When I first called Malachy McCourt to inform him that he was the choice of the IAWA board to receive the 2016 Eugene O’Neill Award for Lifetime Achievement he laughed.
It took a minute or so to persuade him I wasn’t joking. That’s our Mr. McCourt – unassuming, humorous and totally without pretension.
Don’t get me wrong – the man is not without pride. Some would say not without arrogance too, though I feel they confuse that trait with his willingness to speak his mind, particularly on behalf of the less fortunate.
But then he is a McCourt and that family has never been hesitant to lay it on the line. Malachy went a step further by embracing the public and political arenas.
His life has been informed by his Limerick childhood. Unlike many he has been unwilling to turn the other cheek; he sees poverty for what it is – a grinding, debilitating, inhumane station.
There’s little nobility in it – only shame. But if childhood poverty didn’t scar him it did leave a deep bruise that has led him to challenge the spiritual and political status quo both here and in Ireland. He’s never had time for those who insist that political change should come glacially, or that one should suffer here on earth in exchange for a mythical paradise in the hereafter.
It has always been a joy – and sometimes a relief - to see him on the protest lines against the various US wars of choice of the last 40 years, or in support of the rights of political prisoners in Ireland.
He has never been without humor, however. Once while unwisely singing Fixin’ To Die Rag at an anti-war rally in Woodside, Queens, a bottle came winging through the air.
Malachy sauntered out on stage and in regal tones advised Turner & Kirwan of Wexford that “perhaps a strategic retreat is called for;” while we bolted back to the Lower East Side our tails between our legs.
Like his brother Frank, Malachy left school at 13; that was the system in the Ireland of his youth: schooling is wasted on the poor, continuing education is for your betters. No wonder so many fled the country.
But Malachy never suffered from a lack of formal education for he had a love of books and a burning desire to distill what he read and pass it on.
You can witness this at the many IAWA salons he attends. He is revered at these gatherings, not so much for what he does – although he is a mighty performer - but for the encouragement he gives the other writers and artists.
Our goal at the salons - produced by IAWA treasurer, John Kearns - is to provide a safe space for both the experienced and the novice to air their new work. Each participant, well known or otherwise, is given the same time and attention.
It’s a particular thrill to see someone read or perform for the first time and then bask in the hearty applause. There’s a spring to their step as they stride away from the podium and you know they’ll soon be back with more accomplished work.
We encourage everyone with a story, a song, or a dream, to become a member of the IAWA; it costs less than a buck a week. You never know - that carpenter in Queens who dabbles in plays could be the next O’Casey, or the homemaker in Staten Island with the store of scintillating stories may well be an Edna O’Brien in the making. We have a platform for everyone and admission is free for non-members.
The Eugene O’Neill Award night is our one fundraiser. All monies go towards funding salons around the country and supporting various causes, including The Frank McCourt Award, a financial prize to encourage young writers at the Frank McCourt High School in New York City.
On Monday, October 17th celebrities will rub shoulders with the lesser known at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club as we come together to honor a man who overcame so many odds to receive our lifetime achievement award. I have a feeling that the brooding spirit of Eugene O’Neill will not be displeased. Join us.
For information about IAWA visit http://i-am-wa.org/