How It’s New York: Frank and Malachy McCourt conceived the piece A Couple of Blaguards after a party in NYC, when Frank was still teaching at Stuyvesant. These performances at Irish Arts Center are a benefit for Breezy Point victims of Hurricane Sandy.

How It’s Irish: Both Frank McCourt and brother Malachy are from Limerick, and this piece is about people there. “People in Ireland do die,” he says.

A Couple of Blaguards is at Irish Arts Center this weekend, Saturday, Feb. 16 at 8 and Sunday, Feb. 17 at 3.

This article was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, Feb. 12.

For a long time, Malachy and Frank McCourt performed their show “A Couple of Blaguards” without notes. The impersonations and stories about priests, politicians, teachers, drunkards, relatives and friends back in Limerick grew out of the brothers’ topping each other at a party, Malachy recalls.

“We started remembering people, characters, teachers, priests, tyrants, the various women and the storytellers, and all of that, and we were imitating everybody, and we amused ourselves no end. While we were going home Frank said, ‘We should put that on the stage.’ I said, ‘Who’d be interested?’ He said ‘I tell them to my students at Stuyvesant, and you tell them to people on the radio…'”

So they did. At first they did it in a small venue on the East Side. Eventually, they did write it down, and “it’s been going ever since,” Malachy says.

They took it to Chicago, where it ran for seven months, then to San Francisco, and performed it on cruise ships.

This weekend, Malachy and Mickey Kelly will perform the autobiographical piece at Irish Arts Center, as a benefit for victims of Sandy in Breezy Point, New York. They will perform on Friday, Feb. 15, and on Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. All proceeds from the performances will go to Breezy Point victims to help with rent, accommodations, building supplies.

The audiences have not only been Irish people. In Chicago, Malachy remembers, there were a lot of black people in the audience. “The thing had a family appeal,” he says.

“Everybody has grandmothers, aunts, uncles; everybody had teachers, some of whom were good, some bullies.”

Malachy talked with Frank about copyrighting it when Frank was in hospice in 2009. Samuel French was reluctant at first, because they thought it might be too local, Malachy says.

“A lot of it is in a book that a brother of mine wrote, about a very local town, about a local family, poverty-stricken, with death and disease. I said I quite agree with you. That book only got one Pulitzer prize and it only sold 10 million copies. I said, yeah, you’re right.” He laughs.

“In about 10 minutes they got back to me.”

Angela’s Ashes, of course, Frank’s 1996 memoir of a miserable Irish childhood, and meditation on his mother Angela, was hugely successful, and turned into a film in 1999 starring Emily Watson.

A Couple of Blaguards was conceived in the 80s, and portrays some of the same people and events, with some stories not in that book, including an attempt to reunite Angela with their dad, who got an “Irish divorce–he disappeared.”

And of course, there’s a lot more of what happens to Malachy in this piece. Frank has said that it was this show that led him to think that his stories might have a wider appeal.

Now that the play has been published, other people have performed in it besides the McCourts. There was a production in Buffalo recently at the Irish Classical Theatre Company. It has also been at the Keegan Theatre in Virginia, the Irish Heritage Center of Greater Cincinatti, and Cinnabar Theatre in California.

Mickey Kelly, says Malachy, is a Union organizer and actor that used to do plays at the Irish Arts Center during Jim Sheridan’s time. It was Jim Sheridan who encouraged Frank to take his stories and put them in a book, Malachy says with a laugh.

Irish Arts Center has a long association with Frank, then, and doing it as a benefit for Breezy Point has a personal connection too.

 “Frank, the brother, had a house in Breezy Point, mainly for his young daughter. It’s a very insular place. He almost didn’t make it in there because of me! Because I had a radio show at that time and I am very left-wing, and they always said I was some kind of a rotten Communist.”

But because Frank was a respectable schoolteacher, they let him in, Malachy says.

The show blends sad memories with laughter.

“People in Ireland do die. They don’t die here. They pass away, are with the lord…”

says Malachy with a chuckle.

On the other hand, “Death is not always fatal,” he says.

“We keep ’em alive, talking about them and singing about them.”

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.