Summary: Chapter VI
At school, Frank is now in the fourth form, which is taught by Mr. O’Neill, a tiny man with a passion for geometry. Mr O’Dea, the fifth-form master, is infuriated when he finds from Paddy Clohessy that Mr. O’Neill is teaching the boys about Euclid and geometry, because geometry is not supposed to be taught until the fifth form. The headmaster orders Mr. O’Neill to stop teaching it.
Every day, Mr. O’Neill gives his apple peel, a great delicacy, to the boy who correctly answers a difficult question. One day, this honor falls to Fintan Slattery, whom Frank describes as a dandified do-gooder. Fintan goes to church every day with his mother; he curls his blond hair and answers taunts with a saintly smile. Fintan shares the peel with Frank, Quigley, and Paddy Clohessy. This humiliates the boys, who do not want to be associated with the feminine Fintan. Fintan invites Paddy and Frank to his house after school, luring them with promises of food. Fintan’s mother serves milk and sandwiches with mustard, luxurious treats for the boys. Paddy and Frank are worried, however, by the fact that Fintan goes with them to the bathroom and says he enjoys looking at them.
A few days later, Fintan invites the boys home with him for lunch, but instead of feeding them, he eats his sandwich by himself. Angry and hungry, Paddy and Frank don’t return to school after lunch, but cut class to steal apples and milk from a nearby farm. Quigley sees Frank and tells him his parents are looking for him and are going to kill him. Scared, Frank goes home with Paddy, who lives in unbearable squalor. Paddy’s father is consumptive and lies in bed coughing up green fluid into a bucket. The next morning, Angela appears with the school guard and tells Frank how worried she has been about him. Mr. Clohessy reminisces with Angela, remembering how they used to dance together. Angela sings for the dying man and cries as she leaves his home, sorry for Mr. Clohessy’s sickness and sad to remember the carefree times they had when they were young. Frank is sorry for Mr. Clohessy, but he is mostly relieved not to be in trouble.
Summary: Chapter VII
Malachy continues to drink away his dole money. The brothers, even three-year-old Michael, take their cue from Angela and refuse to talk to Malachy during the weekend after he drinks the dole.
Frank has a friend named Mickey Spellacy whose siblings are dying of consumption one by one. Everyone envies Mickey because he gets a week off from school for every sibling that dies, and money and sympathy from grown-ups who feel sorry for him. Mickey asks Frank and Billy Campbell to pray that Mickey’s sick sister will not die until September, so that Mickey can get a week off from school. In return, Mickey promises Frank and Billy that they will be invited to his sister’s wake, where there will be food and singing and stories. Although Mickey gets his wish, and his sister dies during the school term, the boys are not invited to the wake. Frank is satisfied when Mickey himself dies of consumption the following year and doesn’t get any time off from school.
Grandma decides Frank should help Uncle Pat deliver newspapers. Uncle Pat mistreats Frank, making him run about in the rain, and paying him poorly. Frank delivers the paper to an old man named Mr. Timoney, and agrees to read to him for money. Mr. Timoney is a smart, well-traveled, crotchety old man, and he takes to Frank. At Timoney’s request, Frank reads John Swift’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal.” Angela tells Frank that Mr. Timoney served in the English army in India and married an Indian woman who was accidentally killed by a soldier. Angela is thrilled that her son now has two jobs, but Frank gets in trouble with Declan Collopy for missing the Confraternity’s Friday night meetings. Declan insults Uncle Pat, and Frank fights Declan. Mr. Timoney vows to talk to Pa Keating about Declan’s bullying. It is a relief to Frank to have the companionship of Mr. Timoney, who talks to him like a friend would. A little later, however, Mr. Timoney is pronounced demented and taken away to the City Home because he laughed when his dog bit three people and when a priest pronounced his Buddhism a danger to Catholics.
In the summer, Angela gives birth to a boy. Bridey Hannon’s mother saves the child from choking to death on a ball of dried milk. Angela decides to name the baby Alphonsus, a name Frank dislikes. Grandpa sends his new grandson a money order for five pounds. Angela sends Malachy to get the money order cashed, and she sends Frank and Malachy Jr. with their father to watch him. After Malachy gets the cash, he orders the boys home. They protest, but he walks away from them and into the pub. Angela, incensed, sends them back out to find him. While searching the Limerick pubs, Frank steals a drunken man’s fish and chips. Feeling guilty for the theft, he goes to Confession right away. The priest asks him why he stole, and when it comes out that Frank was hungry because his father is out drinking up all the money for food, the priest says he (the priest) should be washing the feet of those he hears confess, not doling out penances.
Frank goes back out into the night and eventually hears his father singing in a pub. Frank is “raging inside,” but he thinks of mornings by the fire with his father and of the look in his father’s eyes when he drinks: “he has that look in his eyes Eugene had when he searched for Oliver.” Frank goes home with Malachy, thinking that everything will change now, because it is one thing to drink your wages and the dole money, but drinking money meant for a baby is “beyond the beyonds.”
Analysis: Chapters VI–VII
In Chapter VI, we see how children soak up the political views and opinions of their parents, and take them for their own. When Paddy Clohessy scoffs, “The English quality wouldn’t give you the steam of their piss,” and Frank is impressed by his cleverness, Paddy admits that the saying comes directly from his father, who complains about the English as he lies dying in his bed. Hatred of the English, among other things, is taught to these children every day.
When Frank goes to Paddy’s house, we feel, along with Frank, relief that the McCourts live in relative comfort. As Frank says to himself, “It’s bad when our kitchen is a lake and we have to go up to Italy but it’s worse in the Clohessys’ when you have to go down four flights to the lavatory and slip on shit all the way down.”
As usual, death hovers over daily life. It is such an omnipresent part of Frank’s existence that he feels little more than grim satisfaction when the annoying Mickey Spellacy dies of consumption.
In Chapter VII, McCourt draws a contrast between the masters’ narrow-minded teaching (their squabbling over who owns Euclid and geometry) and Mr. Timoney’s freethinking curiosity. Mr. Timoney, an anti-establishment figure, is instantly appealing and lovable. He is full of life, yelling at his dog and calling her an “old hoor,” touting the virtues of Buddhism, and recognizing Frank’s intelligence and treating him like a peer. Because Timoney exists at the edges of normal society, however, people look on him with suspicion and distrust. McCourt suggests that Mr. Timoney is taken to the Home because of his eccentricity, wisdom, and religious difference, rather than for any real mental illness.
Mr. Timoney introduces Frank to Jonathan Swift’s work “A Modest Proposal,” in which Swift uses satire to highlight the plight of the Irish poor. Although Frank does not understand what he is reading, the allusion to this text reminds readers that Swift was satirizing hunger such as that from which Frank suffers.
In past chapters, Frank has noted what the reader recognizes as the foibles of the Catholic church, citing its condemnatory policies, even though he takes them for universal truth and does not question them. In this chapter, though, Frank experiences the love and charity of Catholicism when he visits a priest and confesses to stealing food. The priest says, “My child, I sit here. I hear the sins of the poor. I assign the penance. I bestow absolution. I should be on my knees washing their feet.” The priest is kind, wise, and truly compassionate, and his words reference the actions of Jesus, who knelt to wash the feet of his apostles.
A turning point comes when Malachy drinks away the baby’s money. This marks the first time Frank expresses real anger about his father’s staggering irresponsibility. Although he thinks of sitting by his father before the fire and hearing stories, and although he realizes that when Malachy drinks he is somehow looking for his dead children, Frank also “rages inside,” and he wants to run into the bar and kick his father. Frank himself recognizes this anger as a turning point, saying, “[I]t will be different now.”
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