Sunday 19 November 2017

There, but for the grace, went funny man Brendan

It caused him to lose a couple of toes, but comedian Brendan Grace has learned to manage his diabetes over the years. He tells Andrea Smith that he watches his blood sugar levels now, and his devoted wife Eileen watches him.

WATCHING BRIEF: Brendan Grace and his wife, Eileen, who, he says, keeps a watchful eye on how he manages his diabetes
WATCHING BRIEF: Brendan Grace and his wife, Eileen, who, he says, keeps a watchful eye on how he manages his diabetes
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

In his earlier days, showbiz star Brendan Grace used to recite a well-known ditty called Piddlin' Pete, which was about a dog who passed water a lot and turned out to be diabetic.

"I was only in my 40s, but I was piddling a lot too, so I went to the doctor thinking I could be diabetic," he says. "I had a blood test, and it showed up that I had Type 2 diabetes. I can only assume that my lifestyle had a lot to do with it, as when I started off on the road in the early days, there was a lot of partying and it was hard to eat well as there weren't many choices when you were travelling and eating late. Becoming diabetic happened to a lot of performers back then and it was almost an occupational hazard."

While the news that he had the condition came as a shock to the popular entertainer, who is best-known for his schoolboy character, 'Bottler', and his 'Father of The Bride' routine, he took it seriously, lost four stone and changed his diet and lifestyle initially. Then, by his own admission, he became a bit blase and didn't manage the condition as well as he should have as time went on, which had serious, but thankfully not catastrophic, consequences.

"I was drinking, smoking and over-eating," he says, "and while I never lost the plot, I became nonchalant about my diabetes. For many years, I didn't pay enough attention to it and didn't follow through on my blood sugar numbers, and as a result, my health took a blow. I lost a couple of toes in 2009, when I developed gangrene from a cut."

Gangrene can develop in people with diabetes, particularly in hands and feet, when the blood flow to the affected area is impaired as a result of poor circulation. These days, Brendan has learned to pace himself and manage his condition properly, and says that at 63, he has never felt better or healthier. It helps that a lot of places cater for coeliacs and diabetics now, so life on the road is a bit easier in that respect.

He also took dancer Michael Flatley's advice and had sessions with bio-energy therapist Michael O'Doherty (www.justimagine.ie) and he credits the treatment with improving his blood circulation and giving him better energy levels. He is also keen to pay tribute to his lovely wife of 41 years, Eileen, and jokes that she's "the best wife that money can buy."

They met in 1972 at the Talbot Hotel in Wexford when Brendan was performing there as a support act, and were introduced by a mutual friend, Anne Byrne. They got married and have four children, Amanda, 39, Melanie, 36, Bradley, 33, and Brendan Patrick, 30.

"We have four great children, three lovely grandchildren and a grand circle of friends, so I'm the luckiest guy in the world," says Brendan, who played Fr Fintan Stack in Father Ted. "My career has always been good, so I'm smelling the roses now. Eileen and I have had some whopping rows over the years, of course, but we have always had a great love and respect for one another. She gave me love and care when I was sick, and she must be a wonderful person to put up with living with me! She said she wished she was the one who got the diabetes, as she would have coped with it better than I did."

Brendan moved his family from Saggart in Dublin to Florida 20 years ago, after he was chosen to entertain Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jnr while they were in Dublin. Frank's management were so impressed that they wanted to bring him to work in the US, and the Grace family took the leap. They love it there, and regularly pop back to Ireland, as daughter Amanda and other family members live here. And, of course, Brendan performs here all of the time and is still hugely popular.

These days, Melanie and Bradley live in Boston, while Brendan Patrick is in New York. Eileen and Brendan have three grandsons, as Brendan Patrick has a little boy Aidan (6), while Melanie has two sons, James (7) and Patrick (5). Budding entertainer James stole the show when he appeared on The Late Late Show with Brendan last year, and his talents are being honed at the school of drama run by his mum Melanie in Boston. Those going to Brendan's forthcoming shows at the Gaiety will be delighted to learn that James and Patrick will be making an appearance on stage alongside their grandfather, in a show that he assures us will be a "bloody good laugh with a few nice songs thrown in."

"My fans mean the world to me," he says. "My passion has always been, and still is, to make them laugh and share some special moments with them."

Despite his years in sunny Florida, Brendan will always be a Liberties boy at heart, as he grew up near the Coombe hospital, and his dad Seamus was a popular barman in O'Reilly's pub in Hawkins Street. Brendan was the eldest in the family, and has a sister Maria, who is 10 years younger and also lives in Florida. He was very close to both of his parents, and found it a terrible loss when his dad died in 1981 and his mum Chrissie passed away in 1986.

Back in the 1960s, Brendan left his school, CBS in James' Street, aged 13, and started working as a messenger boy to supplement the household income. Then he got a job in a bar, even though he was under age. He could always sing, and started off performing with the ballad group The Gingermen.

Brendan was always funny, and eventually became a comedian, a career that has served him well for 44 years. What attracted him to comedy in the first place?

"I was a fat child, a fat juvenile, and a fat adult for a while, although I have slimmed down quite a lot now," he says. "Maybe I tried to be funny to make up for it. I wanted plenty of attention and was born on April 1, so everything about me seemed to be pointing towards showbiz."

When it comes to the diabetes, Brendan says that you have to become educated, and realise that if you walk on a tightrope, you are very likely to fall off. It is also vital to pay attention to your blood sugar levels, or your "numbers" as Brendan calls them, which is done at home with a portable electronic device that measures the sugar level in a small drop of your blood.

"People with diabetes often come and talk to me about it on the road, and I would say nine out of ten of them don't know what their numbers are," he says. "Those who don't take their numbers are either lazy or else they're scared, because they know the results will be bad, so they bury their heads in the sand. The thing is that if the numbers are high, it is crucial that you make the effort to bring them back down again. There are also many people out there who have diabetes and don't know they have it, or else don't want to know, and they are putting themselves at risk because serious complications can arise if the condition is left untreated."

He makes a very good point, because the complications of undiagnosed or untreated diabetes can be devastating. Diabetes is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, blindness, kidney failure, and lower limb amputation in most countries, and consistently high blood glucose levels can lead to serious diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, nerves and teeth.

But what about the notorious party lifestyle that comes with the entertainment industry? Surely it must be a constant trial to avoid all the drinking and socialising that comes as part and parcel of the lifestyle of being a comedian on the road and attending glittering events?.

"Ah there is a lot of that all right, but the thing is that as you get older, you get an awful lot wiser," he laughs. "I still try to party, but I'm not as good at it as I was when I was 20. And of course, I have Eileen by my side keeping a watchful eye on me!"

As part of his Irish tour, Brendan Grace performs at Cork Opera House on March 5-7, and the Gaiety Theatre from March 25 -28. Tickets from www.ticketmaster.ie


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