Brendan Grace obituary: Ireland’s most popular live comedian
Father Ted role as Fr Fintan Stack brought his talents to a modern generation
Brendan Grace at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in 2001 Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Born: April 1st, 1951
Died: July 11th, 2019
For 40 years, Brendan Grace, who has died aged 68, was Ireland’s most popular live comedian, delivering sell-out performances at venues big and small all over the country. Though his material was rarely subtle, his gag-per-minute ratio was very high, and archive film invariably shows his audiences in complete hysterics.
He was an imposing-looking man, powerfully-built and bearded, and there was often a slight air of menace behind the bonhomie. Within a fairly narrow range, he expertly presented several well-defined Dublin characters in his act, notably Bottler the bold schoolboy, a drunken father of the bride stumbling through a wedding speech, and Fr Michael McGillicuddy, the Singing Priest. Of himself and his audiences he once said: “We have the best sense of humour on the planet and there’s a good reason for it. It’s because none of us is the full shillin’. And I mean that in a good way.”
An elderly fan reinforced his appeal: “He was just so funny. He was a likeable slob but he had great charm. His humour was simple and he had his finger on the pulse of ordinary, everyday living. I saw him live in Macroom and it was the best show I was ever at. We were in howls, and came out reeling!”
In some respects Grace bridged the gap between the old Paddy-the-eejit comics like Hal Roach, Noel V Ginnity and Jimmy Cricket and the new breed of observational stand-ups starting in the Dublin comedy clubs in the 1990s. He was never as urbane or analytical as the slightly earlier Dave Allen, for example, but Grace was no fool. And he was clearly the kind of man who could easily deal with anyone who thought him one.
He was, though, born on April Fool’s Day in Dublin’s Liberties, under the shadow of the Guinness brewery, to Séamus and Chrissie Grace, in 1951. Séamus worked at various jobs to keep a roof over the family’s head – barman, ambulance man – and Brendan left school at 13 to become a messenger boy. “Bottler is based on myself,” he said years later. “We didn’t know what a recession was because we lived in one. We were so poor we thought knives and forks were jewellery. And Bottler came out of all that.”
The personality of Bottler may have been forged in the Liberties in the 1950s but the format originated during the great days of variety, where there were many acts in which a supercilious schoolmaster received cheeky/ignorant answers to his questions.
Teacher: “Who invented the thermometer?”
Bottler: “Freddie Mercury!”
Always interested in music, at 18 he formed a folk group, The Gingermen, which had some success touring Ireland as a support to showbands. One night two of the group failed to turn up for a gig and, with the crowd getting restive, Grace started talking from the stage about his life and times, throwing in witty and sharp comments and any gags he could recall. This went down so well that he realised he might have a future making people laugh.
He was a fine singer, though, and once established in comedy recorded many songs, some of them traditional ballads. In 1975 his version of Combine Harvester (a big success in the UK for The Worzels, and a parody of American folk singer Melanie’s The Rollerskate Song, 1971) was a Number One in the Irish charts.
In 1973 Brendan Grace married Eileen Doyle and the couple went on to have four children. In an RTÉ documentary about his life broadcast in 2018 he said: “My very best friend is Eileen. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her and there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for me, and that’s how it’s been for the past 45 years. Doing nothing for each other.”
The family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, and Grace spent much of his time there, with yearly Irish live tours. He had appeared on stage with Frank Sinatra, who admired him, and the singer opened up several opportunities in the US for Grace.
The geographical dislocation led to a certain lack of visibility for a new generation, to whom he had become just a name their parents sometimes mentioned with a smile. But that changed in 1996 when he was cast as the deeply unpleasant Fr Fintan Stack in New Jack City, an episode in the second series of Channel 4’s Father Ted. Brought in to cover for Fr Jack, who is in a nursing home, Stack starts drilling holes in the walls of the Parochial House and plays Jungle Music at top volume through the night. “God, Ted,” says Dougal. “I’ve never met anyone like him. Who would he be like? Hitler or one of those mad fellas.”
Stack goads a group of visiting priests who are watching a school sports day on television: “Yeah? Lots of young fellas runnin’ around in shorts . . . that’s the kind of thing you like lookin’ at, is it? Young fellas runnin’ around a field in shorts?”
Co-writer (with Arthur Mathews) Graham Linehan said: “You can’t really forget Fintan Stack, or the wonderful way Brendan Grace played the character. It was especially interesting how he interpreted his lines. We had written them as angry lines, but he played the part in a light, delicate, almost effeminate way, which makes the character far more threatening.”
Grace himself said: “When Father Ted first came on, I wasn’t really a fan. I’m not sure I had watched it at all, but there was a part on offer so I went along for the reading. Some very well-known actors went along, but mine was picked up because of the way I portrayed him. I put a different spin on Fr Stack, making him more passive/aggressive.”
For the rest of his life, wherever he was in the world, fans would approach and recite Fr Stack lines back at him, or ask him to record the lines himself on their phones.
A year earlier, he played a straight supporting role as bar-owner Murphy in the Irish-German movie Moondance, which was directed by Dagmar Hirtz and based on a Francis Stuart story. It starred Ruaidhrí Conroy, Ian Shaw and Marianne Faithfull.
Grace also owned a pub at Killaloe, Co Clare.
His last few years were marred by severe health problems, though he continued to tour. He suffered a stroke and soon afterwards was diagnosed as diabetic. An accident hampered his walk and balance, and he was obliged to perform most of his act from a chair, wearing slippers, getting up only occasionally to show audiences how he had been affected. He said: “My fear was always that people would think ‘this guy has had a few bevvies,’ so what I did was, I made a virtue of my leg problem and built it into the act.”
In July 2019 he had to cancel his summer tour after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer while in hospital being treated for pneumonia. When the news came out there was an outpouring of sympathy from his old fans and some fellow-stars. Dara O Briain described him as “a proper legend” and Marty Whelan said he was “one of the nicest fellas I ever met.”
He is survived by Eileen, daughters Melanie and Amanda, and sons Bradley and Brendan Patrick.