Born in Brooklyn, New York on 19 August 1930, Frank (Francis) McCourt was the oldest son of Malachy and Angela Sheehan McCourt. He lived with his parents and four younger siblings: Malachy, born in 1931; twins Oliver and Eugene, born in 1932; and a younger sister, Margaret, who died seven weeks after birth, in 1935. Following this first tragedy, his family moved back to Ireland where the twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, died within a year of the family's arrival and where Frank's youngest brothers, Michael (b. 1936) and Alphie (b. 1940), were born.
Angela Sheehan immigrates to the U.S.and meets Malachy McCourt after he has served a 3-month sentence for hijacking a truck. Angela becomes pregnant with Malachy's child; under pressure from Angela's cousins, Philomena and Delia MacNamara, Malachy marries Angela. Malachy does not think the marriage will last and attempts to run away to California, but spends all his traveling money at the pub. Over the next few years, Angela gives birth to Francis (Frank), then Malachy, twins Oliver and Eugene, and Margaret, who dies in infancy. Soon after Margaret's death, the McCourt family moves back to Ireland, where they both have family members who can help them.
Life in Ireland, specifically in Limerick, during the 1930s and 1940s is described in all its grittiness. The family lived in a dilapidated, unpaved lane of houses that flooded regularly. The McCourts' house was in the farthest part of the lane, near the only outdoor lavatory for the entire lane. Malachy Sr. taught the children Irish stories and songs, but he was an alcoholic and seldom found work. When he did, he spent his pay in the pubs. His family was forced to live on the dole since he could not hold down a paying job for long due to his alcoholism. The father would often pick up and spend the welfare payment before Angela could get her hands on it to feed the starving children. For years the family subsisted on little more than bread and tea. They were always wondering when their next real meal would be and whether the kids would have shoes for school. Despite all the hardships, many passages of the story are told with heartfelt humor and charm.
Frank's father eventually found a job at a defense plant in Coventry, England, yet he sent money back to his struggling family in Ireland only once. As there were few jobs for women, their mother was forced to ask for help from the Church and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. Sometimes, Frank and his brothers scavenged for lumps of coal or peat turf for fuel or stole bread to survive; they also occasionally stole leftover food from restaurants at the end of the day. Angela's mother (a widow) and sister were reluctant to help her because they disapproved of her husband, as he was not from Limerick, and they felt he had the "odd manner" about him. To make up for his father's failure to support the family, Frank started working as a messenger delivery boy when he was fourteen. He would give some of his earnings to his mother to feed the rest of the children, and the rest he saved for his planned return to America. Schooling for Frank ended at age thirteen, as it did for most of the poor boys in the lanes of Limerick. Though both his teacher, Mr. O’Halloran, and a librarian told Frank to continue his schooling, he wanted to begin working "like a man."
The McCourt children had insufficient clothing and shoes, and suffered in the damp, cold climate of Ireland. Frank developed typhoid fever and was hospitalized, where for the first time he had adequate food and warmth. Later, he got a job helping a neighbor who had leg problems; he delivered coal for the neighbor, a job he was proud of and wanted to continue even though it exacerbated his chronic conjunctivitis. The family was finally evicted after they took a hatchet to the walls of their rented home to burn the wood for heat. They were forced to move in with a cousin of Angela's who treated them badly and eventually forced a sexual relationship on Frank's mother, Angela. When Frank and Angela went to the Christian Brothers to inquire about further schooling for Frank, they slammed the door in his face. A few days after his 14th birthday, Frank started his first job as a telegram delivery boy for the post office. The wry wit of Frank's narration clearly shows that he has the capacity to rise above this job, but circumstances stop him progressing. During this time, Frank has sexual relationships with a woman named Theresa Carmody, who has tuberculosis and later dies, making Frankie feel guilty about "sending her to hell" for premarital sex.
Frank is encouraged to take the postman test at the post office, but decides not to and instead begins delivering newspapers and magazines for Eason's. To earn extra money toward his voyage to the United States, he also writes threatening collection letters on behalf of a local moneylender. When the moneylender dies, Frank takes money from her purse and throws her ledger of debtors into the river. Thus, through a combination of scrimping, saving, and stealing, Frank eventually does get enough money to travel to USA. The story ends with 19-year-old Frank arriving in Poughkeepsie, New York, ready to begin a new life in the country of his birth.