Malachy McCourt is not a goner. Not yet, anyway, but he sees the writing on the funeral home wall. All six of his siblings — including brother Frank, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angela’s Ashes” — have died. Many good friends, too. As “a member of a species that has a 100 percent mortality rate,” he knows that his final exit is just a little ways around the bend.
“In Ireland, they say we’re in the departure lounge,” says the 85-year-old actor, writer, onetime Green Party candidate for governor of New York and full-time Irish American raconteur. McCourt is on the phone from his home in Manhattan talking about his new book, “Death Need Not Be Fatal,” and the end of living is very much on his mind.
“I’m quite blase about it,” he says of dying, and you can hear the smile in his lilting Irish accent as he explains how he talks about death with his family and friends. “I just tell them that I’m going to head off and that I’ll go to sleep. And I tell them don’t be expecting me to go to heaven and intercede for them. I have no hope of heaven nor fear of hell, so I’m all set.”
Raised Catholic, McCourt is now a devout atheist who’s ready to make the leap into the great unknown without worrying what it will bring. Perhaps death doesn’t scare him because he’s seen so much of it.
Born in Brooklyn, McCourt moved with his family to Limerick, Ireland, following the death of his baby sister, Margaret Mary. He was just 3 at the time. By the time he was 10, his younger twin brothers, Eugene and Oliver, would also be dead. As would 11 other school pals between the ages of 6 and 10.
“It was common then,” he says. “Death was part of the deal.”
McCourt skirted death, dropped out of school, returned to New York at age 20 and moved on to drinking. He held many jobs along the way — coal shoveler, dishwasher, concrete inspector, longshoreman, actor, barkeep — but for decades, boozing was his profession. He describes those 30 years as “an alcoholic tornado” and “a period of great hilarity, great sadness, and the occasional suicidal thought.”
The alcohol fueled many nights of fun and games. He was acting on soap operas at the time and a regular guest on talk shows where his stories were a hit and being liquored up wasn’t a problem. But the drinking also cost him relationships, helped wreck his first marriage and kept him from addressing deeper, darker issues, including anger at the Catholic church and his father for leaving his family destitute in the slums of Limerick.
The drinking didn’t help him forget, and it didn’t lessen the pain. “Drinking alcohol because you’re mad at someone,” he writes, “is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.”
But when the pain cuts too sharp, McCourt returns to the twin balms the Irish have relied on forever: laughter and song. A wake in book form, his new memoir, written with Brian McDonald, is chock-full of lyrics and verses from McCourt’s favorite songs and poems as well as tales that may or may not be true, but are quite funny even when — maybe, especially when — they deal with death.
McCourt recounts visiting his mother, Angela, in 1981 as she lay dying in her hospital bed. They had not discussed funeral arrangements, so he broached the subject. Her response was magnificent.
“When I asked if she wanted to be buried or cremated, she said, ‘Surprise me.’ ”
For more deep thoughts on death, he quotes the English comedian Bob Monkhouse, who said, “I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers.”
McCourt has already written two rollicking memoirs, “A Monk Swimming” and “Singing Him My Song,” so “Death Need Not Be Fatal” feels like the completion of an unholy trilogy. He’s catching up and setting the record straight. He devotes a chapter to his brother Frank, and you can still feel his loss. But more than anything, McCourt conveys a sense of peace.
He has survived cancer, has hearing loss, suffers from a muscular disease that has severely restricted his mobility and still battles depression. But he stopped drinking in 1985. He writes adoringly about his wife of more than 50 years, Diana. He has four children and a gaggle of grandchildren. He is letting go of resentments and old grudges.
“Each day I try to do something kind for someone else,” McCourt writes. “And I believe in what Oscar Wilde said: ‘Always forgive your enemies; it annoys them.’ ”
Asked whether he had a suggestion for the first line of his obituary, McCourt responds with a delighted chuckle.
“He made us laugh,” he said.
Joe Heim is a staff writer for the Metro section. He also writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column in the Sunday magazine.
By Malachy McCourt with Brian McDonald
Center Street. 272 pp. $27