The very moment the thought kindled in her mind, guilt urged Melanie Grace to bat it away. "The book had just gone to print two days earlier and because that was so fresh I realised quickly that if it was the case that he would die, I wanted it to be dedicated to his memory," she said.
“I wrote the memory page in past tense . . . even though he was still alive and it felt so wrong to me. He was such a super optimist that I felt bad writing that, but the rational part of me said I had a deadline, and I either do this or lose the opportunity.”
Melanie Grace is the daughter of the late comdeian Brendan Grace who died in July. Her book Darlene the Drama Queen Raises the Curtain on Bullying went to print on June 22nd and she was sitting at home in Boston two days later when she received a video call from home.
In a hospital on the outskirts of Galway, mum Eileen and sister Amanda were on the other end, and the anguish on their faces told her the news of her father Brendan was not going to be good. "My dad's results were back and it was very, very serious," Melanie said. "They told me to come back to Ireland, the sooner the better."
Her father Brendan had been taken to hospital with suspected pneumonia only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer days later. It would take him from them less than a fortnight later.
Melanie joined the rest of the family in the Galway Clinic, a few furlongs east of the Corrib, where they struggled to adapt to the sudden new reality into which they’d been plunged. Initially numb to his fate, Brendan quickly accepted it with remarkable dignity and his last days are a stunning testament to the power of the human spirit to endure and inspire even at its lowest ebb.
“On the Monday before he passed away, he was eating rings around himself, and I joked with him, ‘I don’t think my book is going to be released this year’,” Melanie said. “Then he he apologised and said, ‘I think you’re right love’.”
Yet, Melanie would not be happy until there was something for Brendan in the book, a second outing for Darlene, the schoolgirl she first created two years earlier as an aside to her drama school classes.
Still, only days after her return to Ireland, she reached out to the book’s illustrator, an American artist with no real knowledge of Brendan Grace’s place in Irish culture, and wondered if there was an easy edit that might work to allow her to drop the comedian into the story.
She thumbed through a late draft and looked for inspiration; a thing, a place, a person. “Then two little red birds on a windowsill jumped out at me. I hadn’t noticed them before and Jason [the illustrator] had put them in of his own choice, they were just decorative. He didn’t know how much dad cared for birds.”
“Cared”, in Brendan’s instance, is at once an understatement and an overstatement. At his funeral in Dublin’s Liberties last July, thousands listened to the members of his family mention “de burds” and how he’d leave pieces of bread on his car roof before driving off; a unique method of distribution.
“As long as I remember, he’d give out to us if we threw bread into the bin or whatever,” Melanie explains, “I’m not quite sure why he had this grá . . . but he felt a duty almost.
“He killed a lot of birds too, because of the stuff he’d leave out for them - you’d see them trying to eat a massive piece of food. He stayed with us for a week [in Boston], and we noticed one day there was a foul smell in our basement. We couldn’t figure it out but eventually found a dead squirrel lying in a corner. It had a massive heel of Brennan’s Batch coming out his mouth. Dad would get it from the Greenhills Irish bakery in Boston. A huge chunk of it! He was rotten.”
When the laughs dissipate, Melanie recalls how the birds simply had to become Brendan.
Instead of two red-breasted robins though, it would be one single bird that sang “Grace”.
“I asked Jason to turn the two birds into one big plump bird and I sent him a photo of dad as Bottler, wearing the cap and scarf.”
Sitting beside him one evening, Melanie felt anxious as she opened an email from Jason, “I was worried he wouldn’t capture it but . . . he got it in one.”
“I want to show you something Dad,” she said. “I wanted to put a little something into this book that I’ll always have long after you’re long . . .
“Can I have my glasses . . .” Brendan asked, reaching slowly for his reading lenses. “ . . . Ah Mel it’s Bottler Bird! You know what . . . that’ll fly.”
The character rests on a windowsill now, without any obvious explanation - a simple gesture that will mean so much to those who spot it.
In the future, Bottler Bird may develop into a character that carries a book under its own wings, but for now it’ll make do with a place on the shelves of the American book launch in early December and a place on Melanie’s car bumper.
She gave the book a soft launch in Dublin last month, with a family appearance on the Late Late Show and a signing in Malahide a day later rounding off a brief journey home. In the book, aimed at children from ages 4-10, the eponymous Darlene seeks to empower children to notice and stop bullying, something Melanie experienced in her childhood.
Being the daughter of a famous ‘celebrity’ was not always accompanied by the kind of lifestyle many might imagine. “It was only in later years that I realised how it affected me,” she now says. “I feel I spent a lot of my youth pretending to be less than I was, as a protective mechanism to anyone finding out who I was. They’d put anything positive down to my ‘comfortable living’ or ‘entitled existence’ or however they’d put it.
"We'd go on holidays in Florida and when we came back to school people might say they went to Butlins or France. and I'd say we went to Wexford. I never got to share a lot of what was my favourite part of the year. There were definitely a few incidents for [younger brother] Brad and Amanda too, they were bullied by teachers and adults. I remember Brad, when he got a C in a school exam, the teacher said 'don't worry, daddy will buy you an A'..."
Brendan Grace, a larger than life character for much of his life, had his share of “fat lad” jokes growing up, but Melanie says nothing pierced his bullet proof vest of positivity. “He’d never have been giving much advice to us that way, or the way I do now with the kids . . . He was very much unaffected by verbal negativity, maybe because he was such a positive person. If we ever said anything to him - he’d say ‘let it roll of you like water off a duck’s back. Or he’d say ‘they’re full of worms’.
“We probably didn’t approach him too much if things were said. Mam would have got much more involved - she’d have been the one going to school. She was living in the real world as well all the time, Dad had just one foot in the real world - we’re not sure where the other one was.”
The delivery again comes with a laugh, but with two boys aged 11 and 10, and a school full of drama students, Melanie knows bullying is no joke.
She hesitates to compare her own experiences to those who experience the most extreme bullying, but is equally keen to suggest a ‘scale’ is not required. “Who’s to know how any element of it will affect the next person?”
Each class at her Mel O’Drama school begins with a ‘circle time’ where the children are given an opportunity to open up on their feelings and thoughts, with a qualified paediatric therapist in the room.
“She has to be there to intervene if we need, on a professional level, and I’ve often had to call her in,” Melanie says. “We get the kids to talk about what’s on their mind, to get an insight into what they’re going through and I had to learn the difference between harmless teasing and dangerous bullying.
“I’m noticing more and more that children are dealing with bullying at a younger age than before. They’re describing stuff that’s more serious than simple teasing. Repetitive behaviour, name calling and comparing status - some kids mocking others because of what they don’t have.”
It might be the opposite of what Melanie went through, but Bottler taught her to always be kind. Even if sometimes he was too kind.