It’s nearly time for Frank, who is now seven years old, to take his First Communion—in other words, to become a true Catholic. To do this young boys must memorize the catechism (a series of questions and answers about Catholic doctrine). To study, Frank relies on his neighbor, Mikey Molloy, who’s a few years older than he. Mikey reads a great deal, and also suffers from fits. Frank also knows that Mikey’s mother, Nora Molloy, is a friend of his mother’s. Nora sometimes goes to the local asylum to escape from her husband, Peter Molloy, who is supposedly a champion drinker. Mikey is rumored to have a brilliant memory.
As the memoir goes on, it’s increasingly obvious that Catholicism occupies a central role in the characters’ lives. To be an adult in Limerick is to be a confirmed Catholic—thus, it’s an important rite of passage for everyone in Limerick to take communion. While communion represents the importance of community and the group in Limerick, the communion ritual is also an early opportunity for Frank to exercise his own intelligence by memorizing the prayers and catechism.
Frank goes to talk with Mikey about the catechism. Mikey sits in the streets, reading a book. Frank remembers that Mikey himself never took Communion, because the priests couldn’t risk Mikey having one of his “fits” and choking on the wafer. Nevertheless, Mikey is happy to answer Frank’s questions—Mikey claims to have read enough about Catholicism to be an authority on the subject. He explains that each child gets a “collection” on Communion Day—a small quantity of money. Mikey adds that because he never took Communion, he’s not a real Catholic, and thus he can do whatever he wants.
Bizarrely, a simple physical problem in Mikey makes it impossible for Mikey to become a Catholic—and thus impossible (supposedly) for his soul to go to heaven. Ironically, though, Mikey is an “expert” on Catholicism. Although Frank isn’t aware of it now, Mikey is something of a role model for him: Mikey proudly accepts that he’s different from the people around him, and celebrates this by strengthening his knowledge and intelligence.
In school, Frank is trained in the Ten Commandments, the Seven Virtues, and other information he’ll need for his Communion Day. The master, Benson, quizzes students on the Commandments and beats them if they forget the information. The children practice taking Communion by swallowing bits of paper. Frank finds that he can memorize information easily, and never makes mistakes. In the evenings, he spends time with Malachy Jr. and Mikey. He realizes that the Molloys are just like his family—complete with a drunk father who’s never at home. Mikey, like Frank, knows all about the life of Cuchulain, and together, the two of them tell Cuchulain stories to Malachy Jr. Mikey also tells Frank a “dirty” story about a pissing contest featuring Cuchulain’s wife.
McCourt doesn’t skimp on details of the memorization process, and there’s a good reason for this: being a Catholic is a central part of life in the Limerick community. In other words, it’s of paramount importance that every single child in Limerick memorize the Catholic rites and rituals, until they’re as much a part of their existence as the multiplication table. Through his friendship with the older Mikey, Frank starts going through other “coming of age” rituals, like hearing dirty stories and having his idols de-idealized, even as he’s also learning his catechism.
On Confession Day, the young boys of the neighborhood are assembled and sent to church. There, they have their first confession. Inside the confession box, Frank sees a large crucifix. He confesses his sins to the priest: he stole a penny, and listened to a story about Cuchulain and a “pissing contest.” The priest claims to be shocked that Frank heard the story from Mikey, who read the story in a book—the priest insists that books can be a source of evil.
McCourt establishes a conflict between the dictates of the Catholic church and Frank’s own desire to learn, read, and tell stories. The Church wants to control what stories matter, and generally limit them to the stories of the Bible. For Frank to develop an interest in other stories, such as those of Cuchulain, is something of a threat to the church’s authority.
On Communion Day, the children wake up early. Frank, however, oversleeps. He’s rushed to church, excited for communion because Mikey has told him that in the evening, his parents will take him to the cinema. Frank takes the traditional wafer, and swallows it without problem. Later, Frank goes to eat breakfast with Margaret Sheehan, his grandmother. He’s so excited that he throws up his breakfast. Furious that Frank has “thrown up Christ,” Margaret sends Frank back to church for another confession. When Frank explains what he’s done, the priest tells Frank to tell Margaret to wash Christ away with water.
This scene is both comical and serious—we get the sense that Frank was miserable at the time, but now, decades later, he can see the humor in his situation. Margaret’s dogmatic belief in the sacredness of communion leads her to yell at Frank for throwing up. It’s plain that McCourt, in retrospect, finds this ridiculous: a child shouldn’t be punished for throwing up. Amusingly, Margaret seems even more dogmatically religious than the priest, who, based on his response, may have had to deal with this situation before.
In the evening, Margaret Sheehan, still angry about Frank’s “sinful” vomiting, forbids Frank to see a film at the cinema. Because of Frank’s sickness, he’s missed the collection as well—he has no money to see the film. Angela takes Frank to the cinema, hoping that he’ll be allowed in without money. At the cinema, Frank finds Mikey. Mikey offers to create a diversion—he’ll fake a fit, allowing Angela and Frank to sneak into the theater without being seen. Angela is a little skeptical that this is the right thing to do, but Mikey points out that he’s not a real Catholic, and thus can sin as much as he wants.
The more miserable Frank becomes due to Margaret’s punishments, the more absurd Margaret herself seems. Her willingness to blame a child for being sick—as if the child wanted to throw up—makes her seem utterly oblivious to the real world. Mikey’s jaunty insistence that he’s not a real Catholic sounds almost like an invitation to Frank—if Catholicism means being punished for throwing up, then it’s hard to imagine him wanting to be a Catholic.