An enduring state of Grace
Septuagenarian and former model Grace O'Shaughnessy is an ambassador for older people in her formal role with Third Age and in the way she lives her life -- always elegant, vivacious and honest, finds Emily Hourican
JUST as fashion regularly "discovers" different parts of the body and celebrates them, so society falls in love with different ages at different times. And right now, it is the turn of older people: Edna O'Brien, utterly fabulous at 80; Garret FitzGerald, showing himself to be sharper than men half his age; and Grace O'Shaughnessy, still elegant and vivacious at 71.
"Sure, why would one be coy about one's age?" says Grace when I comment on her honesty, both in admitting her age and allowing herself to look it. "What the hell, it's my life, they're my lines and I earned them." Not that she looks anything like the conventional notion of being in her 70s; she's far too beautiful and well-groomed for that, wearing a crisp black-and-white striped shirt and well-cut jeans, with a whole load more clothes waiting in the car, "just in case ... Old habits die hard," she laughs.
Grace was one of the country's first well-known models, and later a TV presenter, with a fashion slot on RTE's Live at Three which lasted nearly 12 years. And now she is an ambassador for Third Age, a voluntary organisation dedicated to the well-being of older people. "It's a bit like the Samaritans for older people," Grace explains. "We run a senior helpline and suggest ways for them to integrate into the community, organise conversation classes with non-nationals, holidays, reflexology, chiropodist services, that kind of thing." Grace got involved because: "I thought, why not? If I can help in any way, I'm delighted to do it, and it's a bit of fun as well."
Grace is a natural ambassador for the organisation; her energy and sharpness of mind are immediately obvious; her wisdom and gentle humour become evident within moments. Is it not hard getting old having been a famous beauty, I ask? "Well, you see, if you put a lot of meas on your looks in the first place, it might be different, but if you didn't, I don't think you'd have a problem in that line," she responds, with a subtle twinkle.
Did she really not rate her looks? "No, I really didn't. I sort of fell into modelling rather than really wanting to be a model. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the communication with people; it was relationships I formed through it that I got the most buzz from. I don't want to sound twee saying that, but I didn't grow up wanting to be a model."
In fact, she almost had to be forced down that road. Grace, the second youngest of five, with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father who worked for the civil service (her parents split the family religiously, bringing up two children Catholic and three Protestant) left school without any clear direction. "We grew up without any spare money at all," she says. "My parents sent us to the best school they could afford -- Wesley on the Green -- but I didn't go to college, because at that time, one didn't unless one was from a very intellectual family."
Grace did a secretarial course and worked in Walpole's on Grafton Street for a time. Then, an older sister got married and went to live in Bermuda. She and her husband sent money home for Grace to do a modelling course; "which, of course, I totally disregarded and paid a bill or did something else with the money," she says now, laughing. But fate was having none of that. Another older sister had the same vision for
Grace, and her husband also volunteered the money for a course. "So I did it then," Grace says. "I wasn't going to ignore that twice."
Despite the stop-start and the lack of burning ambition, Grace was an excellent model, working almost constantly with Sybil Connolly -- who became a good friend and gave Grace an icon painting, because she thought the Madonna in it looked like her -- Ib Jorgensen and Nellie Mulcahy.
Eventually, married to Ronnie, who manufactured umbrellas and gloves, and with one daughter, Grace set up her own model agency, but quite quickly moved beyond that. "I didn't like not having work for people," she recalls. "I couldn't bear it. And I didn't like not being able to pay them when they'd done the job, and you could have been waiting months for a company to get paid yourself, so I was paying the money, which I didn't have. It was stressing me. I couldn't do it anymore."
Instead, she launched herself as a kind of early-incarnation of personal development coach, giving talks on presentation and image to schools, colleges and businesses. Entirely self-taught, she was very successful, and even now meets women who recall the valuable lessons she passed on and the difference these made to their lives.
At a time when women were mostly encouraged to be ashamed of thinking about their looks, Grace was teaching a sense of pride, of individuality and personal worth. She's much too modest to say so herself, but when I put it to her that she was a valuable link in the chain that brought Irish women out of the dreary past, she agrees: "Well, I tried to work against that culture of, 'Oh, sure, this old thing ... ' I would say, 'Look, you're an individual, unique'. I used to try to make people believe they had special things to offer. I felt I was okay at it."
Given the CV -- model, model agent, TV presenter -- I had expected someone more preening. In fact, Grace is so dissembling that you have to read carefully between the lines to get a full sense of her achievements and courageous approach to life. For example, I ask her do people begin to treat you differently as you get older? "In a word, yes," she says cheerfully. "You become ignored." Then adds: "It doesn't bother me in the slightest." And I believe her. Quite clearly, her sense of self-worth isn't based on the opinions or attentions of others.
Asked what lessons she thinks life has taught her, Grace responds promptly: "I definitely am much nicer now than I ever was. I know I am." She elaborates: "There was a stage when I was in my late 20s and 30s, when a very dear friend of mine, who is long since departed, said to me, 'Grace, you're going to have to change. I like you too much to let you ruin yourself by one over-riding fault which you have ... you are quite arrogant. You think you're right about everything'. That was obviously my thing," she chuckles. "Someone else once said to me I had 'didactic proclivities', so when I heard it twice from different people, I had to come to terms with it."
With the wisdom to recognise good advice, and act on it, Grace resolved to change. "I said, 'I've got to improve'. So I held back a little bit and didn't impose my will on people so much. I think I am nicer than I used to be. And it had a good effect on my life. It has made me more aware of people and what they might be thinking or going through in their own lives."
Another friend who had considerable influence on Grace was Dr Paddy Leahy, an outspoken, often controversial, medical pioneer, who Grace recalls as "probably the only truly selfless human being I've met. He was entirely motivated by doing things for other people. When he worked for the colostomy association of Ireland, long before there was any funding for it, he would drive to Donegal, to Cork, wherever, to help somebody with an appliance, at his own expense. He just couldn't see people in pain or distress.
"But he wasn't goody-goody -- he loved his horses, his gin and tonic, that sort of thing. He certainly wasn't a saint, although he was the most selfless person I ever met. Human dignity was very important to him. He was a wonderful man and a terrific feminist."
Through conversations with Dr Leahy, Grace honed her views on feminism, and also her determination to involve herself in the struggle, working for Women's Aid for 10 years, something she describes as "harrowing and eye-opening". Dr Leahy was also a strong influence on Grace's daughter, Emma, and lived with the family for a time, until Grace and Ronnie separated.
On this subject, Grace is at her most subtle -- discreet and generous, yet very honest. "I was very happy with Ronnie," she says. "Then, after 24 years, I re-met an old flame, Des Byrne. I first met Des when I was 14. I went to my first dress dance with him when I was 17. Then we both went on and married other people. When we re-met, it was like a coup de foudre. It wasn't that I loved Ronnie any less ... "
Seventeen years ago, Grace went to live with Des. The pain of that decision is quite apparent still, although the fine characters of all involved mean that a solid friendship has lasted between them. "It was traumatic, but I thought, 'You only have one life'. I could have walked away, but I didn't," says Grace, with patent honesty.
When Grace and Ronnie separated, Dr Leahy went to live with his son, although Grace continued to visit him often. He died 12 years ago.
He was known for his often controversial ideas including his strong belief that people should have the right to choose the circumstances of their own passing and he claimed to have helped many to die, out of compassion and respect for their wishes.
Grace also has strong views about life and how to end it "I would have very special and specific views, because I do believe in a person being allowed to legislate for their going. I would believe in that strongly."
Again, her honesty is complete, yet somehow discreet. "I have discussed it with Emma, my daughter. It's a very hard thing to discuss with her, but I have said I would like to be able to choose to go if I'm very ill." And would she feel bound to respect the wishes of those around her if they don't feel the same?
"I fully appreciate the right of others to choose also, but I wouldn't feel I had to respect the views of those around me who are against. I don't think we should constantly be worried about what people will think." It's a perfectly judged answer; resolute and gracious, with a characteristic dash of quiet humour
For more details on Third Age see www.thirdageireland.ie
Sunday Indo Living