What Are You Like?
By Michael Scanlon, Contributor
August / September 2011
Malachy McCourt at 80: his wit and wisdom
“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman famously asked. “I contain multitudes!”
Malachy McCourt might say the same about himself. Arriving in America in 1952 from County Limerick at age 20 with $4.00 in his pocket, he was soon drafted into the United States Air Force and served time in Germany. Returning to the United States, he commenced a life that truly defines multitudinous.
He began as a stevedore on the New York docks, but his natural born gift of story-telling soon landed him on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show, the most famous talk show of that era. From there he became the creator of the first and most popular “singles bar” in New York City called Malachy’s, while at the same time doing a stint as an international gold smuggler to India. His fame as a raconteur gained him his own radio and TV talk shows. In time, he launched a career as an actor and became a regular cast member on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Eventually Malachy made it to Broadway. Then to cap it off, in his 60’s, he became a best-selling author. By 2006, at age 75, he garnered enough signatures to place him on the ballot for Governor of the State of New York.
Malachy’s life, like Whitman’s, also contains some intriguing contradictions. He arrived in America as an Irish immigrant, but was actually born in Brooklyn and moved back to Ireland with his parents at the age of three.
He never graduated from primary school, yet his memoir, A Monk Swimming, made the New York Times best seller list and was the number one best seller in Australia for over a year. He has also written seven other books including Danny Boy: The Beloved Irish Ballad, A History of Ireland, The Claddagh Ring: Ireland’s Treasured Symbol of Friendship, Loyalty and Love and a second memoir, Singing His Him Song.
Malachy was one of New York City’s most celebrated pub owners but has not had a drink in over 25 years.
He has criticized and raised the hackles of the Irish, yet he claims a passionate love for Ireland and the Irish people.
He has publicly and loudly denounced American right-wing politics but yields to no one in his undying patriotism.
He has been irreverent about the church he was raised in but, in his later years, he has come to a deep sense of spirituality and inner peace. Never one to take himself too seriously, Malachy once described himself as “the man who gave good intentions a bad name.”
As he approaches his 80th year, he still continues to write and to act in movies and television. He lectures on Irish literature and culture throughout the country, and a plan is now afoot to make a motion picture of his book A Monk Swimming. He is the father of four, grandfather of six, and he has been married to Diana McCourt for the past 45 years.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Walking in the woods with my wife Diana within earshot of river sounds.
To what do you attribute your long and successful marriage to Diana?
Diana taught me to say “I love you” without embarrassment and to show it with hugs and kisses. When we disagree it is understood we don’t say things like, “You never…” or “You always…” and we never say, “You are just like your–” whatever nasty relative comes to mind.
What is the best part about turning 80?
People will now be too polite to interrupt me whilst I’m giving myself advice.
What is the worst part about turning 80?
People telling me, “You look great.” And also not having a reverse gear to go back in time in order to make amends.
What event most changed you?
Finding peace in sobriety.
Of your many incarnations which did you enjoy themost?
Talking on the radio. I couldn’t wait to hear what I had to say next!
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Freeing myself from rigid Irish respectability and being a first-class oceangoing liberal.
What is your favorite place in Ireland?
Anywhere in Connemara. Diana and I will be renting a house this summer in Roundstone, Galway.
How much of you is Irish and how much American?
The Irish or American debate is over. I am a New Yorker.
What do you like about New York?
You can complete many things here, but you can never be a complete failure. New York wouldn’t let you.
What would you change about New York?
I would make it the law for all restaurants to allow public access to their toilets as they do in Rome.
What resources did you call upon to survive your poverty stricken childhood in Limerick?
Imagination in the child is powerful. Reading and laughter and love are essential in our lives.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My fear of being poor, of being hungry again, of being cold and no sign of the sun.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
People who think wealth is a measure of character.
What would you like the Irish to most remember about you?
That I made children laugh, that I brought a bit of joy to the old, and I learned to tolerate Irish conservatives.
What’s your favorite journey?
Walking on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
I would try to lessen my intolerance for people who think they can influence their God by praying.
What is it that you most dislike?
Racism and bigotry.
Who are your heroes?
Thomas Paine, Paul O’Dwyer, James Connolly.
What is your most distinguishing characteristic?
In general trying to be funny and friendly, and I consider it a victory when I annoy a conservative.
On what occasions would you tell a lie?
Any time I speak. A lie to me is a dream that might come true.
What do you consider the lowest depth of misery?
To be trapped in a country run by fundamentalists and creationists who ban and burn books.
Who are your favorite writers?
P.G. Wodehouse, Sean O’Casey, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Edna O’Brien.
How did you feel about the great fame that came to your brother Frank?
I always knew Frank McCourt was a great writer and his recognition was long overdue.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Pontius Pilate. He was a clean man, always washed his hands.
Who do you see as your fictional counterpart?
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
A woman who appreciates bawdy humor and is comfortable with both men and women.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
One who is not afraid to show his love for his beloved and his family.
What is your motto?
“Live every day as if it were your last because one day you will be right.”