Tuesday 16 July 2019

The life and times of Brendan Grace: an enduring friendship with Frank Sinatra, a career of wit and his forever love for his family

‘Treasure’: Brendan Grace and wife Eileen. Photo: Brian McEvoy
‘Treasure’: Brendan Grace and wife Eileen. Photo: Brian McEvoy

Clodagh Sheehy

Brendan Grace was warned not to do his “drunk man” sketch at an intimate gathering hosted by legendary crooner Frank Sinatra.

Grace defied the warning from Sinatra’s management team. The guests that night, who included Sammy Davis Junior, "fell about the place laughing" and the comedian and the singer became lifelong friends.

So close was their friendship that Sinatra referred to Grace as his "man in Europe". Grace went on to share a stage with Sinatra and with American singer-songwriter John Denver.

Brendan Grace’s own showbiz career began as a singer. He was part of a folk group called 'The Gingermen', formed in 1968.

He described how "when a guitar string broke" the group would push him forward to entertain the audience while they fixed the string.

One night, two members of the group were delayed and once again Grace was sent out to entertain the crowd. He soon had the entire audience in hysterics with his comedic quips and from that point onwards his 50 year long career as a stand-up comedian took off.

Brendan Grace
Brendan Grace
Brendan Grace
‘Treasure’: Brendan Grace and wife Eileen. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Brendan Grace
Writer and director Damian O’Callaghan pictured with Brendan Grace
Brendan Grace
Brendan Grace
Brendan Grace and Ronan Collins pictured at the Triple celebration for Carol Hanna's Entertainment Agency at the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge in 2017. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Brendan Grace and Lucy Kennedy, on TV3 show 'Living with Lucy'
Brendan Grace and his wife, Eileen
Brendan Grace
Bernadette Ruddy and Brendan Grace.
Brendan Grace Photo:Brian McEvoy
Kim Newport pictured with Brendan Grace in 1982.
Brendan Grace performing at the TLT. Photo:Colin Bell/pressphotos.ie
Brendan Grace as Bottler

It saw him headline around the world performing for royalty and celebrities.

Grace was born in Dublin’s Liberties on April 1st 1951. He said that being born on April Fool’s Day meant he was destined to be a clown.

His father Seamus was a part-time bartender, an ambulance man and worked a range of odd jobs to look after his family.

The future funny man was close to his father and his mother Gracie. Even after their deaths he revealed in an interview that he spoke to them every day.

Brendan Grace
Brendan Grace

"I’m a great believer in the Hail Mary. My mother was devoted to Our Lady. I feel very close to God," he added.

"I don’t have to be in the graveyard to speak to my parents Chrissie and Seamus, I speak to them every day."

Grace left school at 13 and his first job was as a messenger boy. Compensation for an accident, where an army ambulance knocked Grace off his motorbike, allowed the comedian to "buy a house for my mam and dad and myself and my sister".

Within a few years he was touring the country with the Gingermen folk group.

Even when he moved away from the group he had hits with songs like 'Cushie Butterfield' and 'Combine Harvester'. The latter topped the Irish charts and then became a number one hit for the Wurzels in the UK charts in 1976.

Although probably best known for his comedy schoolboy character 'Bottler', Grace also starred as Murphy in the 1995 film Moondance and as the nasty cleric Fr Fintan Stack in the Father Ted TV series.

His role in Father Ted brought his comedy to a new generation of fans.

Grace hadn’t even watched the series when he went along to read a part for the show.

"Some very well known actors also went along but mine was picked because of the way I portrayed him (Fr Stack)" making him "more passive-aggressive and that’s what the writers wanted."

Two decades later he was still getting hundreds of people asking him to recite a line from the show on their phones.

"Some of these people never heard about Bottler; some of them probably don’t know I’m Brendan Grace, but they all know about this dreadful sarcastic priest."

Other acting roles included Big Sean in the RTE comedy 'Kilnaskully' in 2007 and also in the psychological crime thriller movie 'The Gift' in 2015.

Last year RTE made a documentary of Grace’s life with tributes from Michael Flatley, comedian Brendan O’Carroll and football legend Paul McGrath.

Said Grace: "I’m thrilled about this documentary. I’m glad they’ve decided to do it while I’m still standing. They normally do these things posthumously which makes it a lot harder for me to see it!"

During the programme Grace paid tribute to his wife Eileen as his best friend during 45 years of marriage saying she was his "rock" through everything.

"She really is the wind beneath my wings. I’d be nothing without her."

Grace married Eileen Doyle in 1973. The pair met during one of Grace’s shows in Wexford.

The couple had four children, Bradley, Melanie, Brendan and Amanda, all of whom have been involved in show-business in some way.

Bradley did four world tours as a member of the American hardcore punk band 'Poison the Well'.

The family moved to Jupiter in West Palm Beach Florida in the US in 1993 and Grace split his time between Florida and Ireland.

In more recent years the veteran comedian suffered ill health. He developed diabetes and lost two toes to the disease. He also had to stop using a guitar on stage because of the effects on his fingers.

"[Eileen] often said to me about the diabetes, that she wished it was her who got it because she would be better able to discipline herself into the right thing to do, whereas I’m inclined to throw caution to the wind."

Then mini-stroke left him looking like he was drunk. Said Grace: "the irony is that I perfected to role of the drunk (on stage) and it came back to bite me in the arse."

He told how he then had to deliver comedy from a seated position because of a weakness in his legs but "I made a virtue of my leg problem and built it into the act."

Eileen spoke of her anger with people who accused the comedian of being drunk on stage after the mini-stroke.

"People should be more careful about what they say and how they approach a situation like that," she insisted.

Despite the length of his career Grace said he loved performing and his family was a very important part of his life.

"In the early days I was away a lot, but I always made a point of coming home after a gig."

Grace went into hospital to be treated for pneumonia in June of this year and was told he had lung cancer.

He had to cancel his summer tour which was due to feature the most requested pieces from his repertoire over five decades.

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