The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.
Crossed-eyed Mikey Molloy, who is eleven years old, lives in Frank’s neighborhood. He knows about the female body and “Dirty Things in General.” Mikey’s mother, Nora, is often admitted to the lunatic asylum because her husband frequently drinks away all of the money, leaving her frantic about how to feed her family. Before she is taken away, Nora obsessively bakes bread to ensure that her children do not starve while she is gone. It is unclear to what degree Nora is actually crazed and to what degree she enjoys getting some peace and quiet at the asylum.
Frank’s First Communion, the first time he eats the Communion wafer, is about to take place. Mikey is not a “proper” Catholic because he could never swallow the Communion wafer. Mikey tells Frank that the best things about your First Communion day are that you receive money from your neighbors and you get to go to the movies and eat sweets.
Frank’s new schoolmaster is called Mr. Benson. Mr. Benson teaches his pupils the catechism. He is an enthusiastic Catholic, but he dislikes answering questions. One boy, Brendan “Question” Quigley, is constantly in trouble for asking too many of them. Another boy in Frank’s class is Paddy Clohessy, who is impoverished and wears no shoes. Frank recalls the day he found a raisin in his pastry at school. Everyone begged him for the treat, but he saw Paddy looking dogged and hungry, and gave it to him.
McCourt places scenes of the schoolboys learning their catechism by rote alongside a scene of his friends and him sitting under the streetlights, reading their own books. Mikey tells his friends about the great Cuchulain’s wife, Emer, who was the “champion woman pisser of Ireland” and won her husband in a pissing contest. Frank worries that he has committed a terrible sin by listening to this tale and asks the Angel on the Seventh Step what to do. Frank’s seraph tells him not to be afraid, that he should confess his sin to the priest and he will be forgiven. Frank asks his father what he should do, and Malachy reassures him that listening to a rude tale is not a sin, but that he can confess to it if it will make him feel better.
Things go smoothly for Frank at his First Confession: the priest is secretly amused by the Cuchulain story and absolves the boy of his sins, although he warns Frank that books can be “dangerous for children.” However, the next day Angela and Grandma bring Frank to the church late. He has trouble swallowing the Communion wafer. When he returns to his grandmother’s house, he eats breakfast and then throws it up in her backyard. Grandma frets that she has “God in me backyard” and drags Frank back to church to confess and to find out what she should do. The amused priest tells Frank to wash away the mess with a little water, but he gets annoyed when Frank’s grandmother makes Frank ask whether she should use holy or ordinary water. Due to these events, Frank misses his Collection (the money-collecting ritual of First Communion) and does not have any money to go to the movies. However, Mikey pretends to have a fit, and while the ticket man is attending to him, Frank sneaks into the cinema.
We get a bit of comic relief in this chapter. Nothing dire happens to the McCourt family, and the descriptions of poverty and despair center on the Molloy family. Frank can see humor in his neighbors’ problems that he can’t see in his own.
McCourt draws a comparison between received knowledge, such as the information passed from schoolmaster to pupil, and found knowledge, such as the information gleaned from reading and talking to peers. Mikey Molloy’s coarse stories and sexual expertise are particularly fascinating to Frank, but both ways of learning are tinged with fear. Frank worries that he has sinned by listening to dirty stories, and Mr. Benson accompanies his teaching with constant threats of murder and mayhem if the boys do not do as he wishes.
Frank’s Angel represents the understanding friend that Frank needs. McCourt characterizes the Angel as unambiguously real: he appears to Frank as a light in his head and a voice in his ear.
Frank confesses with great alacrity to the smallest of sins, such as listening to the Cuchulain story. This rigorous confessing is touching, since Frank seems relatively free from sin, but it demonstrates Frank’s desire to be good and shows how confusing the world is for children. McCourt balances the naïve worldview of the narrator with an adult’s ironic and often self-deprecating wit. For example, we chuckle along with the adult McCourt at the thought of Grandma spitting on Frank’s head to flatten his “Presbyterian” hair, and fretting over God in her backyard.
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