In the 1920s, Malachy McCourt, a Northern Irish Brooklyn resident, meets Angela Sheehan, who’s from Limerick, Ireland. They have sex, and Angela becomes pregnant—as a result, Angela’s strict Catholic family forces Malachy to marry Angela. Their child, Frank McCourt, is the narrator of the book.
Frank grows up in Brooklyn. When he’s a small child, his parents give birth to a boy, Malachy Jr., as well as twins, Oliver and Eugene. Frank takes care of his younger brothers, keeping them company and playing with them while his parents try to find work. Life is very hard for the McCourts—there’s not enough food to go around, and often Malachy (Sr.) is too interested in drinking to keep a reliable job. Despite his alcoholism, Malachy Sr. is often a loving father to Frank, and tells him wonderful stories about Irish heroes of the past. Around the beginning of the Great Depression, Angela gives birth to a daughter, Margaret, who dies shortly thereafter. Angela is devastated. Afterwards, Malachy Sr. begins drinking more and more, essentially taking food out of his children’s mouths. Angela’s cousins, Delia Fortune and Philomena Flynn, arrange for her family to travel back to Ireland, where there might be more work for Malachy Sr.
The McCourts sail to Ireland, where they settle in Limerick. There, Angela’s mother, Margaret Sheehan, provides Angela and Malachy Sr. with food and shelter. Margaret despises Malachy Sr. for being a Northerner and a bad husband. In the coming weeks, Malachy Sr. looks for work, but whenever he finds a job, he spends his wages on huge amounts of beer. Sometimes, he comes home late at night, drunkenly singing, and wakes Frank and his siblings up by telling them to swear to “die for Ireland.” Angela supports her family by accepting money from her mother and going to local charities such as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Meanwhile, Frank’s younger brother Oliver dies of the cold. Angela in particular is devastated by this news—for days, she can barely move. Eugene, Oliver’s twin, becomes quiet and sad, no matter how hard Frank tries to cheer him up. Malachy Sr. responds to Oliver’s death by drinking more than ever. Shortly after Oliver’s death, Frank begins going to the local Limerick school, where he begins to learn math, Irish history, and the tenets of Catholicism. With a year, Angela gives birth to a new child, Michael McCourt. Shortly afterwards, Eugene dies.
At the age of 7, Frank is preparing for his First Communion, an important Catholic ceremony. On the day of his communion, Frank is so nervous that he vomits after taking communion, angering Margaret. Around this time, Frank befriends a local boy named Mikey Molloy who never took communion (and therefore never became a Catholic) because of his muscle spasms. Mikey has a carefree attitude—he says that it doesn’t matter if he sins, since he’s going to hell anyway. Frank enters the 4th form in school, where he learns about mathematics and befriends other students, such as Brendan Quigley and Paddy Clohessy. Frank also begins earning money by reading books to an elderly man, Mr. Timoney. Shortly after Frank begins working, Angela gives birth to another child, Alphonsus Joseph, or Alphie. Although Angela’s family sends extra money to take care of the new baby, Malachy Sr. spends most of the money on beer.
At the age of 10, Frank prepares for his confirmation—the day when he goes to confession for the first time. He confesses minor sins to the priest, but soon afterwards, he develops a horrible fever. Frank ends up spending the next four months in the Limerick hospital, being treated for typhoid. In the hospital, Frank reads about the history of English kings and makes friends with a young girl named Patricia Madigan, who’s also being treated for serious illness. In the end, Patricia dies while Frank survives and is released from the hospital.
In the early 1940s, Frank enters the 6th form, where he studies with an eccentric, charismatic teacher, Thomas L. O’Halloran. O’Halloran teaches Frank that the history of Ireland is full of bloodshed and tragedy, and stresses that the Irish were cruel aggressors as well as victims. Frank is a bright student, and earns praise from his teachers. Meanwhile, Angela and Malachy Sr. argue about their future together. Angela refuses to have any more children—and since she’s a Catholic (and can’t use any kind of birth control), this means not having sex with her husband anymore. Partly for this reason, and partly because it’s rumored that there’s more work available abroad, Malachy Sr. leaves Limerick for England. He promises to send his family money from his job, but after he leaves money rarely comes. Ironically, Malachy Sr.’s new employment makes life harder for Angela and her family, since now Angela is forbidden from claiming unemployment benefits.
Angela becomes deliriously sick, and is sent to the hospital. In the meantime, Frank and his siblings go to live with their Aunt Aggie, Angela’s sister. Aggie is a sharp, cruel woman, and she frequently accuses Frank of being lazy and useless. Aggie’s husband, Pa Keating, is kinder, though he drinks too much. With Keating’s direction, Frank sends a letter to Malachy Sr., explaining Angela’s suffering. Malachy Sr. comes home to visit Angela while she’s in the hospital. He leaves shortly after she’s released, swearing that he’ll send money more regularly. However, after he leaves for England he stops sending telegrams or money, and it’s rumored that he’s found a new woman.
At the age of 12, Frank begins working for an old man named Mr. Hannon. He delivers bags of coal, a job that pays well but weakens his already bad eyes. At the end of the year, Malachy Sr. comes home for Christmas. He claims that he’s a new man. By this point, Frank has begun to despise his father for taking the money that should go to feed Frank’s siblings. Sure enough, Malachy Sr. drinks heavily while he’s home, and he leaves the day after Christmas, never to return.
Angela and her family are evicted from their home. They go to stay with Angela’s cousin, Gerard “Laman” Griffin. Frank realizes that Laman is a cruel, violent bully. He also becomes aware that Angela and Laman are sleeping together. One evening, Frank and Laman have a loud argument, and Laman hits him in the face. Furious, Frank goes to stay with his uncle, Ab Sheehan. Frank also begins to discover his own sexuality. He masturbates frequently, always feeling guilty for doing so. In church and school, he’s told that sexuality is a wicked, sinful thing.
At the age of 14, Frank gets a job delivering telegrams to Limerick families. He becomes well acquainted with the city, and begins earning money of his own, most of which he gives to Angela and his siblings. Because Frank is still staying with Ab Sheehan, his brother Michael comes to visit him often. After a few months of this, Michael is living with Frank at Ab Sheehan’s, and soon afterwards, Angela begins living there, too.
One day, when he’s 15, Frank delivers a telegram to the house of the wealthy Carmody family. A young, pretty girl, Theresa Carmody, greets him and invites him inside. Although Frank knows Theresa to have consumption (tuberculosis), he agrees. Inside, Theresa kisses Frank, and they have sex—both losing their virginity in the process. Frank continues delivering telegrams to Theresa, having sex with her each time. A few weeks later, Frank is shocked to learn that Theresa has died of consumption. He’s terrified that by sinning with Theresa, he’s condemned Theresa to spend an eternity in hell.
When he’s 16, Frank takes a job delivering newspapers with a man named Mr. McCaffrey. For the next 2 years, he works for McCaffrey while also writing letters for an elderly woman named Mrs. Finucane. Frank improves his reading and writing skills in this time, and dreams of one day being able to go to America. He also confesses his sins with Theresa to a priest. The priest assures Frank that Theresa must have repented her sins before dying, meaning that she’s gone to heaven.
When he’s almost 19 years old, Frank goes to work at Mrs. Finucane’s house as usual. There, he’s surprised to find that his employer has died. Without thinking, Frank searches Finucane’s house for money and takes it for himself. He now has enough money to afford a ticket to America.
Frank buys his ticket and tells his family that he’s headed to America. The night before he leaves, his family throws him a party, attended by all his uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. The next day, Frank leaves for America, confident that he’ll find more happiness and freedom there. Shortly after he lands in America, he has sex with a prostitute. He concludes that America is “a great country altogether.”