Frank McCourt suffers greatly and continually from hunger as he grows up in Limerick, a city on the west coast of Ireland. For instance, Frank's grandmother begrudges him a spoon of sugar for his tea, he robs one man's fish and chips and another's dinner, he salivates as a teacher peels an apple, all because he is starving. The lack of food in the memoir illustrates the country's dire poverty.
Though hunger was a dreadful social force in 1930's Ireland, it was hardly a new one. Throughout the memoir, McCourt is reminded that starvation has plagued Ireland for generations. The most famous and horrible historical example of this starvation is the Great Famine that struck Ireland in 1845 and lasted for six years.
Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century was strictly an agricultural nation with an enormous population of eight million people. It was one of the poorest countries in the Western World and only a quarter of the population was literate. Large families, with sometimes up to twelve people, slept on straw on the ground and shared their cabins with farm animals. Their life expectancy was short, with men living an average of forty years.
Most of the land in the Irish countryside was owned by the English or Anglo-Irish protestants who ruled the country and employed local agents to manage their estates and collect rent from Irish tenants. Their land had been confiscated by the British centuries earlier. However, as the population increased, the various estates had to be sub-divided into smaller holdings, which were rented to the poor Catholic farmers who were considered tenants-at-will. These tenants had no rights and could be ousted without reason by the landlord or his agent. And while they raisedd beef, sheep and wheat for their British landlords, the Irish themselves existed almost exclusively on a diet of potatoes, fed their animals with potatoes, and oftentimes even paid their rent in potatoes. By the mid-1800s, the population density of Ireland was among the highest rates in Europe and by the 1800s, the highly potato had become their staple crop. The Irish consumed an estimated seven million tons of potatoes yearly and the population was maintained as long as the potato crop didn't fail.
However, that disaster ensued in the mid-nineteenth century, decimating the population of Ireland. The Famine began in September of 1845 as the leaves on potato plants became black with rot from a fungus (phytophthora infestans) transported in the holds of North American ships. The deadly blight spread throughout the fields of the entire country at lightning speed. Meanwhile, the British government adhered to their laissez-faire (meaning 'let it be') economics and failed to intervene. Because the poor Irish had no other sources of food, a million people died in Ireland and another million fled the country.
This famine left an enormous scar on the Irish psyche. McCourt continually alludes to it as his Irish characters continue to suffer hunger, as though the famine never really ceased, merely slowed.