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Irish-American ‘happy atheist’ Malachy McCourt called religion ‘terrorism’

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A photo of the book cover of Malachy McCourt's book "Death Need Not Be Fatal"

Malachy McCourt, author of Death Need Not be Fatal, the last surviving sibling of Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt, himself an author, an actor who frequently portrayed priests, a humorist — and outspoken, happy atheist — sadly did not quite make it to another St. Patrick’s Day. McCourt, who Dan and I so much enjoyed interviewing, died at age 92 on March 11.

His survival to St. Patrick’s Day last year, where McCourt joined the LGBTQ contingent via wheelchair, was big news after Malachy was famously kicked out of hospice in November 2022. Malachy wrote a myth-dispelling piece about St. Patrick’s Day last year for Our Town, which introduced the article by saying, “He once played a Catholic priest in the HBO series ‘Oz,’ although if you ask him his religion today he may reply, ‘I’m an atheist, thank God!’” Malachy concluded the piece: “As for me, at 91 years old, I won’t have a drink for the 38th year in a row. I’ll celebrate by being alive in all that that means. Take that, all ye bastards who wished otherwise. I made it to another St. Patrick’s Day!”

We first became aware of Malachy after he invited Dan to be a guest on his regular WBAI radio program in 2018. We quickly reciprocated by inviting him to be on FFRF’s Freethought Radio program. I was later a lucky guest on Malachy’s radio show — I say lucky because he was a highly entertaining host. In 2021, during the pandemic, although he was in frail health, we were able to interview him remotely for “Freethought Matters.”

He told us he had learned about the Freedom From Religion Foundation through the music composer Charles (“Annie”) Strouse, after Strouse, a self-described life-long atheist, accepted the Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and spoke and played at our national convention in Hartford, Conn., in 2011. Turns out Malachy’s wife Diana had gone to school with Charles’ wife.

Malachy was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 20, 1931, but his family moved back to Ireland when he was 3 years old. He told us during our radio interview that his early doubts about religion began at age 7 when a priest, who disapproved of his voiced ambition to move to America, chided him, “Why would you do that for? America is a sinful place, pagan, disbelieving. If God had meant you to be in America, he would have put you there.” The priest grew red faced after Malachy innocently replied, “He did put me there, I was born there.” Reminisced Malachy: “That’s when I realized these guys are not infallible. A kind of a disbelief or a doubt crept in.” Malachy also mentioned off-handedly that like so many Catholic youths, he was molested. He added philosophically, “Oscar Wilde said, ’Forgive your enemies, it annoys them.’”

Priest disapproval or not, Malachy, who like his brother Frank had no high school education, fulfilled his goal and made it back to America by age 20. Six hardscrabble years later, he lucked into a guest appearance as a salty Irish story-teller on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. That led to being offered a partnership in what became Malachy’s Pub, where he was dubbed “America’s most famous bartender,” pouring drinks for celebrities and later striking a blow for feminism by defying New York City conventions and inviting any and all women to sit at the bar. He told Dan and me during our TV interview that women sitting alone at bars were treated as though they were soliciting. “I said, ‘Women of all kinds are welcome in my saloon and can sit wherever they like.’ A policeman once tried to give me a ticket: I told him, ‘Quote the law where women can’t sit at the bar.’”

After a low point involving alcoholism (“I was too good a customer”) and divorce, he eventually had a comeback with a new career in media and acting, including commercials. He was happily remarried to Diana Galin, who survives him along with four children, one stepson, nine grandchildren and a great-grandbaby, which he quipped, makes him “great again.”

By the 1970s, he was typecast as a bartender in ABC’s “Ryan’s Hope,” the first of three New York City soaps he acted in. In anti-typecasting, he famously portrayed a priest every Christmas for years on “All My Children,” and in the Broadway play “Mass Appeal.” He and Frank performed an off-Broadway show, “A Couple of Blaguards.” His appearances in many movies included “The Molly Maguires,” “The Brink’s Job,” “Q,” “Brewster’s Millions,” “The January Man” and “Beyond the Pale.” It was fun to learn that he, like nonbeliever and FFRF honoree Ed Asner, played the William Jennings Bryan character in a play that, in Malachy’s case, ran for seven months in Philadelphia.

He admitted to the New York Times that being known as Frank McCourt’s brother “stung, but just a bit,” later writing two totally different kinds of memoirs, A Monk Swimming (the title taken from his childish misperception of the Catholic litany “Blessed art thou amongst women”) and Singing My Him Song. His other books include Danny Boy, tracing the famous tune, and Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland. We interviewed him about his last book, Death Need Not Be Fatal: What’s So Great about the Great Beyond?, which he described as “a light look at death.” The cover shows a mischievous Malachy in a coffin, eyes open, smiling conspiratorially.

“In Ireland,” he quipped during our radio interview, “they have a different attitude: People actually die.”  He later made fun of the U.S. euphemism for death — “passing” — saying: “They give you a ticket in heaven: No passing.”

Malachy launched both serious and humorous broadsides at religion during our interviews.

“Ireland was savagely Catholic: the threats of hell if you were late for Mass, if you ate meat on Friday or during Lent, if you ‘interfered with yourself’ — that was masturbation. They were always yapping about ‘sins of the flesh,’” he said on “Freethought Matters.” “The fear of hell was inculcated into us constantly with the fires, the walls of hell are 400 miles thick, the pains of hell, they stick spears, knives and forks into you, the pain is eternal and it never stops and on and on. It was terrorism. Religion was terrorism.”

He told us in 2018: “It’s not what I don’t believe but what I do believe. I believe in the beauty in the sun and the moon and the stars. I love plants, I love flowers, I love water. Somebody did say if you look into the face of a child you see God. I have eight grandchildren and their faces are good enough for me. To have to believe in an afterlife, that there is some Mafia chief telling us what we may [or may not] do and what is a sin.”

And Malachy added: “There is this constant, constant confusion of atheism and [im]morality. You will never find atheists in jail or in Congress! Do good, not for some guy who will reward you or punish you. The reason you give someone food is because they’re  hungry, not that God said to give them food.” By the way, he was happy to learn that Congress by that time had one open nonbeliever, Rep. Jared Huffman.

A few more pithy Malachy quotes:
“Holy mother church and dogma, keep your hands off women. … If you don’t like abortions, don’t have one, that’s what I say.” 

“I’m an atheist, and on Sundays, I’m a pagan because I believe in everything.”

“Live every day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right.”

Ah, Malachy, we hardly knew ye, but you helped make America a funnier and, dare I say, grander place.

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