April 3, 2011

IRELAND: An enduring state of Grace

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DUBLIN / The Independent / Lifestyle / April 3, 2011

Septuagenarian and former model Grace O'Shaughnessy is an ambassador for older people in her formal role with Third Age and in the way she lives her life -- always elegant, vivacious and honest,  finds Emily Hourican

JUST as fashion regularly "discovers" different parts of the body and celebrates them, so society falls in love with different ages at different times. And right now, it is the turn of older people: Edna O'Brien, utterly fabulous at 80; Garret FitzGerald, showing himself to be sharper than men half his age; and Grace O'Shaughnessy, still elegant and vivacious at 71.

GROWING OLD GRACEFULLY: Former model Grace O'Shaughnessy keeps on smiling in Herbert Park, Dublin, as she did in 1973 and 1962.  Photo: Tony Gavin

"Sure, why would one be coy about one's age?" says Grace when I comment on her honesty, both in admitting her age and allowing herself to look it. "What the hell, it's my life, they're my lines and I earned them." Not that she looks anything like the conventional notion of being in her 70s; she's far too beautiful and well-groomed for that, wearing a crisp black-and-white striped shirt and well-cut jeans, with a whole load more clothes waiting in the car, "just in case ... Old habits die hard," she laughs.

Grace was one of the country's first well-known models, and later a TV presenter, with a fashion slot on RTE's Live at Three which lasted nearly 12 years. And now she is an ambassador for Third Age, a voluntary organisation dedicated to the well-being of older people. "It's a bit like the Samaritans for older people," Grace explains. "We run a senior helpline and suggest ways for them to integrate into the community, organise conversation classes with non-nationals, holidays, reflexology, chiropodist services, that kind of thing." Grace got involved because: "I thought, why not? If I can help in any way, I'm delighted to do it, and it's a bit of fun as well."

Grace is a natural ambassador for the organisation; her energy and sharpness of mind are immediately obvious; her wisdom and gentle humour become evident within moments. Is it not hard getting old having been a famous beauty, I ask? "Well, you see, if you put a lot of meas on your looks in the first place, it might be different, but if you didn't, I don't think you'd have a problem in that line," she responds, with a subtle twinkle.

Did she really not rate her looks? "No, I really didn't. I sort of fell into modelling rather than really wanting to be a model. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the communication with people; it was relationships I formed through it that I got the most buzz from. I don't want to sound twee saying that, but I didn't grow up wanting to be a model."

In fact, she almost had to be forced down that road. Grace, the second youngest of five, with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father who worked for the civil service (her parents split the family religiously, bringing up two children Catholic and three Protestant) left school without any clear direction. "We grew up without any spare money at all," she says. "My parents sent us to the best school they could afford -- Wesley on the Green -- but I didn't go to college, because at that time, one didn't unless one was from a very intellectual family."

Grace did a secretarial course and worked in Walpole's on Grafton Street for a time. Then, an older sister got married and went to live in Bermuda. She and her husband sent money home for Grace to do a modelling course; "which, of course, I totally disregarded and paid a bill or did something else with the money," she says now, laughing. But fate was having none of that. Another older sister had the same vision for

Grace, and her husband also volunteered the money for a course. "So I did it then," Grace says. "I wasn't going to ignore that twice."

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For more details on Third Age see http://www.thirdageireland.ie/

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