Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
The theme of poverty is pervasive. In Limerick, poverty is accepted as a fact of life; although there is a charitable society and a rudimentary system of public assistance, neither does much to lift the poor out of their misery. For the McCourts, the dole money is never sufficient. When they first settle in Limerick, Malachy receives a mere nineteen shillings a week, for a family of six. "Just enough for all of us to starve on,’’ says Angela. The family often goes hungry.
Not only is food scarce; living conditions are appalling. The McCourts must deal with fleas, rats, flies, and lice. There is only one lavatory for the whole lane of eleven families, and it is directly outside their door. In summer the stench is unbearable. Malnutrition and bad living conditions are probably responsible for the deaths of the twin boys.
The children often have to dress in rags. At Leamy's School, six or seven boys go barefoot. Frank's shoes are falling to pieces, which leads to a comical episode in which his father, after being told by his wife that he is useless, attempts to repair the shoes using on old bicycle tire.
The family's poverty worsens when Frank's father goes to work in England but fails to send any money home. The children sleep on piles of rags. The downward cycle reaches its lowest point when Angela is forced to beg for food at the door of the priest's house, an incident that makes clear the link between poverty and humiliation.
Limerick is a town that is damp, not only from the incessant rain; it is also awash in alcohol. The evenings that the men spend at the pub drinking pints of beer—usually referred to as stout or porter— as well as whiskey, are almost like religious rituals. These evenings give the men a chance to enjoy male camaraderie and forget the hardness of their lives (as well as their wives).
The worship of beer is quickly passed from man to boy. When Frank is about six, he accompanies his father to a pub, and his uncle Pa Keating explains to him, "Frankie, this is the pint. This is the staff of life. This is the best thing for nursing mothers and for those who are long weaned.’’ In what amounts to a rite of passage, boys in Limerick are initiated into beer drinking on their sixteenth birthday when their fathers take them to the pub for a pint.
Beer drinking is also a competitive activity in Limerick. Pa Keating boasts that he is the champion pint-drinker. He wins bets by drinking more than anyone else, a feat he accomplishes by making himself vomit in the restroom, which enables him to go back to the bar and drink more beer. His son Mikey longs to emulate him.
The destructive effects of alcohol are apparent in Frank's father, the stereotypical Irish drunk. He ruins his life, and the lives of his family, by his addiction. Another character whose drinking causes suffering for others is Angela's cousin Laman Griffin, who beats Frank up one night in a drunken rage. After his first two pints on his sixteenth birthday, Frank himself argues with his mother and hits her.
The people of Limerick are steeped in the rites and dogmas of Roman Catholicism, which they accept without question. These beliefs reach Frank's youthful mind as he listens to grown-up conversation or tries to make sense of what he is told at home or at school. The results are often comical. For example, he looks forward to his First Communion for weeks because the masters at school tell him it will be the happiest day of his life. He thinks that is because after First Communion boys are allowed to go around collecting money from relatives and neighbors, which they can then use to buy sweets and go to the Lyric Cinema. When the big day arrives, the priest puts the wafer, which according to Catholic dogma is the body of Christ, on Frank's tongue. To Frank's dismay, it sticks: ‘‘I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master's voice, Don't let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you'll roast in hell for eternity.’’ However, the crisis passes. ‘‘God was good,’’ Frank says. ‘‘He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.’’
When Frank is confused about religion, he simply connects the bits and pieces he has heard until he has something that makes sense to him. When his little brother Eugene dies, he wonders whether he is cold in his coffin in the graveyard, but then he remembers that angels come and open the coffin and take Eugene up to the sky where he joins his other dead siblings and they have plenty of fish and chips and toffee.
As for the adults, they seem content with a narrow faith in which only Catholics are saved. Protestants and others are doomed to hell, and even unbaptized children languish forever in Limbo. "Otherwise," says Frank's grandmother, ‘‘you'd have all kinds of babies clamorin' to get into heaven, Protestants an' everything, an' why should they get in after what they did to us for eight hundred years?''