Sober: By Malachy McCourt

Mickey Kelly and Malachy McCourt in A Couple of Blackguards
Mickey Kelly and Malachy McCourt in A Couple of Blackguards

By Malachy McCourt, Contributor
August / September 2013

Malachy McCourt writes about being an alcoholic and what it was that finally made him stop drinking.

Was I born alcoholic? That’s not clear but I know that the disease does not discriminate against race, gender, age, position, or religion.

It is an incurable disease that can be handled by taking certain precautions, foremost of which is putting down the drink – anywhere but in your mouth.

I found the life of the alcoholic to be one of denial and deceit. I was not like my father, who disappeared to England from where tales of his generosity to his fellow boozers in Birmingham pubs filtered back to his poverty-stricken family in Limerick.

I wasn’t like that at all.

I was the “hail-fellow, well met” Irishman in New York, rarely home, rushing from bar to bar. I was the life of the party while my first wife was stuck in a small apartment with two young children.

My partners in the bar business rarely saw me, though I was getting more than my fair share of the profits.

In the alcoholic world honesty disappears and is followed by huge, inevitable, losses.

Being an alcoholic is a very lonely condition. It is all about loss: loss of dignity, loss of morality, loss of decency, loss of family, loss of house car, money, and job. Most importantly, it’s about loss of love, health and sometimes even life.

I was fortunate that my liver held out and that I was not assaulted or killed when I ventured into dangerous situations.

First Drink
My first drink was with my boyhood pal Jackie Adams in Limerick.

The local pub seemed a warm, friendly place with electric light and wafting aromas of whiskey, stout, cigarettes and pipes, and many times, singing voices floating out into the air.
Jackie pilfered a pound note from his older brother’s savings-stash and off we went to the pub.

We were scruffy, scabby-kneed, 11-year-olds in short pants.  We ordered two half pints of Bulmers cider (you have to ask yourself what sort of barman would serve two kids), followed by two more, then two glasses of Guinness, after which, I decided we should have two full, imperial pints.

I had heard that one should address one’s social inferiors as “My Good Man.” My addressing the barman thusly led to us being unceremoniously booted out. Out on the sidewalk on the bright sunny afternoon a passerby would have observed two very drunk slum kids reeling about helpless with laughter, the cause of which was the memory of the bar man’s face when I called him “My Good Man.”

In another pub we secured a couple of baby Powers (whiskey in two-ounce bottles) and proceeded down to the banks of the Shannon where we sat sipping whiskey and watching the sunset over the glinting water.
I dozed off, or more likely passed out, and found myself floating in the stratosphere in the company of a friendly, smiling, compassionate being – a different kind of God from the terrifying, vengeful one we heard about from the ranting Redemptorist priests.

When I awoke it was dark and it was raining and I had pissed in my trousers. I was back to the reality of cold, hunger and deprivation. But I never forgot my mystical odyssey and I spent far too much time and money in a vain endeavor to repeat that ecstatic experience.

I never did.

Last Drink
I went with my brother Frank to perform in A Couple of Blaguards in Limerick. For years I had an almost pathological rage against the city. I was going to show them how well we McCourts had done in spite of deprivation, misery and the pitiful snobbery we endured growing up.

The memories of the humiliations were still raw: going to the dispensary to get the 13 shillings relief money that was supposed to feed, clothe and house a woman and four kids for a week; begging from the St. Vincent de Paul Society for a docket to get a bag of turf. I remember too, the hypocrisy of the clergy and the pub keepers who donated huge sums to Holy Mother Church.

I nearly drank myself into a Limerick grave on that visit. All the enemies were dead and gone so there were none to vent my spleen on, so I came home to New York depressed with a huge spiritual hangover and feeling rotten that all those bastards had to go and die before I had a chance to give them hell.

Then I asked myself, “Why am I killing myself with the drink, the cigs, and the eating, among other things, for the iniquitous them?”

So I went on a 12-stepper which everyone knows about. That was 28 years ago and I have been sober ever since.

Being Irish it is culturally accepted that we drink alcohol, but I have learned that I don’t have to drink alcohol. My years of sobriety have been happy years. I begin my day by telling my wife Diana that I love her. My children and my grandchildren delight me. I obey Oscar Wilde’s dictum: Forgive your enemies, it will annoy them.

A day a time, I don’t drink alcohol.   
A day at a time I get at least one laugh.
A day at a time I mention love to those I love.
A day at a time I talk to another alcoholic.
A day at a time I remember I am a
recovering alcoholic, not a recovered one.
A day at a time though not a singer
I sing a song.
A day at a time I keep free of fear
and superstition, religion, shame,
guilt and remorse
A day at a time I live one day at a time.

3 Responses to “Sober: By Malachy McCourt”

  1. John C. Begley says:

    Malachy is doing great work right now. And, despite his age if 83 ,he can still enthrall a room with his captivating charm.

    • Ryo says:

      I have read all of Frank McCourt’s memoirs and enyoejd them immensely. I think in recent years ‘Angela’s Ashes’ has acquired greater social significance given the Ryan Reort findings etc. Of course, the great Nuala O’Faolain published ‘Are You Somebody’ around the same time and was also exposing the cruelty and repression of the 1950’s in Ireland. I have created a tribute to both writers at A documentary called “Frank McCourt on Education” is being planned by the ‘Campaign for Stuyvesant’ a school fund raising group. Stuyvesant was the last high school Frank McCourt taught in for many years. You can see the details in the contribution by Neal Hurwitz on Frank’s tribute.Joe

  2. Zachary Ezell says:


    My name is Zachary Ezell. I have just gotten through with a few performances of “A Couple of Blaguards.” I thought it was an incredible show, and I wanted to get in contact with Malachy. I played him in the performances, and I wanted to tell him how amazing and rewarding the play was. Is there a way that I could get into contact with him? If so, please email me at or call me at 417-389-0052. Thank you.

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