Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 26 August 2019

'Coming back to Limerick in a blaze of glory is strange, considering how we left' - Malachy McCourt on living a life less ordinary

Back in Limerick for the musical version of his brother's book, 'Angela's Ashes', Malachy McCourt remembers being called a 'dirty laner', getting his Primary Cert late in life and running for New York governor on a platform of humane immigration

Breaking tradition: Malachy set up the first singles bar in 1960s New York. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty
Breaking tradition: Malachy set up the first singles bar in 1960s New York. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty

John Daly

Just a few weeks shy of his 88th birthday, Malachy McCourt peers into the future with a ready quip and broad smile.

"I'm obviously in life's departure lounge, and really feel quite blasé about it all. I tell friends that I'm just going to head off and go to sleep."

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The eyes twinkle as he adds a codicil: "And I tell them not to be expecting me to intercede for them in heaven due to the fact that I'm an atheist, thank God. I have no hope of heaven nor fear of hell, so I'm all set."

Having lived in New York practically all of his adult life, he was back in Limerick this week to view Angela's Ashes: The Musical for the first time. "I expect it to be an emotional experience, the same as the film was and the book before it. It's very strange to be back in Limerick again, considering our family were called 'dirty laners' - the lowest of the low. People come up to shake my hand, and I wonder - 'Were you there when we were in squalor?'

"Coming back in a blaze of glory is strange, considering how we left."

Despite the grim childhood memories, he has long ago discarded grudges: "Carrying resentment is poison, so I stick with Oscar Wilde's dictum - 'Forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much'."

In a colourful life, even by Big Apple standards, Malachy has been, at various stages, the inventor of the 'singles bar', a talk radio pioneer, a television and film actor, a bestselling author; a gold smuggler, a political activist, and a Green Party candidate for governor of the state of New York. He added stand-up comedy to that CV only last year.

In his most recent book, Death Need Not Be Fatal, he brings his trademark black humour to a life thoroughly lived, while poignantly charting the demise of his sister and three brothers. "Hard to believe Frank is dead 10 years this month. I hate RIP - I hope he's keeping busy wherever he is." Being a 'political junkie,' Malachy's views on the Trump administration conform to the expected: "He's a disgrace and a hypocrite, this president who dodged the draft and dares to talk about valour.

"Americans are a decent people, but sometimes we all get taken for a ride, and that's what's happened here. But I do believe voters will wise up when they come to the ballot box in 2020."

No stranger to the hustings himself, he ran for governor of New York in 2006 with a campaign slogan demanding: 'Don't Waste Your Vote, Give It To Me.' A natural ally of the undocumented and oppressed, he promised: "We will stand on principle while the others have to run, lest they be found out."

His platform always supported a humane immigration policy: "We have millions of people living in the shadows of society, many of them young Irish in constant fear of being 'outed' to immigration. The government calls them 'illegals' - and may God forgive them for that. I say there are no illegal aliens, only undocumented people."

As a natural host and raconteur, it was inevitable Malachy would gravitate to the bar scene - especially in the heat of the Swinging Sixties. "Malachy's on Third Avenue was the first singles bar in New York, and that came out of a tradition of not allowing women to sit at the bar. Much like Ireland, in fact, such women were considered suspect. Utter stupidity in my view, and, as the women-only Hotel Barbizon was right around the corner, I encouraged them to come in and sit anywhere they damn well pleased."

Malachy's became a magnet for the social classes keen to flex their liberal muscles - beautiful people like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and Alan Bates were regular patrons. Legendary New York newsman Jimmy Breslin encapsulated the era: "Mostly I remember the laughing and the big, cold beers. Malachy was the one everybody knew. Forget about Frank, Malachy was the star."

Years later, Malachy opened another bar called The Bells of Hell, described as "a swirling pool of journalists, actors and Irish republican activists." However, the phone company refused to grant the pub a phone line, citing caution over its demonic honorific. But, as usual, Malachy had the perfect answer: "I told them I'd change the name to The Bells of F***."

Gold smuggler

Between careers as bar owner, actor and aspiring political activist, the young McCourt found himself badly in need of funds resulting from an expensive divorce from his first wife. Hooking up with a gold smuggler on the Zurich to New Delhi route, he made 11 trips trafficking 20lbs of gold strapped to his chest on each occasion. It wasn't all plain sailing, though, and his memoir, A Monk Swimming, hilariously recounts the comic chaos of trying to find his courier contact in the shimmering heat of an Indian summer.

In 1970, Malachy scored another first - as a talk radio host on the WMCA station. "It was the first station to bring talk radio to New York. It was owned by a pseudo-liberal, and allowed us to embrace controversial ideas - being anti the Vietnam War, supporting decriminalisation of drugs and favouring abortion rights. We were forbidden to use any kind of profanity, but I always managed to slip in Irish-isms like 'shite' and 'feck' to press the boundaries."

One of his greatest campaigns was the closure of Willowbrook, a notorious mental hospital. "I called it the Auschwitz of America. Wards jammed with 80 people lying in their own shit and banging their heads against the wall."

Hiring a then unknown reporter named Geraldo Rivera, Malachy's efforts eventually saw the institution shut down for good.

Ironically, the loquacious McCourt marks his poor education as a perverse driver in his life. "It's a little known fact, but I failed the Primary Cert as a schoolkid in Limerick. I simply had no idea what they were talking about up there at the blackboard - education was total gibberish to me."

Honoured at a Washington dinner for his work with the Project Children organisation some years ago, Malachy found himself sitting next to the then Minister for Education, Michael Woods. "He asked me where I got my educational degree and I told him I was edged out of school by degrees."

A few weeks later an official letter from the Irish Department of Education arrived awarding Malachy an overdue Primary Cert - another first. "It hangs in the proudest part of my home - a prime example of just how far the right kind of bullshit will get you in this life."

Given the candour in admitting to his present position in 'life's departure lounge,' I venture an enquiry as to the best epitaph for his tombstone. "He made us laugh," came the retort. Warming to his subject, he recounted visiting his mother, Angela, on her death bed in 1981. Asking if she had a preference for burial or cremation, she replied: "Surprise me." Clearly this comedic apple did not fall far from the tree.

'Angela's Ashes: The Musical' is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast - September 3-7; Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - September 9-14; Cork Opera House - September 16-21

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