No smut... Brendan was good, clean fun — and what a voice

In his weekly column John Arnold recalls the late entertainer Brendan Grace
No smut... Brendan was good, clean fun — and what a voice

GREAT ENTERTAINER: Comedian Brendan Grace outside Cork Opera House ahead of a gig there in 2003

I drove my tractor through your haggard last night,

I threw me pitchfork at your dog to stay quiet…

AH yes, the first two lines from Brendan Grace’s hit record of December, 1975. The comic song The Combine Harvester was a huge success for the then 24-year-old Dubliner.

That was all of 44 years ago — I was in my second years as a ‘learner’ farmer that year, some say I was a slow learner but one way or another I’m still learning!

I was both shocked and saddened at Brendan’s death last week at the age of 68. He seemed indestructible and even though the news of his serious illness came out about a month ago, like so many I hoped and prayed that ‘Bottler’ would soon be back on stage.

He had a Tour of Ireland planned for later this year but alas, the final curtain has come down on a wonderful career.

We saw Brendan ‘live’ a few times in Cork and at least once in the Youth Centre in Fermoy. Some might say his shows never varied — not true because while he had a few ‘staples’ like Bottler and Father of The Bride, he was forever writing new material. In fact, Brendan was a master writer and his scripts were just wonderful.

He had the ability to entertain audiences regardless of where they came from. Though born in the ancient Liberties of inner city Dublin, he had his finger on the Irish comic pulse, urban and rural and for young and old.

Growing up in the 1960s, Brendan Grace combined the ancient storytelling skills of the ‘Old Master’ Eamonn Kelly with the grand voice of the likes of Brendan O Dowda and Dermot O’Brien. He was equally at home in the theatre and on screen as television began to take off in this country.

There’s no doubt that Brendan Grace could have made a great career as a singer if he never told a joke or a funny story. He was equally proficient as a singer of beautiful ballads and folk songs. Many will claim Josef Locke’s recording of I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen is the definitive one... it’s beautiful no doubt with Locke’s full, rich voice, but Brendan’s rendition is wonderful.

Last Tuesday night, I spent close on two hours savouring his beautiful repertoire — from Ringsend Rose, The Dutchman, Dublin in The Rare Auld Times and The Old Bog Road. What a wonderful entertainer he was and his ability to intersperse his jokes and stories with beautiful songs was magical.

I can remember great Irish singers like Martin Dempsey, Joe Lynch and Liam Devally on the Saturday Waltons Sponsored programme on Radio Éireann. Brendan followed in that proud tradition and loved to portray Ireland in a very positive fashion. Of course he ‘took the mickey’ out of Irish life but in most humorous fashion which was never offensive.

I love storytelling and stand-up comedy with an odd song thrown in for good measure. The ability to make people laugh is a special gift and I great satisfaction from seeing people shaking with mirth.

Brendan was my hero and idol as regards the entertainment business. For half a century he strode the stages of the world and never, ever stooped to smut, foul language or filthy language. I’m absolutely dismayed at what passes for ‘comedy’ nowadays with many so-called comedians almost totally reliant on effing and blinding and every sort of profanity.

Now, I’m no prude or shrinking violet. Many’s the time I got a kick from a cross cow and I left out a string of unrepeatable expletives and curses, but not in public hearing range! Brendan Grace was proof, if proof was needed, that one can entertain crowds all over the world without resorting to toilet humour.

People say to me, in defence of some awful stuff, that modern Irish ‘comedy’ reflects everyday life and commonplace situations. I think that view is absolute nonsense.

Of course Irish people use bad language and I won’t deny it, but not every sentence has to be peppered with expletives and blue language.

For five decades, Brendan avoided such terrible material and made no apologies for it. When questioned on RTÉ radio many years ago about his material, he simply made the point that proper humour and comedy has no need to be poisoned with foul and vile language.

A consummate entertainer, Brendan ‘invented’ the schoolboy character Bottler and of course his ‘priests’ Fr Fintan Stack and Michael Mc illacutty were famous for their dry wit and deadpan expressions.

An amazing aspect of his life, which has only been revealed after his sad passing, was his great charitable work. I can remember Fr Brian Darcy said a wonderful Mass for the late Joe Dolan in Killarney after his death. During his homily he mentioned Joe’s great generosity to people in need, with many acts of kindness done far away from any stage lights. Apparently, it was the same with Brendan Grace. His largesse was bountiful and his friendship to so many in every corner of the country was legendary.

As the tributes poured in during the week, I was struck by the themes of humility and gentleness which came through in so many stories. Though Brendan and Eileen had lived for several years away from these shores they were so proud of their Irishness. Brendan often spoke of his youth in Dublin. No leafy suburb or sprawling tree-lined mansion were home to him. He saw tough times when neighbours were as much part of family as one’s own relations. His ability to reflect the innate native wit of Irish people endeared him to generations of his followers.

I will sorely miss him, though I never met him, because so many of his stories and jokes are ‘flexible’ and can be used anywhere. He told one about the first time a bus came to Bartlemy. It must have been for an excursion or a tour, back around 1947.

Cars were scarce at the time and buses were only seen in towns and cities and on main roads. There was fierce excitement in the village as the crowd awaited the vehicle. When it arrived, the door opened and everyone stepped forward. There was a very high step up onto the bus and as the crowd pressed in, this young lady was having some difficulty ‘taking the step’ up. She had a longish skirt — you know the kind, with the buttons down the back. Well, after two failed attempts to rise her leg onto the high step, and the waiting crowd getting anxious, she thought of a plan. She put back her hand and opened a button, to give a bit more leg-room. It was of no avail so she put back the hand and opened a second button — no better and people shouting ‘hurry up’, so once more she opened another button. The man behind her told her to get in “I’m doing the best I can,” says she. “I don’t know all about that,” says he, “all you’re after doing is opening three buttons in the flop of my trousers’!

Did it really happen in Bartlemy? We’ll never know now, Brendan the High King of Comedy is gone.

Fare thee well sweet Anna Liffy

I can no longer stay

And watch me new glass cages that spring up along me Quay

My mind’s too full of memories too old to hear new chimes

l’m a part of what was Dublin in the rare ould times.

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