A Malarkey in Clear Air – Frank McNally on an American war hero with a funny name

An Irishman’s Diary

Donald Malarkey: the defining journey of his life was to take him back to Europe, and the battlefields of the second World War

Donald Malarkey: the defining journey of his life was to take him back to Europe, and the battlefields of the second World War

 

A hundred years ago today, in the town of Astoria, Oregon, was born a man named Donald Malarkey. Astoria is where, back in 1806, the Lewis and Clarke Expedition had camped on reaching the Pacific after their epic trek west.

And having started in Ireland, Malarkey’s ancestors made an even longer trek to a place where, as he wrote decades later in an autobiography: “We were proud to be Irish. Proud to be Malarkeys. And proud to be Americans.” The defining journey of his life, however, was to take him back to Europe, and the battlefields of the second World War.

In a prophetic incident also recorded in the memoir, Malarkey wrote of how he had once, aged about 12, “jumped off the roof of our house on Kensington Avenue, clutching only a beach umbrella”. Despite the umbrella’s deficiencies as a parachute, he escaped with minor injuries.

A decade later, using better equipment, he jumped out of an aeroplane over Normandy and again landed safely, insofar as you could behind German lines. It was the early hours of June 6th, 1944. He was one of the paratroopers dropped into France just ahead of the main invasion.

In his first day on the ground, he participated in the Brécault Manor assault, now the stuff of military textbooks, which eliminated an artillery stronghold and won him a Bronze Star. By the end of the war, he had also earned a Purple Heart, the American Campaign Medal, and the Légion d’honneur.

But during nearly 200 days of combat, he retained the luck he had when jumping off the roof. He was never seriously wounded. Back in Oregon, he lived to old age, eventually seeing himself portrayed in Stephen Spielberg’s classic series Band of Brothers (2001), and dying only in 2017, aged 96.

Those who watched Band of Brothers may remember Malarkey from a poignant scene in which, returning to his unit’s base in England after the Normandy campaign, he goes to collect laundry he had deposited before the invasion and is also asked to take some for others from his company who have not been in yet.

The laundry worker fears they have forgotten. Malarkey surveys the names of several friends on the brown paper packages, including his commander Lieut Thomas Meehan, who had been shot down, and knows they won’t be needing clothes anymore. But he takes them anyway.

This was no Spielburgian embellishment. In the book, Malarkey mentions the laundry women at Aldbourne who would sometimes “in those beautiful British accents” offer “a cup of tea”. On this occasion, they asked as a favour if he would take the others’ laundry and “save them a trip”. Only 74 of the company’s 139 men had survived, he wrote, but the laundry workers weren’t to know.

Malarkey’s heroics were somewhat at odds with his surname, which like “Lynch” and “Hooligan”, appears to have made it into English dictionaries, is this case as a slang word meaning “foolish talk, usually intended to deceive”. Most lexicographers attribute that term to “origin unknown”. But it seems interesting that it first appeared in 1922, around the same time as our hero, and in the same corner of the world: down the coast from Oregon, in San Francisco.

The earliest printed mention is in a cartoon by a man with the equally Irish name of Thomas Aloysius Dorgan. A few years later, still in California, the word featured in a story called Hollywood Girl, written by a JP McEvoy. And in 1934, “Malarkey” also turned up in the work of a journalist named Frank Scully, whose other work – as if to demonstrate the concept – included an exposé on the discovery of aliens from a crashed flying saucer in New Mexico.  

More respectably, John Steinbeck used it too, while – supporting the notion that a person of the name might have given rise to the word – another San Francisco writer recorded the former existence in the city of at least two colourful Malarkeys, one of them an oyster shucker of Portuguese ancestry who, in the mistaken belief he was Irish, had changed the spelling of his birth-name from “Mallorca”.

The derivation of the surname itself is more securely established. Whether anglicised as Malarkey or Mullarkey, it’s from Ó Maoilearca, meaning “a servant of Erc”: the latter being a fifth-century holy man who was ordained by St Patrick before setting up a famous hermitage in Slane. On a mission in Kerry, St Erc is said to have taught a young Brendan the Navigator.

So maybe he was also implicated in guiding one of his 20th-century followers, another intrepid traveller, on a safe path into and out of wartime France.

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