Man of few words left a legacy of stories

Emma O'Grady with her grandfather's tapes. “He was a difficult man. He didn’t speak much and seemed to live in his head a lot. He might be in a room but wouldn’t join in the conversation,
Emma O'Grady with her grandfather's tapes. “He was a difficult man. He didn’t speak much and seemed to live in his head a lot. He might be in a room but wouldn’t join in the conversation," she says. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle – Judy Murphy hears how writer-actor Emma O’Grady turned her granddad’s forgotten tapes into one-woman show

Emma O’Grady’s paternal grandfather, Paddy, who died in 1998 wasn’t a man for small talk. Such was his presence, according to Emma, that he could induce silence in a room full of chat by just entering it.

But a month before his death, Paddy, who was born in Glanaphosa near Tuam, requested a tape recorder and some blank tapes. Sitting in a room on his own, he proceeded to fill these tapes with a selection of material, mostly fiction and stories.

If anyone came in, he’d sigh and stop, recalls Emma who was 12 at the time. Intrigued, she used to hide outside the glass-panelled door of the room, listening to him.

These tapes have now become the basis of a one-woman show, What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside? that actress Emma will present at Galway Theatre Festival in April.

Paddy recorded stores of leprechauns and of aliens and lonely pharmacists; he mused on life, love and death; he created radio shows with advertisements for products that never existed; he recited ballads and poetry; he recalled memories of life as a civil servant, and he offered satirical observations on politics.

As a young man, Paddy had moved from Galway to Dublin to join the Civil Service. Later, he moved to Aer Rianta, becoming manager of Cork Airport in the 1970s. After he retired, he and his wife Birdie moved first to Wicklow and then to Headford, before settling in Laois with Emma’s parents, a couple of years before Paddy died.  Birdie, a nurse, came from the townland of Caherhugh, near Paddy’s birthplace.

“She adored him and was in love with him until the day she died. She kept saying how wonderful and amazing he was,” Emma laughs. It wasn’t a side that his young granddaughter had witnessed.

“He was a difficult man. He didn’t speak much and seemed to live in his head a lot. He might be in a room but wouldn’t join in the conversation. He walked a lot. To me, as a child, he seemed a little bit miserable.”

But the tapes revealed other aspects to Paddy. They survived intact for 12 years before anybody listened to them. Birdie, who died in 2014, would have found it too upsetting, says Emma. And to the rest of the family they were simply a curiosity.

In 2010, Emma, an Arts graduate from NUIG who has a Masters in Drama and Theatre, brought them back to Galway, where she had set up home.

Originally, she intended transferring the material onto CDs for family members. But as she listened to them, Emma felt she owed it to her grandfather to bring his stories to stage, because they had been written with an audience in mind.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.