Malachy McCourt,
A Monk Swimming
(Hyperion, 1998)

A more appropriate title for this memoir would have been Malachy, Sex and the City. If he did little else, Malachy McCourt certainly made himself familiar with the ladies! And while he followed his older brother, Frank, to America as soon as he was old enough, he did not follow Frank's example.

Arriving in New York in 1952 on a boat appropriately named America, 20-year-old Malachy is ill prepared for the independent life of an American youth. He'd been raised with his brothers in the lowest level of poverty Limerick could offer. He'd left school at 13 and was still considered by his teachers to be ignorant. He had no money, no trade, no family to meet him. Frank had joined the Army and been shipped to Germany. His mother, Angela, and his younger brothers had been left behind in Limerick. His father, who'd abandoned the family years before, was still "working" in London. What was a fresh-off-the-boat Irishman to do? The same thing fresh-off-the-boat Irishmen and Irishwomen had been doing for years -- survive.

After a very short and uneventful stint in the Army, Malachy puts his young and healthy body to work as a longshoreman. But, being his father's son, he was much better suited to a softer life of drinking his wages and cavorting with his pals. Joining a rugby team puts him in contact with many of the New York aristocracy, who are not only willing and able to drink themselves silly night upon night, but are willing to pay to have him along for the ride. Soon he is rubbing elbows with the likes of George Hamilton, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Grace Kelly, Josh Reynolds (of the tobacco Reynolds) and countless other famous and infamous names. And rubbing much more than elbows with nameless local debutants, hatcheck girls, barmaids and whoever becomes available. His nights are spent first drinking himself into a stupor, then screwing himself into a coma. I suppose some would call that the luck of the Irish....

Malachy eventually uses his drinking fame to good purpose by becoming the namesake of a popular New York pub. He also claims it as the first singles bar, and holds a good argument to support the claim. He marries, but does not describe the union as one made for anything more than an excuse to get her to stop nagging and crying, and takes her with him to visit the family in Ireland. (I was surprised to find out that "Sean South of Garryowen" was not only real, but a childhood friend of the McCourt boys.) The trip ends up longer than expected because Malachy drinks up any and all money while his pregnant wife sits at home alone. Not only does he wear out the welcomes of Limerick and Dublin, but those of London as well. And takes enough advantage of the good humor of his business partners that he very nearly ends up stuck in Ireland like his parents before him, raising his children in the poverty of the slums.

It was a bit of a disappointment to find that a lad so adversely affected by his own father's drinking and abandonment would, as a husband and father, repeat the same performance. While I laughed and flushed at the young, wild, carefree Malachy's antics, my heart broke for the older, sadder Malachy who spent his best years trying to prove his worth to a wife who no longer loved him and two children who barely knew him.

McCourt writes as he most likely speaks, very loose and casual, but has a fine vocabulary and can be quite eloquent when the mood strikes. However, he has a nasty habit of using partial words, such as "premi" for premises, that might make for excellent storytelling, but is irritating to read.

[ by Sheree Morrow ]

Buy A Monk Swimming from