Born in Brooklyn, New York, on 19 August 1930, Frank (Francis) McCourt is the oldest son of Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan McCourt. Both of his parents emigrated from Ireland and married in a shotgun wedding over Angela's pregnancy with Frankie. Angela is originally from Limerick, Ireland, and is fond of music, singing, and dancing. Malachy, from Northern Ireland, is an alcoholic known for his "odd manner" and for telling fantastical stories about Irish heroes. Frankie is often said to closely resemble his father, having a hang-dog face and the same "odd manner." The narrative is told from the point of view of Frankie as a child.
In America, the McCourts live in modern tenement housing next to a park and share a floor, and a communal lavatory, with other immigrant families from Ireland, Italy, and the Jewish communities.
Frankie has four younger siblings: Malachy, born in 1931, who is often favored over Frankie for being an attractive, open child; blond twins Oliver and Eugene, born in 1932; and an infant sister, Margaret, in 1935.
The family often struggles with poverty as Malachy Sr. engages in an endless struggle to find work and alcohol. The family's prospects, and Angela's spirits, lift whenever he finds a new job and brings home his first week's wages, but eventually he finds himself spending all of his pay in pubs, despite Angela's many schemes to prevent him from doing so, and losing his job after a few weeks.
Margaret's birth seems to instill new life into the family: the whole family falls in love with her, Malachy Sr most of all. He gives up drinking and finds steady work to support the family. However, due to her parents' ignorance of children's disease, Margaret lives for only seven weeks. With her death, Malachy Sr abandons his family for days to indulge in an alcoholic binge, while Angela falls into a severe, debilitating depression. Frank, age six, is forced to feed and care for his younger siblings, often with the kind intervention of the neighbors. The neighbors soon realize the family's dire straits and intervene, contacting Angela's cousins, who in turn recommend the family return to Ireland with Angela's family in Limerick.
Angela is pregnant with a new baby, as they return to Ireland from America, and lose the child, shortly after moving to Limerick.
The Great Depression has struck Ireland, particularly Limerick, even harder than it did the United States. There is little work, and conditions for poor families are miserable. Malachy Sr finds it even more difficult to find work because of his Northern Ireland accent and mannerisms, the children are mocked for their American accents, and many neighbors, as well as Angela's family, look down on the McCourts for their return from America.
The family is forced to rely on the dole and charity from the local Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which requires extensive, and humiliating application processes. Angela and Malachy Sr often argue about this as Malachy drinks the welfare money meant to feed the family, and views Angela's asking for charity as begging and degrading. For many years, the family subsists on little more than bread and tea.
Within a year of the family's arrival, Oliver and Eugene also die—Oliver of what is implied to be scarlet fever and Eugene, a few months later, from grieving the loss of his twin and malnutrition. After each death, Angela sinks into depression, and the family moves because she cannot bear being in the same house. Each move results in the McCourts sliding down into worse and worse circumstances. Eventually, they end up living in a slum house. The entire ground floor floods for half a year, requiring the family to live in an upstairs room together. Their house is located next to the only lavatory on the whole street. There is a constant traffic of families dumping chamber pots in the filthy lavatory, which often backs up and smells. Two additional baby brothers, Michael (born 1936), and Alphie (Alphonsus, b. 1940), are born in Limerick.
Frankie grows up in Limerick as a sensitive and intelligent child. He often makes unique observations from those around him and has an emotional need to help. His strict Catholic upbringing preys on his imaginative nature and thoughts on whether he will be going to hell plague on his mind. Frankie must balance his Catholic beliefs against a church which frequently rejects him due to his poverty and family, his Irish upbringing against his desire to return to America once he's grown, and his desire for his father's attention against his loyalty to his mother. Strangers often prefer his more attractive and outgoing siblings, but Frankie wins over a few champions, mainly in the form of his school teachers and the various adults who hire him for odd jobs.
Frank develops typhoid fever and is taken to a Catholic hospital, where for the first time he has adequate food, warmth, and access to limitless books, and the time to read them, giving birth to his lifelong love of literature. Frankie additionally contracts chronic conjunctivitis, which does little to improve his looks or perceived, sarcastic demeanor.
At the outbreak of World War II, many Limerick men find work at a defence plant in Coventry, England, leaving their families behind and sending back money to support them. These good-paying jobs lift many of the McCourts' neighbors out of poverty. Malachy Sr leaves the family behind and secures a defence job. For several weeks, the payments allow the family to enjoy small luxuries such as candy and visits to the movies. But soon, the money stops coming and Malachy Sr abandons his family for good.
Frank and his brothers begin to scavenge the streets for coal or peat turf for fuel. They also steal leftover food from restaurants at the end of the day and grocery deliveries from doorsteps.
Eventually, the family is evicted and homeless. With few options, Angela and her children move in with her bachelor cousin, Laman Griffin. Laman is a petty tyrant who resents the presence of the children and enjoys degrading them and Angela. A preteen Frankie resents this treatment, but puts up with it for his mother and younger brothers. Upon discovering that part of Laman's deal for providing housing is a sexual relationship with Angela, Frankie has a fight with Laman and is thrown out of the house. Shortly after, Malachy Jr leaves Laman Griffin's to join the military as a bugle boy.
Frankie moves in with his maternal uncle, who was dropped on his head as a child and now lives in the house left to him by his deceased mother. Frank gets a job as a telegram delivery boy on his 14th birthday and begins to support himself while saving for his passage to America. The interesting people and situations Frankie meets on his deliveries cause him to grow as a person.
Frankie supports his youngest brothers by providing food and respite from Laman Griffin when they come to visit him. Eventually, his brothers ask if they can move in with him, which he allows, and they are shortly followed by Angela. Frankie must now turn over the majority of his wages to his mother as the bread winner of the family, though he still takes on various odd jobs to earn extra for his ticket to America, such as writing threatening collection letters on behalf of a local moneylender.
On his sixteenth birthday, Frank's uncle takes him to the pub to buy him his first beer. Frank gets drunk and returns home, singing like his father used to. When his mother shames him for drinking the way his father did, Frank hits her, accusing her of being a whore for Laman Griffin, and is immediately ashamed of himself.
One day Frank returns to the moneylender's home to find she has died. Liberated, Frank takes money from her purse and throws her ledger of debtors into the river to free the neighborhood of their debts. The contents of the moneylender's purse give him enough money to return to America at the age of nineteen. Frank arrives in Poughkeepsie, New York, ready to begin a new life in the country of his birth.