Nine-year-old Frank envies his new cross-eyed yet knowledgeable friend Mickey Spellacy, who keeps getting to miss school as his relatives die from the consumption. School is not Frank’s grandmother’s priority, and she suggests he start helping Pat deliver papers on Friday nights. One night delivering the Limerick Leader, Frank meets Mr. Timoney, an older gentelman who invites him to read aloud to him for sixpence. Mr. Timoney requests Frank read him Gulliver’s Travels, which both of them enjoy deeply. All is brought to an abrupt end when Mr. Timoney is taken away for laughing after his dog bites three people. Frank is back at the Confraternity once more.
Soon thereafter, Angela gives birth to yet another baby boy, this one named Alphonsus, or Alphie. Malachy’s father wires money in honor of the birth, but Malachy takes the cash directly to the pub, where his oldest sons must search for him. Frustrated, hungry, and alone, Frank eats fish and chips a drunken man has forgotten about, then goes to confession. The priest assures him all is forgiven, and upon arriving home Frank doesn’t need to say a word to his mother, who already knows her husband has drunk away the money for the new baby.
At age ten, Frank is preparing for Confirmation, and he and his friends relieve their raging hormones the night before by paying to climb a tree outside the window of a classmate’s sister expected to be preparing for her bath. Frank is too sick to make his collection, and his nosebleed turns out to be advanced typhoid fever. He is hospitalized immediately, and is cared for by Sister Rita on a lonely ward where he befriends the sole other patient, a girl suffering from diphtheria. Her name is Patricia Mulligan, and she delights Frank with her conversation and with her books of history and poetry. Their friendship is aided by Seamus, who besides mopping the floor, memorizes “The Highwayman” after Patricia’s untimely death. Having missed two months of school, Frank is put back in fifth grade, though is relieved to rejoin his classmates after finding a penny and praying to St. Francis. He writes a compositon about “Jesus and the Weather” which persuades Mr. O’Dea to let him move up to the sixth grade class taught by Mr. O’Halloran, the hardest teacher in the school who admits to the complexities of war and alliances, even where the English are concerned.
At Christmas, Frank is invited to return to the hospital for dinner, and thus misses another’s pig’s head to instead dine alone on turkey, though he cannot resist starting with the jelly and custard dish. He is caught but Sister Rita smiles about the incident, and Frank walks the long distance home happily enough, though his mother is upset he ate by himself rather than with the nurses and nuns. Finn the Horse is dying outside and has to be shot, though Michael is devastated and attacks the stable man in protest. After their squabble, a slow fire starts to burn the stable and the rats infesting it along with the local toilet run out into the road.
Angela announces her intention to stop bearing children after Alphie, and Malachy begins to seriously consider joining many Irishmen working in England where the war has created many employment opportunities for immigrants. Agents are recruiting men in Ireland, and the telegram money orders are pouring back from the men already gone. He decides to go after Christmas and that morning he splits his single egg five ways to share with everyone. While he is away, Kathleen O’Connell lets the McCourts take all they want from her shop on credit, and the worries only begin after the first two weeks witness no telegram. Saturdays in the lane become torture for the boys, watching hopelessly as other families proudly receive their telegrams one after another. Frank and Malachy stay home from embarrassment after the first telegram fails to appear, but this shame too becomes all too familiar.
Frank’s eyes are sore and the doctor admits him to the hospital immediately, explaining it’s the worst case of conjunctivitis he has ever seen. While waiting to be seen again after being given some drops that make his vision blurry, Frank reunites with Seamus, who has been promoted from the hospital ward where Frank befriended Patricia. Seamus assures him of the great healing power of “the blink” and proudly recites the Highwayman poem. Everyone cheers, bringing Frank welcome fame and glory in the eye ward. Frank is also delighted to reunite there with Mr. Timoney, whose dog Macushla, he learns, was put to sleep after biting several men. Soon enough, Seamus announces that he, too, is off to England and Frank hears via neighbors of his own father’s behavior there. His mother lies awake at night thinking of putting the boys in an orphanage and heading to England herself. Her only recourse in Limerick is the Dispensary, and despite the shame she goes early to beg. Mr. Kane humiliates her with references to Piccadilly tarts, implying Malachy has found a lover, but eventually gives her public assistance, which the family spends at Kathleen O’Connell’s shop before retreating to “Italy” for a wordless tea by the fireside, which is, as usual, little more than a symbolic pile of ashes.
Reading and learning take on new importance to Frank as he enters his second decade, and his job reading aloud to Mr. Timoney is a perfect fit and then a devastating loss. Jonathan Swift is an inspiring author, and Frank continues to find refuge and meaning in words, especially those relating to the poverty in Ireland. He experiences books as both escape and peace from his emerging anger at reality. While he has resisted judging his father’s drinking throughout his childhood, a breaking point seems to be reached when Malachy cannot resist drinking the money sent by his family for the new baby. Frank is distraught to discover his father’s inability to set a limit for a known weakness, further demonstrating that he is truly “beyond the beyonds” when it comes to drinking. He identifies his father with the Holy Trinity, containing both good and bad within his complex character.
Frank’s efforts to prepare for First Confession are wrought with disaster. Illness, as well as poverty, is a central theme in Frank’s life, but even a disease as serious as typhoid fever is no match for his strong will. His determination, humor and spirit save him, and he even befriends a slightly older female patient who introduces him to poetry and history. Frank’s love of Shakespeare and his essay on “Jesus and the Weather” reveal a great intelligence, and suggest that under other circumstances his life might have been quite different as a budding intellectual. But his family is dependent on charity to survive, since his father’s behavior in England differs little from his habits in Brooklyn and Limerick. Angela overcomes her shame to care for her sons, but they have all clearly lost respect for Malachy’s ways and must find ways to avoid complete humiliation. Frank seeks out relationships with other men who serve as more positive role models, such as Mr. Timoney and Seamus, whose love of words is contagious and easily shared with the boy. The English history book Frank reads while recovering in the hospital showcases the anti-English sentiment referred to continuously in the book, and the thoughtful teaching of Mr. O’Halloran about atrocities committed on both sides is a welcome and balanced perspective which both shocks and thrills the young Frank.