Malachy McCourt, actor, memoirist and gadabout, dies at 92

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Malachy McCourt, actor, memoirist and gadabout, dies at 92
Malachy McCourt, right, and his brother Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, in New York in March 1984. 1984 Malachy McCourt, who fled Ireland to become a thespian, a barkeep and a best-selling memoirist, died on Monday, March 11, 2023, at a hospital in Manhattan, according to his wife, Diana McCourt. He was 92. (Keith Meyers/The New York Times)

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Malachy McCourt, who fled a melancholic childhood in Ireland for America, where he applied his blarney and brogue to become something of a professional Irishman as a thespian, a barkeep and a bestselling memoirist, died Monday in New York City. He was 92.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his wife, Diana McCourt. Malachy McCourt said in an interview with The New York Times last year that he had a heart condition, multiple kinds of cancer and muscular degeneration.

In 1952, when he was 20, the Brooklyn-born McCourt reunited with New York.

He embarked from Ireland with a ticket paid for with $200 in savings sent by his older brother, Frank McCourt, who had emigrated earlier and was working as a public school English teacher. Frank would also become a late-blooming author, whose books included the Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical work “Angela’s Ashes” (1996).

Malachy McCourt left school in Limerick when he was 13, two years after his heavy-drinking father deserted the family, leaving his mother, Angela, to raise the four of their surviving seven children. The family, Malachy would write, was “not poor, but poverty-stricken.”

“Coming out of that life, the things that get you are the two evils of shame on one shoulder, the demon fear on the other,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “Shame says you came from nothing; you’re nobody; they’ll find you out for what you and your mother have done. Fear says what’s the use of bothering, drink as much as you can, dull the pain. As a result, shame takes care of the past, fear takes care of the future, and there’s no living in the present.”

In the mid-1980s, he gave up drinking and smoking.

The barrel-chested, red-bearded McCourt appeared regularly on soap operas — notably “Ryan’s Hope,” on which he had a recurring role as a barkeep — and played bit parts in several films. In the 1950s, he opened what was considered Manhattan’s original singles bar: Malachy’s, on the Upper East Side.

For all his idiosyncrasies, his bestselling “A Monk Swimming” in 1998 (the title evokes the author’s childhood mishearing of the Hail Mary’s “Blessed art thou, amongst women”) and “Singing My Him Song” (2000) would evoke inevitable comparison with his brother’s autobiography.

“I was blamed for not being my brother,” he lamented, adding slyly, “I now pledge to all those naysayers that someday I will write ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and change my name to Frank McCourt.”

Reviewing “A Monk Swimming” in the Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that “where Frank is restrained and tragic, Malachy is outrageous and comic” — which may largely be because the younger brother focuses largely on his whiskey-fueled barfly antics, pretending to be happy in America, rather than on the anguish he left behind struggling to survive in Ireland.

“The great psychobabble today is the dysfunctional family,” Malachy McCourt told the Times in 1988. “Well, I’ve never met one that was functional. In Limerick, a family that was dysfunctional was one who could afford to drink but didn’t.”

Malachy Gerard McCourt was born Sept. 20, 1931, in Brooklyn. His father, also named Malachy, had fled to New York from the British as an Irish Republican Army terrorist — or patriot, depending on the storyteller’s perspective. His father met his mother, Angela Sheehan, after he was released from jail for hijacking a truck.

The McCourts returned to Ireland seeking work during the Depression after the death of a 7-week-old daughter. Malachy was 3 years old.

“I was a smiley little fella with a raging heart and murderous instincts,” he wrote, adding that relatives and neighbors described him as cute, which “in Ireland meant cunning and devious.”

Relatively few entries on his resume are verifiable (or would be, had he ever actually bothered to compose one). Among McCourt’s intimates, though, his feats — bona fide, embellished or even fabricated, but by now folkloric — seem perfectly plausible.

“Truth is,” he acknowledged, “I knew I couldn’t do anything at all but tell stories and lies.”

One of his childhood goals was to become an American gangster; the worst outcome, he figured, would have been to get caught and be guaranteed room and board. (His brother Frank recalled in “Angela’s Ashes” that after he stole some lemonade and bread for the family, Malachy said that “it was only what Robin Hood would have done.”)

He was 11 when he first bellied up to a bar with another preadolescent (who would become a priest) and ordered a cider and porter (after which “we were fluthered”), topped off with whiskey.

“The taste of alcohol allowed me to be clever, charming and to behave outrageously,” he wrote. “Acting also allowed me not to be me.”

As a young student, he would also escape into books. He read voraciously, but he failed the basic primary certificate at Leamy’s National School. (In 2002, the Irish Department of Education and Science awarded McCourt its first honorary primary school certificate. He called it “the only academic honor I’ve ever gotten.”)

At 15, he enrolled in the Irish Defence Forces School of Music in Dublin, but for Malachy, the military and the trumpet were not harmonious. He left for England, where, Frank McCourt recalled, he was hired as a custodian in a wealthy boarding school, “and he walks around cheerful and smiling as if he’s the equal of any boy in the school and everyone knows when you work in an English boarding school you’re supposed to hang your head and shuffle like a proper Irish servant.” He was fired.

He then welded wheels at a bicycle factory and shoveled coal at the gas works in Coventry until his brother Frank had saved up $200 to bring him to America. There, he washed dishes, worked on the docks, sold Bibles on Fire Island, served in the Army and, novelist Frank Conroy wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “became a professional Irishman, for which he can hardly be blamed,” since “his Irishness was all he had.”

Among McCourt’s other exploits: smuggling gold bars from Switzerland to India; auditioning cold for an off-Broadway production, which led to his first stage role, in “The Tinker’s Wedding”; being cast in “Reversal of Fortune,” “Bonfire of the Vanities” and other movies; playing Henry VIII in commercials for Imperial margarine and Reese’s peanut butter cups; and stints as a radio and television host (“I couldn’t wait to hear what I had to say next”).

His first marriage, to Linda Wachsman, ended in divorce. An on-again, off-again, on-again love affair with Diana Huchthausen Galin resulted in marriage in 1965. In addition to Diana McCourt, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Siobhan McCourt; a son from that marriage, Malachy Jr.; two sons from his second marriage, Conor and Cormac; a stepdaughter, Nina Galin; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandson. Frank McCourt died in 2009. Malachy and Diana McCourt had lived in the same apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for 59 years.

Distinguishing between McCourt’s “stories and his lies” was a fool’s errand. Both were so spellbinding.

There was, for example, his encounter with Prince Philip at a Park Avenue Armory reception for the New York Rugby Club. He introduced himself to the prince, who immediately recognized McCourt’s brogue and asked how he liked America.

“I love it here,” he replied. “George was foolish to let it go.”

To which the prince supposedly replied (discerning the allusion to his royal predecessor), “We all make mistakes.”

Or the time he was asked to check his overcoat to comport with a restaurant’s dress code. He repaired to his car, removed all his clothes, donned his coat again, returned to the restaurant and, this time, blithely complied with the house rules when the attendant beckoned with a checkroom ticket.

“A silence descended on the room, much the same, I imagine, as when Jesus bade farewell to his Apostles and left the upper room forever at the Last Supper,” McCourt wrote. “I had a passing thought that it was my uncircumcised state that was the cause of the consternation, and I prayed that there be no opportunistic mohel among my assailants.”

In 2006, he ran for governor of New York as, appropriately enough, the Green Party candidate. His opposed the war in Iraq and, as part of his environmental agenda, suggested a prohibitive levy on chewing gum. He got 42,000 votes, or about 1% of the total, which was enough to qualify for a distant third place. (Eliot Spitzer was the winner.)

Despite his poor health in later years, which required hospice care, McCourt was released in 2022 for — as the Times put it in a profile of him — “not dying quickly enough.” That prompted one friend, Irish American novelist Colum McCann, to say, “Who but Malachy McCourt could outrun the hospice?”

Shortly after, McCourt returned to co-hosting a Sunday morning radio show on WBAI. In March last year, just as the lights were about to dim at the opening night of Craic Fest, an annual Irish film and music festival in New York, he wheeled himself into the audience — and received a burst of applause. “It wouldn’t be a party,” he announced, “without Malachy McCourt.”

As a member of a species with a 100% mortality rate, but in denial about death, McCourt said that he had belatedly “learned acceptance and letting go and to just keep a sense of humor about this absurd condition” in which humans find themselves.

As for immortalizing the past that created this condition, he advised fellow memoirists, “Write that which shames you the most, and never judge your own material; you will always find it guilty.” He added, “Never show anything to your relatives.”

That advice was evoked by an incident in 1977 when he and Frank were performing an early version of their play “A Couple of Blaguards,” which they billed as a “lighthearted look at Ireland.”

In the middle of the performance, a member of the audience stood up and cried out: “It wasn’t like that! It’s all a pack of lies!” It was their mother.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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