Angela decides to move her family from Harstonge Street to a house on Roden Lane, because the room on Harstonge Street reminds her too much of Eugene. The St. Vincent de Paul Society gives the family some secondhand furniture. When they move into their new place, the McCourts discover that eleven families use the lavatory that’s built next to their house. Malachy wants to hang up his picture of Pope Leo XIII, whom he identifies as a friend of the workingman. While driving a nail into the wall to hang the picture, he cuts his hand and drips blood onto the picture.
Angela despairs at the reduced sixteen shillings a week that the family has to live on. Because Eugene and Oliver have died, the family gets less money from public assistance. Malachy McCourt Sr. takes himself off on long walks into the countryside and looks for work. When he does find work, he drinks away his earnings. In his mind, the dole money goes to his family, and the money he earns with a day’s work on a farm goes to the bar.
Two weeks before Christmas, Frank and Malachy return from school to find that the first floor of their house has flooded. The family moves into the upstairs room, which they nickname “Italy” because it is warm and dry. Angela goes to the butcher’s to get meat for Christmas, but all she is able to obtain with her grocery dockets is a pig’s head. As they carry home the meat, Frank’s classmates see them and laugh at their poverty. Frank’s father is disgusted that Frank had to carry the head home. He considers carrying things through the streets undignified, and refuses to do it himself.
On Christmas morning, Malachy and Frank attend Mass with their father and go to collect leftover coal strewn over the Dock Road so that their mother can cook the pig’s head. Pa Keating meets the boys on the street and convinces the landlord of South’s pub to give them a bag of real coal. They drag the coal home through the rain, passing cozy houses. Children laugh at them from inside the houses, taunting them and calling them “Zulus” because they are smeared with black coal. When they get home, Angela cooks the pig’s head, and the family has a jolly Christmas dinner.
Angela gives birth to a baby, Michael, whom Frank’s father says was left by an angel on their seventh stair. Frank names this seraph the “Angel on the Seventh Step,” and annoys his father by asking lots of questions on this and other topics. Angela returns from hospital with Michael, who is sick with a cold. When the baby stops breathing, Frank’s father saves his life by sucking the mucus out of his nose.
Men from the welfare society turn up and inspect the house. Angela asks the men for boots for her sons, prompting an irritable comment from her husband that she should “never beg like that.” She asks if he’d prefer that the boys go barefoot. To prove to her that he can fix their shoes, Frank’s father mends the boys’ boots using pieces of old tire. The next day, Frank and Malachy’s schoolmates taunt them for wearing ridiculous-looking boots. Frank’s schoolmaster tells his class that no one in the class is rich, that you don’t see Jesus “on the cross sporting shoes,” and that he will whip anyone who continues to tease the McCourts.
Frank talks to the Angel on the Seventh Step and tells him all the things he dislikes about his school. His father overhears and laughs with Angela.
Frank describes the unemployed men in Limerick, who sit and smoke cigarettes when the weather is good because they are “worn out” after collecting their dole and sitting around doing nothing for the rest of the day. He describes the men’s wives, who let their husbands sit on the chairs because the men have been out collecting the dole while the women have been home, cooking and cleaning and minding the children.
On Easter morning, Frank attends Mass with his father. He is frustrated by what he does not understand, and by his father’s refusal to answer his many questions. His father tells him that he will understand when he grows up. Frank wants to become an adult as soon as possible so that he can “understand everything.”
Frank’s father gets a job at the Limerick cement factory. The new job pleases Angela, and on payday she wakes up early to clean the house and sing. Frank and Malachy look forward to going to the movies, but they are disappointed when their father does not come home on Friday night with his wages. When Angela realizes that he has gone to the pub, she starts crying and goes to bed. Frank and Malachy listen as their father returns home, drunkenly singing folk songs about dying for Ireland, as he always does after a night at the pub. Frank and Malachy reject the “Friday Penny” that their father offers them and watch as Angela tells him to sleep downstairs. The chapter ends with a long sentence stating that “Dad” missed work in the morning, lost his job, and had to go back on the dole.
The McCourts are plagued in turn by rats, flies, human waste, and water. Nevertheless, Frank is unfazed. He describes with equanimity the terrible odor emanating from the street toilet, the flooding of his house, and Michael’s near-death experience. Not much perturbs him. We are keenly aware of the suffering taking place, however, especially since at two points in the chapter the boys have occasion to ask their father what “affliction” means. The first time Malachy answers, “Sickness, son, and things that don’t fit”; the second, “The world is an affliction and everything in it.”
Frank’s perspective is endearing, because in contrast to the closed mentalities and downtrodden spirits of those around him, his mind is open to all avenues of thought. We see his imagination when he talks to the Angel on the Seventh Step. We see his kindness when the pig’s head evokes not his embarrassment but overwhelmingly his sadness, because the pig is dead and people are laughing at it. We see his curiosity when he asks about Jesus’ crown of thorns and questions the justness of an angel who allows a baby to fall ill.
McCourt satirizes his own childhood wish to grow up and “understand everything” like an adult. The underlying point is that grown-ups understand little more than children do. McCourt juxtaposes Frank’s youthful enthusiasm with the complacency of those grown-ups—such as the men of the Labour Exchange—who sit around smoking, drinking, and judging the world. The author thus records the faults of adult society through a child’s eyes.
Because of his poverty, Frank is constantly teased or treated unkindly. In the beginning of the chapter, when the welfare officer says “beggars can’t be choosers,” we realize that, for the McCourts, this is not a cliché but reality. Frank’s schoolmates tease him as he carries the pig’s head, saying that the only part of the pig the McCourts don’t eat is “the oink.” Frank and Malachy get teased as they walk, dripping with rain and coal, through the streets. Frank gets teased for his shoes mended with tires. Because his father is too dignified to ask for new boots for the boys, Frank finds himself in no-man’s-land. He is not like the boys rich enough to buy new boots and not like the shoeless boys. As he says, “If you have rubber tires on your shoes you’re all alone with your brother and you have to fight your own battles.”
The theme of respect dominates this chapter, as Frank’s father struggles to preserve his own dignity. When foremen refuse to hire Malachy because they are biased against Northerners, Frank’s father refuses to feign a Limerick accent. He also refuses to go out without a collar and tie, even though Angela suggests that he would be hired more readily if he looked like a workingman. Angela terms Malachy’s need to look dignified the “Grand Manner.” When Frank’s father declares that it is below his dignity to beg or to carry anything through the streets, we see that Malachy’s first priority is to protect his own self-esteem. Because Malachy drinks the money away, someone must beg, and someone must carry pig’s heads through the streets; the fact that Malachy refuses to do these things simply means that they get done by his pregnant wife and small sons. Although Malachy would prefer that everyone in his family retain his or her dignity, he would rather put his wife and children to work than compromise his own self-regard.
But again, in this chapter, Frank does not wholly condemn his father. Malachy eats almost nothing on Christmas Day so that his sons might fill their bellies, and he clearly adores his family despite his bad behavior.
McCourt draws our attention to the vast unfairness of gender roles. In an unusual passage, he casts off his tone of detached amusement, angrily and sarcastically describing the lazy, ruminative men who do nothing but collect the dole, then sit around filling the day one way or another. He draws a contrast between their ease and the hard lives of their wives, who must cook and clean and take care of the children. Most offensive to him, he implies, is that everyone, including the women, thinks that it is the husbands who work hard and the wives who do little. The society is so entrenched in these ideas that no one notices what is right in front of them: the women are the ones working, the women are the ones bearing the brunt of the poverty and the demands of the children. This anger recurs in the image of Angela and her sons struggling up the hill with their shameful pig’s head; the pregnant mother’s back aching; the boys tormented by their classmates; and the father safe at home, wrapped up in his dignity and so excused from lifting a finger to help.
When Malachy does get a job, we all—the readers and the McCourts—know he will lose it. The chapter ends with the sentence “He makes his way downstairs with the candle, sleeps on a chair, misses work in the morning, loses the job at the cement factory, and we’re back on the dole again.” The rapid-fire delivery suggests that because the McCourts have been through this familiar sequence so many times before it needs no explanation, and that jobs can be lost and hopes dashed in the space of a single sentence.
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