A gifted actor himself, Molloy’s father has a satirist’s eye for character, and soon she’s watching him mercilessly lampooning her Trinity friends (and herself) on stage to a cheering Dublin audience.
They become an item, and soon they’ve moved from pocket-sized theaters to the Olympia and the Gate (two of the most celebrated theaters in the city).
Molly’s mother was charmed at her father’s gift for finding and embodying Dublin’s raft of eccentrics on stage. Often they were riotously funny, sometimes they were heartbreaking, and the one thing they had in common was that they had never been seen on the Dublin stage before.
He became a star doing it. It led to him being offered a role on Ireland’s first major televised soap opera Tolka Row. That made him a household name.
“My mother says his decline started after he had a show that failed on Broadway in 1963,” says Molloy. “His long slide into depression and destruction to mania followed that. He was driven to destroy himself. I think it was all of the s*** that had happened to him in his Dublin childhood.”
Molloy’s father had the kind of working class upbringing Frank McCourt would have remembered. Physical violence at home, then more physical violence at school, which he wrote about in his own memoir Alive, Alive- oh!
“He talks about being groped by the Christian Brothers, but he makes a joke about it, he’s being sexually abused at the age of 14. But for me the worst thing to happen to him was the TB (tuberculosis) hospital. First there was the shame of poverty, then the shame of disease, and then the religious people coming in there everyday and shaming you for being there.
“There was rampant sex and abuse in those hospitals too. The ward nurses were little orphan girls who were taken into closets by the guys who were recuperating there. They were only children really these girls. I think that experience really killed him. What happens to a mind that gets smashed and crashed over and over?”
That kind of brutal Irish childhood maimed a generation of Irish men and women, the majority of them working class. “In the middle of it all he just kept joking to amuse other people. Then he struggles with his own depression and hatred of himself. He became an atheist very early on.”
It can take a long time to put a fractured tale like that together, or to make sense of the fallout and where it has led. “I didn’t put this book together for years,” says Molloy. “I took it into me and lived with it like an actor. I started seriously writing about all this in 1985 so that’s 27 years.”
The richness of the telling and the lessons of it can be weighed in every line. Many Irish books will be released this year, but few will be this candid or this complete.
Honor Molloy will read from Smarty Girl at Barnes and Noble on 86th and Lexington Avenue on Monday, April 23 at 7 p.m.