the book into the Shannon, erasing their debts. With the new found money, he now has enough to book a spot on a ship bound for America.

    The night before Frankie's departure, he visits with his family to say goodbye. His aunt and uncle usher everyone outside to see the rare lunar eclipse. There is silence as the alley is flooded in darkness for a moment, and Frankie sees images of his childhood self. They disappear as the moonlight returns. Frankie finally leaves his childhood behind and arrives in New York, achieving his dream.

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