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The story is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s and beyond, as it extends into World War II and its aftermath. It begins in Brooklyn, New York, where Frank is born in 1930. However, because conditions are so bad there, Frank's parents think they do can better in Ireland, their home country. At least in Ireland, they can collect the dole. Returning turns out to be a mistake, however, as their poverty in Ireland is even more dire than in the United States.

The family moves to Limerick in Ireland, which is where the bulk of the story takes place. Because the father is an alcoholic, he often spends much of the family's dole money on alcohol, forcing the family to rely on charity from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This society insists they go through a long and humiliating process to get help. Frank's younger twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, die. Eventually, the family is forced to move to a slum apartment. The ground floor of it floods for part of the year, so the family has to crowd upstairs for this period.

Frank and his impoverished classmates are so hungry that they wait eagerly during lunch to see who their teacher will give his apple peel to. When he is sent to a hospital with typhus and the doctor prescribes a diet rich in meat to help his recovery, Frank can only laugh to himself as such food is impossible for him to afford.

McCourt wrests much dark humor out his ability to survive the most miserable of childhoods. At the end of the memoir, he is able to move back to the U.S.

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