American-Irish actor, writer, one-time pub owner, and politician, Malachy McCourt, (born 20 September 1931 in Brooklyn), is the younger brother of author Frank Mc Court (Angela’s Ashes). Raised in Limerick, Malachy McCourt returned to the U.S. in 1952 when he was 25, and has lived here since. He is now the last survivor of his seven offspring,
McCourt has held assorted jobs including longshoreman, bartender, gold smuggler and owner of Malachy’s Bar. He has acted on stage, TV, and in several movies, including The Molly Maguires, and The Brinks Job. McCourt was in three New York City-based soap operas and was known for his annual Christmas-time appearances on All My Children as Father Clarence. He has hosted talk shows, released an album, and appeared on various political radio programs. McCourt currently hosts a call-in radio forum on WBAI, Sundays.
He has written one dozen books including three memoirs: A Monk Swimming, Singing My Him Song and Death be Not Fatal, detailing his life in Ireland, his return to the United States, and his musings on death. He has authored a book on the history of the ballad Danny Boy, and put together a collection of Irish writings, Voices of Ireland. His memoir, A Monk Swimming (1998) tells of his life in Limerick, Ireland, the journey to America, and the many obstacles McCourt had to overcome. The second memoir continues with his life spent drinking, carrying on with married women, and selling the Bible door-to-door across Long Island.
Malachy McCourt is the last survivor of the seven McCourt offspring, following the death of his younger brother, Alphie. He has four children, a stepdaughter. nine grandchildren, and an 18-month great-great grandchild. I caught up with him at his apartment on West End Avenue, NYC, where he lives with his wife, Diana, to whom he has been married 54 years.
Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in your teens in Limerick?
There were hardly any options because my father had deserted us and gone to England and the twins [siblings] had died. I was at school. And there were no options because I was 13.
Why did you return to New York in 1952?
Well, it was the Promised Land. Frank had gone first and accumulated a bit of money, and he came and sent for me and then we sent for the rest.
What did you hope to do?
I had a very romantic notion about what the United States was. I thought I’d work in a very tall building, take a lift off to a very high floor and walk into an office where people would say, “Good morning, Mr. McCourt.” Then I would go into my office and make decisions — what about, I have no idea; but all I knew was I was going to be very comfortable. The actual fact was that I was a dishwasher, and that was about as far as I was expected to go because of my lack of education. I was 13 when I left school. You couldn’t get anywhere in Ireland unless you had the “leaving certificate.” I got none. I had failed. So, when I was 13, I was a messenger boy and then I came to America, Menial jobs were all I could get.
Would you consider yourself Irish or American or Irish-American?
Frank and I often discussed that. In Ireland, we were Yanks and in America, we were Micks, so I didn’t know what I was. Frank and I decided that we were not American. We were not Irish. We were New Yorkers, a distinct nationality. So that’s what I am in New York.
To what do you attribute your brilliant ability to create scenarios and tell stories in spite of your complete lack of education?
Well, the Irish took the English language and made it a thing of beauty and poetry and put a whole new twist on it. Because in actual fact, the upper class English accent is really Germanic, very precise. When I was in Ireland, I went to the library. There was something about using words that appealed to me. I don’t know what it was, but I was able to put them together.
How much is A Monk Swimming true? Did you really do all that gold smuggling?
Absolutely. Again, and again. I went to Pakistan first and then got a train over the border to Amritsar. I landed in Calcutta and Delhi and Bombay. I alternated between them and had six different passports. You had all these bricks of gold and sometimes you hid them under the bed or up behind the wall, or in a closet tested for dust to make sure it wasn’t used.
Were you able to get any sightseeing done?
I couldn’t walk, because if I left my room and someone might find all that gold. The Indians are very curious. I had to avoid getting caught with the gold, and it was very heavy. I had to avoid the phone at the Taj Mahal Hotel and go down to the railroad station to phone my contact. There were all these little beggars, and they were all pulling at me. Jesus, they were going to discover I had gold on my body. If you’re caught, it’s five years in jail, and most Westerners did not survive the jails because they were pretty awful. I got away with it.
Obviously, you didn’t get much touring done. Have you seen any of the world since, and what’s your favorite city?
I just love New York. I enjoyed Rome —- it was La Dolce Vita time when I was there, so that was great.
Isn’t there a city in Ireland that you love?
County Galway. There’s a Galway City and a County. And there’s a lovely part of it on the West Coast.
What did you love about County Galway?
There was an old romantic air about it because everything seemed like it hadn’t moved yet in terms of culture. And yet they were up to date on what was going on in the world. The people were generous and giving.
So, it was about not about the physicality of the place. It was about the culture, the people and the friendliness?
There was a kind of an intelligent air about it, not intellectual because I like to say I’m a people person, not a scenery person, Galway, still had the old buildings.
What has been your most memorable travel experiences —-not with the gold bars?
l love traveling. It’s fairly ordinary in the sense that you take a plane on a dreary, long, flight just to get to your destination. I totally enjoyed Rome at that time because it was a very lively place. I was curious about the Vatican. As a you know, I’m a retired Catholic and collapsed Catholic.
I went to St. Peter’s Church and saw all these confession boxes with signs for the language that the priest spoke: there was Portuguese, Spanish, French, English. I chose Portuguese. I told the priest my confession and he had no idea what I was saying. He made the side of the cross, and that, of course, meant that I was forgiven my sins. He gave me absolution, because I didn’t speak Portuguese.
If you could go anywhere right now. Where would that be?
I would love to be able to walk down Broadway.
When did you end up in a wheelchair?
This year. I have a disease called Inclusive Body Myositis. It’s muscular. I was doing okay for about six years, but then I fell and broke my leg and they put me in the hospital. So, six weeks off my feet. I’ve been in the wheelchair since.
Now you can wheel down Broadway.
Oh, I can, but Diane and I were always great walkers. It’s very sad to lose that.
Where do you wish you traveled? but never did?
Are you working on a new book right now?
I’m jotting down notes.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made?
Well, in a sense, the disaster of my first marriage, Linda, and the fact that I acceded to marriage. We hardly knew each other. She was a very lively, bright, good, spirited person, but when we got married her absolutely obdurate curtain came down. The sad thing about that was we should never have gotten married.
Was that also your biggest regret?
One of my regrets is not getting an education. I would have liked to have dived into more books rather than write my own. I failed the primary certificate which every kid in Ireland gets at the age of 12, so essentially, I was considered academically stupid. So therefore, I was out. But I met the Minister of Education in Ireland, and he awarded me an Honorary Primary Certificate in 2002, something never been done before.
What’s the smartest thing you ever did?
Marry Diana. And that’s still going strong. I love her.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I have an intolerance of how anybody can be a conservative, it’s so close to Nazism. I was looking at the list of people of Irish descent surrounding Trump: Flynn, Kelly, Bannon. There were about 25 of them. That is one of the things I find highly offensive. As for my legacy? I would hope I was kind.