From School Dropout to Bestselling Author
In Malachy McCourt’s Upper West Side living room is a framed photograph of a Schlitz beer advertisement from bygone days, with a younger, red-bearded McCourt smiling into the camera, a look of sheer gusto and a hint of mischief lighting his face. Although the red hair has evolved to a snowy white, the joie de vivre is still abundant as McCourt talks about his various careers as a pub owner, TV personality, stage and screen actor, and only recently (at age 66) a writer, following his brother, Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt, with his own bestselling memoir in 1998, A Monk Swimming.
It has been a long and circuitous journey from the streets of Limerick, Ireland, where the Brooklyn-born McCourt spent his childhood years from age three to 21 in a poor household riddled with ill health (his father was an alcoholic, and three of his six siblings died). School for McCourt was “a miserable experience,” with lots of “hitting, screaming, and shouting….We approached school with fear…It was a holding pen for future convicts.”
Thankfully, McCourt became a voracious reader, first stealing books, then borrowing them legally from the local library. “Reading was my salvation; it gave me a window on the world”—as was “my ability to put on a good face and charm my way out of everything,” he laughs. But he couldn’t bluff his way through the academic rigors of the primary school curriculum, and he became a dropout at the age of 13. (In 2002, McCourt received an honorary primary school certificate, a first-ever from the Irish Department of Education and Science and “the only academic honor I’ve ever gotten,” which he has proudly framed and displayed in his hallway.)
McCourt’s remarkable survival skills steered him back to New York at age 21, where he founded America’s first singles bar, Malachy’s, and drifted through a series of menial jobs as a dishwasher and longshoreman, until what he describes as “one motion that changed my life.”
Returning from a Broadway show one night, McCourt was about to grab a hamburger when he found himself veering back to the theater, where he told the manager that he wanted to become an actor and performed an audition on the spot. He received his first stage role in The Tinker’s Wedding, with subsequent parts in Playboy of the Western World and Da, among others. McCourt also acted in such films as Reversal of Fortune and Bonfire of the Vanities and has extensive radio and television credits, including his most recent stint as Father Meehan in the HBO prison series Oz.
So what prompted a charming guy with the gift of gab and a successful acting career to become an author at the age of 66? “A very large advance,” responds McCourt honestly, noting that his brother, Frank, had done so well with Angela’s Ashes that there was now a market for the memoir of Frank’s quirky Irish brother, Malachy. Indeed, after A Monk Swimming spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, McCourt followed it up with a second memoir, Singing My Him Song, and kept going with several edited collections including Voices of Ireland, an anthology of classic short works by such Irish authors as Jonathan Swift and James Joyce who helped educate McCourt after he dropped out of school.
As a writer, Malachy is hardly conventional. “I don’t know anything about grammar or mechanics,” admits McCourt. “I can’t tell you what a dangling participle is, but I play the language by ear.” And he has plenty of practical advice for the budding author. “Nothing focuses the mind as well as the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight,” he advises jokingly, referring to authors’ tendencies to procrastinate. “If it’s a memoir, write that which shames you the most, and never judge your own material; you will always find it guilty.” He adds as an afterthought, “Never show anything to your relatives,” referring to a stage play that he and brother Frank coauthored, A Couple of Blaguards, which was intended to be “a lighthearted look at Ireland” but caused his mother to stand up in the middle of the performance and cry out, “It wasn’t like that! It’s all a pack of lies!”
Although McCourt’s life reads like some of the TV soap operas in which he’s acted—he’s battled poverty, alcoholism, prostate cancer, and heart disease—he’s now a firm believer in living for the moment. “Fear is firmly rooted in the future. Shame is firmly rooted in the past. So why muck about with them?” he asks rhetorically, sharpening his pencil for the next memoir on his busy agenda, ‘I Never Drink When I’m Sober.’ Oh, and he may be entering politics, he adds, as the Green Party’s candidate for Governor of New York. Stay tuned!#