The first chapter of Frank McCourt’s autobiography recounts his impoverished childhood. Although he was born in New York, his parents returned to Limerick, Ireland, when he was just four. There they suffered from unemployment, alcoholism and the wet weather that clung from October to April. The family had left Ireland when Frank’s father, Malachy, became a fugitive after fighting with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and had to be rushed out of the country. He went to Brooklyn, where he met Angela Sheehan at a party on Classon Avenue. When she became pregnant, Angela’s cousins Delia and Philomena insisted the Northern Irishman marry their young cousin. With their husbands in tow, they found him in a speakeasy where they chided him for having the air of a Presbyterian and an “odd manner,” but nevertheless preferred he do the right thing by marrying the woman he impregnated at first meeting. Malachy decided to try to escape to California, but one drink led to another and he awoke penniless on a bench and had no choice but to stay in Brooklyn.
Four months later, his parents were married, and in August Frank was born. He was to be named for his father, but because of his unintelligible speech due to both alcohol and his Irish accent, the hospital staff wrote down only “male.” In December, Frank was baptized and properly named for St. Francis of Assisi. As the chosen godfather got drunk and neglected to show up for the occasion, Malachy offered to find him at the speakeasy, much to the chagrin of the family, disgusted that he was unable to resist the free drink in honor of his own son’s baptism.
The next year, Frank’s younger brother Malachy is born, a blond-haired and blue-eyed boy who beguiles all who meet him. Frank’s earliest memory is of bloodying his brother on the see-saw, by coming down so quickly the two-year-old bit his tongue. At the tender age of three, Frank feels responsible for threatening his brother’s life, his only other association with fresh blood being the dog dead in the gutter. He is soothed only by his father’s stories of the legendary Cuchulain, a story he feels possessive of and prefers exclusive listening rights to, objecting to it being told to any other children.
Twin brothers are born, Oliver and Eugene, and their father thankfully finds a job, though can’t resist a drink in the third week. Angela takes the children to wait for him on payday in the hope of intercepting the wages before all are spent, but they don’t see him in the flood of men leaving the coal behind as they head for the pub. Angela starts buying groceries on credit, and the following week Malachy loses his job. The children spend their days on the playground, where the older boys befriend their Jewish neighbor, Freddie Leibowitz. Frank gets jealous overhearing Malachy telling Freddie “his” story about Cuchualain and pushes him violently. His parents make him apologize. Another day at the playground when his brothers are crying, Frank steals bananas to keep them quiet, and is both relieved and ashamed when the grocer gives him a free bag of fruit.
Before long, a daughter, Margaret, is born, to her parents’ delight. Her health is delicate and adults seem to treat her with unusual care and concern. She dies in the night and Angela is despondent; Mrs. Leibowitz provides soup and another neighbor, Minnie MacAdorney, comes bearing mashed potatoes to feed the children while their mother grieves. Frank has a vivid dream of Cuchulain and a green bird dripping blood.
As their parents are too distracted to pay proper attention to their four sons after the death of Margaret, Angela’s cousins Philomena and Delia arrive and take charge. They write to Angela’s mother requesting money for tickets for the family to move back to Ireland, and when the money arrives, the devastated family sets sail for Limerick.
The McCourt family leaves Brooklyn for Ireland, passing from County Donegal to Belfast and finally to County Antrim to see Malachy’s family. The boys are curious about the unfamiliar rural landscape, and even more surprised to use their first chamber pot. However, there is no work in the North and Malachy’s parents’ advice is to take the bus to Dublin and apply for relief money from the IRA, but the man in charge offers no more than return bus fare. The family spends the night in the police barracks, where the guards generously provide tea and bread. The sergeant’s wife sends a telegram to Angela’s mother in Limerick and before long the boys meet their maternal grandmother, whose accent and idioms amuse them despite her less than warm personality. Angela’s sister Aggie resents the inconvenience of sharing her home and provisions, and her mother loans the McCourts money to rent a room. The bed has fleas, which they shake out during the night and thus meet Uncle Pa, Aggie’s husband who is much friendlier.
Malachy’s nineteen shillings a week is woefully inadequate to feed a family of six, and Angela goes to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to request public assistance. She takes the docket to Mrs. McGrath’s grocery where her new friend Nora helps assure she isn’t cheated. The coal yards are closed and Malachy returns empty handed, suggesting they eat bread and drink cold milk, but when Angela learns from Frank there are women picking free coal scraps off the road, she leaves him with the twins and takes the older boys to join the beggars. Oliver is sick and the remedy is a boiled onion in milk. Malachy cries out for one and a kind shopkeeper gives them one, but he does not improve and is rushed to the hospital. Grandma Sheehan comes to take care of the children, feeding them porridge until their parents return and make arrangements for the funeral. After the burial, Malachy spends the dole drinking, stumbling in late and singing his favorite patriotic tunes.
Angela is too distraught to stay in the rented room on Windmill Street and the family moves. The boys start school at Leamy’s National School. Six months later, Eugene dies, never having understood, at the age of two, what happened to his twin brother. The damp of the River Shannon is blamed for the boys’ deaths, and Malachy is so desperate to drink he brings Eugene’s coffin into the pub in front of Frank, who objects vehemently to the glass of beer being placed on his brother’s coffin. Angela’s brother Pat, who was dropped on his head as a child and has never been the same, places the small body in the coffin. At the graveyard, the driver, who joined Malachy at the pub, is too drunk to reliably carry the coffin, yet such are the men in the community.
The family again moves to escape the memory of a dead child, this time from Hartstonge Street to Roden Lane. Atop Barrack Hill, the McCourts share a single outdoor lavatory with their neighbors, but are pleased to have an upstairs, especially when it rains and the downstairs floods completely. For Christmas they have pig’s head, which Frank carries ashamedly while his peers call out and jeer.
They run out of coal and the boys are assigned the task of collecting bits and pieces off of Dock Road. They carry home as much as they can, despite the hole in the bag, and find refuge upstairs since it has been storming. Before long, Angela moves her bed downstairs from the dry upstairs they have nicknamed “Italy” and Michael is born. Frank believes babies are brought by an angel, and he begins consulting with this mysterious being from the seventh step down, telling the angel all the things he is uncomfortable discussing with his parents.
Angela asks the men who visit from St. Vincent de Paul about boots for Frank and Malachy, but their father objects to begging. He prefers to resole the ones they have with rubber from an old bicycle tire. Soon after Easter, Malachy gets his first job in Limerick and starts working at the cement factory. He leaves early for the long walk and on payday arrives home late and singing. Angela sobs and Frank’s younger brother Malachy declares he is no longer interested in the Friday Penny their drunken father is offering loudly from downstairs in the middle of the night. Angela tells her husband to sleep downstairs, and when he misses work the next morning the family is back on the dole.
Analysis, Chapters 1-3
Looking back as an adult on his childhood, the narrator reflects on the hardships brought by alcoholism and poverty. He recalls the happy moments following his sister Margaret’s birth in Brooklyn, and how it even seemed possible their father might stop drinking before her death reduced both her parents to desperation, depression and escape. The family possesses little of material value, and Frank finds comfort in identifying with the story of Cuchulain. He believes stories must belong to just one person and becomes quite possessive of those his father tells him. Having little else to cling to, this childish need causes problems in his frienships. Despite his later understanding that tales belong to both the teller and listener and anyone can be either, during his early years he struggles to own Cuchulain’s exploits as he fails to own anything else. Music and stories from Ireland are omnipresent in the McCourts’ life in Brooklyn to such an extent that despite the important contributions of their Jewish neighbors, their world is inhabited by more that is Irish than not.
In both New York and Limerick, there are several constants in young Frank’s life. His father’s drinking is a clear cause of the family’s poverty and the deaths of his three youngest siblings, and the theme of life as a struggle is evident in both America and Ireland. Frank never directly blames his father for the deaths of Margaret, Oliver or Eugene, but rather seeks ways to understand and at times pity Malachy, appreciating his strengths and forgiving his faults. Frank emerges as an optimistic fighter, a child willing to take on responsibility and to support his mother and younger brothers as best he can. Angela is obviously the strong central figure in the family, the resilient mother whose devastating losses nevertheless fail to define her, and whose courage and perseverence despite her suffering instead light the way for her remaining sons to join her in battling the odds. She is often depicted watching the ashes in the fireplace, somewhat hopeless and yet never giving up. Respect and dignity are crucial themes in these opening chapters, as Malachy struggles to keep a job while his wife provides for nearly all of the family’s physical and emotional needs as well as doing what is necessary to feed and clothe them all.
The reality of his family situation is so dark that it is understandable for the young Frank to cultivate a personal relationship with an angel, and faith emerges as another dominant theme in the novel. While the hypocrisy of the church is already an undercurrent in the story, Frank easily separates the McCourts’ grim treatment by the Catholic church and charities from his own spiritual path, and finds inspiration and inner strength through the confidence he keeps with the angel he has created for this purpose. While his relationship with his father, when sober, is pleasant, the difficulties caused by Malachy’s drinking strain not only the spousal and intergenerational relationships in the family, but also threaten Frank’s ability to generate satisfying human friendships with his peers. He confides in the invisible angel, who serves as both a sort of imaginary friend and spiritual guide. His obsession with possessing the Cuchulain story reveals his need for unconditional love and affection from a parent, and his jealousy of his younger brother’s easygoing nature shows he feels some resentment for having so many personal characteristics in common with his father, who is in many ways failing his family and shaping his sons’ lives in negative ways.