IN Dublin’s Olympia Theatre images of celebrities past and present line the walls: Liam Neeson and Noel Coward; the Nolan Sisters, Bono and Ronnie Drew; Mr Pussy and the Fureys. There’s even a former president, Mary McAleese.
And, beaming alongside almost all of them is one Maureen Grant, 88-year-old stalwart of the Olympia and doyenne of its stalls bar where she first started working as a barmaid 64 years ago.
Now, having been selected by the Children’s Charity Variety for the Variety Gold Heart Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Entertainment, Grant chills out with a cup of tea in the bar that bears her name and reflects on her time there.
Grant blagged her way into the job in 1949. “I told the manager I’d worked in Sadler’s Wells, and years later he called my bluff and said he always knew I was a chancer,” she laughs. Then married and pregnant with her first child, Grant had to find a way around the marriage bar which, until the 1960s, restricted married women from many types of employment.
“They didn’t realise I was married and I didn’t make them any the wiser. I just kept my head down and worked right up until the baby was due.”
Grant then took two weeks’ holidays during which time her son Jimmy was born. “After that it was straight back to work.”
With a new baby practically every year after that and no money to spare for babysitters Grant had to think outside the box in terms of childcare.
“I used to bring them to work with me,” she says. “They were all over the place. I used to wrap Jimmy in a blanket and hang him on the back of the toilet door. Give him a spoonful of Dozol and a dummy and he’d sleep all night. I had another one, Pat, in a crisps box behind the bar. And another one in an old pram outside in the laneway in Crampton Court. If it was now, they’d have me in jail.”
Grant might well have gotten away with her ruse indefinitely had she not sustained a bad fall when pregnant with her eighth child and spent a month in hospital before the baby was born.
“Afterwards Mr Isley [the then theatre owner] said to the supervisor Miss Leddy, ‘I believe Miss Grant had a baby’,’ only to be told that Miss Grant was in fact a missus and that she had seven more children at home. That’s my job gone, I thought.”
But far from the sack, Grant was given a congratulatory cheque for £5 and a bundle of baby clothes, by her gobsmacked employer.
With her position secure, Grant’s kids became more visible in the Olympia, and over the years they appeared in numerous stage productions.
At one point there were no fewer than 11 Grants working there; and her eldest, Jimmy, who used to hang from the hook on the back of the toilet door, is now the theatre’s general manager.
Of the galaxy of stars Grant has met in her 64-year tenure some have shone extra bright. Laurel and Hardy were “a pair of crackers”; matinee idol Tyrone Power was “only gorgeous, you could powder your nose in his eyes”; Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards were “like a pair of cats, always fighting and scrapping — but they were great”. Pointing to a photo of country singer Kris Kristofferson kissing her on the lips Grant quips, “He was the best.”
No stranger to the limelight — she’s been on the Late Late Show several times — Grant has no qualms about being centre stage at the upcoming Variety Awards, and even hopes she’ll be allowed to make a speech.
She says that given the chance she would like to thank Dublin’s former lord mayor Gerry Breen for coming to her aid when she lost her bearings and ended up driving the wrong way down a one way street last year.
“A big car pulled up and out jumped the lord mayor. ‘Aren’t you Maureen from the Olympia?’ says he, and before I knew it he was driving me home. Next morning there was a knock on the door and who was it, only himself back to check on me.
‘Sacred Heart of Jesus,’ I said when I saw him.
‘No Maureen,’ says he back to me. ‘I’m still just the lord mayor’.”
While many of her age would be long retired, Grant has no plans to go down that road.
“I’ll be here for as long as they want me,” she says. “My wish would be to die here.” Referring to the Olympia’s resident ghost she adds, “Charlie Parker can move over for Maureen!”