He tumbled his way to the top from the Liberties – a child of the inner city who went on to carve out a career as varied as his comedic repertoire. He was at home everywhere, from the Albert Hall stage to the local pub on the corner.
Over four decades, his output straddled music, theatre and television – but always overshadowed by his natural prowess as a comedian.
Cutting an imposing figure even sitting down, the eyes, the beard and that mouth capable of morphing from a smile to a sneer in a nano-second. “I was never overweight, just under-tall,” ran his own description. “The correct height for my weight at the moment is seven feet 10 and a half inches.”
His stage personas ranged across a chronological line running from the teenage tearaway ‘Bottler’ up to the inebriated ‘Father of the Bride’, and onward to the edgy Fr Fintan Stack in ‘Father Ted’.
Mining laughter from the foibles and failings of both working class and middle class, Grace managed the delicate crossover feat of a universal appeal where a decent punch-line traversed all social barriers. Nobody was safe in his monologues – “An Irish politician is a man with a constipation of ideas and a diarrhoea of words.”
A lover of fine food and wine, the comic’s humble origins in the Liberties contrasted sharply with his regular visits to The Mirabeau, chef Seán Kinsella’s legendary southside restaurant where the menus had no prices. No doubt his fellow diners in that famous room provided rich material for monologues that followed.
He left school at 12 to become a messenger boy. The streets of his youth would prove the test ground for those routines that would define his later life.
“Bottler is based on myself,” he admitted. “Back then, nobody knew what a recession was because we were all living in one. We were so poor we thought knives and forks were jewellery – and that’s where Bottler came out of.”
Possessed of a fine voice, he gravitated to music as a supplement to his weekly income, and formed The Gingermen folk group in his late teens, touring the country during the showband era as a warm-up for the main act.
On an evening when two of his bandmates failed to turn up, Grace was forced to take to the stage solo to placate a restless audience, telling gags and observational ditties about life in Dublin’s inner city. The crowd’s sustained applause after an hour of this repartee showed him there might be better money in jokes.
Interestingly, Brendan O’Carroll, who cites Grace as an inspiration, got his big comedy break exactly the same way. Like many of that ’60s generation, Brendan was influenced by the iconic one-liner kings – Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny – but took the greatest comedic inspiration from Irish veteran Hal Roach. “He was the greatest comedian Ireland ever produced, with a timing that was never short of impeccable,” he said at Roach’s funeral, adding a perfect imitation of his friend, “When Hal said ‘write it down’, he was talking about me because I made a career of writing down all his material.”
Ronnie Drew became another mate on the entertainment highway, whom he described as having “a tongue that could clip hedges”.
Married to Eileen since 1973, Grace described her as “my very best friend. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her and there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for me. So we’ve spent 45 years doing nothing for each other.” A regular part of his routines, she became the unseen inspiration for some of his best gags: “My wife’s suspicious – if I come home early she thinks I’m after something, and if I come home late she thinks I’m after getting it.”
The gender divide was a playground he excelled in: “When a man opens a car door for a woman, it’s either a new car or a new woman.”
In the early 1990s, Brendan and the family emigrated to Florida’s West Palm Beach, a move that resulted from a chance meeting with Frank Sinatra. Hired to perform a 15-minute slot at the Horse Show House pub after Sinatra’s ‘Ultimate Event’ concerts with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jnr in 1989, Grace cracked the glass ceiling. “His minders got me to go through my act, but when I said I do this drunk bit, the minute I said the ‘drunk’ word, they ruled it out. Then I went out and saw Sinatra and Sammy sitting down with a Jack Daniels in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to take a chance’ and did my ‘drunken father of the bride’ routine. It had them down on their knees, laughing. They must have thought this guy is either taking the piss out of us or he has balls of steel.”
While fans will long quote his Bottler and ‘drunken father of the bride’ monologues, his creation of the sinister Fr Stack in ‘Father Ted’ seems similarly destined as a YouTube favourite for years to come. The scene where Fr Stack goads a group of visiting priests watching a school sports day is twisted comedy gold: “Lots of young fellas runnin’ around in shorts, that’s the kind of thing you like lookin’ at, is it?”
“Brendan played the character in a very individual way. We had written them as angry lines, but he played the part in a light, delicate, almost effeminate way, which made the character far more threatening,” said writer Graham Linehan.
Though his latter years were dogged by ill health, Grace rarely deviated from his touring schedule. Having suffered a stroke, he was later diagnosed as diabetic.
An accident then hampered his balance, forcing him to perform much of his act from a chair, wearing slippers. “My fear was always that people would think ‘this guy has had a few bevvies,’ so what I did was make a virtue of my leg problem and built it into the act.”
Like those greats who inspired him in the early days, Brendan Grace proved himself ‘a trouper’ to the end.