The McCourt family sails toward Moville, Ireland, from New York. They arrive after a week, and then travel to Belfast, where “Grandpa McCourt” (Malachy Sr.’s father) lives. As the family travels through the countryside, the children are delighted by the sights of cows and sheep—it’s the first time they’ve ever seen these animals in the flesh.
This is one of the more overt homages to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which there’s a similar scene involving cows and sheep. At first, Frank thinks of Ireland as a lovely, fantastical place, full of strange creatures. This will change quickly.
The family arrives at Grandpa McCourt’s house. There, he greets the family and gives them pancakes and eggs. At breakfast, Grandpa McCourt asks his son, Malachy Sr. how he intends to find work in Ireland, since conditions there are worse than in America. He suggests that Malachy Sr. go to search for work in Dublin, where there are more opportunities. The next day, the family boards a bus to Dublin.
The futility of the McCourt’s trip to Ireland is made clear right away: working conditions in Ireland are considerably worse than those in America, the country the McCourts just came from. The only advantage the McCourts will have here is the support of their family—even if that family disapproves of them.
In Dublin, Malachy Sr. goes to speak with a Mr. Heggarty, an official in the IRA (Irish Republican Army). Malachy Sr. explains that he fought for the IRA, and is entitled to some money. Heggarty claims there’s no record of Malachy’s service in this capacity. Malachy becomes angry, and demands money to buy a pint of beer. Heggarty sends him out of the building and warns him never to come back.
It becomes more clear that Malachy Sr. may have fought in the Easter Rising of 1916—the rebellion that led to the independence of an Irish Republic following World War I. It’s possible that the IRA official is prejudiced against Malachy Sr. because he looks like a Northerner (and thus an opponent of the IRA), or else Malachy may be actually exaggerating his “service.” In any event, it’s clear that Malachy Sr. is loyal to the Southern Irish population, not to his Northern heritage.
Malachy Sr. brings his family to a police station, where he’s forced to ask the officers if he and his family can spend the night there (this wasn’t uncommon in Ireland at the time). The police guards offer the McCourts more food, which they eagerly accept. The next day, the police officers reveal that they’ve raised enough money to send Malachy Sr. and his family to Limerick, where there should be more work. Before the family leaves, Malachy Sr. takes Frank to see the famous statue of Cuchulain that stands in the center of the town. Frank is thrilled to finally see his hero.
McCourt never explains exactly why the police officers assist Malachy Sr. so extravagantly—the scene is depicted from a child’s point of view, so that our knowledge of the details is highly limited. Even in a moment when McCourt depicts him as pathetic, Malachy Sr. isn’t an entirely unsympathetic figure. He’s not a strong man or a good worker, but he does seem fairly close to Frank—he even goes out of his way to show Frank the statue of Cuchulain, since he’d been telling Frank stories about the legendary Irish hero back in Brooklyn.
The McCourts travel by train to Limerick with the last of their money. In Limerick, Margaret Sheehan is waiting for them, already seeming furious with Angela and Malachy Sr. She criticizes Malachy Sr. for smoking, and Frank can see that she’s angry with her daughter for marrying him. Margaret takes the McCourts to her home, where she draws the children’s attention to a cross hanging over the fireplace. When neither Frank nor Malachy Jr. seems interested, Margaret mutters that Irish children should know about the Sacred Heart.
Margaret Sheehan is like Limerick personified: she’s generous with her time and money, but in her attitude is extremely hostile to all those who aren’t from Southern Ireland (especially the Northern Irish), and is also fiercely religious, criticizing Frank and his siblings for not knowing more about Catholicism. Frank has been raised in America, far from the environment of strict, nationalistic Catholicism that pervades daily life in Limerick.
In the evening of their first day in Margaret Sheehan’s house, Frank begins to see how packed his new living situation is. Margaret, his grandmother, lives with Angela’s sister, Aunt Aggie. Aggie and Angela will have to sleep together, and Frank will sleep with his siblings. The next day, Margaret and Aggie take Angela to a local boardinghouse, where Aggie lives with her husband, Pa Keating—Angela and her family are to live there. Margaret pays the rent in the room, and gives Angela cutlery, pots, etc. The McCourts settle into their new home, still depending entirely on Margaret’s money. During the day, Malachy Sr. claims to go off in search of work, but he fails to find any.
In spite of Margaret’s harsh manner with Frank and his siblings, she proves herself to be an extremely generous person, donating her time, money, and property to ensure her extended family’s survival. The family bond determines much of what the people of Limerick do—when Angela shows up before her mother, begging for financial assistance, Margaret doesn’t even consider refusing her help, however much she might disapprove of her daughter’s life choices.
The McCourts’ new home becomes infested with fleas. Malachy Sr. tries to better the problem by “beating” his mattress, but nothing works. One night, Malachy Sr. shakes Frank awake and tells him Angela is in great pain. The other McCourts wake up and realize that they’re covered in fleabites—their skin is red and bloody. One night, Malachy Sr. rushes Angela to a hospital. He comes home the next morning, saying that Angela will be all right soon. Frank overhears his Aunt Aggie saying, “The child is lost.”
The McCourts endure a great deal of physical pain and sickness as a result of their poverty in Limerick. From Aggie’s remark, we can surmise that Angela has had a miscarriage. As we’ve seen before, McCourt depicts this scene—a very adult scene—the way a child like Frank would perceive it; i.e., barely understanding what’s going on.
A few days later, Malachy Sr. concludes that there’s no way for a man with a Northern Irish accent to find work in Limerick. He goes on unemployment benefits, and gets a measly 19 shillings a week—not even close to enough to support a family of six. To make matters worse, Malachy Sr. smokes more and more cigarettes, depriving his family of money. Even Angela smokes as well.
It’s difficult to tell if Malachy Sr. is right to say that no work is available for a Northern Irishman in Limerick, or if he’s only lying to himself to justify his failures and excuse his drinking. McCourt has provided ample evidence for both possibilities.
To get more money, Angela and her family walk to the local Quaker church, run by Mr. Quinlivan. Angela tells Quinlivan that her daughter, Margaret McCourt, died only a few months ago. Quinlivan promises to send people to Angela’s house, where they’ll determine that Angela’s need for food is genuine, and then provide her with money. Angela also learns from the women in Limerick which grocery stores to attend to get the most food for her money.
Angela turns to charity in the absence of a husband who can support her. In sharp contrast to her husband’s laziness and hopelessness, Angela works hard, researching the best ways to spend her money. While on the surface, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything difficult about what she’s doing—just collecting money from other people—McCourt makes it clear that Angela is actually the hardest working member of her family.
After the Quakers provide Angela with some money, Angela and a woman she’s befriended, Nora Molloy, sit outside, smoking and talking. Nora Molloy reminisces about falling in love with her husband, Peter Molloy, a “boozer with the charm.” Nora coughs heavily and complains that either smoking or consumption (tuberculosis) will kill her. Nora also advises Angela to go to the St. Vincent de Paul society for more charity.
There’s a mood of hopelessness everywhere in Limerick—the people joke about dying, as if their only remaining option is to make light of their miserable situation. Angela takes Nora’s advice to heart, and she goes to the de Paul Society for the rest of the book.
In the coming weeks, Angela manages to support her family by collecting charity and appealing to people’s sympathy. One day, a woman in the street gives Angela an onion and pepper—supposedly a good medicine for young children. Aunt Aggie and Pa Keating also help to support Frank and his siblings—they’re amazed that the children haven’t heard of basic things like porridge.
In the absence of a reliable husband who can support her, Angela turns to the next-best thing: her family. The helpfulness of Nora, Aggie, and the others—all of whom presumably have troubles of their own—makes Malachy’s hopelessness seem more pathetic, and more clearly a product of his own delusion, depression, or alcoholism.
The chapter cuts ahead to one evening when Frank is about to go to sleep. His parents are out of the house, and Oliver is with them. Frank goes to sleep, but a few hours later, he feels his father waking him up. Malachy Sr. explains that Oliver has died of the cold. Malachy Sr. and Angela weep profusely. Malachy Sr., Pa Keating, and Frank go to the local pub. There, Frank sees his father and Pa Keating drinking “black stuff” from a glass. Malachy Sr. becomes angry when the bartender cuts him off—he yells that he “did his bit” for Ireland in 1916, and then begins weeping for Oliver once again.
In this tragic scene, Frank loses yet another sibling. It’s telling that Malachy Sr. turns to alcohol for comfort and relief soon after Oliver goes to the hospital. Malachy Sr. is almost a sympathetic character here—as the book goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that Malachy did in fact fight for the South of Ireland against England. He’s fought for Limerick, and yet Limerick still despises him for being born in the North.
The next day, Frank and his family go to the hospital, where Oliver’s body is placed in a coffin and sent to the cemetery to be buried. Angela weeps as she watches Oliver being buried. She worries aloud that Eugene—the surviving twin—will grow up strange because he misses his brother.
Even in a moment of tragedy, Angela doesn’t have the luxury of wallowing—she must already think ahead to the next thing, in this case, the happiness of her remaining child, Eugene.
The next day, Malachy Sr. goes to collect his unemployment benefits, and promises to bring home groceries that afternoon. He doesn’t return until late in the evening, however, and when he returns he’s extremely drunk. Angela yells at Malachy Sr. for starving his family, and he’s too drunk to reply.
Malachy Sr.’s drunkenness is almost literally murderous—by spending money on alcohol, he’s depriving his children of the food they need to survive. We can feel Angela’s frustration, and it seems totally justified.
In the coming days, Angela insists that she wants to move to a new home—she can’t stand being in a flea-ridden place where her own child died. She suggests moving to a room on Windmill Street, near the local school. From now on, she goes with her husband to collect unemployment benefits—Malachy Sr. doesn’t like this, since it limits his “drinking money,” but because he’s been feeling guilty, he doesn’t stop her. Angela begins to save more money. She’s able to move her family to a new apartment room by promising to pay the rent soon.
While Malachy Sr. tries to “forget” about the tragedies in his life using alcohol, Angela can’t escape so easily. As a result, she’s forced to turn to other forms of escape—in this case, literally moving to a different building to avoid the tragic memories of Oliver.
Frank and his siblings begin going to school. School is a terrifying place—Frank is bullied for sounding like a “Yank,” and when he protests, the schoolmaster, Mr. O’Dea, beats him with a cane. Frank learns that O’Dea hates the English with a special passion.
Frank experiences being bullied for being an “outsider.” From an early age, then, he’s already conscious of being different from the people around him, and of the strong “group mentality” in Limerick.
In the coming weeks, Malachy Jr. and Frank try to play with Eugene. Eugene was very close with Oliver, and misses his brother terribly. He never laughs, and barely eats. Six months after Oliver’s death, Eugene dies of pneumonia. The doctor points out that the McCourts have chest problems, and need to be careful to keep warm and dry. Angela is devastated by the loss of another child—she sleeps for longer hours, and often can’t force herself to get out of bed. Malachy Sr. retreats to the pubs, just as he did when Oliver died. Eventually, Margaret Sheehan has to convince Angela to get out of bed in the morning. Margaret explains that Angela is still a mother—she has living children to take care of.
Here we see Angela temporarily succumbing to the tragedies of her life and giving up on her duties as a mother, even if only for a few days. It’s telling that Margaret Sheehan, Angela’s mother, is the one who pulls Angela out of her depression—we can sense that Margaret herself experienced similar adversity as a much younger woman, and now has to convince her child to move on with her life. While men in Limerick are tasked with making money and working, McCourt suggests that women, especially mothers, have a much more challenging job.
At Eugene’s funeral, all of Frank’s family is in attendance, including aunts and uncles he’s never met before. Malachy Sr. shows up drunk for the funeral. Margaret is furious with him, and she hisses that his own child deserves his dignity.
Malachy Sr. isn’t even stable enough to stay sober at his own son’s funeral—and yet it’s also the tragedy of his son’s death that makes him drink more in the first place.
After Eugene’s funeral, Frank’s life changes. He sleeps with Malachy Jr. in Eugene’s old bed, and thinks about how cold Eugene must be, buried in the ground.
Frank is capable of great feats of sympathy and imagination, and here he gives us an especially heartbreaking image of his lost brother.