Frank is now ten years old, and ready to be confirmed at St. Joseph’s Church. He studies with Mr. O’Dea at school, preparing for difficult questions about Catholicism. Outside of school, Mikey Molloy laughs at Frank for being confirmed—he insists that Catholicism is a sham, and encourages people to foolishly “die for the faith.” Frank has a lot of respect for Mikey, who’s now fourteen. Still, he’s looking forward to Confirmation if only because he’ll get some “collection”—money to spend on the movies and candy.
Mikey Molloy vocalizes some of the things that Frank has been implying for the last 50 pages. Frank doesn’t believe that Catholicism in its entirety is a sham, but he recognizes that it often hurts the people it’s supposed to help, and punishes people for things utterly beyond their control (Frank being hit for throwing up, for example).
Frank knows a boy named Peter Dooley, who the other boys have cruelly nicknamed Quasimodo, due to his hunchback. Dooley has ambitions of working for the BBC in London, since nobody cares how a radio announcer looks. The other boys, including Frank, offer to pay Quasimodo a shilling for every time he lets them peep at his sisters’ naked bodies. Quasimodo is reluctant, but in the end he always accepts the money.
Even the young children in Limerick are strongly motivated by a desire to survive and prosper. Peter Dooley is so desperate to leave Limerick and move to London, it seems, that he’s willing to betray his own family for some extra money. In the process, he breaks a cardinal rule of life in Limerick: valuing one’s family above all else.
One night, Frank, Mikey, and some other boys go with Peter Dooley to see his naked sisters. While they’re staring in the dark, Mikey has a nervous fit, and rolls around on the ground. Peter’s mother, hearing noise, comes rushing outside. She calls for a doctor immediately, but also recognizes what Peter has been up to. She calls the boys’ parents and tells them that their children have been bad. Angela and Malachy Sr. are furious with Frank for his behavior. They make him swear never to see Peter again.
It was inevitable that Peter Dooley would be punished for his actions, as Limerick is simply too small and close-knit for such a secret to stay hidden for very long. Even though Peter has been making money in the worst possible way—pimping out his sisters without their knowledge, essentially—there’s also something poignant about the way his family instantly crushes his ambitions of escaping from Limerick.
The next day is Confirmation. Frank goes through confirmation without any problems, and afterwards he’s excited to go to the cinema with the other boys. But suddenly, his nose starts bleeding. He throws up, and Angela takes him home to get some rest. The local doctor comes to check up on Frank. The doctor says that Frank is going through growing pains. Frank develops a fever and begins losing more and more blood from his nose—so much blood that he’s rushed to the hospital and given a blood injection.
Whenever Frank is about to enjoy something in his life—a movie, for example—usually something bad happens that gets in the way of his pleasure. (Actually, McCourt has been criticized for exaggerating the level of misery he experienced as a child.) The doctor’s diagnosis—“growing pains”—is ironic, since we’ve already seen many of the “pains” of Frank’s adolescence: he’s racked by guilt and confusion.
Frank spends days in the fever ward of the hospital. The doctors tell him he’s developed typhoid, and when the news of this gets out, Frank is teased for being sickly. Nevertheless, the boys at the Confraternity pray for him to recover. Angela visits Frank on Thursdays—Malachy Sr., meanwhile, is supposedly working at Rank’s Flour Mill. Frank makes a friend at the hospital, a girl named Patricia Madigan. Patricia is generous and kind to Frank, and she even gives him some of the candy her relatives send her.
Even when Frank is potentially about to die—typhoid was a pretty serious illness at the time—life carries on without him. The rest of the family continues working and Malachy even gets a job to make up for the lost income from Frank’s illness. Frank makes what seems to be his first real female friend in Patricia.
In the hospital, Frank reads a book about the history of the English kings. Frank also learns songs from Patricia. He begins to look forward to every afternoon, when he eats lunch with her. Then, one afternoon, Patricia isn’t at lunch. Frank learns from a hospital janitor, a man named Seamus, that Patricia has died.
Frank continues his education while he’s in the hospital—in fact, it’s entirely likely that he’s pushed to read and write more because he’s in the hospital. Patricia’s death comes as yet another tragedy in Frank’s life—almost as soon as he makes a new friend, she is snatched away.
Seamus gives Frank more books to read in the coming weeks. Weeks pass, and soon it is August. Frank isn’t sure when—if ever—he’ll be released from the hospital. At the hospital, Frank is given nutritious food and gets plenty of rest. He reads constantly, and especially enjoys the novels of P.G. Wodehouse.
Frank’s enjoyment of P.G. Wodehouse—an English comic writer who wrote almost entirely about the foibles of the British upper classes, while also making fun of the Irish and the Scottish—is an early sign that he’s moving past the cultural limits of Limerick. Instead of naively despising the English as a whole, Frank is beginning to accept that there’s a whole world outside of Ireland, full of things worthy of his admiration.
In November, Frank is released from the hospital. Angela tells him that he’ll have to repeat the 5th form with his brother Malachy Jr., since he’s missed two months of school. Frank is glum about going to classes with his brother. One day, shortly after classes begin, a “miracle” happens. Frank finds a penny in the street. Although he wants to buy toffee with the penny, he decides to spend his money differently. He walks to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi (his patron saint) and prays for Francis to get him out of the 5th form, offering his penny.
For one of the first times in the memoir, we see Frank voluntarily engaging in Catholic ritual. He’s not confessing or praying because others are telling him to—rather, he’s accepting the importance of Catholicism in his own private life. Perhaps the near-brush with death in the hospital has convinced him to take religion more seriously.
One day shortly after Frank’s prayer to his patron saint, Mr. O’Dea, the 5th form teacher, assigns the students to write a short composition. Frank’s composition, on the subject of Christ and the weather, impresses O’Dea. Frank writes insightfully about the climate in the Middle East and in Limerick, and points out that if Christ had been born in Ireland, he’d have died of consumption before the age of 33. O’Dea is so impressed with Frank’s work that he immediately sends him to the 6th form with his friends, Paddy and Fintan.
Frank’s experiences in the hospital seem to have paid off—we sense that he wouldn’t have written such a good composition if he hadn’t been reading Wodehouse in the hospital for all those months. Even if Frank would never admit it at the time, Frank proves to his teachers that he’s an intelligent student, and worthy of being in a higher grade.
In the 6th form, Frank studies with Mr. Thomas L. O’Halloran, and learns about history, math, and grammar. O’Halloran is sometimes surprisingly realistic about Irish history—for instance, he admits that during Ireland’s wars with England, there was “cruelty on both sides.” Frank has always been taught that the Irish were never anything but noble in warfare—now his schoolmaster is telling him just the opposite.
Frank’s education in Irish history reflects his growing discomfort with the small-mindedness of life in Limerick. The Irish are taught that their country is the greatest in the world, and that England is the worst. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. It’s a mark of the narrow-mindedness of Limerick that O’Halloran’s lesson comes as such a surprise to Frank.
As Frank goes through the 6th form, he gains more perspective on his own life. He becomes more and more aware that his father is an alcoholic, and is endangering his entire family’s safety. And yet Frank still loves his father. In the early mornings Malachy Sr. and Frank wake up before everyone else, and Malachy reads the paper and tells Frank about the dangers of Hitler, Mussolini, and Francisco Franco. Frank feels like this time spent with his father is special and secret. In the mornings, Malachy Sr. is a good father, but at night, he’s a disaster.
As Frank matures, he begins to see the world in more nuanced terms, perhaps encouraged by O’Halloran’s example. Malachy Sr., as usual, is a contradictory and complex character, and Frank starts to better understand his complexities now. Frank can acknowledge that at times he shares a special bond with his father, but at other times he hates his father for keeping them in poverty.
Winter approaches, and the McCourt house becomes cold and dirty. Angela complains that the stench from the nearby toilet will kill them all. On Christmas, Angela sends Frank to eat dinner at the hospital where he stayed in the fall—they’re offering food to recent patients, and Frank would be a fool not to collect a free meal in the middle of winter. At the hospital, Frank greets his old nurses, and eats a delicious dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes.
Frank’s stint in the hospital turns out to be a boon in more way than one: not only does it provide him with good literature to read, but it also provides him with a free meal for Christmas. Frank seems to feel no shame about accepting food for nothing—his hunger is a more powerful force.
The next morning, Frank walks through the streets with his brother Michael. They pass by a stable, in which a horse is neighing and struggling with a group of farmers. Michael and Frank know from experience that the men are going to put down the horse by shooting it. Michael cries out for Frank to do something—to convince the men to let the horse live. Michael becomes so enraged that he tries to attack the men. They push him back, since he’s only a young child, and proceed to shoot their horse.
In this concluding section, we see the tension between Frank and Michael’s worldview and that of the adults in Limerick. Becoming a man in Limerick seems to involve becoming hardened and callous, and the two boys are still too young and compassionate to be “real men.” Frank has matured considerably in this chapter, but he has a long way to go before he can call himself a man, at least in the way Limerick defines the word.