Frank delivers a telegram to Mr. Harrington, an Englishman whose Irish wife died recently of tuberculosis, and who insists on showing the body to Frank and on giving him a sherry. Dizzy with the drink and concerned for her immortal soul, Frank baptizes the Protestant woman’s corpse and her angry husband crams a ham sandwich in the hungry but proud boy’s mouth. Frank vomits out the window and just barely escapes the resulting assault, and is attacked again by Mrs. O’Connell at the telegram office who tells him to turn in his pouch and bicycle immediately. Angela’s pleas for them to reinstate her son are to no avail, but upon receipt of the letter from the parish priest they agree to take him back, if only until his sixteenth birthday. As he suffers with a tormenting grief and guilt over his brief affair with Theresa and inability to confess since, Frank continues delivering telegrams, and is asked by client Mrs. Brigid Finucane to start writing letters to her customers who have been deficient in their payments. Frank writes menacing letters and discovers he has a knack for making terrifying threats against the poor and downtrodden, and though he is ashamed at one level to make money from turning against members of his own community, he continues the activity in secret and succeeds in getting customers to pay. By August, Frank is preparing for the permanent exam to become a postman, which pleases his mother and most everyone else, but Uncle Pa Keating echoes Mr. O’Halloran’s advice to make up his own mind, which Frank willingly does. The morning of the exam, Frank ventures into the Easons’ office where he sees a sign advertising a job. The manager, Mr. McCaffrey, gives him an opportunity distributing a Protestant paper called The Irish Times.
Despite Mrs. O’Connell’s tremendous disapproval of Frank’s choice, he goes on with his life and is treated to his first pint by Pa Keating the night before he turns sixteen. A bit drunk and dazed, Frank leaves the pub and rings the bell at the priests’ house to say confession before his birthday, but he is sent home where his mother tells him he is just like his father. He cannot resist replying he’d rather be like him than like Laman Griffin, and they have a terrible fight during which Frank hits his mother. Upset, Frank staggers to pray to St. Francis, and Father Gregory comforts him and helps him pray, assuring him Theresa Carmody is in heaven and Frank is able to leave happy. He and his colleagues, Eamon and Peter, spend their days counting and delivering magazines, and before long the other two boys reveal they spend much of the day masturbating in the lavatory. The messenger boy, Gerry Halvey, who is very much in love with his girlfriend Rose who has been living in London, suddenly doubts her loyalty when she steps off the train. Frank escorts her home and helps with her luggage, and is caught in the middle of their quarrel. He returns to the office where it turns out an advertisement for birth control, which is banned in Ireland, has appeared on page 16 of John O’London’s Weekly. Mr. McCaffrey insists on finding and destroying every single copy, sold or not, but the boys discover easy money in selling the forbidden page for a hefty profit.
Frank begins bringing home the Protestant paper and reading it from sheer curiosity. His mother is horrified, but says little more than that his father would be appalled. Angela is taking care of an old man named Mr. Sliney, and Malachy is back in town working in a stockroom briefly, before he goes to work at a Catholic boarding school in England, where Frank’s co-workers have also gone in search of work. Malachy lacks a sufficiently servile attitude and is fired, so returns to Limerick to shovel coal with Pa Keating until he can find his way to America, after Frank.
Frank continues working at Easons and writing letters for Mrs. Finuane until the week before his nineteenth birthday, when he finds Mrs. Finucane dead in her chair waiting for sherry Frank is bringing her. He can’t help himself from taking her money to complement his savings for America, and throws the ledger of debts into the River Shannon. He buys a ticket on a ship bound for New York City in a few weeks, and tells his family the news. Angela is upset, but plans a party for the eve of his departure. Frank struggles with his mixed feelings about leaving home for the unknown. When he finally sets sail, he thinks of his family and all he is leaving, and is distraught to learn the ship’s orders have been changed. It is expected to dock in Montreal and then Albany, then eventually arrives in Poughkeepsie despite the American passengers’ complaints. Frank joins a small group in venturing ashore, where a group of wives invite them in for beer and sandwiches and dancing. Frank is rescued from Frieda’s aggressive embraces by the priest, and returns to the ship where the Wireless Officer marvels aloud, “isn’t this a great country altogether,” a phrase that seems to conclude a chapter in Frank’s life and to start another.
The novel concludes with a chapter containing the single word “’Tis,” the Irish phrase that contracts the words “it is” into a single syllable expressing agreement. In this one word, Frank agrees it is indeed a wonderful country and future that await him in America.
Frank resists being stereotyped by Mr. Harrington, the Englishman who in his grief over his wife’s recent death, forces the telegram delivery boy to accept a sherry rather than lemonade. The entire episode is devastating to Frank, who is at a loss of how to respectfully honor the dead woman while complying with her husband’s demands. His efforts to physically reject the food and pity forced upon him seem to be a symbolic gesture, yet one that results in being fired from a job he depends on. He chooses to seek more from life, to follow his father figures’ recommendations to pursue education and dreams, and decides he will eventually leave Limerick. His employer at the post office is offended by his lofty ambition, or perhaps a bit jealous, and does all she can to discourage him.
However, as ever, Frank refuses to be defined by others, and as he grows up worries less about what even his family members will think as he embraces the freedom to make his own decisions, even if the consequences carry him far from home. Frightened as he is to leave Limerick, he ultimately decides the opportunity of America is worth the risk, and leaves the limitations behind as he figuratively and literally embarks on the journey of life. He is approached by a married woman nearly immediately, and begins to appreciate that as an adult abroad he is less encumbered by religion and family than he was at home. Although the freedom is at one level terrifying, Frank also feels jubilation, and agrees with the comment of the Wireless Officer whose optimism in the future is evident. His answer to the rhetorical question appears in a chapter all its own, holding in the single syllable “’Tis” all the hope and freedom Frank feels as he leaves Ireland and poverty behind him as as he starts life anew, alone and abroad, but full of optimism about the future despite, or perhaps in part because of, the difficulties haunting his past.