Sunday 18 August 2019

'Brendan took the everyday experiences of people and translated them into something both hilarious and truthful about Irish life'

Barry Egan talks to some of the late Brendan Grace's friends  — and hears some of the greatest stories never told about Ireland's funniest, and most loved, ever comedian. . .

Brendan Grace won the hearts of many friends and admirers, with his on-stage sense of humour bringing laughter to so many episodes in real life. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Brendan Grace won the hearts of many friends and admirers, with his on-stage sense of humour bringing laughter to so many episodes in real life. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Brendan Grace's ruling philosophy seemed to be: ''Stop hoping for happiness tomorrow. Have it today.''

There’s a story of Brendan sometime in the 1980s directing traffic on the crossroads of Killaloe in a Hawaiian shirt and gold Ray Bans. His life-long friend impresario Dan McGrattan remembers Brendan and Stephen, the tour manager from The Dubliners, in the 1970s driving against the traffic in Dublin with a flashing Kojak–like light on the roof Brendan had got in America.

Louis Copeland, who became friends with the comic in 1970s, remembers Brendan driving a car in Dublin in the 1980s and upon seeing an especially young guard at a checkpoint putting on his drunk routine, much to the horror of the young officer who was going to arrest him, until another older guard recognised the fella behind the wheel. 

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As Louis pointed out the older guard would have been aware like the rest of the nation of Brendan’s routine in his act: a family are stopped at a checkpoint and when the husband fails the breath test, he asks the Garda to try it on his wife. The reading is even worse. Brendan says to the guard: 'This can't be right Garda, try it on Johnny there — he's only ten.'

The breath-test is failed even worse and the Guard lets them off thinking his tester is broken. As they drive off, Brendan leans over to the wife and says "Now, wasn't it just as well I gave wee Johnny that double gin and tonic?"

Comedian Oliver Callan says he "once heard that in the middle of the economic crash, EU leaders including then Taoiseach Brian Cowen, were very sombre, and Brendan Grace somehow ended up in their company and led a sing-song on the roof of the George V hotel in Paris with the then Taoiseach, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and others".

Leo Varadkar, who sadly never got to sing in Paris with Brendan, told me: "I really only knew him from Father Ted. I think that exposed him to a whole new generation of fans." The Taoiseach was, of course, recalling Brendan's role as Father Fintan Stack (Ted dubs him "worse than Hitler because you wouldn't find Hitler playing jungle music at three in the morning").

Leo added: "I guess Brendan took the everyday experiences of people and translated them into something both hilarious and truthful about Irish life."

There was plenty of that in Brendan's real life, too. Dan McGrattan remembers going to the Furry Bog pub in Co Dublin for St Patrick's Day in 1980.

For the day, the pub put a green dye in the Guinness. Brendan and Dan had a fair few scoops of the green Guinness, and a great - if colourful - night was had by the two gentlemen. A week later, Dan bumped into Brendan in town.

"Did yours turn green as well? Mine has been green for a week!" Brendan roared with laughter. "I'm still green!" Dan recalls Brendan also "looking me up and down to see was I physically green around the gills, too".

In 1973 at party in Steelstown Brendan was green around the gills when he was locked in a car for over two hours, Dan remembers. Dan’s brother Robert (who was involved in Brendan's management and pressed all  his records) lived in Steelstown; Brendan lived in nearby Rathcoole in a  dormer bungalow. “Robert loved dogs, horses, you name it know to man or  God. He had these two wonderful Alsatian who he would let run around the grounds. They were, let’s say, very playful. They would attack the tires and bit the tires out.

"So, one New  Year’s Eve in 1973, Brendan was stuck in the car because the Alsatians bit his tires and he was stuck in the car for two hours before anyone heard him beeping the horn and came out and took the dogs away. It was hilarious."

Equally hilarious, though for different reasons, was the launch of a major hardware showroom on the Long Mile Road in the mid-1980s. Brian Lenihan Senior was presiding over the official opening, while Brendan and Dickie Rock were handling the entertainment.

"There was a big hot tub, which was a new thing back then. And Brendan tried to throw Dickie in," recalls Dan McGrattan.

"He got one of his legs in - and Dickie was more concerned about his hair, than his other leg. He didn't mind about the legs because the wig wasn't coming off, and that was that. That was Brendan. That was Brendan at his best."

A few years before that, Dan remembers how the owners of the Submarine bar in Crumlin hired a helicopter from Charlie Haughey. Brendan dressed as Santa and flew with Dickie Rock to visit sick children in Crumlin Hospital. Brendan insisted on bringing some of the children for a ride in the helicopter. When Dickie mentioned that his son, who wasn't well, was in Maynooth, Brendan insisted again on taking the helicopter to visit him as Santa, and brought the child and his friends out for a spin in the helicopter. They took the helicopter back to the Submarine bar. Neither Brendan nor Dickie would take a shilling for doing it."

"When Brendan used to do Sunday Night At The Olympia in the late 1980s," remembers Louis Copeland,"he told me that the bosses in RTE had told him to stop plugging Louis Copeland on air. That Sunday, Brendan goes live and the first thing he said was: 'RTE has told me to under no circumstances am I to give a plug to Louis Copeland, that I am to stop mentioning Louis Copeland. So I'm not going to plug Louis Copeland'," laughs Louis. "I probably met him in the first time in 1970. Brendan would come in and get gear made here in this shop on Capel Street. He was from Echlin Street, off Thomas Street, so he would have known the area well."

Barry Devlin of Horslips knew Brendan through Jim Lockhart (who sang and played keyboards and pipes in Horslips)."Jim knew Brendan well from growing up on James Street, so when our paths crossed on the road there was a lot of banter about early days on the street."

"He had such a good heart," says Barry. "When my 10-year old daughter once summoned up courage to ask him to do Father Fintan Stack, he put on that terrible smile and delivered with such comic fierceness that she and her pal screamed with laughter and shivered all at once.

"The thing about Brendan was that he was really, really funny. His Father of the Bride routine is one of the all-time great comic turns."

Dan McGrattan has his own person personal experience of that famous sketch. "At my brother Robert’s  daughter’s Eleanor wedding in 1995 in the Shelbourne hotel Brendan did his Father of the Bride routine. I’ll never forget it. He was beyond funny."

"The Father of the Bride," says comedian Deirdre O’Kane, "It was such a great idea for a character. Brendan O'Carroll said it best: he was a star."

Fellow comedian Oliver Callan said that Brendan's act was "so sharp and so well-acted you could enjoy it just for the antics of his caricatures even if you weren't paying attention to  the punchline. The stories were just terrific  and the journey to the final kick was where you'd nearly lose yourself  in the happiness of his humour."

Oliver added that he filled in for a charity gig Brendan had to cancel in 2009 after he had a foot infection.

"He almost lost his foot and I recall he joked: 'Contrary to reports I'm not auditioning in the panto for the part of Long John Silver.'"  

"In times of pain," Oliver continued, "Brendan always found a way to make others laugh. He wrote me a lovely handwritten letter of thanks at the time, which really struck me as such an un-showbiz thing to do. Celebs usually only reach  out when they want something from you but Brendan was different. We met  at Gerry Ryan's funeral - you're always worried about meeting people who were legends from the time you're a child. An Irish legend yet one so great and popular, it seemed like he should be inaccessible to us.

"I noted that Dara O'Briain remarked last week when news of Brendan's illness emerged that he is probably the biggest selling live comedian in Ireland ever. Anyway, it was a relief to discover the man was as funny in person as he  was on stage, which is very rare for comedians. He was humble and kind  too, when no-one was listening he leaned in and gave some words of encouragement, offering help if it was ever needed."

"The good make it look easy, the great make make it look effortless and Brendan Grace was a truly great comedian,” broadcaster Mark Cagney told me.

Another broadcaster, Daithi O Se, remembered how he met Brendan in Florida once and he was "the funniest man I ever met, and the warmest. He would send me postcards after The Rose of Tralee."

TV producer Colman Hutchinson, who met Brendan on numerous occasions in the late 70s and early 80s, when he was a regular guest on the Late Late Show and he was a regular guest on the show. “He was the loveliest of men, big  beaming smile, larger than life, but insecure about his talent, he needed constant reassurance that his act was funny, which it always was. He was so loved and so lovable."

"We have lost a great and lovable man," said Anne Doyle.

"I met him last year in Foynes at an airshow in the brilliant flying boat museum there,” says Barry Devlin. "Brendan was a 'plane geek like me (but unlike me he had actually learned to fly and had a full helicopter pilot's license). He was there as a guest, not an entertainer but he was persuaded up on stage and delivered an impromptu set about all things airline that had a bunch of aviation big hitters falling around in stitches. And he made it look easy peasy. It turned out to be my final meeting and my final - entirely joyful - memory. And I will definitely not see his like again..."

"I was sitting next to Frank Sinatra all those years ago when Brendan  did The Father Of The Bride in the Horse Shoe Bar. The tears of laughter were rolling down our faces," says Harry Crosbie. "Frank was unable to  breathe he was laughing so much."

"Brendan was one of the few people in showbiz who was universally liked though," says author Maia Dunphy whose husband is comic Johnny Vegas. "And Free a Nipper was one of the highlights of my generation’s childhood.

Louis Copeland reminisces about being at the funeral of Brendan's mother, Chrissie, in 1986. It was cold, foggy day and Louis recalls that Brendan went around the graveside, personally thanking and shaking the hands of who those who came out to pay their last respects to his mother. There was a famous person who had just got out of hospital after being very ill. Brendan shook his hand at the grave, looked him in the eye, and with perfect comic timing. said to the poor divil: "Sure, there's not much point in you going home".

In the 1970s Brendan was sometimes late going home.

"I remember being in the Embankment in the 1972 with Brendan until four in the morning, which was a regular occurrence back then," says his pal Dan McGrattan. "One night in 1974 we met [American composer and conductor] Elmer Bernstein. He thought Brendan was brilliant. He thought was the funniest guy he'd seen. And he was. Everyone loved him."

The first time Dan met Brendan was in 1970 when a black Transit van pulled up at 35 Harcourt Street where Dan had offices. "Any work?' he asked. "Some acts would take half-an-hour to do a soundcheck. Brendan would just go: 'Mary had a little lamb. And her father shot the shepherd.' That was Brendan's soundcheck."

"I had the The Night Owl in Fairview from 1973 to 1989. Brendan O'Carroll worked there as a waiter. He was funny even then as a waiter. Brendan Grace was in and out. He gave Brendan [O'Carroll] his break."

"I'll miss him. He was a sensitive, lovely man; a proud Dubliner. He was a very, very kind, decent, generous man - with his time and his money and everything else. He would go out of his way to do you a favour. I never remember him losing his temper."

Even when the Alsatians were eating the tyres of his car in 1973 in Rathcoole?

"I think he was relieved when someone came out and rescued him! I'll never forget his face."

Nor will we.

Or the laughs Brendan Grace gave us.

Sunday Independent

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