By Nora Duff
Malachy McCourt slumped happily in a straight-backed chair in the middle of a Michigan Avenue bookstore. He had just finished signing copies of his memoir, A Monk Swimming, and earlier that afternoon he'd ended his reading by singing a few songs from the old country. Then he did something you rarely see at a reading--he listened. With genuine curiosity, he asked all assembled about their lives, their backgrounds and families, what they did for a living, even what they did for fun. He wondered where one customer had gone to high school, then mulled it over.
I've been having an on-again, off-again conversation with Malachy McCourt for much of the last year. I first called him for an article I was writing about the latest Celtic revival, a phenomenon ignited in no small part by the runaway success of Angela's Ashes, a book about the McCourt family penned by Malachy's older brother Frank. Since then, we've kept in touch, and I've always tried to track him down whenever he's in town.
Near the end of one of our first phone calls, he casually let it drop that he was on the verge of publishing his own book about his first decade in the United States. I wondered if Malachy's memoir could measure up to his brother's book. I got an advance copy from his New York publisher, but was unprepared for the photo of the man on the cover. Frank McCourt looks compact and thoughtful, like the schoolteacher he was for so many years. Malachy is the opposite. Wide and expansive, he looks as if he's swallowed life whole and narrowly escaped it doing the same to him. The face in the picture appeared new to reflection, and was probably uncomfortable with it.
Or so I thought. Malachy's charm turned out to be genuine; his mind was quick, and his love of words ran deep. His escapades were reminiscent of the tales told by the Irish men in my own family. Broad and highly entertaining, these stories nevertheless hovered near sadness, and even tragedy.
He began his first book tour last June with an appearance at the Mercury Theater on Southport. That night was a homecoming of sorts. In 1984 Malachy and Frank McCourt came to town with their two-man show, A Couple of Blaguards, and they ended up staying longer than anticipated. Fresh from a brief but fairly successful run in New York City, A Couple of Blaguards was abandoned by its original producer once it arrived at the old CrossCurrents nightclub off Belmont, right next to the el tracks. That's when Michael Cullen, now owner of the Mercury, and his then partner Sheila Heneghan stepped in. "Michael and Sheila really rescued the show," Malachy says. "They took it over and got all the press in, and suddenly it became this huge hit and ran for seven months. And some years later we ran it for five months, and we were only supposed to run for two weeks."
Call it the luck of the Irish. In the intimate confines of CrossCurrents, A Couple of Blaguards came across as a spontaneous conversation between two slightly inebriated brothers. "We knew the public would like that kind of show," Cullen recalls. "It was just a matter of getting it to them." Opening night, however, could not be described as a success. Heneghan remembers four people in the audience: Tribune critic Sid Smith, her mother and sister, and herself. "We got very lucky that Sid Smith liked the show," she says. "I went to meet the brothers afterward, and they were upset. Here they were in Chicago, and some girl they don't even know greets them, and there isn't any audience. I had never met the brothers, and I even thought the show might have been a little bawdy for my mother and sister, but they loved it."
Thanks to positive reviews, the show took off. "The south side Irish came in droves," Cullen says. "We had people from Beverly lining up and down the street, and everywhere around them gay parties were happening. You had these Irish people seeing guys with their butts hanging out of leather pants. There was a murder one night, where two prostitutes killed a guy on the street in the middle of the show."
"Here people are coming from Beverly thinking they're going out on the town," Heneghan says, "and it was a pit--it was the Wild West."
At CrossCurrents, the producers caught a janitor selling tickets and sticking the money in his pockets. "We didn't have a box office," Heneghan says. "I had to push everyone aside and collect the money. It wasn't really even a theater." And there were fights at the end of the evening. "The guy who owned CrossCurrents at that time felt the money was his," Cullen recalls. "We felt it belonged to the brothers. It was every man for himself. From then on we were always friends with Frank and Malachy."
The papers applauded the show as a "sort of sleeper-of-the-year kind of thing," Malachy says. But Cullen remembers the younger McCourt helping the cause by haunting the halls of the newspaper offices. "I don't know how he ever got through security at both the Tribune and Sun-Times, but he'd walk into people's offices and later he'd say, 'Ah, I talked to Clarence Page and he'll be comin' to the show--and Mike Royko too!'"
The revue now seems like a practice run for what eventually became the brothers' books. But while Frank McCourt's memoir is about life in Ireland, Malachy's thinner volume is about coping with being Irish in America.
"I was very truly, essentially an Irish-American," Malachy says. "I was born here and grew up in Ireland, so I have that strange dichotomy. The hyphen became a minus sign because the Irish don't consider me Irish, and the Americans don't consider me American."
That gave him a sense of freedom, he says, yet it also brought feelings of isolation. "You know, there is always that surface thing of jolly conviviality and all that. But inside everybody has that dark little chamber that they only have the key to, and inside there are secrets, and there is grief, and there is sorrow and remembrance--history--the feeling of never really belonging, the usual feeling of an oppressed people."
Like the characters in A Couple of Blaguards, Malachy tells stories that are often centered on drinking. Reading from A Monk Swimming--the title recalls how the line "amongst women" from the Hail Mary registered in the clogged ears of a young boy--he recounts one "well-fueled" adventure after another. He'll tell you that he earned his first $100 by taking a bet that he couldn't drink a bottle of whiskey in 45 minutes. He won the wager, but having just consumed another bottle of the stuff within that very same time frame, he did lose consciousness.
With a clear voice and a hearty brogue, Malachy reads another chapter describing the simple act of returning a friend's car on a winter night. They had planned to meet at a New York restaurant, "some pretentious little orifice in the wall on the East Side," which had a certain dress code Malachy didn't understand or like. He walked into the bar and was immediately asked to check his coat. He declined, explaining that he was just waiting for a friend who would soon be off work. He ordered an Irish whiskey, but the bartender insisted that he had to check his coat first. Malachy then stormed out, shouting, "Are you in the business of selling whiskey for dollars or checking coats for quarters?" Moments later, having removed his clothes in the backseat of his friend's car, he returned to the bar stark naked beneath the offending wrap. This time, when asked to check his coat, Malachy happily obliged, much to the horror of the diners and the bartender, who promptly threw him out the front door. Realizing the keys to the car were still in his coat pocket, however, he went back into the restaurant to retrieve it. But the coat-check woman, paralyzed at the sight of the naked man, was unable to loosen her grip on the garment, only letting go after the diners began to shout for help, thinking Malachy was about to take her hostage.
Charm will get you almost anywhere. Malachy recounts another day, when he met Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip while a member of the New York Rugby Team. He swears the prince urged him to look them up if he was ever in their neighborhood.
At the age of 25, after unsuccessful stints as a longshoreman and a Bible salesman ("You can't sell a product you don't believe in"), Malachy decided to become an actor. He says he fell in love with the stage after hearing the language of John Millington Synge in three one-act plays at New York's Theatre East: "Never was I more entranced by language than I was that night. The glorious flow, a silvery torrent of words, yet human, yet humorous, yet tragic, the language of a people who took a dull tongue, English, and made it roar." He bullied his way into a reading and was hired to join the Irish Players, a company specializing in Irish plays.
Malachy's "bar career" began this way: After an evening performance, he would bring half the audience in for late-night confessions at Calvin's, his favorite pub, which was only two blocks from the theater. One night the owner had seen enough: "If you're going to bring all these fookin' people in here," he told McCourt, "you had better get behind the bar and serve them."
He eventually opened his own place, Malachy's, which has often been called New York's first singles bar. His gift for storytelling while serving drinks had become renowned, and he caught the attention of an ex-Chicagoan, Tom O'Malley, who was talent coordinator for the Tonight show. (O'Malley had once heard Malachy tell a crowd that he would send overdue bills back with the word "Deceased" stamped on their envelopes.) O'Malley offered McCourt $300 to chat with Jack Paar, launching a modest career on the early talk show circuit. Later he hosted his own radio program.
But A Monk Swimming is also a memoir filled with heartache and regret, as Malachy recounts his disastrous first marriage, and his despair over failing to be a true father to his first two children. A family court judge even ordered him to stay away from his wife and children until he could undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which took six months to arrange. "So I chose instead to spend my time immersed in the pain-doused spirits, the bed-hopping, and the fisticuffs."
An acquaintance who knew he was desperate for money persuaded him to travel abroad in "the business of moving gold about." He claims to have earned a decent living as a gold smuggler, flying to Switzerland and then, with 20 kilos of gold bars wrapped around his waist, off to India, a country he'd felt an affinity for since he was "a little fellow."
In the years that followed, Malachy says, acting helped him wrestle with his personal demons. "I'm a working actor," he says with pride. "I don't go in for that art shit. I enjoy it! If you start thinking of this as an art, then you become artificial; you start to do it for someone else."
A Couple of Blaguards had its origins in the McCourt house in Limerick, where Frank and Malachy loved to entertain themselves with skits. Huddled in a cold, damp cottage, trying to stay warm, the brothers began to write up their bits. "Originally the tablecloth was utilized--we wrote down our lines and we'd say, 'You say that and I'll say this.' Then we'd tear it off and throw it into the fire." As grown men in New York, whenever the brothers found themselves in a pub, they'd naturally start with the stories, each assuming the role of a neighbor or a priest back home.
The show was first shaped on notecards and then the lines were eventually transcribed. A Couple of Blaguards moved from CrossCurrents to Briar Street and on to other cities. It continues to be performed, often with other actors (a new production just opened in New York with Mickey Kelly and Shay Duffin, who appeared at the Mercury last spring in Brendan Behan: Confessions of an Irish Rebel). "It always runs!" Malachy marvels. "It revives and revives!
"When we decided to put it onstage it would go on interminably, with no sense of time, and we'd extrapolate and improvise again. Sometimes the audience would have left and we'd still be goin' on! We had a great time cracking each other up."
He says the success of Frank's book, Angela's Ashes, came from its fearlessness in depicting their lives, warts and all. "We don't have to pretty everything up," Malachy says. "That's what they do to corpses." When A Monk Swimming cracked the New York Times best-seller list last summer, the comparisons to Angela's Ashes were inevitable and often unflattering. But Malachy doesn't begrudge his brother's success. "I'm not surprised. He is a great writer. I never had any doubts. I'm just surprised people are surprised." Next month Cullen plans to stage Frank McCourt's play The Irish and How They Got That Way at the Mercury.
In a recent letter, Malachy wrote that, during their success in A Couple of Blaguards, the brothers came to feel at home in Chicago. He mentioned "the very friendly no-chip-on-the-shoulder folks one meets in everyday life, the beauty of the city itself. I have walked the streets with Studs Terkel and 'twas like walking with a beloved institution. Everyone from street vendors to CEOs to shoppers had a good word to and for the man. I love the vigor of political life, the colorful history of the First Ward of Hinky Dink Kenna, Bathhouse John Coughlin, the Council Wars of the eighties, and the mayoralties of Harold Washington and Daley."
At his reading at the Mercury Theatre, Malachy recalled his decision to give up "the drink" 14 years ago "for sake of wife and kidneys." He had been burying his old drinking buddies in the last few years, he said, "mainly because they were dead."
Despite a happy second marriage that has lasted 33 years, Malachy says his reform is not quite complete. His editor at Hyperion Books is urging him to write a second installment to his memoir. "I have another one coming--it's my mea culpa, and it's going to be very boring."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Aaron Fineman.