Question: What are the origins of St. Patrick’s Day?
Malachy McCourt: The origins of St. Patrick. It’s started with a man name Nile of the Nine Hostages, who was an Irish pirate and went about the British Isles capturing people and bringing them back and selling them as slaves. So he went to – we’re not sure whether he went to Wales where he captured this man, Patrick, and brought him back and sold him to a man named Meliuc, and Patrick was put out on the hills of County Antrim to serve as a Shepard for about four or five years. He was a teenager when he was captured. And that’s not a real name, Patrick. That was not his name. He was from a Patrician Roman family and therefore, he was known as the Patrician. So when they wanted him to empty the slop buckets of something like that, they would say, “Let the Patrician do it.” So, that’s how he got the name, Patrick.
So, anyway, I’m not sure what his affection for Ireland was a great, wonderful, poetic, literate, Pagan country, and it had Bards and Druids and the Ascendancy and he thought that they should all be converted to Christianity. So, when he escaped, subsequently, he went to France, to his Uncle’s in Martin of Tours, and then he went to Rome and he was consecrated a Bishop, and then made his way back to Ireland in 432, and ruined a perfectly good civilization.
Question: How did the celebrations for St. Patrick’s Day change over time?
Malachy McCourt: He used the shamrock, which has three leaves, as the metaphor for the trinity of that belief, God the father, God the son, God the Holy Ghost. And so he held that up, in one stem, he used that as his illustration. And of course, the Shamrock being green, it betoken the green as being something, but his own color was blue and St. Patrick’s blue is well-known.
Over the years, it was a holy day of obligation in Ireland, very little celebration. My memories of it are of a gloomy, rainy, awful day when no matter what, we had to get up an hour earlier and go to mass, and then go to school and face the same old rubbish from being hit on the head, or beaten on the hands because corporal punishment was in order at the time. And I think it still is too to a certain extent. So, it didn’t change much.
But then what happened over the years, as it became a holiday, a big holiday here, or a big celebration I should say, not a holiday. A celebration here in New York, the Irish said, “Oh, we should do something about that.” So, they decided to imitate what goes on here. Everything except that the crowds here are somewhat – not somewhat, quite, homophobic and they don’t let the gays march as a unit, as an identified unit. Whereas, in Ireland, the home of the whole bloody thing is the gay people get prizes and awards for being the most colorful group in parades. So, I think it’s amazing.
Question: You were born in Brooklyn, raised in Limerick, and moved back to New York as an adult. What do you identify with most?
Malachy McCourt: We went to Ireland because the death of my little sister and there were my brother, Frank, and myself, and twin boys, Oliver and Eugene, and when we got to Ireland, within two years, the two boys, Eugene and Oliver died when they were about four and four and a-half of various ailments. At the time, nobody cared too much what was going on with poor people. There were no autopsies or anything. You just died, and good riddance. But when we got there, I was three-and-a-half, Frank was four-and-a-half, we were known as Yanks. And you feel outside the tribe when you are speaking differently, acting differently, behaving differently, so as quickly as possible, you made the attempt to get in with the gang; talk like them and be like them and dress like them. So, no matter what we did, we were still Yanks.
So, then we grew up there and we come to America, back to America, back to here. And they say, “Oh, you’re Irish.” Over there we’re Yanks, over here we’re Irish. So, my brother Frank and myself decided a long time ago, that what we are very simply is, we are New Yorkers. This is our country; this is my land. This is the place for me where every single dream I ever had came to fruition and I love it dearly. I love ya, New York.
Question: What does it mean to be Irish in 2010? What about 40 years from now?
Malachy McCourt: To be Irish in 2010, 2010. There is a pride that’s happened in our intellectual accomplishments in our literary accomplishments and our technological accomplishments where heretofore, after oh, 800 years of occupation and the function of the oppressor is to assure you that you are nothing, that you are nobody, that you’re less than deserving of nothing, that you are a piece of shit. And don’t aspire to anything. And they infuse you with shame, which has to do with the past because all shame is based firmly in the past. It has to do with what you have done, what you thought you had done, and sometimes shame has been induced by what has been done to you, and by allowing things to be done to you, you are ashamed of not resisting. So, that’s one part of oppression is to make sure you are a shameful, shamed human being. That takes care of the past.
And then the future has to do with fear. Don’t attempt to come up here. Don’t attempt to go forward, you were nobody, you are nobody, and you’ll always be nothing, so don’t even think about coming here because if you do, something awful will happen to you. So we were caught between the two demons, two devils: shame and fear. And we couldn’t deal with the present, which was that we are, indeed, as accomplished in our minds as spiritual as any other people, as good as any other people, but we could not look in the mirror and ever say that’s what we are.
So, to be Irish today is the abandonment of that shame and the younger people are moving it out and they’re moving the fear away. They’re not afraid, they’re adventurous. They’re going about the world as carefree, with confidence and with the knowledge of the language, with the education, linguistically capable, poetic and fun-loving with the love of song and of life itself. So, that for the younger people to me is a wonderful thing that is happening. The older ones of my generation, they still have the fear and various ethnic groups have diseases that are peculiar to their group. For example, Jewish people have Tay Sachs, and African-Americans have Sickle Cell Anemia, and the Irish disease is respectability. And that infects them a lot and somebody said, “What would they say? What would the English say if you wore that, said that, be that?” So consequently, as the Irish poet said, he said, “You eventually become the thing you hate the most.” That’s why so many of these yahoos, particularly the ones that run the St. Patrick’s Day parade, are conservatives. And that conservatism is not a political ideology, it is a severe form of brain damage for which there’s hardly any cure. I don’t know what we can do with them is all. But they are gradually moving out and the younger folks are taking over. And some day there may be some culture in this St. Patrick’s Day.
But I prefer if it were an Irish parade like Israel has a parade that’s Israel, not devoted to Moses, or Abraham, St. Moses or St. Abraham, and so I’d like to see the day when this was an Irish parade, because you can’t be Grand Marshall of this charade if you’re not a Catholic. And they say, a practicing Catholic. Now, a lot of these guys are hypocrites. I mean, they’re about as practicing as I am and I abjure the whole thing myself, but it’s hypocritical anyway, and I hope that one day it will be an Irish parade, then I would march.
Future? If you have one foot in the future and one foot in the past, you’re pissin on the present. So, I stay in the present, so I don’t know about the future.
Question: What about Irish culture makes it so lyrical?
Malachy McCourt: I am full of theories that are based on a very liquid foundation, because I used to be a drinker. Before St. Patrick came, there were six invasions of Ireland and I can’t think of who they were. There were tribes, the Malaccans, and the Celts. And they brought their languages with them, and somewhere or another melded into whatever was there then, and then the Celts came bring their language with them. Then St. Patrick came bringing Latin with him, then there was the invasions, the constant invasions of the Vikings bringing the Norse languages with them, then Henry II sent over these Normans bringing French language in there and then the English themselves came bringing English. So, here all these languages, and instead of the Irish learning their language, they all learned whatever it was spoken there, so consequently, there’s a huge availability of words. And because we had nothing else to do, and I am speaking “we” because we were poverty stricken, we relied totally on the world, and biblically, the word is – in the Bible, it say, “In the beginning was the word,” and I’m not a religious man at all. But if the Bible says, yeah I agree with that part of it anyway. And the word is a sound of some sort and that’s where the energy comes from, so I like that.
So, the Irish, because they had nothing else to do, they used language and glorious terms. And when an English man speaks well, for example now, and this is another way of putting us down, they say he’s “eloquent” you see. “Oh, eloquent chap they are!” An Irish person speak well, they say, “Ah, you have the gift of the gab.” “Ah, you kissed the blarney stone.” You see, all of this putting us down. Now, if you look up the word “gab” in the dictionary, it’s insignificant of importance, of no substance. That’s what gab is. If that’s a gift, they can shove it up their armpit as far as I’m concerned because I certainly don’t want it.
So, we then listening to people talking, telling stories and everything has to be a story. Every experience. Coming here today is an experience and you can make a story just about out of anything. And it has nothing to do with the harshness of a formal education, which I don’t have because I failed everything in school. I left when I was 13 because I had no comprehension of what the hell they were talking about up there at the blackboard. I must have that ADD thing. But, listening to people I thought, that’s wonderful to be able to tell a story.
And somebody once said that the Irish derived the greatest benefit from the English language. They court it like a beautiful woman. They make it bray with donkey laughter, they fling it at the sky like paint pots full of rainbow colors. Then they make a chant of dear Jovan’s fate of man’s follies like a soft rain falling. They’ve paid the oppressor the supreme compliment of taking his language and turning it to sorcery, they say. Yeah! That’s what we do with it. That’s the one thing the English left us and I love it!
Question: Do you have a favorite Irish proverb?
Malachy McCourt: Never clean a window with a soft-boiled egg. Do I have a favorite Irish proverb? When you talk about sayings and St. Patrick and all that, I have no time for that kind of thing. But to me a saint is a severely edited sinner. That’s what I think.
Question: Can you share a limerick with us?
Malachy McCourt: A limerick, well, limericks don’t come from Limerick. But it comes from that between the verses when they used to have those competitions that they would put in the refrain, “follow me up, follow me up, follow me up to Limerick Town.”
“There was a young lady from Thrace, whose corsets were too tight to lace. Her mother said, ‘Nellie, there’s more in your belly, than ever went in through your face.’”
Question: You've been a builder, actor, bar owner, writer and more. What was your favorite job?
Malachy McCourt: My favorite job. My purpose in life always has been to avoid work. And I hear these people saying, “I work hard and I pay my taxes.” Well, you’re an asshole. Because in my readings, if the Bible is correct, and I’m not a biblical scholar by any means, but whatever Adam and Eve did, I don’t even know what it was. But they did something that apparently annoyed the guy that made them and they got booted. And she was sentenced to bear children and pain and labor, and they mention that they had to grow up to be teenagers. And he was sentenced to work in the fields where his skin would be burnt by the sun and his hand will be torn by the thorns and thistles of the field and he should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” So, that to me is work, you see. So, I didn’t do it. He did. So, let him pay the price.
All of my sins – that’s called “Original Sin,” all of mine are mine, and all my sins are original. So, I’ve avoided work all my life, you see. So, I’m like a bee. I go from flower to flower. I go where the nectar is, and then we make life a just a lot of honey. So, whenever I’m broadcasting, I like it. When I’m broadcasting I can’t wait to hear what I say. When I’m writing, I thoroughly enjoy it. It just goes on. When I’m writing in long hand, it just goes on and on and on. When I was in the saloon business, I would just greet people and talk to them and avoid taxes, and getting behind the bar. What else. I ran for governor of New York, and I thoroughly enjoyed campaigning. And all of that. But mostly anything to do with socializing, entertaining, having a chat, there’s nothing like it. And I’m curious to know what’s over at the other side there because people don’t – well the thing is, people don’t die here, you see. In America they pass away, they pass on, they leave us, they’re gone, no longer with us, they’re at peace, they’re with the Lord, they’re six feet under, they’ve kicked the bucket. And the other thing is, they don’t allow a dying on the highway. No Passing. They give you a ticket if you die on the highway.
Question: Are you a spiritual person?
Malachy McCourt: I would say that I am more spiritual. I see the way I look upon organized religion, I was a victim of that of mythology, and of cruelty, and all the absurd stuff. Organized religions have all the facets of organized crime, except the compassion of organized crime. They would only break your legs, whereas organized religion will send you to hell forever. And we had to think about all that stuff of snakes and paradise, and even making the connection between the guy, whoever it was who made Adam and Eve and makes all these animals. All the cows and sheep and pigs and elephants and rhinoceros and rabbits and hares hold and moles and octopuses and salmon and trout and snakes. And if all the animals there that he, or she, whoever created, he brings one into paradise. This snake. Now, you'd think he'd bring a nice little dog, or Poodle or something into paradise corporate to keep Adam and Eve company. No, a bloody snake. Instead of maybe, a little can't would have been -- no, a snake. Not only that, but a talking snake who said, “How are you Eve?” “I’m fine, thank you.” “How about his apple?” “Oh really? Oh, let me try. Oh yeah. Adam this is a great apple.” So she hands him the apple and they get tossed out. And he has to go and work, she had to bear children. And the snake, they say he has to crawl on his belly for all eternity and eat dust.
Now, if he were a serpent before, how did he get around? So, they banished him and tossed him out and sent him to Ireland. And then they say, St. Patrick came and banished all the snakes from Ireland. So, he might have because I think they all came here and took over the St. Patrick’s Day parade. That’s my idea.
Question: One of your books, “Hallowed by That Name,” was about recovery. What has that process been like for you?
Malachy McCourt: Well, I am an alcoholic, as I said. And it is however we call it, a disease. That’s an explanation, but not an excuse. So, once I know I’m an alcoholic then it is my obligation, duty to see what I can do about healing myself. Now, there’s no recovery from alcoholism, it is an incurable disease. And it also is a disease that tells you, you don’t have a disease. It tells you, “I am your friend. And all you need at any given time is a little drinky-poo to make life good.” And all of that. So, then you take the little drinky-poo and the next thing you know, you’ve consumed about 40 drinky-poos and you’re acting like a complete asshole that you were before you had the drinky-poo.
I said I would never become an alcoholic like my father because my father deserted us. But diseases, there’s no let up. They get you some way or another. So the alcoholism got me and I ruined my first marriage with drinking and the lying and the deceit and infidelity, and all of that. The whole bloody thing. I was the complete one, alienated my first wife and although I never – I was not abusive in the physical sense in that I did never hit her like many – I was lucky that I am not addicted to that kind of thing. But I also alienated my children from that marriage. I am on good terms with them now. And I’ve been married for 45 years to my second wife. I’ve been sober for 25. And every day I am very grateful that I don’t drink. And it’s one day at a time, that’s all there is to it, and so I don’t have to worry about it. All I do is, okay, I do not have to drink. And if I feel like it, I postpone it for ten minutes, and that way I find something else to do in the meantime.
But alcoholism is a dread, an awful, and fatal disease. And I’ve seen so many horrible and awful results and consequences of people practicing alcoholism. It’s murder, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen a lot of suicides, a lot of strange sins. Particularly you get a lot of thievery, and the whole thing is about the lying. And then a lot of people abuse their children and more than hitting, so many people abuse their children sexually as well, and that is a family disease and that’s one of the horrors of it when kids are abused sexually. And there seems to be more of it now than ever, and I find that’s so sad that that happens.
Question: You ran for governor in 2006 for the Green Party. With New York suffering from political scandal, do you think third party candidates have viability in the future?
Malachy McCourt: Patterson walked into the Governor of New York at the moment, walked into a mess and a national and international mess, and he’s lost. And he’s having a rough time. When I ran for governor and I was up in Syracuse, a reporter asked me, “What would you do if you were elected?” And I said, “Well, I’ll change the name of the state.” And he said, “Why is that?” And I said, “Well, I don’t like the name ‘Empire State.’ It resonates of colonial times, you see. I don’t want to be Emperor. I want to be Governor.” And then a while late, the Governor, Spitzer, was caught in that compromising situation with the ladies, and the name of the club that supplied the girls was The Emperor’s Club, so I didn’t realize I was being so prescient at the time.
But, I think people are so disillusioned with the parties. It’s one party with two different names, and they are so spineless. And I had great faith that perhaps this man Obama would do something, but he is, we’re all in the grip of big money. And unless we can do away with that, we are done. And the Supreme Court gives corporations the same rights as a human being. It’s absurd. You can’t do that. Corporations can deduct their planes, all their office expenses, their machinery, their computers and Teleprompters and whatever else they have. They can deduct their yachts, they can deduct their limousines, their planes, everything. Now, here am I, a human being and that has a body that is getting old. And I only have one, I can’t trade it in. Like they can get a new plane or a new limousine, or a new yacht, they won’t give me a new body, but I can’t deduct my heart, or my lungs, or I’d like to deduct my falling hair. But no, they won’t let me do that. But yet the corporations can do that. It’s not fair.
Question: What spurred your interest to run for Governor?
Malachy McCourt: The Green Party asked me. And I thought, I am utterly free of any kind of, I mean, of all my scandals – my scandals in my book amongst swimming and singing my songs, so all of my life is fairly well, and my brother Frank wrote about our life. So, it’s pretty much out in the open about our lives. So there was no scandal involved there. And I'm an alcoholic, recovering. And I used to smoke cigarettes, and I was a philanderer and I, wouldn't call myself good. As I said I’m on the lines of the sinner, and I want to be known as that. Over in the British Isles, in Ireland, people stand for office. And over here, they run. I don't know why. So I decide I would stand for office here. And so it was to see if I could get the 50,000 votes for the party. And a strange thing happened: all my running mates, who are less well known than I all got over the 50,000 mark, somehow or another I didn't, so I suspect there was chicanery to keep the party from getting the 50,000 votes. So maybe I'll do it again.
Question: How can we get people to become more involved in politics?
Malachy McCourt: It's an organic thing really. If you don't read; and kids are not reading much these days, and we are getting insensitive to human suffering because we can't distinguish what happens on the screen between that which is similar, violence and rape and murder from that which is real.
The purpose of the media is to make us all spectators, to watch. So that's why we have millions of fat children watching the games, eating and consuming and not playing themselves. That's the unfortunate thing that's happening. So we are spectators to violence, and therefore are, how well we don't know and make sure we don't know the difference of real violence to that of simulation. So keep us out of it. And that way, you have total control. Does that make sense?
Question: How do you practice democracy on a regular basis?
Malachy McCourt: I tell my children, shut up and let me speak. What I've learned, I have been married for 45 years and in my own family It is that I've learned to stop being judgmental, to listen. And I tell Diana, and wife, every morning that I love her. And that's very difficult for an Irish man, because you never see the palms of Irish people stands when all is close, you see. Whereas Mediterranean people, Jewish people, and other ethnic groups, you see the palms. Oh no. Just watch. So anyway democracy to me is letting the other person speak and being dissenting without being disagreeable. It's perfectly all right to know. And to make sure that we don't ever disappointed child because my childhood was so full of disappointment that the scars of it are still there. And I mean, you can't give them everything, but don't promise something that you’re not going to fulfill. And to always make sure that a child’s self-esteem is at the proper level. They know when you're bullshitting them, you see. But if you say, “I like what you did with that problem.” They can deal with that. But if you say, “I think you’re Einstein,” well that’s bullshit, you see.
Question: What was it like to lose your older brother last year?
Malachy McCourt: To lose one parent is a tragedy, to lose both is utter carelessness. So, it’s a euphemism. Frank died in July. And he wrote “Angela’s Ashes” in 1996. And he had just retired a year or so before from teaching in a New York City High School system. And I always knew he was a good writer, or a wonderful writer, and I begged him for years to write a book. Now, I didn’t know what he was going to call it. We were very good friends. We wrote a play together called “A Couple of Blaguards,” which we performed. We talked to each other on a daily basis. And he was, when my father left, although Frank was only 10, he actually took over then as the Paterfamilias – the father of the family. And he was good. He looked after us all even though I was only a year, a month, and a day younger. He was smaller than me, but he was the only smaller person that I looked up to. And all his life, he was a good friend, a decent guy, great sense of humor, extraordinary intellect, and loved passing on his knowledge. All of his students adored him because he had the advantage of having no formal education in the sense that he did have – he left school like I did at the age of 13, and he went back when he was 22. And somehow or another faked his way into New York University and got himself a degree after being on probation, and then became a teacher.
So, he wasn’t circumscribed by ordinary thinking about teaching. If a teacher loves what she is teaching, or he is teaching as the case may be. Then again, you pass that on, the love of it, rather than punishment. “Ah, we have a test!” This is what we are always doing with children, testing. Our children don’t need testing, they need loving. And that was Frank’s idea. Love them. Love what you’re talking about, love the words.
There was an Irish poet named John Millington, and he said, “Words, particularly in a play, should have the texture of a crisp, autumn apple.” That’s the way I think of it. And I think that’s the way Frank thought about it, too.
Question: Has your father deserting your family influenced how you are as a father?
Malachy McCourt: Where we grew up, having a father desert you was shameful. So, you felt ashamed at not having a father. Other kids talked about their fathers, and their fathers supported them, their fathers looked after them, their fathers stood up for them. And we had nobody, ever, to do that for us. And so, now here’s the odd thing about being alcoholic. I was not a good father in my first marriage. Although there are ways of deserting the family without leaving physically, I was deserted in my head. I was always out, always in the saloons, always drinking, always messing about. But when I was with the kids, they always said they enjoyed me. That’s what it was. Because being a kid myself, I loved playing and I loved playing with words, and making up things and riddles and songs and not afraid of being silly in public. So they liked that. But it wasn’t being, really being a father. And then when we divorced, there was visitations and stuff.
But I think in the second marriage, we have two kids, and a step-daughter, and then the other two; I sort of cemented my relationship with my kids from my first marriage. So now I get along – more than get along, we have a good relationship with all of them, and the little grandchildren. And I think they think well of me, I hope they do anyway. And if they don’t, well, of course, there’s nothing I can do about it, and it won’t be from want of trying.
Question: What is your secret to a 45-year marriage?
Malachy McCourt: I think that 45 years that people are apt to start thinking, well it’s the same old blah, blah, blah. But I’m constantly astounded at Dianna’s mind. She has a wonderful intellect and I love to hear what she has to say. And we never run out of things to talk about. The other is, that the act of saying, “I love you,” which I do every morning, is extremely important. And that immediately starts the day with a bit of a smile, no matter what. And if you’re in the middle of a disagreement, which all couples have, you could come up with something like, “Have you ever thought of the erotic capabilities of a parsnip?” What? Then you get a laugh, you see. And the other thing is that I find, we have unspoken agreements which are, that we don’t say, “You never –" Never say that. “You always –" Never say that. And never make any reference to the other person’s family. “You’re just like your –“ because that is out, completely. That keeps things on an even keel most of the time. And I like her as well, she’s a great friend. So, that’s my marriage anyway. And loving. Keep loving, that’s all there is too it. We hug and we kiss and make love, and it’s great.
Question: In the 55 years that you’ve lived in New York, how has it evolved?
Malachy McCourt: Well, it’s much faster now – life is much faster, people get past me quicker than when I first came. Economically, it’s been up and down in the 55 years that I have been here. I absolutely love the public transportation system in New York. No matter what, no matter how people complain, it is the best in the world. I like the police force, they are very – they’ve seen everything you know. Well, there’s 47 people up there on the roof and they are throwing tomatoes.” “Yes sir. Well thank you.” They don’t get excited. “Oh, I have to get out machine guns.” Like at other places.
There seems to be less obvious corruption in city government and New York politicians, they aren’t Republican or Democrat, they’re New Yorkers. I like that. And New York people are generally speaking, pretty helpful and courteous despite the fact that it says they are supposed to be rude and all that kind of business.
Times Square has eh – I kind of miss the old sleazy Times Square, in a way. And yet I don’t mind not being accosted by you know, all sorts of strange people.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Malachy McCourt: What keeps me up? John Stewart. On the Daily Show. I thoroughly enjoy that show. But the other is, I wonder what I can do about war. Is it the destiny of human kind to eventually wipe ourselves out with these weapons of mass destruction? Are we stupid to think that we can control them? And if they said, we only have 2,500 atomic weapons, or neutron bombs? What difference does this make, if they have one or 2,500? The damage will be just the same, there’s overkill there. And I would like to do away with all kind of – all weapons. A dream – totally. Including the bow an arrow.
Question: What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Malachy McCourt: Ah. I think when I was a kid I was advised, and this is poverty – depression thinking. Somebody said there was a job in Limerick where I grew up, and at the time, cars were not as numerous as they are now. There were more horses, and so they dumped their horseshit all over the place. And there were a few people who got jobs in Limerick, a big barrel on wheels, and it was a barrel that went back and forth, and a shovel and a broom. So, they went around shoveling the horseshit into this barrel. So, you got that job when you were around 15, and then you got to retire at the age of 65, with a pension. A small pension. So that would be 50 years of shoveling horseshit. And I was advised very seriously that I should get that job. I didn’t. And I thought that – not that’s either here on this earth shoveling horseshit, or else that’s my punishment in hell, shoveling horseshit. And that’s the worst advice I ever got.
And the best advice was, do whatever you want because that’s not what you are. That’s what you do for the moment.
Recorded on March 10, 2010