Months pass, and Malachy Sr. sends no money to his family, even though he’s rumored to have gotten a job at a munitions factory. Because it’s cold and wet, the McCourts spend all their time in “Italy,” the loft area of their apartment, where it’s warmer. Meanwhile, Angela becomes deliriously ill. She’s bedridden all day, and yells out for her dead children: Eugene, Oliver, and Margaret McCourt. Desperate and hungry, Frank steals two bottles of lemonade and a loaf of bread that he finds next to the grocery store while he’s walking through the street. Frank is ashamed of what he’s done, especially because the goods belonged to the owner of a local grocery store.
It’s not explained how word of Malachy Sr.’s employment reaches Limerick (it’s not like Malachy has lots of friends who could report on this), but the point is clear enough: Malachy is cutting himself off from the rest of his family. Frank is now forced to steal to feed his starving family—a real-life version of the classic ethical dilemma. And yet Frank doesn’t throw all ethics out the window, as he still feels guilty about what he’s done.
The next morning, Frank walks to school and notices a large crate lying outside near a building. The crate contains milk, bread, cheese, and marmalade. Frank carefully steals some of the food and shoves it under his jacket. He’s amazed that no one in the street tries to stop him. Frank returns home and shares his food with his siblings. He gives Angela food, which she accepts, even though she’s weak and delirious.
It’s difficult to judge Frank too harshly for stealing food. He’s stealing to help his mother and his siblings—a good reason for stealing if ever there was one. Furthermore, Frank’s actions seem to be virtually victimless—he isn’t endangering anyone’s safety or health, since the food was probably intended for a prosperous family that could afford things like marmalade.
As the family eats, there’s a knock at the door. Outside, there’s a police officer named Dennehy. Dennehy explains that he’s come to talk to Angela McCourt about why her children have been absent from school. Frank explains that Angela is sick and Malachy Sr. is in England, and Dennehy is surprised. Dennehy tells Frank to go to his grandmother to make sure that he and his siblings are taken care of while Angela recovers. Frank does so, and at Margaret Sheehan’s house Margaret yells at him for being filthy. Frank leads Margaret back to his home, where Dennehy is still waiting.
In typical form, Margaret can’t see the forest for all the trees. She’s so focused on one particular act of misconduct—Frank being dirty, throwing up, etc.—that she can’t see the big picture: her extended family is dying of starvation. Margaret’s obliviousness is infuriating at the time, but, as usual, slightly amusing in retrospect.
At Frank’s home, Dennehy explains to Margaret Sheehan that someone needs to take care of Frank and his siblings. Margaret agrees that Angela, who clearly has pneumonia, should be sent to the hospital immediately—in the meantime, Frank and his siblings should live with their Aunt Aggie.
When the nuclear family is in shambles (Angela in the hospital, Malachy Sr. in England) the extended family swoops in to save the day and keep the children alive.
Frank and his siblings go to live with Aunt Aggie. During their first afternoon in their new home, Aggie is sharp and cruel with the children—she douses them in cold water, explaining that this will clean them and “cure” their laziness. She forbids them from speaking unless spoken to, but also gives them tea and bread. After a time, Pa Keating comes home, and Aggie explains to him that Frank and his siblings will be living with them for a time. Pa Keating seems to find this amusing and agreeable.
Aggie is a harsh, judgmental woman, much like Margaret. She tries to teach Frank and his siblings the “rules,” but the rules she stresses seem pedantic and pointless. Aggie seems to respond to the difficulties of life in Limerick by trying to exercise strict control over every aspect of her life.
As the days go on, Frank settles into his new routine with Aunt Aggie. Aggie feeds Frank bread and tea every morning, and then forces Frank to write a letter to his father about Angela’s condition. Frank enjoys spending time with Pa Keating, who plays cards with the children. Frank imagines having had Pa Keating for his own father—they could have had a great time laughing and drinking tea together. Aggie, however, is usually furious with Pa Keating, and tells him that she can’t stand the sight of him.
Frank finds Pa Keating to be a welcome relief from his own father—he’s like the good side of Malachy Sr., without the bad side. And yet there’s clearly more going on here than meets the eye, and there are typical marital squabbles in the house.
After a few weeks, Frank gets word from Aunt Aggie that Malachy Sr. is coming back from England to see Angela. Frank and his brothers go back to their home, where they find Malachy Sr. He explains that Angela is due to be released from the hospital in two days. Shortly after Angela is released, Malachy Sr. announces that he has to return to England. Angela is skeptical, and furious that Malachy Sr. has been living in England yet not sending his family any money. Malachy Sr. swears that he’ll send money soon. Indeed, two weeks after he returns to England, he sends his family 3 pounds, which Angela uses to buy food. Nevertheless, there are no telegrams with money in the following weeks. People joke that Malachy Sr. has found a “tart” in Piccadilly. Frank doesn’t understand what this means.
In this section—one of the last times Malachy Sr. appears in the book—we’re reminded of everything dislikeable about him. He seems sure that he’s going to turn over a new leaf when he returns to Ireland, and yet within a few hours he’s back to his old ways, drinking heavily and wasting his money. It’s highly likely, given the rumors about the “tart,” that Malachy Sr. has found other women to sleep with in England, women who aren’t confined by the Catholic ban on birth control. Frank’s cluelessness about the meaning of the word “tart” reminds us that he’s still a child in many ways, and the Catholic emphasis on sex-as-sin is a particular hindrance to his sexual maturation.
Frank takes on new responsibilities taking care of his younger brothers, while Angela looks for money and food. She begs outside churches, visits the Dispensary and de Paul Society, and asks people to lend her money. Sometimes, her efforts pay off and she’s able to buy corned beef for her family. At other times, she’s less successful, and can only buy potatoes. Whenever food is scarce, Alphie, the baby, is given the best food. Frank is embarrassed for his mother, but he’s glad to have food.
Angela is fiercely loyal to her family members, and she makes sure that the youngest and weakest of them (in this case, Alphie, the baby) is fed the best. Times of crisis separate adults from children: in crisis, Malachy Sr. turns to alcohol, while his wife denies herself and becomes more generous. Frank’s embarrassment at having a mother who begs is an early sign that he’s not satisfied with a life of poverty in Limerick; i.e., he’s going to turn to other methods of making money, both legal and illegal.