Upon their arrival in Ireland, the McCourt family goes to Malachy’s parents in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Grandpa seems considerate of Angela, but Grandma greets her son’s family coldly; Frank’s aunts only nod when introduced to their brother’s family. Grandma tells her son that there is no work in Ireland, and Grandpa advises him to go to the IRA and ask for money in recognition of his service.
The next morning, the family takes a bus to Dublin. Frank’s father points out Lough Neagh, the lake where Cuchulain used to swim. Upon arriving in Dublin, Malachy takes Frank to the office of a man in charge of IRA pension claims. The man refuses to give the McCourts any money, saying he has no record of Malachy’s service. After Malachy asks for enough money for a pint, the man refuses to give him even enough money for bus fare home. Night has fallen, and the family sleeps in a local police barracks, where the kind police and their prisoners joke with the children. The next day, the sergeant’s wife tells Angela that the police have raised a collection to pay for the McCourts’ train fare to Limerick. Frank’s father shows Frank a statue of Cuchulain outside Dublin’s General Post Office.
Frank’s family receives another stony welcome when they arrive in Limerick, this time from Grandma, Angela’s mother. Angela’s sister, Aunt Aggie, is living with her mother because she has had a fight with her husband, Pa Keating. The next day, Grandma helps the McCourts find a furnished room on Windmill Street. The family must share one mattress, but they are grateful for it after nights of sleeping on floors. That night, however, they discover that the mattress is infested with fleas.
A few days later, Angela has a miscarriage and must go to the hospital. Malachy finds out that his dole is only nineteen shillings a week; to supplement that money, Angela goes to the St. Vincent de Paul Society for charity. Although the other women waiting for money are initially suspicious of Angela, with her American coat and Yankee children, they warm to her after she tells them of the loss of her baby. Angela receives a docket for groceries and befriends a kind, funny woman named Nora Molloy. Nora accompanies Frank’s mother to the grocery store to make sure the saleswoman does not cheat Angela. The two women sit outside smoking cigarettes while Nora tells Angela about her husband, “Peter Molloy, champion pint drinker.”
Soon Frank’s one-year-old brother Oliver becomes ill, and his parents take him to the hospital. Grandma takes Frank and his brothers, Malachy and Eugene, to their Aunt Aggie’s, where the boys eat porridge. Uncle Pa holds Malachy on his knee, a sight that makes Aggie cry, because she has no children of her own. The children return home to find that Oliver has died. At his brother’s burial, Frank throws stones at the jackdaws that perch on trees all around the burial site. The next day, Frank’s father spends all of his dole money on drink.
The McCourt family moves into a room on Hartstonge Street. Angela shames her husband by collecting his dole from the Labour Exchange to prevent him from drinking it away, and Frank and Malachy start school. The narrator describes Leamy’s National School as a hard place where you “must not cry” if you want to earn the respect of your peers. Frank’s master in the fifth class is called Mr. O’ Dea, a man who can always wring tears from his students.
Tragedy again befalls the McCourts as Eugene dies of pneumonia, six months after the death of his twin brother. The doctor prescribes pills for Angela’s nerves, and Frank’s father copes with his grief by drinking himself into a stupor. The day Eugene dies, the adults mourn, and Pa Keating tries to distract everyone by telling funny stories. On the day of Eugene’s funeral, while the dead boy is laid out in bed at home, Frank has to retrieve his father from the pub. He sees that his father has placed his pint of Guinness on top of Eugene’s pristine white coffin. After the funeral, the two surviving McCourt boys eat fish and chips, and Frank thinks of Eugene and how he has been swept by angels from his cold grave and taken up to heaven to see Oliver and Margaret.
Although Angela tells the sergeant’s wife that it feels good to be “back among our own,” she is clearly worried about her family’s future in Ireland. Just as Angela has mixed emotions about coming home, Angela and Malachy’s families are not looking forward to the McCourts’ return. It is clear, however, that the grandparents’ restraint is not the result of unkindness but of worry. Malachy’s mother does not have enough room or money to feed and house six people, and Angela’s mother feels pity, anger, and anxiety over her daughter’s condition: Angela has a deadbeat drunk husband, no money, and four little children.
The McCourts are strangers everywhere they go. In America, everyone sees them as Irish, and in Ireland, everyone sees them as American. Over and over people ask with varying degrees of incredulity, disgust, or interest if the boys are Yankees. Because of her American coat, Angela is initially treated coolly by the women waiting for assistance from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. When the boys at school find out that Frank grew up in New York, they taunt him and ask if he is a “gangster” or a “cowboy.” The conversation results in a fistfight.
This fistfight emphasizes the contrast between the dark-haired, dark-eyed Frank and the blue-eyed, blond-ringleted Malachy. In contrast to Malachy, who is sunny and happy and beloved by all, Frank shares some of what his grandmother calls his father’s northern oddities. He is introspective, and when stirred, “the blackness” comes over him.
As in America, the McCourts’ first months in Limerick are filled with hardship and misfortune. Death saturates the memoir, and while always horrifyingly sad, it begins to seem almost routine. Eugene dies, and the similarity of his death and funeral to Oliver’s death and funeral is striking. Death is not sentimental, romantic, or rare—it is quick, dirty, and predictable. After a tender paragraph about Malachy Sr.’s hope that his oldest sons’ kindness will help Eugene forget Oliver, the next paragraph begins, “He died anyway.” This bluntness is not cruel; it is a realistic portrayal of the blank suddenness of death.
The protagonist does not apportion blame for his siblings’ deaths, and neither does Angela. In fact, the narrator never overtly criticizes his father, in part because the five-year-old Frankie would not have done so. Still, the image of two black pints standing on top of Eugene’s white coffin seems plainly symbolic, suggesting that Malachy’s alcoholism kills his children. It is surprisingly difficult to determine whether the author feels bitterness toward his father, as he only hints at his buried resentment. Frank’s uncertainty about how to respond to his father’s alcoholism comes through in his comment that he “didn’t know what to say” to his father when Malachy spent his entire dole on drink.
McCourt encourages us to pity and understand his father. Malachy might refuse to remove his pint from its resting place on Eugene’s coffin, but he is genuinely tormented by his children’s deaths. He weeps for them and beats his legs in anguish. We are made to see how it is possible and even understandable that Malachy would spend money on drink while his family starves at home: after Oliver’s death, Malachy takes Frank from store to store, begging for food. Malachy is turned down everywhere, mocked for coming from the North, and he is told he should be ashamed of himself. When someone kindly offers him a pint, we observe how drinking with friends mitigates the humiliation and desperation Malachy endures.
McCourt also shows us how Irish culture encourages drinking. People think of drink as medicine, as a symbol of friendship, as “the staff of life,” as Pa Keating says. Malachy is helplessly dependent on alcohol, and his friends and family often inadvertently encourage his dependence. For example, when Malachy wants to get a drink after Eugene dies and Angela objects, Grandma refers to alcohol as medicine, saying, “He doesn’t have the pills to ease him, God help us, and a bottle of stout will be some small comfort.” When Malachy’s friends wish to show their sympathy, they do so by buying him drinks. Drink is also portrayed as the elixir that gives men the freedom to express emotion. Frank reveals that as a child he thought men could cry “only when you have the black stuff that is called the pint.”
In Chapter II, we see Frank becoming a strong-willed man. Although he is young, he is the oldest child in his family. At times, he even serves as his father’s babysitter: he goes to the pubs with his father and insists that they leave at a reasonable hour; he goes to the pubs to fetch his father and refuses to leave until his father comes with him.
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