First Published August 2013
THE ART OF BEING WHO YOU’RE MEANT TO BE
Some things in life really are just synonymous with each other. Take the Late Late Show and Gay Byrne, for example. True, there have been other presenters, but none have been, nor are likely to ever be anywhere close to Gay. That’s no reflection on those who might try to fill his seat, more so a simple sign of the original’s greatness. Same story with Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. I know his reign has only just concluded, but will it ever end? That’s a different question. As a United supporter I have nothing but respect and high hopes for David Moyes and I certainly wish him well in the years ahead. But Fergie and United are now entwined around each others souls in the same way as Gaybo and the Late Late are. Think Irish poetry and for many, myself included, the name that first answers the call is Patrick Kavanagh. Yes, there’s Heaney, of course there is. And there’s Kinsella and Clarke and many, many more. But none are Kavanagh, who remains in as an earthy a way as his poetry itself was, an incarnation of Irish poetry made flesh.
Irish comedy, like Irish poetry, has many deserving and worthy contenders for the crown of king. The late and unique Dermot Morgan would win the vote of a sizable section of the population, I’m willing to bet. As would his Craggy Island sidekick Ardal O’Hanlon. Tommy Tiernan would surely be in the mix right up until the final count also. And so too would Mrs. Brown herself, Brendan O’Carroll. But like I said at the beginning of today’s column, some things in life really are just synonymous with each other. And wherever and whenever Irish comedy is discussed or hailed, one name stands clear at the head of the pack, front and centre, in fact. And that name is Brendan Grace. Not just a great comedian but a supreme entertainer who has filled bellies with laughs, aisles with rolling bodies and hearts with happiness during sold-out performances all around the world.
As Brendan prepares to return to the Bridge House Hotel as part of his current tour at the end of next week, I caught up with him last Friday morning and my first question was about being on tour. Does going back on tour have the same feeling of going to work for him, I wondered, that an ordinary person in an ordinary job would feel when going to work?
“Very much so, Anthony. I have to prepare for work the very same as anyone else and in that same way too, what I do is work. But it’s definitely work that I enjoy. I’ve always been happy in my work, whatever it’s been at any time, and happy with my work too. And what I do, with being on the road so much, in different places all the time and stuff like that, it’s not a regular job but it’s work that you can get used to, ya know, and then it becomes like a regular job in most ways.”
During his career Brendan has crossed paths and swapped stories with some of the most famous names in showbiz, and indeed, in the world. Frank Sinatra; check. Roger Moore; check. Liza Minnelli; check. Prince Albert of Monaco; check. But of all the stars and celebrities he’s encountered, who was it the biggest thrill for him to meet?
“Oh I’d say Sinatra. I’d have to say it was Frank Sinatra. What I noticed about him at the time was that when he was left to his own devices, he was relaxed. When he was just doing his own thing, whatever he liked, that’s when he seemed to be at his best. He didn’t like rules and regulations within his life at all. He didn’t like having to be in such a place by such a time say, that kind of thing. Wasn’t fond of that at all. But when he was relaxed, he was very relaxed. Lovely man. And he impressed me, Anthony, because when he spoke to me he looked at me every time, right in the eye. No fancy airs and graces, if you’ll pardon that pun! Despite who he was. And do ya know, he’d call me his man in Europe! That’s what he’d call me. I think, ya see, that he liked comedians anyway and Irish comics. His main comedian for years was a man called Pat Henry, I think it was, and he had an Irish background. Now he might have been no more Irish than Sinatra himself, he was probably third generation Irish. But Sinatra liked him and so he liked Irish comedians. And the particular kind of attitude that I had, that was something else about me that I was told he liked too.”
In his fascinating and delightfully candid and revealing autobiography, ‘Amusing Grace’, Brendan noted that many of the most famous and well-known figures he’s come across in his time displayed absolutely no traces of ego at all. Almost as if the more famous they were, paradoxically, the more normal and down to earth they were too. I wondered if Brendan had any thoughts on why that might be so.
“Well I suppose it depends, as they say, on the nature of the beast. I personally think it has a lot, if not everything, to do with the attitude of the people around you. If the people around you are relaxed, Anthony, then it’s much easier and more natural to be that way yourself too. That’s what I’ve always noticed with people. Who anyone hangs around with every day, that’s so important. And not only in this kind of business, but in life as well.”
If anyone doubts the existence of what we term ‘fate’ and how it can impact on a life, then a quick perusal of the way its many twists and turns have cris-crossed Brendan’s life should be enough to remedy that. For example, his comedy career, for which he is, after all, probably best known, really only came to pass when he went back out on stage to ‘tell a few jokes’ to kill time because the band he was an opening musical act for was late in getting to the venue. Or how about this: Having applied and been accepted for a job as a merchant seaman, he was in a motorcycle accident on his way to pick up the papers that would have made it a done deal. At the same time the accident happened, he later realised, his mother had been in their local church lighting candles and praying for him not to end up at sea. Now that’s taking the power of prayer to another level altogether! In the aftermath of the Dublin bombing of 1972, he realised while reading the newspaper coverage that followed in the days after this atrocity that on the day of the attack he had actually been, while talking to a friend of his for a while, leaning with his back against the very car that Guards believed held the bomb. Had the timing of things been just a little different on that day, well, who knows!And then of course, and on a much happier note, there’s Brendan’s dear wife Eileen, and all the times and ways their roads of life converged without their knowing it at the time, before they finally met ‘officially’.
When Brendan sits down to think about these things, as I’m sure he must on occasion, I wondered what were his thoughts on the sheer level of chance seemingly involved in it all sometimes. Does he think some things in life are just meant to be?
“Yes. If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be. I don’t think I’m any different to anyone else as regards that, being attuned to things, say. Aware of those types of connections. But we were meant to meet no matter what, myself and Eileen. We were just definitely meant to meet. It’s like it was mapped out for us, the way things played out between the two of us. We were definitely meant to come across each other. And I do believe that, Anthony, I believe that a lot of life is in some way mapped out for us.There is a greater being out there, there’s no question about that either. Not as far as I’m concerned. There has to be a greater person out there because somebody has to have made all of this. And I think he hones in on individuals, some more than others maybe, in how he draws people towards each other. Because I know I’m very lucky to have met Eileen, and I’m sure I have someone ‘up there’ to thank for that.”
Some of us with funny bones from a certain era may well remember Brendan being part of an act called the Roach Family Five, where two of his ‘family’ were none other than two men already mentioned earlier, Dermot Morgan and Brendan O’ Carroll. Both men have gone on to rank alongside Brendan himself as giants of Irish comedy, but back then, before Dermot was ‘Ted’ and before Brendan O’ was ‘Agnes’, could Brendan G sense in both men the huge talents that would eventually and so spectacularly emerge?
“Oh yeah, very much so. I told Brendan O’ Carroll as far back as 1979 it might have been, to get out there and make a career for himself in comedy. And the simple reason why I told him that, Anthony, was because he used to make me laugh! And eventually he’s come to the fore and I’m delighted for him. If you look an Mrs. Brown’s Boys now, it’s hilarious. Great stuff. It was the same kind of thing with Dermot, in that his talent was always so clear to everyone. But then Dermot, you see, was already a star before I was because Dermot got to work on television with Twink and Mike Murphy. That’s how he got his start. But it is in your karma, I think. And it was always there with the two lads.”