I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg . . . but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam.
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Frank is ten years old and preparing for his Confirmation. Peter Dooley, whom everyone calls “Quasimodo” because of his hunched back, offers to let Frank, Billy Campbell, and Mikey Molloy pay a shilling to look at his naked sisters. The day before their Confirmation, they go to Peter’s house. Mikey Molloy climbs the drainpipe to see the girls, but, as he masturbates, he starts to have a fit and falls off the pipe. Quasimodo’s mother appears, shuts Quasimodo in the coal cellar, and berates the boys for looking at her daughters. She tells Angela that Frank should go to Confession before his Confirmation the next day, but Angela says she won’t have him prevented from being Confirmed just because “he climbed a spout for an innocent gawk at the scrawny arse of Mona Dooley.” She drags Frank home and makes him swear in front of the picture of the pope that he didn’t see Mona naked.
The next day, Frank is Confirmed. Afterward, he gets a nosebleed that will not stop. He feels too sick to make his Collection. Some days later, the doctor visits Frank at home and diagnoses him with typhoid fever. Frank goes to the hospital, and for days he drifts in and out of consciousness. He is close to death and is given the rites of Extreme Unction. However, a few days later a doctor farts in front of him, and Frank realizes that he will live, thinking that a doctor would never fart in front of a dying boy.
Frank’s father visits him and kisses him on the forehead for the first time in his life, which makes the boy so happy that he feels like “floating” out of bed.
During his stay in the hospital, Frank meets a girl named Patricia Madigan, who is dying of diphtheria. The two children befriend Seamus, an old man who cleans the hospital. Patricia lends Frank a history book, in which he reads his first two lines of Shakespeare. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language overwhelms Frank. He says speaking the lines is like “having jewels in [his] mouth.” Patricia recites part of Alfred Noyes’s poem “The Highwayman.” The nurse is infuriated to find the two children talking, and she tells the nun in charge, who moves Frank into another ward, saying, “Diphtheria is never allowed to talk to typhoid.” Frank overhears the nurse talking to Seamus about all of the children who died of starvation in that very ward during the potato famine. She also tells Seamus that Patricia does not have long to live. Two days later, Seamus tells Frank that Patricia died as she was trying to make her way to the bathroom.
Frank asks Seamus to find out what happens at the end of “The Highwayman.” Seamus asks around at the pub, finds someone who knows the poem, and memorizes it so he can report to Frank. It turns out that at the end of the poem, both the hero and his lover die. During the rest of his stay in hospital, Frank reads books.
Frank is allowed to return home fourteen weeks after his eleventh birthday and is greeted warmly by the people in his street. On his return to school in November, Frank is disappointed to learn that he has to repeat the fifth year instead of moving up to the sixth with his friends. Although he is barely strong enough to walk there, Frank clings to walls and eventually reaches the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, where he gives a penny to light a candle, and prays to be moved to the sixth form. Shortly thereafter, he writes an impressive essay on what would have happened had Jesus grown up in Limerick, which persuades Mr. O’Dea to move him up to the sixth class. Frank is amazed by his new teacher, Mr. O’ Halloran, who encourages questions and admits that the Irish, as well as the English, committed atrocities during the Battle of Kinsale. Frank concludes his teacher must be telling the truth because he is also the headmaster.
Frank feels mixed emotions about his father. He dislikes it when Malachy drinks his dole money, but he loves his mornings alone with his father, when they read the paper and talk; he loves the stories his father tells. In this chapter, Malachy talks for the first time about school, telling Frank how in the old days the English closed Irish schools in order to keep the people ignorant, and how the Irish attended school secretly, in ditches. He also tells Frank that if he could, he would go to America and get an office job, saying, “America is not like Limerick, a gray place with a river that kills.”
Except for the protagonist’s return to the hospital to eat Christmas dinner, the rest of this chapter focuses on the terrible odors emanating from the lavatory right outside the McCourts’ door. Along with these smells, the family is plagued by rats and flies. Frank is saddened by the death of Finn the Horse, who lived in the stable close to his house.
Running through this chapter is a current of anti-English sentiment. McCourt implies that as Frank grows older, he becomes increasingly aware of how much the grown-ups around him detest the English. Seamus thinks it’s a shame that Frank is reading a history of England, and that there are no histories of Ireland in the hospital. The nurse speaks of the “children suffering and dying here while the English feasted on roast beef and guzzled the best of wine in their big houses, little children with their mouths all green from trying to eat the grass in the fields beyond.” Despite the constant display of anti-English sentiment, this chapter also marks the first expression of an evenhanded examination of English-Irish relations. Mr. O’Halloran’s admission that the Irish committed atrocities is the first such admission Frank has heard, and it shocks him.
Another theme of this chapter is storytelling. It is now that Frank discovers the deliciousness of stories, and fiction bursts into bloom like a garden with all varieties of flowers: a line of Shakespeare, a history of England, a poem read from a book, a pub song, articles in the newspaper, Irish history, social satires by P. G. Wodehouse, fantastical stories from Malachy, and a sharp and touching essay by Frank. This outpouring of fiction is the autobiography’s first display of riches or abundance of any kind, and it comes as a relief to Frank and to the reader.
When Patricia dies, Frank is less disturbed by the fact of her death than by the fact that she will not be able to tell him how “The Highwayman” ends. His reaction to her death may seem callous, but it reminds the reader that Frank has had much more exposure to death than he has to poetry, and so for him, poetry is more powerful and moving even than death.
Frank’s understanding of his father continues to grow. When talking of his mixed feelings for Malachy, he says, “I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.” Frank demonstrates both that he understands his father and that he understands a subtle point of Catholic theology, which holds that God is three people in one—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.