It's clear that Malachy Sr.'s a complex man. He's a bad alcoholic who spends his wages in the pub while his family starves. He can be reckless and impulsive and gets fired from jobs left and right. Much of the time he's too lazy to look for work. He's deaf to his wife's pleas to support his family. But he's also an affectionate man with an artistic sensibility who can make breakfast and tell endless stories to his kids. He seems more approachable than Angela, who's always exhausted from taking care of all the babies and keeping the family from starving. He's a very smart and literate man; the neighbors know he has a way with words and ask him to write letters for them.
No one expresses this complexity better than Frank when he describes his "shiftless loquacious alcoholic" (1.3) father's multiple personas:
I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland. (8.166)
What's striking is how little Frank judges his father. He doesn't deny the "bad thing" but he treasures those times alone with him:
I feel bad over the bad thing but I can't back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father […]. (8.169)
Malachy Sr.'s a man of strong convictions. He believes a man's gotta maintain his dignity at all costs (and the costs are borne mostly by his family.)
You have to keep the dignity. Wear your collar and tie, keep up the appearance, and never ask for anything. (3.23)
I wish Dad would come and help us because Mam has to stop every few steps and lean against a wall. […] Even if Dad came he wouldn't be much use because he never carries anything, parcels, bags, packages. If you carried such things you lose your dignity.[…] He tells Malachy and me that when you grow up you have to wear a collar and a tie and never let people see you carry things. (3.52)
Even when the family's freezing on Christmas morning, he sticks to his guns:
Even the poorest of the poor don't go out on Christmas Day picking coal off the road. There's no use asking Dad to go because he will never stoop that low and even if he did he won't carry things through the streets. It's a rule he has. (3.56)
Malachy's also a pretty devout Catholic and tries to make his boys follow Church principles. He was an altar boy as a kid and has the same aspirations for Frank. He takes the kids to church and makes sure they say grace before their meals. He fished a picture of Pope Leo XIII, "a great friend of the workingman" (3.11) out of the trash in New York and keeps it on the wall of their house. Angela's family suspects some streaks of "Presbyterianism" in Malachy, Sr.—by which they mean bad character—but as a fighter for Irish freedom, he's a staunch Catholic even if he's from the North.
Malachy's Irish patriotism is almost like another religion and he drums into his kids the importance of being willing to "die for Ireland." Malachy fought in the early days of the Irish struggles for independence from Britain, and he blames the British for everything that's wrong in his country. Nights at the pub invariably end with him waking up the boys and lining them up to listen to songs about Irish freedom fighters.
We spend hours in the playground when the twins are sleeping, when Mam is tired, and when Dad comes home with the whiskey smelling him, roaring about Kevin Barry getting hanged on a Monday morning or the Roddy McCorley song […].(1.148)
There's a knock on the door, Mr. MacAdorey. Och, Malachy, for God's sake, it's three in the morning. You have the whole house woke up with the singing.
Och, Dan. I'm only teaching the boys to die for Ireland.
You can teach them to die for Ireland in the daytime, Malachy. ( 1.157-159)
These old Irish freedom fighter songs are like the soundtrack of Frank's childhood.
He makes sure that his boys learn. He comes to the bedroom door. Up, boys up. A nickel for everyone who promises to die for Ireland. Up boys, up. Francis, Malachy, Oliver, Eugene. The Red Branch Knights, the Fenian men, the IRA. Up, up.
Some other of Malachy Sr.'s principles? He's got strong feelings about a woman's place (at home), her rights with regard to family finances (none), and her submission to her husband (always). He uses religion to justify it. It's worth repeating that passage from Angela's character analysis:
[T]he good Catholic woman must perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation. (9.2)
When he's sober, he's a loving dad who enjoys spending time with his kids and telling them stories. In fact, at one point, he even sucks the snot out of his sick son's head:
It looks like he's going to kiss the baby. Instead he has his mouth on the little nose and he's sucking sucking the bad stuff out of Michael's head. (3.78)
That's fatherly devotion.
For a guy who's got such strong feelings about women's duties, Malachy Sr. spends a lot of time doing housework, childcare, and cooking. The book's full of cozy scenes when Dad lights the fire and makes breakfast early in the morning, takes Frankie on his lap and reads the morning paper with him, teaches the boys how to say their prayers, helps them with their homework and encourages them to study hard at school. When he's sober, he knows how to put his kids' needs before his own:
He eats half a potato with the skin on and puts the other half back in the pot. He eats a small slice of the pig's cheek and a leaf of cabbage and leaves the rest on his plate for Malachy and me. He makes more tea and we have that with bread and jam so that no one can say we didn't have a sweet on Christmas Day. (3.69)
Mam says, this egg is for your father, He needs the nourishment for the long journey before him.
It's a hard-boiled egg and Dad peels off the shell. He slices the egg five ways and gives each of us a bite to put on our bread, […] dad says, what would a man be doing with a whole egg to himself? (9.19-20)
Malachy Sr. instills in Frank a love of stories. He enjoys telling his kids about the brave Irish martyrs, Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry, and the mythical Irish warrior, Cuchulain:
Malachy said, Look, look, and we looked. It was a great silvery sheet of water and Dad said it was Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland, the lake where Cuchulain used to swim after his great battles. Cuchulain would get so hot that when he jumped into Lough Neagh it boiled over and warmed the surrounding countryside for days. (2.45)
He can make up a story about anything:
All we have to do is say a name, Mr. MacAdorey or Mr. Liebowitz down the hall, and Dad will have the two of them rowing up a river in Brazil chased by Indians with green noses and puce shoulders.
Unfortunately, as the book develops Malachy Sr. becomes more and more addicted to alcohol and less and less of a good father until finally he just disappears from the scene, leaving Angela and the kids to fend for themselves. The sad thing is that Malachy Sr. has good intentions; he wants to be a good dad; he wants to bring home the pay. But the thing about addiction is that it blinds you, it robs you of your common sense. Unfortunately, it also robs the McCourts of the chance for a happy life.
It's largely because of Malachy's drinking that his children suffer and die. Anytime there's money in his pocket is party time.
There are Thursdays when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy, and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, Yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes.
[…]It's bad enough that Dad loses jobs in the third week but now he drinks all the dole money once a month. (7.1-2)
Here's one of the last straws for Angela:
Grandpa in the north sends us a telegram money order for five pounds for the baby Alphie.
Malachy says, Dad, you're not to go to the pub. Mam said you're to bring home the money. You're not to drink the pint.
Now, now son, go home to your mother.
[…] Mam is sitting by the fireplace with Alphie in her arms. She shakes her head. He went to the pub, didn't he?
I want ye to go back down to that pub and read him out of it. I want ye to stand in the middle of the pub and tell every man your father is drinking the money for the baby. Ye are to tell the world there isn't a scrap of food in this house, not a lump of coal, not a drop of milk for the baby's bottle. (7.140-141;146-148)
Even Frank has had it. This is the first time we hear how angry he is at his Dad for making him wander through all the pubs in town looking for him.
I know I'm raging inside like my mother by the fire and all I can think of doing is running in and giving him a good kick in the leg […]
[…] it's bad enough to drink the dole or the wages, but a man that drinks the money for a new baby is gone beyond the beyond as my mother would say. (7.170-171)
What keeps Frank from kicking his father is:
Because we have the mornings by the fire when he tells me about Cuchulain and DeValera and Roosevelt […](7.170)
That Holy Trinity thing again.
All the family and neighbors know that Malachy's a bad alcoholic and that he drinks up the family's money.
We'll play psychologist here and speculate that part of the reason Malachy Sr. drinks is to feel anesthetized, unable to feel the pain of his everyday existence. In other words, he drinks to forget his problem; it's his coping mechanism to forget about his dead children and starving family.
Dad wants to go to another place for a pint but Uncle Pa says he has no more money. Dad says he'll tell everyone his sorrows and they'll give him pints. Uncle Pa says that's a disgraceful thing to do and Dad cries on his shoulder. You're a good friend, he tells Uncle Pa. He cries again till Uncle Pa pats him on the back. It's terrible, terrible, says Uncle Pa, but you'll get over this in time.
Dad straightens up and looks at him. Never, he says. Never. (2.295-6)
Now let's play the other psychologist who says that this is all rationalization. He drank before he had a family so forget about using his family troubles as an excuse. His drinking is the cause of the family troubles, not the result of it. He inherited an addiction at that's that. Nothing's gonna change it.
OK, OK—we're both right. Even though McCourt tells us that his father had a reputation for being impulsive and a heavy drinker before he even got to New York, there are times when he's able to abstain. Look what happens when baby Margaret arrives on the scene:
But when Margaret cries there's a high lonely feeling in the air and Dad is out of bed in a second, holding her to him, doing a slow dance around the table, singing to her, making sounds like a mother. When he passes the window where the streetlight shines in you can see tears on his cheeks and that's strange because he never cries for anyone unless he has the drink taken […]. Now he cries over Margaret and he has no smell of drink on him.
Mam tells Minnie MacAdorey, He's in heaven over that child. He hasn't touched a drop since she was born. I should've had a little girl a long time ago. (1.164)
Once Margaret dies, he's lost again. Our conclusion? Malachy Sr.'s got the propensity for alcoholism and bad judgment that's there regardless of what's going on in his life. But life situations can make it better or worse. Once his family has slid into destitution, his hopelessness and drinking just get worse until he can't face anyone and drops out of the picture. He's a conflict-avoider. Here's the last night with Malachy Sr. and his family:
Mam asks him if he brought the money. He tells her times are hard, jobs are scarce, and she says, Is it coddin' me you are? There's a war on and there's nothing but jobs in England. You drank the money, didn't you?
You drank the money, Dad.
You drank the money, Dad.
You drank the money, Dad.
We're shouting so loud Alphie begins to cry. Dad says, Och, boys, now boys. Respect for your father. (12.27-31)
Frank tells us at the beginning of the memoir that his father didn't touch alcohol or tobacco in his last years, but that was too late to help Angela. He returned to Northern Ireland and died there.