Angela's Ashes is a novel, written to portray the symbolism of Frank McCourt's life.
- Frank McCourt - narrator, and protagonist. As the teller of his own life story, McCourt writes from the perspective of an adolescent looking out onto the world rather than as an adult looking back on his childhood. McCourt's memoir therefore maintains a voice and perspective rich with the enthusiasm, tenderness, and determination of a young man.
- Angela McCourt - Frank's “Mam” is humorous and loving, not overbearing or self-pitying, despite her difficult life. As Angela deals with her husband's alcoholism, the deaths of three of her children, and the necessity of begging for douts from aid agencies, her expectations disintegrate. Despite the painful thwarting of her own hopes, Angela always considers her children and their welfare above all else.
- Malachy McCourt (Sr.) - Malachy is an alcoholic who spends his wages and dole money on drink while his children starve. McCourt's treatment of his father remains masterfully evenhanded. He reveals not only the despair inflicted on the family by Malachy's drinking, but also the obvious love between Malachy and his sons.
- Malachy McCourt (Jr.) - Frank's younger brother by one year. Malachy is named after his father. He is more physically attractive than Frank, and manages to charm his way into the hearts of cantankerous people.
- Oliver and Eugene McCourt - Frank's younger twin brothers. They die within several months of one another, shortly after the McCourts arrive in Limerick. Their deaths devastate Angela, who is already grieving over the loss of her baby girl, Margaret.
- Michael McCourt - Frank's second youngest brother, born in Limerick, whom Frank believes was left by an angel on the seventh step of their house.
- Alphie McCourt - Frank's youngest brother.
- Aunt Aggie - Angela's sister and Frank's miserly aunt. Aunt Aggie initially resents the McCourt children. Although she never ceases to be rude and unpleasant, she proves her loyalty to the family by helping them through tough times.
- Pa Keating - Frank's warm and caring uncle. Pa Keating bolsters Frank's confidence and encourages him to follow his own instincts in adulthood.
- Ab Sheehan - Angela's brother and Frank's uncle. Uncle Ab was dropped on his head as a child, which damaged his brain. Frank moves in with Ab when he fights with his mother and Laman Griffin.
- Grandma - Grandma helps the McCourts whenever she can, although she remains suspicious of Malachy Sr.'s northern Irish roots and insists that Frank has inherited his father's “odd manner.”
- Laman Griffin - Angela's cousin and lover for a short time. Frank has a fight with Laman that causes Frank to move in with his Uncle Ab.
- The MacNamara sisters - Angela's cousins who live in New York. The MacNamara sisters are bossy, burly women who keep their husbands in check and interfere in everyone else's business.
- Mr. Timoney - An old eccentric to whom Frank reads Jonathan Swift's satirical essay “A Modest Proposal.” Mr. Timoney becomes a close friend of Frank's, in part because he respects Frank and treats him like an adult.
- Theresa Carmody - A seventeen-year-old consumptive girl with whom Frank has a sexual relationship. Frank desperately worries about the fate of Theresa's immortal soul, which he thinks he is jeopardizing by having premarital sex with her.
- The Hannons - Bridey Hannon is Angela's neighbor in Roden Lane and her favorite confidante. Bridey gives her friend much-needed support and empathy. Bridey's father is Mr. Hannon, whom Frank grows to love like a father after the old man gives him his first job delivering coal.
- Patricia Madigan - A young diphtheria patient whom Frank meets in the hospital while he is recovering from typhoid. Patricia reads poems to Frank and jokes with him.
- Seamus - The hospital janitor who helps Frank and Patricia communicate, and who later recites poetry to Frank in the eye hospital.
- Mrs. Brigid Finucane - The old woman to whose debtors Frank writes threatening letters.
- Mr. McCaffrey - Frank's boss at Easons, Ltd., a company that imports and distributes Protestant newspapers from Northern Ireland.
- The Molloys - Mikey Molloy is Frank's cross-eyed school friend who has fits and is an expert on sex-related topics. Mikey's father, Peter, is famous as the champion pint drinker of Limerick, while his mother, Nora, is well-known for her frequent visits to the insane asylum. Like Angela, Nora worries about how she will feed her family when her husband drinks away all his money.
- Billy Campbell - Another friend of Frank's who shares many adventures with him.
- Paddy Clohessy - A school friend of Frank's who lives in unbearable squalor as a child, but who eventually moves to England in order to earn more money for his family.
- Mr. O'Halloran - Frank's headmaster and teacher during his final year at school. “Hoppy” encourages Frank to go to America and find good employment rather than stay in a dead-end job in Ireland.
- Peter Dooley - Frank's hunchbacked friend who wants to work for the BBC as a radio newsreader.
Narrator, Frank McCourt, describes how his parents meet in Brooklyn, New York. After his mother, Angela, becomes pregnant with Frank, she marries Malachy, the father of her child. Angela struggles to feed her growing family of sons, while Malachy spends his wages on alcohol. Frank's much-loved baby sister, Margaret, dies and Angela falls into depression. The McCourts decide to return to Ireland. More troubles plague the McCourts in Ireland: Angela has a miscarriage, Frank's two younger brothers die, and Malachy continues to drink away the family's money. Frank's childhood is described as a time of great deprivation, but of good humor and adventure as well. When the first floor of the house floods during the winter, Angela and Malachy announce that the family will leave the cold damp of the first floor, which they call “Ireland,” and move to the warm, cozy second floor, which they call “Italy.” Although Malachy's alcoholism uses up all of the money for food, he earns Frank's love and affection by entertaining him with stories about Irish heroes and the people who live on their lane. Over the course of a few years, Angela gives birth to two sons, Michael and Alphonsus. Alphosus is called “Alphie” for short. As Frank grows older, the narration increasingly focuses on his exploits at school. When Frank turns ten, he is confirmed (Confirmation is a ritual that makes one an official Christian or Catholic. When Frank was growing up, people were confirmed around ages seven to ten). Right after his confirmation, Frank falls ill with typhoid fever and must stay in the hospital for months. There, he gets his first introduction to Shakespeare. Frank finds comfort in stories of all kinds, from Shakespeare to movies to newspapers. By the time he returns to school, his gift for language is obvious. In particular, Frank's flair for storytelling gets him noticed by his teacher. With the onset of World War II, many fathers in Limerick go to England to find work and send money back to their families. Eventually, Malachy goes as well, but he fails to send money home. Frank begins to work for Mr. Hannon. This is the first in a series of jobs. Frank will go on to work for Mr. Timoney, Uncle Ab, the post office, Mrs. Finucane, and Mr. McCaffrey. Frank enjoys the feeling of responsibility he gets from working, and he dreams of saving enough to provide his family with food and clothes. The McCourts get evicted from their lodgings and must move in with Angela's cousin Laman. Angela begins sleeping with Laman, an arrangement that makes Frank increasingly uncomfortable and angry. He also begins to feel guilty about his own sexual feelings. The priests' strict mandates against masturbation make Frank feel guilty when he masturbates. While working as a messenger boy, Frank begins a sexual relationship with a customer, Theresa Carmody, who eventually dies of consumption, leaving Frank heartbroken. Frank saves enough money to get to New York. On his first night there, he attends a party and sleeps with an American woman. Though sad to leave behind Ireland and his family, Frank has great expectations for the future.
The River Shannon
The symbolism of the River Shannon changes as Frank's outlook matures during his childhood and adolescence. Initially, the river symbolizes Limerick's bleakness and the brooding desolation of Frank's childhood. Frank associates the river with the endless rain that torments Limerick, which he describes as a virulent disease-carrying wetness that causes people to fall sick with coughs, asthma, consumption, and other diseases. As the memoir progresses, Frank begins to see the river as a route out of Limerick. As a result, it comes to symbolize escape, movement, and freedom. When Frank throws Mrs. Finucane's ledger into the river—thus liberating all of her remaining debtors—he suggests that soon he, like the ledger, will use the river to leave Ireland behind and set sail across the Atlantic.
Angela's Ashes takes its name from the ashes which fall from Angela's cigarettes and those in the fireplace at which she stares blankly. The entire setting of the narrative feels draped in ash—dark, decrepit, weak, lifeless, sunless. Angela's ashes represent her crumbling hopes: her dreams of raising a healthy family with a supportive husband have and collapsed, leaving her with only cigarettes for comfort and the smoldering ashes of a fire for warmth.
They can also symbolize her dead children and the constant threat of death to the surviving three as the family sinks further into poverty and illness. Indeed, the eleven year old Frank narrowly escapes death when he contracts typhoid.