His career in entertainment began with a ballad group called the Ginger Men, but he left them in 1970 to go out on his own, as “a one-man troubadour”, a rung below contemporaries like Jim McCann and Christy Moore. He told jokes in between songs. After a while, he forgot about the songs.
The comedy circuit in Ireland in the 1970s was limited. In Cork, for example, the venues consisted of The Island Rooms in Moore’s Hotel, the Country Club in Montenotte, and, he says, “if you were lucky”, a slot at Cork Opera House, where he returns to do a clutch of gigs early next month. Joe Mac of the Dixies Showband will be his guest.
Contemporary comedians in Cork in the early days included Billa O’Connell, Paddy Comerford and Tony Hegarty. Back in Dublin, Ronnie Drew, among other ‘legends’ of the era, became a good friend. Grace loved The Dubliners singer’s sarcasm. “He had a tongue that could clip hedges,” he says. Drew was also a blackguard. “I was giving Ronnie a lift in my car one day.We were coming up the South Circular Road, in Dublin, and there was a bus stop at a place called Leonard’s Corner. As we came through the lights, there were about three people waiting for a bus. He said pull in for a second and he rolled down the window.
“He said to this lady, who was probably a pensioner, ‘Excuse me, mam, could you tell me where Donore Avenue is?’ The woman was in awe of him being Ronnie Drew. Everybody knew him. He was one of the best-known faces and voices in Ireland. She didn’t even say, ‘How are you Ronnie?’ She was just in shock.
“She stuttered a bit and said, ‘Ah, ah, I don’t actually know where it is.’ Ronnie leaned further out the window and pointed up the road and he says, ‘Well, it’s the second turn on the right.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘Go.’”
Grace’s following spans three generations. He became a cult figure in the 1990s for his memorable turn on Father Ted, as the bully Fr Fintan Stack. “He was a vicious priest,” says Grace. “The kind of priest you wouldn’t like to have at confession. He used to play jungle music. In Ireland and outside the country, people still stop and ask me to quote lines from the programme, just to hear his voice.”
Grace splits his time between homes in Florida and Boston and trips to Ireland. He is quintessential Dublin, having grown up in the Liberties. His father worked as a barman at O’Reilly’s pub, on Hawkins St, opposite the old Theatre Royal. He met lots of the greats of show business, including Glenn Miller.
“O’Reilly’s was always known for a late drink,” says Grace. “Apparently, Glenn Miller had a sleeping disorder. After he had a few drinks, he said to my father: ‘Can you recommend anything that will make me sleep?’
“My father says, ‘Yeah — Irish whiskey would be your best bet for that,’ and he offered him a bottle of Jameson. ‘That said,’ he added, ‘if you can put it into hot water and have it as a hot whiskey or an Irish coffee, that’s definitely your man.’
“Glenn Miller said, ‘I appreciate that,’ and gave him a good tip. ‘But,’ he says, ‘are you sure it’ll make me sleep?’ My father said, ‘Well, Mr Miller, if it doesn’t make you sleep, it’ll certainly be a pleasure to be awake.’”
- Brendan Grace is at Cork Opera House, March 5-7