- 28 Jan 21
You might say that Maureen Grant (1925-2021) stumbled into a career in the Olympia Theatre. But over the intervening 70-plus years – yes, you read it right – she had become an essential part of the history of that great Dublin theatre. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Maureen Grant began working at Dublin’s famed Olympia Theatre in 1949. Initially, she was employed as what was called a ‘temporary Bar Girl’. The gig was to last three weeks. Over 70 years later, she was still working there.
In a 2014 interview, Grant told writer and activist Sinéad Burke that she had got the job almost by accident: she was actually scouring for cleaning work, until it was mentioned to her that they were looking for bar staff in the Olympia. But, as it turned out, she loved working behind the bar and the buzz and excitement of theatre hooked her in a big way.
Maureen Grant couldn’t have known, way back then, that she would go on to become a legendary figure in Dublin’s music and performing arts communities, almost as fabled as the institution to which she dedicated so much of her life. But that’s how it turned out.
MARRIED WITH CHILDREN
“You couldn’t have a job if you were a married woman in those years,” Maureen said in an interview, done for Storymap Dublin. And of course she was right. In fact, women were still forced to leave the Civil Service, as it was then called, once they’d traipsed up the aisle, even as late as 1973.
The funny thing is that Maureen was actually seven months pregnant with her first child when she was initially hired. She began working in the bar. “Three weeks passed, no sign of me gone,” she recalled. “Six weeks passed… and then three years passed. And I’m still here!”
The local Temple Bar area, in which the Olympia is located, proved to be helpful.
“Crampton Court had a bric-a-brac shop and a garage,” recalls Fearga O’Doherty, now the Olympia Stage Manager. “Maureen would come to work with at least two of her children, sometimes three, and stash the pram in Crampton. She’d hide the kids during her shift, one would be on the back of the door to her storeroom, and the other in one of the other bars, where her staff confidant would keep an eye. How this all worked is incredible, and is a testament to Maureen’s work ethic.”
Despite having a child nearly every year – “I was like a rabbit!” she said – she decided that she’d prefer to keep going. “Unless they throw me out,” she sometimes said, with a hearty laugh. Retirement was out of the question. Maureen worked at the bar in the Olympia for 72 years.
“We first met Maureen when we purchased the Olympia Theatre in 1995,” recalls music manager Caroline Downey. “She was friendly, had a sharp quick wit, and was very welcoming.”
“She was very memorable,” agrees Fearga, who was only a child when she met Maureen for the first time, “because she had the biggest beehive hairdo I’d ever seen. She seemed to float behind that bar as she served. I thought she did float, so I went behind the bar to see and when she turned and saw me, she gave me a clip around the ear and said never to come behind the bar.
“It was really because it wasn’t safe, and she wanted me to understand that from the off. The message got through, because, even when I started working In the Olympia with her, I never went behind the bar!”
“We were all very respectful of this,” says Caroline. “It was her domain.”
But then it was her bar – so much so that, during Maureen’s time at the theatre, it was eventually renamed ‘Maureen’s Bar’.
They planned a big ‘reveal’.
“She was annoyed at being called out from the bar into the stalls,” Fearga recalls, “but once her attention was caught, she was told to turn round. When she saw the sign, she just was speechless. She started crying with pride. There were lots of hugs that night.”
Caroline made sure that future refurbishments were always true to Maureen and her character. “When we renovated the theatre in 2015, we made sure her many photos were kept and displayed for everyone to continue to enjoy,” she recalls. “I have a huge interest in historical buildings, I loved sitting with her and listening to all the stories about the actors, musicians, staff and previous owners. Maureen had the most amazing memory and could recall the smallest details. “Maureen ran Kelly’s Bar, as it was known then, as if it was her own,” she continues. “Everyone called the bar Maureen’s bar so we changed the name and sign officially to Maureen’s bar, much to her delight.”
Maureen’s Bar collected photographs of Maureen with various exciting Olympia guests. Bono, the actor Gleesons and Hozier all make appearances there. But one of the most memorable pictures sees Maureen getting a playful smooch from Kris Kristofferson, who would later dedicate one of his albums to Maureen. That really meant a lot to her, but the true standout of Maureen’s character – if you ask those closest to her – was her acerbic wit and cheeky exuberance.
“I remember one of the acts in the theatre had asked to have their photo taken with Maureen, which was something that happened very regularly,” says Kim O’Callaghan, ex-COO of the Olympia. “This particular evening, the artists had popped out just after soundcheck and were a little delayed getting back to the venue. Maureen was sat in at the stage door when they returned, and she said ‘What sort of time do you call this? I have work to do!’ pointing at her watch and giving them a cheeky wink.”
“Maureen was a truly extraordinary character,” Hot Press editor Niall Stokes said, on hearing of her passing. “She loved showbiz and the razzmatazz of theatre and music. She had been at the Olympia Theatre for so long that, by this stage, the history of it all was in her bones and in her blood. She knew everyone in the business – and, in turn, they loved to be able to say that they knew her. She was a legend and rightly so. But most of all, Maureen was great fun and a joy to have a conversation with.”
Describing Maureen as “extremely lovely”, ex-CEO of the Olympia Theatre, Brian Whitehead, says: “My favourite memory, and the story I always tell, is that I heard a knock on the Green Room door once, and when I answered it, Pierce Brosnan was standing there. He asked: ‘Is Maureen Grant here?’ so I said, ‘Yeah, come on in.’ He had been in L.A. the day before, and talking to Liam Neeson, who had told him that he had to go to The Olympia and get a photo taken with Maureen Grant.
“So I went to get Maureen. She was working at the time, and she was always very colourful with her language, so she said, ‘I don’t have fuckin’ time to get my photo taken, we’re up to our eyes here. Tell him to come back later!’ And I said, ‘I’m not telling James Bond that he has to wait’. But he waited, and eventually she came down to have her photo taken with him, and he spent a good 10-15 minutes talking to her.
“My Mum got really ill,” Brian continues, “and Maureen went to see her every week. They knew each other because I worked at the theatre, but they became really good friends. She was an extraordinary person.”
The Olympia’s current General Manager, John Johnston, adds: “It is completely impossible to accurately reflect the contribution she made, the input into the lives of thousands of staff that have come through the doors since she started back in 1949; to all the thousands of artists that she looked after over the decades; and to all the customers she had the enormous pleasure of serving every night she was behind the bar. She has sadly moved on from her time on these shores, but she will remain a fixed part of the Olympia Theatre forever. Next time you are in, be sure to pop in to Maureen’s bar and marvel at the images of the artists meeting with her over the years and give a nod to a true icon of Irish theatre, an inspirational, kind, warm-hearted human being and a proud, hardworking, Dublin woman of theatre.”
Fitness guru Paul Byrne remembers the immediate rapport he struck up with Maureen.
“Brian Whitehead is a good friend of mine and he introduced us. She brought me over a drink straight away, and we got on like a house on fire,” he says. “She kept saying, ‘I like you’. Maureen used to give away the prize for the Mr. Ireland contest every year. And when she would come on stage to meet the lads during the contest, every one of them would be all over her. She had one of those personalities you just wanted to be around. She had that old Dublin character, and it’s a dying breed,” Paul adds. “A real Dublin accent, and she’d always tell it to you straight – if she didn’t like you, you’d know. People these days aren’t like that.”
The history of the theatre certainly was in Maureen’s bones.
“I used to get great craic out of her ghost stories,” says Noelle Fox, Office Manager of The Olympia. “She loved to tell anyone who would listen about her favourite Olympia ghost, who she called Charlie Parker. We’d often get paranormal investigators asking to interview us, wanting to stay the night in the theatre to do an investigation,” Noelle confides. “Myself and Maureen were talking to a lady in Maureen’s Bar one afternoon, facing her across a table. The paranormal investigator asked Maureen about Charlie Parker. She asked: was he a negative spirit to have around or was he friendly?
“‘Ah no, Charlie is great craic’,” Maureen replied, “‘he loves playing practical jokes’. With that, one of the light fixtures behind the PI started flashing and crackling for a moment. Only myself and Maureen saw it. We looked at each other and laughed, and Maureen said, ‘There he is now! Charlie’. I’m not a big believer in ghosts, but after that, I certainly had more respect for Charlie – and for Maureen’s stories!”
“Maureen had the most amazing memory, and could recall the smallest details,” Caroline Downey laughs.
Maureen – twinkle in her eye – also recounted to Storymap the legend of the ghost of Annie the dresser, who used to sit in Box 1. "You know they’re around,” she said. “Charlie Parker is the one here the longest. At least, the other one was alive when I came to work here. When the girls would go on stage, she (Annie) would go up to the box to see that the costumes were all perfect onstage. There are different shows, different times a year – you can nearly feel that she’s there, in the middle box.”
AN EXTRAORDINARY CHARACTER
“She had more energy than all of us put together,” Caroline recalls fondly. “She experienced some terrible personal losses, and would still come to work. When I asked why she was back to work so soon, she said the theatre helped her cope with her grief. Maureen loved the Olympia... it was an extension of her family. She will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.”
Ian Lacey, ex-Bar Manager at the Olympia and a dear friend of Maureen’s, remembers just how enigmatic Maureen Grant could be – even to strangers.
“A few years back, both myself and Maureen were nominated for an award, and attended the ceremony together in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. The bar was closing, so I decided I would get a round of drinks for the group to bring into the function hall. When I approached the bar, I was told quite sternly by the barmaid that the bar was closed and I had no chance of getting a drink.
“When I came back to our table empty-handed and began to explain, Maureen stood up from the table and we watched her slowly approach the bar. She didn’t stop at the bar, but actually proceeded to walk behind the bar,” he chuckles. “We couldn’t hear the conversation, but within about 30 seconds, the barmaid began to fill the glasses with drink for all of us. Not only were we not charged for the round of drinks, we also never found out what Maureen had said to change her mind.”
Maureen really did make a big impression on the people – and the artists – who met her.
“She was an outrageous flirt,” says Caroline. “She loved Tyrone Power, and adored Kris Kristofferson.”
And it seems Kris Kristofferson adored her, too. When he heard of Maureen’s passing, he was eloquent in his tribute.“What a beautiful soul she was, and will always be in our memories. She was a fireball of light, wasn’t she? I hope her passing was peaceful, she deserved that. We will always cherish our times together and we can’t help but smile when we think of her. She was such a bright spot in so many lives and she certainly earned her wings! Love and a big hug, Her Kris & his family.”
Noelle understands why the impressions meant so much to people.
“Maureen told so many people her stories,” she says fondly. “I honestly think they’ll be passed on for generations. She absolutely lit up the room and it was impossible not to love her. She was so supportive of the artists that played at The Olympia over all her years there, from the classic actors of old, to the young bands starting out, to big names. She didn’t get star-struck, she took everyone at face value. Every person who crossed her path was as important as the most famous rock star.”
And indeed, Maureen was also a bit of a star herself: in his eulogy to his grandmother, Mark Grant said, “She met and befriended some of the most famous musicians, actors, actresses, radio presenters, politicians, you name it. But it was them that would request a picture with ‘the great Maureen’, instead of the other way around.”
Maureen passed away at the age of 95, in January, 2021. She will always be remembered as a bright light with a razor-sharp wit, and as a woman who played an essential part in the story of the Olympia Theatre.
FROM FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES
There was a great outpouring of affection and nostalgia, when the news of the death of Maureen Grant of the Olympia Theatre came filtering through. Here’s a selection of just some of the comments, which add to the picture of Maureen as one of the great characters of Irish theatre...
Aslan: “So saddened to hear of the passing of the Queen of the Olympia Theatre, Maureen Grant. We have no doubt we will all continue to feel your presence in the Olympia. Our thoughts are with your many friends and family. Christy, Billy, Joe, Alan, Rod & all in Aslan past & present.”
Ruth Medjber (photographer): “It was strong, fearless women like herself, who paved the way for the rest of us. A true Dubliner, a survivor and an absolute hilarious woman. She’ll be sorely missed by so many.”
Shane Gillen: “Sad to hear of the passing of Maureen Grant of the Olympia Theatre. Many of you will have met her, or will have at least drank in the famous Maureen’s Bar at the venue. An incredible lady.”
Rebecca Storm (singer-songwriter): "Maureen was one of the first reasons I fell in love with Ireland. I used to refer to her as my Irish mammy. I'll miss chatting with her and her guidance, she had a vast amount of experience."
Keith Barry: “So sad to hear of the passing of Maureen Grant of Maureen’s bar in the Olympia Theatre. I have many fond memories of laughs and stories with the lady of the Olympia herself. RIP. You’ll be sorely missed by all.”
Andrea Smith (journalist): “So sad to hear of the passing of Maureen Grant. I interviewed her at home with her son Jimmy for the Sunday Independent in 2013 and she was so warm and entertaining. A true legend.”
Kim O’Callaghan (ex-COO, Olympia Theatre): “When we officially started the refurb in The Olympia in 2015, Maureen was turning 90 and showing very few signs of slowing down. She graced us with her presence almost every night. No matter what type of event was on, she still insisted on coming in to greet and serve customers in her beloved bar. One night I remember joining her for one of our regular evening cuppas and chats during a particularly diverse run of shows, and I asked her what she thought of the variety, she replied: ‘I love the Olympia so much and the variety of shows is what makes it so special, but I must admit the odd time it’s not always quite my cup of tea! But once they like it, that’s all that matters really isn’t it’, as she gave a hearty giggle and pointed out into the stalls where that night’s audience was particularly energetic and enjoying the show. She was a true legend.“
John Brogan (ex-Stage Manager, Olympia Theatre): “We were like brother and sister, even after I had left. Every Saturday, I’d be down to Maureen’s for my coddle. We got on so well. We used to slag one another a good bit, but it was never malicious. It is very hard to say a word against her. She was lovely to all the staff. A lot of people were afraid of her – but she enjoyed that. It was hard to keep her off the stage. And she loved to tell her ghost stories. I never saw them, but I have seen other ghosts. I saw one backstage coming out of what used to be the old wardrobe room, but was turned into a dressing room. So even though I didn’t see any of her gallery ghosts, I believed her.”
Niall Stokes (Hot Press): “We were proud to present Maureen with the Hot Press Live Music Venue of the Year Award for the Olympia Theatre a few years back. That will always be a memory to cherish, all the more so now that she has taken her final curtain call.”
• Main photo: Maureen Grant with awards presented to the Olympia Theatre, including the Hot Press Live Music Venue of the Year Award.