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Dublin: 12°C Wednesday 28 July 2021

'They were terrified something terrible would be revealed': What happened when a granddaughter uncovered her grandfather's secret tapes

Emma O’Grady’s one woman show, ‘What good is looking well, when you’re rotten on the inside’ hits the road on a national tour.

Emma O'Grady in, What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside?
Emma O'Grady in, What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside?

PADDY O’GRADY WAS a civil servant, a father and it turns out an unsung playwright and poet. Described as a ‘character’ by those who knew him, stories told by Paddy in his final days have been given new life by his granddaughter in ‘What good is looking well, when you’re rotten on the inside?’.

Emma O’Grady’s grandfather Paddy died when she was just 12. In his final month he asked a son-in-law for a cassette tape recorder, complaining that his eyesight was failing and he could no longer write, saying he had “things he wanted to say”. 

Storytelling in the genes

The young Emma intuitively understood what he was trying to do: “For me as a child, he was telling stories for the sake of doing just that”. O’Grady says he was the quiet brooding type. 

He didn’t talk much. He wasn’t quiet, he was silent. There was a brooding energy around him and I was a little afraid of him. 

She says Paddy spent hours in his final month talking into the cassette recorder, but the family didn’t really know what he was up to.

If anyone walked in, he’d just stop, sigh and wait for you to leave.


O’Grady believes Paddy knew he was dying and felt he had to get the stories out. When he died, the tapes were put away, and for years forgotten about. 

That was until 2010, when the now adult O’Grady decided to have a listen and transfer the tapes onto CD for her family, something she says she still hasn’t gotten around to. The decision opened a years-long project which has now turned into a nationwide tour of her one-woman play. 

It’s a portrait of my granddad. It’s a whole load of different stories about what makes up the man, and the life. It’s a whole load of contradictions.

In 2013 O’Grady set about researching the project, interviewing friends and neighbours, and talking to family members. She says while her family supported her initiative, they didn’t know what to expect the final product to be: “They were terrified something terrible was going to be revealed”.

O’Grady says Paddy’s love of writing was known within the family, but perhaps not properly appreciated. “My grandmother would always have said, Paddy’s a wonderful writer, ‘You know he wrote plays and everything’ but it wasn’t taken seriously.”

In a surprise twist O’Grady discovered four plays, several short stories and poems her grandfather had written years before. She says he didn’t write in secret, but “no one paid any attention”. Paddy had also handed over several of his manuscripts to a daughter-in-law in the 80s, asking her to have a read of them saying:

Read those and tell me what you think of them, they’re better than anything in the Abbey at the moment, better than Sean O’Casey.

It’s not clear what, if anything, Paddy had imagined would happen with this writings. “I don’t know what he planned to do with them, other than one that has a stamp that says competition entry,” O’Grady says.

For O’Grady, who is a trained actor, production manager and lighting technician, a simple task of converting old cassettes onto CD has turned her into a playwright in her own right. The show is the first one she has written, and so far has gotten rave reviews. 

He was a frustrated writer, I’m a reluctant writer. He’s after making a writer out of me and I’m making a writer out of him by giving him an audience.

Ethics of the matter

In the production O’Grady dresses as her grandfather, and airs some of his recordings, while recounting many of the stories he wrote over the years. On the ethics of using his work in this way, she says by the way he wrote and spoke, it was clear Paddy wanted an audience, he wanted his stories to be heard. 

O’Grady says the production is bittersweet for her and her family, especially given that Paddy will never know about it: 

It’s bittersweet he never got to see this. I know he’d be delighted. I think it’s made everyone in the family appreciate him in a different way. It helps them see him in a new light.

The title comes from a quote a neighbour of the family in Mountrath county Laois recounted to O’Grady while she was researching. “She came for a visit to see my grandmother, and knowing my grandfather would leave the room [as was his way] she said, ‘you’re looking well Paddy’. He replied, ‘What good is looking well, when you’re rotten on the inside’ as he walked out”.  

He was a good decent, quiet man and now 20 years after his death, we’re hearing what was in his mind and that’s the real end to his story.

Through this work Paddy O’Grady has finally been given his audience. The show is on a nationwide tour currently, with details of times and venues available here.

About the author:

Aisling O'Rourke

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