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Saturday 19 October 2019

Godfather of comedy whose jokes knocked Sinatra sideways

True legend: Death of Grace leaves huge void in Irish showbiz

Full of laughter: Brendan Grace and his wife Eileen in 2013. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins
Full of laughter: Brendan Grace and his wife Eileen in 2013. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins
Eddie Rowley

Eddie Rowley

Few families in Ireland remember a time when gregarious entertainer Brendan Grace and his alter ego 'Bottler' weren't brightening up our lives with their hilarious and totally unique wit and banter.

Grace's shock death at the age of 68 from lung cancer in the early hours of yesterday has left a massive void in Irish showbusiness.

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My way: Brendan Grace leaves fan Frank Sinatra laughing with delight. Photo: COLLINS DUBLIN
My way: Brendan Grace leaves fan Frank Sinatra laughing with delight. Photo: COLLINS DUBLIN

As a nation, we all feel we have lost a family member. Even those who never met him in person felt they knew Grace because of the warmth and friendliness he exuded, and the fact he's been in our living rooms on TV for decades.

Nowadays the term legend is thrown around like confetti at a wedding, but it still holds its value when applied to Grace, who was the godfather of comedy in this country.

Like the showbands, dance halls, 'The Hucklebuck' and stars such as Joe Dolan, Brendan Bowyer and Dickie Rock, Dublin-born Grace is synonymous with the good times in Ireland going back to the '60s and '70s.

I was fortunate to personally know Grace for decades, and he was an old-school gentleman.

At Christmas I would often receive a gift from him that epitomised the era of entertainment from which he came.

The contents of the festive wrapping were always a bottle of brandy and a box of fine cigars.

At the height of his fame, he couldn't take two steps down the street without being stopped by fans. He loved it.

While some major celebrities avoided their admirers away from the spotlight, Brendan was in his element when surrounded by his fans and he gave them all the time in the world. He simply loved people.

Grace always carried enormous fame in his home country lightly on his shoulders.

Even when he won the admiration and support of American crooners Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr, he took it in his stride.

Back in 1989, Irish promoter Oliver Barry hired Grace to do a private gig at the Horse Show House in Dublin's Ballsbridge.

He had no idea that the special guests were Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr and Liza Minnelli.

Grace then had Sinatra in convulsions with his sozzled father of the bride routine. Sinatra loved his act so much he hired him as support for his concert at London's Royal Albert Hall and flew him to America to do shows.

Sinatra opened doors for Grace in the States where he would go on to perform at conventions and corporate events in the decades that followed.

Recalling the night that changed his life, Grace told me: "Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr and myself really hit it off. When I did the drunk act it really knocked them sideways.

"They were both hard drinking and chain-smoking men and they totally identified with it.

"I remember getting up in company and telling them that Sammy Davis had a cousin in Dublin. I said he was a window cleaner who did a bit of singing… and his name was Shammy Davis Jnr. And, of course, they loved all of that.

"I found Frank Sinatra to be a very nice person. When I appeared with him in London all those years ago, I brought along my local priest, Fr Sean Breen.

"When I introduced them, Frank asked Fr Breen to bless him. He was a very religious person, despite the rough life that he lived. He had a bishop with him in Dublin."

Reflecting on his own success, Grace put it down to "the simplicity of the comedy". It was wholesome entertainment that could be enjoyed by all the family.

"My comedy has plenty of innuendo, but I manage to hold it back without going off the Cliffs of Moher," he told me.

Despite everything he achieved, it was Grace's brief role as jungle-music playing priest Fr Fintan Stack in 'Father Ted' that stands out for many fans thanks to repeats of the show.

"I was on telly that often back in the day that at one stage I thought I was going to get a job ringing the Angelus, but it was seven minutes as Fr Fintan Stack that caught everyone's imagination," he told me.

"I meet people who don't know who the hell Brendan Grace is, but they want me to repeat in Fr Fintan Stack's accent, 'If you ever do that again, I'll put your head through the wall.'

"Teenagers come up to me all the time and quote the line.

"I only appeared in one episode, but I could make a living off Fr Stack with a new audience.

"Fr Stack was set to become a regular in the show because they needed someone who could intimidate Fr Jack with sarcasm. But I had just started when poor old Dermot Morgan died suddenly."

Grace was known universally for his thoughtfulness, kindness and support of other people in the world of Irish showbusiness.

He even gave 'Mrs Brown's Boys' star Brendan O'Carroll a start in the business as a roadie.

In an interview some years ago, Grace told me his first encounter with O'Carroll was on the day of his wedding to his beloved wife, Eileen.

O'Carroll was working as a waiter at Grace's wedding reception in 1973, which took place in entrepreneur Pat Quinn's club in Dublin's Kilternan. "That's when I first met Brendan and during the meal he had Eileen and myself in stitches," Grace revealed.

"I then gave him a job as a roadie, but he was brutal because he couldn't lift the speakers.

"I didn't mind, though, as I just took him on because he was a funny guy and I wanted somebody funny on the road with me.

"Brendan would have me in tears laughing at him. He was like my court jester."

Looking back on his career some time ago, Grace said he had no regrets.

"The biggest word in the English language is 'if'. If you were to live your life on that word you'd go mad," he added.

Grace's sense of humour was a force to be reckoned with, even in his final days.

His friends tell how he bore his illness with dignity and good humour, refusing to wallow in self pity.

Like the legendary shows we'll never forget, Grace left us with a laugh.

As he would have wished, we'll share many laughs when we bid goodbye on Monday to this true showbiz legend and beloved husband, father and grandad.

Irish Independent

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