Frank and his friends at school plan to go on a bicycling trip to the nearby town of Killaloe. Frank borrows a bike from Laman, and looks forward to his trip. In the meantime, he entertains himself by reading. He’s especially fascinated with Butler’s Lives of the Saints. He learns more about Catholicism by reading the books. He finds the concepts of intercourse and copulation peculiar.
In this chapter, Frank begins coming to terms with his own sexuality. Not surprisingly, his first education in the matter comes from Catholic texts, which naturally inform him that sex is evil. For the time being, Frank is too young to understand sex in all its complexity.
In school, Frank does well. His teacher, O’Halloran, tells him that he has a sharp mind, and could make a good priest or politician. Angela, recognizing her son’s intelligence, takes him to the local Christian Brothers School—a secondary school where many wealthy families send their children. Angela speaks to priests who run the school, and they assure her that there’s no room at the school. Angela is upset, and she tells Frank that he must never let anyone “shut the door in his face” again. Frank replies that he wants a job, not more education. After he finishes at his current school, he’ll have no more school to attend.
Like Malachy Sr. years before, Angela recognizes that Frank is a talented student, and tries to give him the best opportunities. But like Malachy Sr., Angela fails to help her child get a good education. It’s possible that Angela is being discriminated against because of her poverty. It becomes clear that Frank will have to do something on his own to better his situation, rather than relying on his parents to help him out.
Frank discovers the concept of sex. He has wet dreams, and begins masturbating. In school, priests tell him that it’s wicked to enjoy sex out of marriage. Frank confesses his sins to priests, who tell him that he must repent or go to hell forever. Frank struggles to understand how sex could be a sin, especially since his most pleasurable sexual experiences take place in his dreams, when he isn’t in control of his thoughts.
Here, Frank begins to have doubts about the virtues of Catholicism. These doubts were already apparent in the scene when Frank threw up on Communion Day, but they’re magnified here—Frank can’t understand why people should be punished for their unconscious thoughts.
As Frank’s education draws to a close, priests attend his school and try to recruit students to become missionaries. Although O’Halloran urges him to go to America, Frank becomes interested in a missionary program with the Bedouin tribes. Frank convinces a parish priest to write him a recommendation letter. The priest claims that Frank, with his talent, could easily have gone into the program last year. Frank also needs a doctor’s note to prove that he’s healthy enough to travel. When he goes to a doctor, however, the doctor tells him to “go home to your mother.” As a result, Frank is unable to apply for the missionary program.
Throughout his life, Frank gets reminders of his own intelligence: his parents praise him, as do priests and teachers. And yet for every reminder of his abilities, Frank also receives a harsh reminder of his poverty and his sickliness. The doctor’s dismissive attitude to Frank echoes the priest who refused to admit Frank to school: he’s essentially saying, “You’re too poor and pathetic to be successful at anything.”
Frank is scheduled to go off on his biking trip to Killaloe tomorrow. That night, Laman Griffin comes home, very drunk. Frank reminds Laman that he’ll need his bike for tomorrow. Laman angrily tells Frank that he’s been neglecting his duties—Frank has forgotten to empty the chamber pot. As a result, Laman doesn’t give Frank the bicycle. Frank, furious, says that Laman can’t tell him what to do. Laman punches Frank in the shoulder and the head. Angela, who’s been watching this scene, begins to scream. Laman snorts and then eats some fish and chips.
Although McCourt doesn’t offer much insight into what he was thinking in this moment, it’s easy enough to surmise that Frank is angry about being forbidden from applying for the missionary position: he’s furious that he’s trapped in Limerick. Laman’s reaction is, of course, excessive as well. For all of Laman’s sophistication, he’s also an angry alcoholic, and not much different from Malachy Sr.
Frank goes to bed, crying and angry. He dreams of leaving Ireland and going to America. As he climbs into his bed, he hears the sound of Angela walking to Laman’s bed and lying down with him. That night, he continues to hear her crying and making strange noises. He recalls that Angela and Laman have slept in the same bed, “grunting, moaning,” for a long time now.
McCourt offers few details, but Angela and Laman are clearly sleeping in the same bed, and presumably having sex. This suggests that part of Frank’s anger reflects his confusion about sex and sexuality, and it also makes us wonder why Angela is doing such a thing—if she’s actually attracted to Laman, or if she just feels obligated to sleep with him because he’s providing her children with a home. This scene is also important because it shows, for the first time, Frank specifically longing to go to America.
Late at night, Frank wakes up, hungry. He goes wandering through the streets, hoping to run into an uncle or friend who can feed him. After a long period of searching, he realizes that he has no way of getting food. Then he sees his uncle Ab Sheehan. Ab, who notices that Frank has been punched in the face, takes him to his home. Inside, Frank sees the remains of a container of fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper. Frank is so desperate for food that he licks the newspaper, which is still stained with grease.
In this pathetic scene we’re reminded of how hopeless Frank’s situation is: he’s poor and sickly, meaning that he stands little chance of leaving Limerick, in spite of his intelligence. This scene is arguably the low-point of the memoir: the scene when Frank realizes that no one is going to help him get out of Limerick—at best, Ab Sheehan will give him a place to stay. He’ll have to do the hard work by himself.