The film is based upon the true story of Frank McCourt's youth as described in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Angela's Ashes: a Memoir. Beginning in New York, Angela (Emily Watson) and Malachy McCourt (Robert Carlyle) live with their six children: Malachy Jr., Frank, twins Eugene and Oliver, as well as a newborn daughter, who dies immediately. This first death drives Dad to drink and Mom to deep depression. Mom's sisters decide that the McCourt family can't make it in America and raise the money to send them back to Limerick, Ireland.
Living in a slummy area of Limerick called 'the Lanes' (which doesn't have running water except when it rains), Dad can't usually find work, and when he does he usually drinks it away. He's from the north and the people of Limerick are prejudiced. The twins die in turn and the family moves to bigger digs and live in dreadful poverty. Frank and Malacay Jr. go to school where they are subjected to nasty teachers and corporal punishment. All in all, it's not a pretty picture.