Happy birthday, Malachy! You once told me that if you were lucky you’d still be working at 90. Well, my dear friend, you’re now within 10 years of your target.
You also once proclaimed that you’d never want to be Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, “for who’d want to walk up Fifth Avenue with 50,000 Irishmen at your back!”
And yet, for all your bitter-sweetness, you’re the real deal - an Irishman unto yourself.
Your mother, the infamous Angela, once murmured to me over a fag and a drink in the Bells of Hell, “Each of my sons is a private Gethsemane to me.” You’ll be happy to know she didn’t single you out, although she was looking directly at you and Frank doubled over with laughter.
The bad Limerick years were far behind you all by then. Life was full of laughs, and the particular warmth that comes when the booze is flowing freely in the company of good friends.
But in quieter moments the wistfulness was palpable; that’s when the pain and despair of your upbringing could flare suddenly at some perceived slight to the weak or oppressed.
I could never understand the accusation that the poverty of body and spirit in Frank’s book was exaggerated. Wexford in the late 50’s still had streets reeking of malnutrition and ignorance, what must Limerick of the 30’s and 40’s been like?
Others from such backgrounds could put maters in perspective, but not you. Injustice was a cancer to be confronted, head-on if possible.
I know you attended many protests, for any I showed up to you were already there. It was reassuring to see your girth and conviction and to fall in step behind you. One was heartened to know that if blows would be struck or rocks thrown you’d be a bigger and better-known target.
You were the first shock-jock I ever heard – articulate and egalitarian, unlike most current rating-obsessed ranters. I once accompanied you to the studios at WMCA. At that time you were on Nixon’s enemies list. Little wonder, for you cleaned his clock in your opening soliloquy.
The phone banks instantly lit up; most callers were Irish-Americans who, at the least, cast doubt on your parentage, manhood and various imagined peccadilloes, sexual and otherwise.
You retorted in kind and I was amazed at your pointed, slanderous, scathing eloquence until I remembered that you were a product of the back lanes of Limerick where a sharp tongue was more common than a hot dinner.
You were often seen at Irish Republican protests and why not – your father was from the North, and Sean South wasn’t just a name in a drunken sing-along to you. But it was more than that: Habeas Corpus and the right to dream have always been sacrosanct in your book, as is the belief that democracy means a lot more than just having a vote.
When you “stood for” Governor of New York I supported you because I’d never seen you being dishonest, except when you refused to pay the Con Edison bill for the Bells of Hell and got poor Jimmy Gavin to drill a hole through the wall to hook up to your neighbor’s power lines.
But to tell you the truth, Malachy, I always felt you should run for Pope! We’ve never had an Irish one but you look the part and you’d do a slap-up job.
I know, you’ve been happily married for 45 years and your wife’s a carpenter, but every pontiff has drawbacks and wouldn’t Diana be great around the Vatican. There must be a rake of unhinged doors, warped windows and the like.
The truth is, you’d suit any office for you’re a man of principle. I never saw you turn down a fight for justice no matter how daunting. You’ve lost many, but won a few humdingers. More than anything else, though, you’ve been a light in the darkness for those coming behind you.
Happy 80th, Malachy! By the way, I think you’d make one hell of a Grand Marshall – sure, you could always walk backwards.