If one was to search the dictionary for a definition of Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, I imagine that the work, character and personality of Maureen Grant would be central to the description.
Visiting Maureen at her home was quite a surreal experience. Dispersed among the furniture and ornaments are framed photos of her with some of the globe’s most famous individuals. Our conversation began by Maureen telling me how Bono was in the Olympia recently. I asked how he was and she replied by saying ‘Ah sure, you know Bono…’
Em. No Maureen, I don’t.
Maureen Grant is an incredibly kind, warm and often hilarious person and I’m rather honoured to feature her as the most recent ‘Extraordinary Woman’.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
My name is Maureen, but of course, the Olympia Theatre is my life. I’m in the Olympia since 1949, since it was the ‘Old Time Musical Hall’ – though no one would remember that, they’re all gone now. I’m still there, I’m very happy there – I don’t be well sometimes but then who does? After all, I’ll be – I better not say my age! – ah well, I’ll be 89 on my next birthday in August. So I’ll be 68 years in the Olympia come June. I’ve had a lovely time there – hard times and good times – nice bosses and cranky bosses – but the people who are in management there at the minute, they top the list. Who are of course, Caroline Downey and her husband, Denis Desmond. They’ve both been very good to me in the Olympia and my other pal, Pat Egan. Over the years though, I’ve met some amazing people. People like Rebecca Storm, you name them…
You’ve met them.
Yes, I’ve met them. They come from America and even farther but I’m like the ‘Meet & Greet’ at the Olympia. I’ve met Tyrone Power, Laurel & Hardy, the Blues Brothers, who else? Well, everybody that’s anybody, really.
How did you first get the job at the Olympia?
My mother-in-law, Lord be good to her, she used to mind the babies for me. I knew that she was fed up minding though so she told me that she was going to get a job. ‘I wonder’, she says ‘is there any chance I could get a cleaning job, where I could do two to three hours’ but in them times you had to have ‘backers’, like a priest or somebody who you worked for. So I said to her, ‘what we’ll do is we’ll go down to Liberty Hall and we’ll find out there’.
So we went and met Frank Robinson, Lord be good to him, he was the boss down there and he said ‘I’m sorry, but we have no places for cleaners’ but he did say ‘there’s a barmaid’s job going up in the Olympia for three weeks’. My mother-in-law said ‘The Olympia Theatre? God no, I wouldn’t be interested in that’ but then we realised that Pat wasn’t talking to her but to me. He said to me ‘Maureen, that’d suit you down to the ground’. At the time though, I was seven months pregnant but no one ever knew.
How and ever, I went up to the theatre at 3:00pm, met the boss and he said ‘you know it’s only for three weeks. Meet Carmel at the stage door and tell her that you’re the girl that’s starting’. By this stage, I was sweatin’ but along came Carmel, a lovely girl, and she says, ‘I’m taking you up to the Circle Bar’ because in those days at the Olympia we used to have two houses a night; a half six one and a half eight one.
Up we went to the bar and she introduced me to a man named Mr. Kenny, he had a spittoon in the bar and you know, he’d never miss the spittoon. I used to think ‘oh, Jesus’ – especially with me not being a drinker or a smoker. I didn’t know what to think! He said to me ‘You’ll be grand once you get a night in’. That was grand and I asked him where do we pull the pints from. ‘Oh, we don’t pull pints here’, he says but I was after telling the manager downstairs that I worked in the Sadler’s Wells Theatre – I’d never even been across the bridge at the time. I said to myself, ‘now, what am I after landing myself into?’ We talked for a minute but then he points to the shelves and says ‘Do you see this? It’s bottles of stout that we serve here.’ ‘Just take it easy’, he says to me but of course, every second cork that I’d pull, I’d break and I kept hiding them in behind the others. The night passed and he congratulated me, ‘You done well, you done well’ he says.
I started on a Wednesday night, Monday morning was the stock take, in them times you had to go in for stock take, all the stuff was put up on the counter for the auditor and of course, all of the half-bottles were found… ‘I wonder how that happened’, Mr Kenny said. I had to admit it – ‘That’s alright’, he says ‘You didn’t do too bad’. Twelve bottles, I think it was and it was deducted out of my wages at a shilling a week. I was just worried that I wouldn’t get it cleared by the three weeks.
The three weeks passed, no sign of anything so Carmel says to me ‘Just keep coming in because your woman hasn’t come back yet’. So then I had to take Carmel, trust in her, and tell her that I was pregnant. ‘Just keep your mouth shut’, she says ‘just say you’re going on holidays’. ‘Holidays?’ That’s what I did and do you know, those three weeks turned into the amount of time that I’m in the Olympia. That girl never came back! So, yeah I went on “holidays”, I had the baby and I came straight back to work but of course, I was up and down and up and down, as I had a baby nearly every year. That was the time then, you know.
You had many a holiday!
Too many ha! But when Stanley Illsely and Leo McCabe took over the house (in 1952) I only had two days to go to give birth to Marie. I was in charge of the Circle, I was waiting to get my holidays the next night but that night, I got a fall. I fell in underneath the sink and I really didn’t know what to do.
We had St John’s Ambulance in those times and the two young lads were on duty. So, they brought me over to the couch and lay me down. In them years, we had great belief in cold tea leaves if you got a sprain. The boys, they’re pulling out this and pulling out that but I’m getting pains. So I says to them ‘Listen to me love, will you go over behind the bar – there’s a teapot there. The tea leaves will be cold in it by now, bring it over.’ ‘For what?’ he said. He brought it over and put the tea leaves all over my leg, and of course, Miss Leddy walked into the bar saying ‘Oh my God, Miss Grant. What’s wrong with you?’ Of course, she thought it was something else on the floor – it was red tea. The lads got me out but God love them, they were bringing me to Jervis Street Hospital. Instead though, I didn’t go to no hospital, I went home and got into bed.
The lady next door, Mrs Brackett, took the two young kids for the night and all of the fellas were up with Mrs. Grant but during the night, I hemorrhaged, so an ambulance arrived and whipped me off to hospital. There, they told me that I had damaged myself and that the only thing that they could for me was to keep me in, give me a teaspoon of castor oil, an enema and a hot bath every day. In the end, I was four weeks in the hospital because the afterbirth fell and stuck in the neck of the womb. In that time, it could quickly go one way or the other so I stayed in the hospital for the month and Marie was born on the Bank Holiday Monday. She was six pound of course then, everyone had heard that Maureen had a baby girl. In those years, you couldn’t be married and you couldn’t work if you were married.
Mr Illsely went to see Miss Leddy, he says ‘Miss Leddy, did you hear Miss Grant had a baby girl?’ She says ‘I did’. ‘Oh my God, does she know who the daddy is? Is it any of the lads backstage?’ says Mr Illsely. ‘Oh no, no, Mr Illsely, I have a confession to make’ she says, ‘What’s that?’ he says. ‘That’s Miss Grant’s eighth child!’ ‘Sacred heart of God’, he says ‘I don’t believe you, give me a large brandy! How did she do it?’
That went off anyway and I came home from the hospital. Of course, my job was gone. So, I got the uniform ready but I got a phone call from them asking to speak with me. Over I went to the office and I brought the uniform with me. Two gentlemen were there, they shook hands with me – they were very nice. He says to me, ‘Well Miss Grant, you certainly pulled the wool over our eyes there.’ I said, ‘Well, these things happen, Mr Illsely and Mr McCabe and I’m not going to apologise for it. It’s done and that’s that!’ They said ‘Well, we’ve been speaking to the Trade Unions, you’re a good unionist and we’ve decided that you’re going to stay – on condition.’ ‘What’s that?’ I say. He said, ‘That you don’t take holidays for the next seven years’. ‘I don’t want holidays’, I said ‘It’s never a holiday for me’. I went back to work and seven years to that day, practically – Mr Illsely and MrMcCabe only owned the theatre for three of those years – I had a baby boy.
How many children do you have in total, Maureen?
I had nine of my own and I adopted four. Now though, with the deaths and everything else, there’s not nearly as many. Just things that happened, but I can certainly say that all of the Directors of the Olympia Theatre, helped me out in all of the burials and difficulties. It’s a great place to work!
It certainly seems that way. In this city though, there are lots of different theatres and venues but what makes The Olympia Theatre special?
I don’t know what it is about it but it doesn’t matter what other theatre I go to, it has to be the Olympia Theatre for me. The customers that come in to me in my bar, they say ‘I’ll never go upstairs again. This is a great bar. There’s a great feeling here!’ and that makes me very happy but I just don’t think that there’s another theatre like it. Now the Gaiety Theatre; that would be next to it but it still hasn’t got the feeling that you get in the Olympia.
You have worked in the Olympia Theatre for such a long time but is there any moment in particular that you are most proud of?
It’s hard to say because I’m proud of every moment that I’m there.
What was it like when the bar was renamed?
Well, that nearly killed me with shock. I had an awful habit that if someone said ‘That’s a lovely photograph of you, Maureen’, I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I’d love to see my name up in lights’. So, they’re all on stage, it was the end of the show, we’re in the seats, jeerin’ and laughin’ and goin’ on. The actors were getting presented with this, that and the other. They called me up on stage, they presented me with a little trophy and they told me to close my eyes. ‘What are you going to do to me?’, I said. When I opened them, they told me to look up, where all of the cast were sitting down in the stalls. I’m looking but I can’t see anything. ‘Look at the back of the theatre’, Brian Whitehead says to me. I was so excited that I didn’t know what I was looking for. ‘Look at your bar’, he says to me and when I saw ‘Maureen’s Bar’, I cried and when I looked down, they were all crying too. It seemed everybody was happy to see ‘Maureen’s Bar’ go up – it was a very special moment.
You eventually got your name up in lights!
I did, in a really special theatre too. Actually, I hope to die there.
Yeah, I’d be happy if I can die there. We’re not too far of it now… *laughs*
Not at all – I have a strong feeling that you’ll be with the Olympia for a while yet!
The next time you’re in The Olympia Theatre – make sure to take a trip to Maureen’s Bar and say hello!
Interview originally published May 23, 2014