'I was drinking, smoking and eating too much. But I never lost the plot'
ANDREA Smith meets Brendan Grace ahead of the return of his character Bottler to TV screens. He recalls a life that has seen him go from messenger boy to major star.
'WE'VE had some whopping rows over the years, of course, but Eileen and I have always had a great love and respect for one another. She's a very solid, fun-loving woman and a superb mother. She has to be a wonderful person to put up with living with me as I can be grumpy at times. I've always introduced her as the best wife that money could buy!"
I'm having tea with popular comedian Brendan Grace at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, and he's a total gentleman, and both funny and reflective at the same time. While he now lives in Florida, he pops back to Ireland often, as his daughter Amanda and other family members live here.
"And wherever I go in the world, I always bring a packet of Jacob's Polo biscuits with me," he says. "I love them!"
He may be living it up in the Sunshine State, but at heart, Brendan will always be a Liberties boy. He grew up near the Coombe hospital, and his dad Seamus was a popular barman in O'Reilly's pub in Hawkins Street, right opposite the Theatre Royal. He was the eldest in the family, and has a sister Maria, who is 10 years younger and also lives in Florida.
"There was a baby in between us called Brid, but she died aged six-weeks-old from gastroenteritis," he says. "My mother Chrissie was always convinced that Maria was Brid reincarnated.
"I was very close to both of my parents. They were great people, and while they had nothing to do with showbiz, they were very witty and great fun at a party. My dad died in 1981 and my mam in 1986, and it was a terrible loss. The fantastic thing was that they got to see me being successful and were very proud of me. I got to take them and Eileen's parents to America back when nobody went there on vacation, and it was great as both Eileen and I had the chance to live the good life with our folks."
Back in the 1960s, Brendan left school at 13 and started working as a messenger boy to supplement the household income. Then he got a job in a bar, even though he was underage. "I got away with it, because I was a big-boned, fat boy," he says. "I looked 18 when I was 13. I have no regrets about leaving school, even though I was in the scholarship class in first year at CBS James Street."
He could always sing, and when he was 16, the talented Brendan started off performing with the ballad group, The Gingermen, who used to gig around the country. He had a number of accidents on his motorbike, and indeed in the TV3 interview with Nora Owen that will be broadcast tonight, reveals that he had an accident with an army ambulance, for which he took an action against Charlie Haughey, who was the minister for finance at the time.
"I was able to buy a house for my parents from that – well actually Charlie bought it," he laughs. "Later in life, he and I became good friends."
Brendan was always funny, and eventually became a comedian, a career he has held for 43 years. He played the drunk Father Fintan Stack in Father Ted, and his schoolboy character, Bottler, has been a massive hit for him. Ditto his Father of The Bride routine. He is in Ireland at present as an animated and live-action production of Bottler, set in 1960s Dublin, will be broadcast on TV3 on Friday evening, and will go on sale as a DVD.
The very funny Bottler and his friends get involved in various adventures, some of which are closely tied to real historical events of the time, and famous Dublin characters of the time, such as the Rag and Bone Man and Bang Bang, will feature.
So he has enjoyed great success in his career, but what attracted Brendan to comedy in the first place?
"I was a fat child, a fat juvenile, and a fat adult for a while, although I have slimmed down quite a lot now," he says.
"Maybe I tried to be funny to make up for it. I wanted plenty of attention and was born on April 1, so everything to do with me was pointing towards showbiz. I'm not throwing bouquets at myself, but you can't be in the comedy business for 43 years and stay at the top without being funny.
"Offstage though, I'd be quite normal and am more serious and reflective. The people I learned from were the comedians of yesteryear. I enjoy laughter, and my favourite comedians are people like Brendan O'Carroll and Deirdre O'Kane. I don't quite understand a lot of modern comedy, but it's a very hard medium."
Brendan met his wife Eileen in 1972, when he was the support act for Frank O'Donovan, aka Batty Brennan from The Riordans, at the Talbot Hotel. They were introduced by a mutual friend, Anne Byrne, who was Eileen's pal.
"They were there on a dirty weekend away," laughs Brendan. "Eileen had been engaged and had broken off the engagement, and had come to Wexford for a break. It was her first night ever to drink alcohol, and even though she got drunk and I left her back to her hotel, I never interfered with her. I was the perfect gentlemen – I was probably a coward!"
Brendan got married to Eileen in 1974 when he was aged 22, and they have four children, Amanda (38), Melanie (35), Bradley (31), and Brendan Patrick (29). In between the girls and the boys, Eileen had an ectopic pregnancy, while she was staying in Wexford, which rendered her seriously ill.
"I very nearly lost her in Wexford where I found her," Brendan recalls. "I was in the US doing shows, and there was a pilot strike on. I had to come back through Europe, and it was terrifying as Eileen was so very ill in hospital, but thankfully they saved her life."
Brendan moved his family from Saggart in Dublin to Florida in the US, 20 years ago. The move came after he was chosen to entertain Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Junior while they were in Dublin, and Frank's management were so impressed that they wanted to bring him to work in the US. They love it there, and say they have a great life, surrounded by fantastic friends.
The girls were in secondary school when they emigrated and the boys were in primary school, so Brendan says that while his daughters had been educated in Irish-speaking schools for many years over here, his sons had more of an American upbringing.
"Naturally the boys have a slight American twang," he says. "Bradley learned the hard way when he first went over, as he asked the teacher for a rubber, which means something else entirely over there!"
These days, Melanie and Bradley live in Boston, while Brendan is in New York. Eileen and Brendan have three grandsons, and their adoring granddad is most proud of them. Brendan Junior has Aidan (5), while Melanie has two sons, James (5) and Patrick (4). James, who appeared on the Late Late Show with Brendan last year, is showing every sign of taking after his grandfather and is flourishing at the school of drama run by his mum Melanie in Boston.
His eldest daughter Amanda now lives in Ireland, and Brendan and Eileen love travelling between the two countries to visit friends and family. And work, of course, as Brendan is as popular as ever over here.
"I travel comfortably so I'll feel refreshed when I arrive, and okay, I've probably given half of my wages to Aer Lingus over the years."
Brendan is 62 now, and says that he has never been healthier. A diabetic for 20 years, he had to focus on his health after he developed gangrene in his foot a couple of years ago while home in Ireland.
By his own admission, he hadn't been paying too much attention to his condition, which had serious, but thankfully not catastrophic, consequences.
"I was drinking, smoking and over-eating," he says, "and while I never lost the plot, I was doing things I shouldn't have been doing. I was very nonchalant and blase about my diabetes, and for many years, I didn't pay attention to it and didn't follow through on my numbers. As a result, my health took a blow and I lost a couple of toes in 2009, when I developed gangrene from a cut in 2009. Fortunately I got a second chance.
"I pace myself now, and have tried to get into the habit of staying ahead of the posse when it comes to my health."
As a working comedian, Brendan says that while it can be hard travelling the world at times, and coming up with new material, he loves it and wouldn't have it any other way. He has no plans to retire, and says that he couldn't be happier.
"I feel I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have had a career that worked for so long and a wife that I love by my side," he says. "We have four great children, three lovely grandchildren, a grand circle of friends, and my career has really always been good. I'm smelling the roses now!"
'Brendan Grace – The Interview' airs tonight at 9pm on TV3, while 'Bottler', a brand new animated special, airs on TV3 this Friday, November 22 at 9pm.' Bottler' will also be available to buy on DVD from Friday in outlets nationwide.