Frank is in 4th form at school, and his teacher is Mr. O’Neill. O’Neill—or Dotty, as he’s nicknamed—is a strange man, alternately angry and kindly. He praises Brendan Quigley for being curious about Euclid (the “father of geometry”) and mathematics. O’Neill urges the children to celebrate Euclid for bringing the Western world “grace and elegance.”
O’Neill’s manner is a striking departure from what we’ve seen in the other characters in the memoir. Instead of stressing the importance of Catholicism, he celebrates the study of mathematics, and seems to have a wider view on the rest of the world.
The day after O’Neill praises Euclid in front of his classes, the students are surprised to find O’Neill being chewed out by his superior, Mr. O’Dea, for teaching the children information intended for older students—Euclid doesn’t come until a couple years later in the curriculum. O’Neill continues to teach his students in an unorthodox way, however. He quizzes his class on religion, history, and current events, and calls students foolish if they get the questions wrong.
Frank is clearly fascinated by Mr. O’Neill, and it’s not hard to see why: O’Neill is another outsider, clearly at odds with his peers and his superiors at school. Frank has always been interested in outsiders in one form or another, whether it’s his own father, Mikey, or O’Neill.
One day, a student named Fintan Slattery gets a question right, and O’Neill rewards him with pieces of apple. Fintan asks if he can give away some of his apple to his “friends,” Frank, Brendan Quigley, and Paddy Clohessy. Frank is embarrassed by this, since Fintan is unpopular and often bullied—to be associated with Fintan is an invitation for more bullying. At lunch, Fintan offers to take Frank, Brendan, and Paddy to his flat. There, Fintan tells Frank that today is the day of his patron saint, Francis. Fintan’s mother offers the boys cheese sandwiches—this is the first time Frank has ever had a sandwich of any kind. Fintan tells his “friends” that he enjoys looking at them, a statement that confuses Frank greatly.
Consistent with his behavior in the earlier chapters of the book, Frank is reluctant to belong to a “group”—in this case, the group of Fintan’s supposed friends. Frank’s priority at this point is keeping safe, and he knows that if he’s grouped together with Fintan in his peers’ imaginations, then he’ll be bullied even more. And yet there’s also an upside to befriending Fintan, as he gets some good food. Fintan is, as far as we can tell, a completely good character—generous, kind, etc., so it’s telling that he seems so out of place in Limerick. It’s also heavily implied that Fintan is homosexual, something that’s taboo in the pious Catholic town of Limerick.
Several days later, Fintan invites Frank and Paddy to his house for another meal. They accept, since they’re very hungry, but at Fintan’s house, they’re not given any food. Annoyed, Frank and Paddy leave Fintan’s house. Instead of going back to school, they cut through a cow farm and end up running in the rain. Suddenly, Brendan Quigley comes running to Frank, saying that O’Neill has sent a note to Frank’s house, explaining that Frank skipped school in the afternoon. Rather than go home, Frank decides to go to Paddy’s house. There, Frank meets Mr. and Mrs. Clohessy. Mr. Dennis Clohessy, who’s suffering from a serious case of tuberculosis, remembers dancing with Angela years before at a dance.
Like so much of Angela’s Ashes, Fintan’s behavior is never satisfactorily explained to us. Frank begins to better understand his mother as a complex human being when he realizes that Angela had an entire other life before she married Malachy Sr. and had kids. She could, presumably, have married any number of other people, including Dennis. This reminiscence is rendered especially poignant by the fact that Dennis is sick, and may even be dying, never to dance with Angela again.
Frank ends up spending the night at Paddy’s house. Early the next morning, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Angela, who’s gotten O’Neill’s note about Frank’s truancy. Dennis greets Angela, who’s furious with Frank—but soon, Angela and Dennis reminisce about dancing years before. In the middle of their conversation, Angela begins coughing heavily, and Dennis joins in—they both have weak chests. After some more talk, Angela leads Frank out. The chapter ends, “I’m very sorry for the Clohessys and all their troubles but I think they saved me from getting into trouble with my mother.”
Frank is, in a word, “frank” about his reasons for doing things. Here, for instance, he doesn’t dance around the facts: he’s glad that the Clohessy’s misery saved him from punishment. More to the point, however, we see that Angela and Dennis have a “history” together—Angela knew Dennis well, and seems to have had feelings for him before she married Malachy Sr. Tragically, the only bond left between them now is their suffering, symbolized by their similarly rattling coughs.