The narrator, Frank McCourt, describes how his parents meet in Brooklyn, New York. After his mother, Angela, becomes pregnant with Frank, she marries Malachy, the father of her child. Angela struggles to feed her growing family of sons, while Malachy spends his wages on alcohol. Frank’s much-loved baby sister, Margaret, dies and Angela falls into depression. The McCourts decide to return to Ireland. More troubles plague the McCourts in Ireland: Angela has a miscarriage, Frank’s two younger brothers die, and Malachy continues to drink away the family’s money.
Frank’s childhood is described as a time of great deprivation, but of good humor and adventure as well. When the first floor of the house floods during the winter, Angela and Malachy announce that the family will leave the cold damp of the first floor, which they call “Ireland,” and move to the warm, cozy second floor, which they call “Italy.” Although Malachy’s alcoholism uses up all of the money for food, he earns Frank’s love and affection by entertaining him with stories about Irish heroes and the people who live on their lane.
Over the course of a few years, Angela gives birth to two sons, Michael and Alphonsus. Alphosus is called “Alphie” for short. As Frank grows older, the narration increasingly focuses on his exploits at school. When Frank turns ten, he is confirmed (Confirmation is a ritual that makes one an official Christian or Catholic. When Frank was growing up, people were confirmed around ages seven to ten). Right after his confirmation, Frank falls ill with typhoid fever and must stay in the hospital for months. There, he gets his first introduction to Shakespeare. Frank finds comfort in stories of all kinds, from Shakespeare to movies to newspapers. By the time he returns to school, his gift for language is obvious. In particular, Frank’s flair for storytelling gets him noticed by his teacher.
With the onset of World War II, many fathers in Limerick go to England to find work and send money back to their families. Eventually, Malachy goes as well, but he fails to send money home. Frank begins to work for Mr. Hannon. This is the first in a series of jobs. Frank will go on to work for Mr. Timoney, Uncle Ab, the post office, Mrs. Finucane, and Mr. McCaffrey. Frank enjoys the feeling of responsibility he gets from working, and he dreams of saving enough to provide his family with food and clothes.
The McCourts get evicted from their lodgings and must move in with Angela’s cousin Laman. Angela begins sleeping with Laman, an arrangement that makes Frank increasingly uncomfortable and angry. He also begins to feel guilty about his own sexual feelings. The priests’ strict mandates against masturbation make Frank feel guilty when he masturbates.
While working as a messenger boy, Frank begins a sexual relationship with a customer, Theresa Carmody, who eventually dies of consumption, leaving Frank heartbroken. Frank saves enough money to get to New York. On his first night there, he attends a party and sleeps with an American woman. Though sad to leave behind Ireland and his family, Frank has great expectations for the future.