Malachy McCourt: ‘Frank wouldn’t be happy unless he was miserable’
Angela’s Ashes returns to Dublin in September. What’s it like to see your family’s story of growing up in poverty as a musical?
Eoin Cannon as Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes The Musical.
One doesn’t so much have a conversation with Malachy McCourt as furnish him with an audience. To chat with him is to be pelted with brilliant one-liners, jokes, grand declarations and gritty truths. His previous incarnations as an actor, a celebrity bar owner, a poet and, eventually, a politician are writ large in our hour-long conversation. He is a frightfully fun conversationalist, and uproarious, over-the-top company.
From the outset, he has a delicious monologue up his sleeve.
“I was so stupid, I couldn’t get past the Primary Cert - it was as if the master was behind Plexiglas. The lips were moving but I was like, ‘Jaysus what are you talking about?’” he booms. “I was always daydreaming out the window about how I was going to be out of this place. And then the master would give me a clip round the ear and say, ‘WAKE UP’…”
It’s perhaps not surprising that McCourt launches straight into his formative years. His Limerick childhood has cast a long shadow on his life, for many reasons.
At 88, and the last surviving sibling of the McCourt family who famously lived in Limerick’s lanes, Malachy is perhaps best known as the keeper of his brother Frank’s flame (Frank died in 2009). And of course, he gets a sizeable mention as Frank’s ebullient kid brother in the bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes.
Yet for a great many years, Malachy was arguably the more successful of the two; the sociable and gregarious yin to Frank’s more taciturn yang.
“Frank was one year, one month and one day older than me,” Malachy says. “He was extremely bright and intelligent, a smallish kind of fellow. He looked like a Protestant - he had brown eyes and black hair. We often called him Cranky Frankie. He had a fierce temper. Even adults were terrified of him. He’d rise up in a second and had the gift of language, so he could reduce you with ten words to nothing.
“But he had a gloomy outlook. We were going on holidays and the mother Angela was here. We were renting a big house and Frank was having difficulties with his wife - the one I called ‘The War Department’ - and Frank was very, ‘I will come, no I won’t come’. The mother said, ‘Frank wouldn’t be happy unless he was miserable’.”
Certainly, it sounds a lot like a man who could create a memoir that has tonal shades of light and dark. By turns bittersweet, vaguely affectionate, sanguine and harrowing, Angela’s Ashes has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Alan Parker adapted the book into a 1999 drama, and more recently, the travails of the McCourt family have been made into a hit theatrical production, which had its Irish debut in 2017. Angela’s Ashes: The Musical may sound, on the face of it, like a harebrained idea - how to turn infant death, TB, alcoholism and ceaseless, grinding poverty into a musical?
Malachy recently returned to Ireland from his home in Woodstock, New York (he was born in Brooklyn and eventually returned to New York in 1952, aged 21). To him, Limerick is a much-changed beast.
“I was not sure if I could stand it emotionally to return to the life of disease and death and desperation
“I was very impressed with the air of prosperity there, and the sense of security that people have,” he says. “There wasn’t that urgency of looking towards the Shannon and getting out of town.”
While there, he attended a performance of Angela’s Ashes at the Lime Tree theatre in Limerick, alongside his second wife Diana, sons Conor and Cormac, and grandsons Cole and Gus.
“They loved the idea of coming from that,” Malachy says. “It was so edifying. I hope it helps other folks who might be despairing.”
It’s one thing reading about one’s formative years in a book, but possibly quite another to see it in musical form, I offer.
“It’s very strange,” he concurs. “I was not sure if I could stand it emotionally to return to the life of disease and death and desperation, and that most awful and unforgivable of sins, despair. I couldn’t stop the tears. It was uncontrollable. The young fella playing me (Conor Gormally) was saying goodbye to his father [before he left for the UK], and that was the last time he lived with him, that feeling I had was replicated, of realising that this was going to be the end of my father’s presence in the house.”
Malachy took many things from the production. “The message I got was that you can rise from the bottom if you keep your dreams intact. And it really was the bottom. The church failed us. Education failed us. Charity institutions failed us. The church failed us.
“And then of course, if we thought we were at the bottom, we found a trapdoor and went further down.”
He’s referring to the point in their lives where Frank, Malachy and younger brother Alphie, with Malachy Sr now at large in the UK, were forced to move in with a distant cousin, Laman Griffin. Griffin wielded a heavy kind of power over the household, and took advantage - emotionally, psychologically, sexually - of their already put-upon mother, Angela.
“The guy [GRIFFIN] used to come in drunk and get the mother to cook a big steak, and the aroma was tantalising to us kids,” Malachy remembers. “He’d tear off a chunk and give it to the dog.”
While Frank opted for a life of relative quietude in high school teaching, Malachy set about achieving the dreams of 10 men
For years, many locals had intimated that Frank McCourt had embellished the atrocities in his memoir. “People always said that it’s all lies,” Malachy shrugs.
“I once took Dickie Harris (that’s the actor Richard Harris to the rest of us) down to the lanes and he lived on Ennis Road, the posh part of Limerick. He said, ‘Jesus, I never even knew these places existed’.”
Richard Harris became a pal of Malachy’s, and had even been spotted pulling the occasional pint at Malachy’s on Third Avenue, a singles bar owned by the younger McCourt. The bar, a New York staple in the 1960s and 70s, was steeped in legend, even without Harris’ involvement. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and any other star you could think of would routinely park up to Malachy’s spot.
This would have been success enough for many émigrés, but not Malachy McCourt. While Frank opted for a life of relative quietude in high school teaching, Malachy set about achieving the dreams of 10 men.
In 1960, he founded the Manhattan Rugby Football Club while working as a longshoreman. In addition to opening the tavern on Third Avenue, a career in character acting eventually followed: he appeared in The Molly Maguires and Brewster’s Millions, as well as in soaps like One Life to Live and All My Children. He flourished on radio, too, hosting a talk show on WMCA in the 70s.
He and Frank co-wrote the two-character comedy, A Couple Of Blaguards (what “the Mother Angela” would refer to them as in her many moments of maternal exasperation).
Following the success of Angela’s Ashes in 1995, Malachy wrote his own childhood memoir in 1998, A Monk Swimming (among 10 other published titles). It differs to his brother’s account of early life, in which he recounts selling the Bible door-to-door on Long Island, and a chance meeting with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip at a football club reception.
In 2006, Malachy ran for governor of New York as a Green Party candidate, losing out to Democrat Eliot Spitzer.
Amid it all, the legacy of his childhood was hard to shake off.
“I didn’t want to be myself,” he says of his decision to become an actor. “I was ashamed of being me. I remember my first go at it was in Limerick, when I approached the College players, when I was 12. A solicitor was in charge, and he looked at me as though I’d crawled from a hole in the wall. He said, ‘if we ever need anyone of your sort, we’ll send for you. Good day’. All I heard from that was ‘we’ll send for you’. That was my first nod of aspiration.”
For much of his early life, Malachy, like his father Malachy Sr before him, was a voracious drinker.
“I wrecked one marriage (to his first wife, Linda) with my own drinking and rowdiness and profligate life, but I found Diana,” he says. “I fell in love with her immediately, but she thought I was full of sh**, plamásing and buggering around, but she did marry me. And I’ve had an amazing life. I’m the most fortunate man that ever lived.”
Malachy’s myriad successes have the feel of a man determined to leave the poverty of his formative years behind him.
The thing is, humans have a 100 per cent mortality rate. I do wish the Government would do something about that
“I think about the humiliations of poverty,” he reflects. “For me it was about getting out from under the humiliation and not letting it see your soul. I clung to that American citizenship [that he had by dint of birth]. If that arsehole Trump was around then, we’d have been called ‘anchor children’.”
On the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, he adds: “I thought, ‘Jesus, there goes America’. He’s not intelligent, but cunning and totally self-centred.”
He admits that much of the family’s wit and poetic bent comes from Angela. “When she was dying in a New York hospital (from emphysema), she turned to the doctor and said, ‘we come from a long line of dead people’,” he howls. “When we took turns to sit with her near the end, she popped her eyes open and says, ‘what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I thought you might die tonight’. She then said, ‘I might, I might not. That’s my business’.”
Malachy never fully reconciled with Malachy Sr, who lived out his final days in Belfast.
“I wrote him a letter once and outlined my grievances, rages and resentments, and finished it, ‘with all of that said, I forgive you’. I got a very short note back, ‘Dear Malachy, thank you for your letter, I’m trying to catch the last post. Your father.’ Then he died. That was the last communication we had.”
These days, he describes himself as an atheist: “I hear people talking about going to heaven. Why would you want to go there? To sit at the right hand of God, looking into his earlobe for eternity? I wouldn’t want to be with him. I’m with Dorothy Parker, ‘heaven for the comfort, hell for the company’.
“I love the Irish approach to death and I’m always talking about death - it’s a great subject. The thing is, humans have a 100 per cent mortality rate. I do wish the Government would do something about that,” he adds, drily.
“I’m 88 now so I’m in the departure lounge, and all the brothers and Mary Margaret (a sister, who died as an infant, as did his brothers Eugene and Oliver) are gone.
“I look at life as being purely temporary. Live every day as if it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right. I wake up in the morning and if I see the ceiling, I think ‘this is terrific!’ If a coffin lid is there in front of my nose, well f*** it, I’m not going to bother.”
Angela’s Ashes is on at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from September 9th-14th. Tickets from €21. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie