A Brother Remembers Frank McCourt

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. 

Recorded on March 10, 2010

"He was the only smaller person that I looked up to," says his younger brother Malachy.

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