Angela's Ashes: Chapters 4-6
Frank’s class is preparing for First Confession and First Communion. Frank’s older friend Mikey, who is a cross-eyed epileptic and whose mother Nora Molloy is regularly taken away to the insane asylum, tells him about the Collection, which entails family and neighbors providing sweets and money after First Communion. Frank’s friends in school include Brendan Quigley, who asks the master so many questions he has been nicknamed Question Quigley, and Paddy Clohessy, who is so poor he comes to school barefoot and with his head shaved to avoid lice. Frank is still entranced by stories of Cuchulain. He is upset after hearing from Mikey that the legendary Irish hero’s wife earned that role by winning a peeing contest, for he believes it is a sin to have listened to the tale. He tells the Angel on the Seventh Step about his predicament in anticipation of his First Communion, and believes the Angel tells him to confess, though his father insists he has committed no sin. Frank tells the priest about the story and receives his penance and assurance he is far from the worst sinner. On the day of his First Communion, Frank oversleeps and is rushed to church by his angry grandmother, where he has trouble swallowing the host and later vomits in her backyard. Too sick to parade around town in his new suit, he is forced to return to confession to ask the priest whether to wash the mess with holy or ordinary water. Mikey Molloy gets him into the cinema anyway and thus concludes Frank’s First Communion day.
Frank’s grandmother is so upset about him throwing up in her backyard she stops speaking to the family, and there’s no one to turn to when they run out of tea or milk. Angela befriends neighbor Bridey Hannon when Malachy’s not home. Grandma rents her room to Protestant Bill Galvin and hires Frank to take him his lunch daily, but he is so hungry he can’t resist sampling it and before long the entire dinner has been eaten. He must deliver the food for another two weeks without pay as punishment.
Angela’s smoking has rotted her gums, and she and Malachy are fitted for false teeth. The younger Malachy tries them on and can’t get them out of his mouth, and has to be taken to the hospital to dislodge them. He is rewarded with toffee, but the doctor notices Frank’s tonsils need taking out and all he gets is an operation. What is more, his mother then enrolls him in dance classes, which he detests. He resents the star pupil, Cyril Benson, and preferring Fred Astaire anyway, goes to the Lyric Cinema instead of class. This continues for several Saturdays, until Frank loses a tooth in some toffee and can no longer get away with the lie. His father marches him to confession where he’s told that he’s dancing at the gates of hell istelf.
Frank grows from seven to nearly ten and still his father is unemployed. When Malachy does get a job, it lasts only three weeks until he drinks his wages Friday night and misses the half day of work Saturday.
Frank is told to join the boys’ division of the Arch Confraternity at the Redemptionist Church, where Father Gorey presides and fourteen-year-old Declan Collopy rules as prefect of the St. Finbar section.
Malachy the elder decides Frank should become an altar boy and begins to teach him Latin. However, when they go to the church to inquire, they are told there’s no room and the door is literally closed in their faces.
The chapter opens with a feud between Frank’s fourth grade teacher, Mr. “Dotty” O’Neill, and the fifth grade teacher, Mr. O’Dea, who also feels possessive of Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician. Dotty torments his students by peeling an apple in front of them and awarding the peel to one lucky student, usually Fintan Slattery who seems to know most everything the teachers ask. Fintan requests sharing his apple peel with Quigley, Paddy Clohessy and Frank, and he further invites the boys home for a snack after school. Both boys appreciate the sandwich, but feel awkward about Fintan watching them urinate. The next time Fintan invites them home for lunch, then proceeds to eat his sandwich without offering either hungry boy anything. Since they’ve missed out on the school meal anyway, they decide to skip school altogether. Instead of attending afternoon classes, they drink fresh milk from a cow and rob an apple orchard and then find themselves caught in the rain. Frank is too ashamed to go home at this point, so spends the night at the Clohessy’s. Paddy’s father Dennis asks Frank about his family, and fondly remembers once dancing with Angela Sheehan himself. As he coughs and hacks from the consumption (tuberculosis), he tells Frank about their happy dancing days at Wembley Hall. The next morning Angela herself is on the doorstep to claim her son, and indulges him with the shared memory of a song as tears stream down her face. Back at school, Frank is pleased simply not to be punished for his escapade with Paddy the day before.
Frank’s first confession should be a highlight of his childhood, but instead brings out his deepest fears as he believes he has sinned and is unforgivable. While in retrospect his worries about having heard a story about Cuchulain that he believes is sinful seem comic, to Frank these concerns are huge. His feelings are so extreme that he literally makes himself sick, and this obsessive tendency reappears throughout his childhood and adolescence. His grandmother’s reaction when he vomits up the wafer illustrates the source; she in turn obsesses over details such as whether or not to use holy water to clean up the mess. She treats Frank with clear disdain, and the extended family overall proves to lack the ability to live up to the challenge of supporting the McCourt family, emotionally, financially, or otherwise. Her attitudes provide some comic relief from the serious themes of poverty and the misery it causes and perpetuates, but it is less amusing to realize the tension between Catholic and Protestants is as deep as it is.
The religious understanding Frank develops in these chapters is complemented by an appreciation of the academic. His father’s intellect becomes apparent; he knows Latin and writes well, yet because of the class system his intelligence provides no relief from unemployment. Frank seeks acceptance from the boys at school, many of whom suffer in similarly poverty-stricken circumstances, and from the church, which revealingly refuses to consider giving him a place as an altar boy. Frank doesn’t take the rejection too much to heart, instead embarking on a dangerous path befriending boys like Paddy Clohessy whose lives appear even more destined for misery. Paddy’s father’s illness contrasts with Frank’s own father’s drinking problem, and his previous relationship with Angela is a reminder to them both of happier times before their adult lives took turns out of their control. The fact that both sons tend to repeat sayings they overhear at home is a reminder of the intergenerational learning occurring, with fathers frequently passing on their world views in small but memorable phrases. Malachy’s legacy seems more mixed than most, for while he offers fireside insights in the mornings, he consistently comes home drunk and penniless, convincing Frank he aspires to be more of a provider than his father has proven to be.