Monday 18 December 2017

Frank Kelly: Renowned for the comic genius of Fr Jack, the accomplished actor was a devout Catholic


In character: Frank Kelly during the filming of 'Dog Pound', by Madeleine D'Arcy Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
In character: Frank Kelly during the filming of 'Dog Pound', by Madeleine D'Arcy Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Despite his outrageous character 'Fr Jack' in Father Ted, Frank Kelly was a practising, if irreverent, Catholic, attending Mass each Sunday at the Church of the Guardian Angels in Blackrock, Co Dublin. It was the venue last Wednesday for his final exit, for which he received a standing ovation from the packed audience of celebrities, friends and fellow parishioners.

Local lore has it that he was once persuaded to become a Minister of the Eucharist, handing out Communion at Mass, but rather quickly it was evident that this was causing much merriment among younger viewers of Father Ted, who flocked to 'Father Jack' for communion, ignoring the priests and other ministers. So Frank went back to his usual seat at the 10.45 am Sunday Mass, sitting always in the 10th row.

"He was many things" said the celebrant, Fr Bill Fortune, "actor, comic, writer, musician, husband, father, but he had another marvellous quality - he was normal."

Frank Kelly was born in Blackrock, Co Dublin and grew up in an upper-middle-class family, his father being Charlie Kelly, originally from Harold's Cross, founder of the satirical magazine Dublin Opinion and for many years director of broadcasting at Radio Eireann. His mother Kathleen, also from the locality, devoted her life to bringing up their six children and supporting her husband.

They lived in a mansion, Rosemount, on Avoca Avenue (and later Merrion Avenue) at a time when the area was surrounded by grand estates, including the remains of Frascati House, ancestral home of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Frank's closest friend was Maurice Walsh, grandson of the author of The Quiet Man, who lived nearby. The Kelly's kept "open house" for friends and many of that generation from the locality passed through the family kitchen.

The youngest of six children born in seven years, he was, according to his friend Fergus Linehan, "something of a cuckoo in the nest, failing exams and generally behaving like a troubled adolescent".

He attended Willow Park and Blackrock College, where he managed to fail the Inter Cert (the Junior Cert of that era) twice and became the 'class clown' to cover up for his own insecurity.

At a young age, he learned to play the piano and violin, he took part in Gilbert & Sullivan light operas in Blackrock College and through his parents developed an interest in theatre that would last a lifetime.

"It was only when he went to UCD that he found his true pathway in life," added Linehan, who was involved with him in organising music and theatrical events in the college. After UCD and successfully taking his Bar Exams, he went straight into the theatre.

"He would rather starve on stage than grow fat at the Bar," his son told the congregation at his funeral. In one of his first productions, Berthold Brecht's Saint Joan of the Stockyards with Siobhan McKenna at the Gaiety Theatre, he met Bairbre, a young widow with two daughters. They wed three years later and were married for 51 years.

To make ends meet between unreliable theatrical work, Kelly, like many young barristers, was taken on as a sub-editor in the Irish Press - a colleague being Hugh O'Flaherty, who went on to become a member of the Supreme Court. Kelly would later describe the atmosphere in Burgh Quay as akin to a "reign of terror" and went to work in the Irish Independent, which he described as "sheer joy" in comparison.

Already known as a swimmer in Blackrock Baths, he maintained his enthusiasm for exercise for the rest of his life, swimming frequently from the 40 Foot over to Bulloch Harbour and jogging back "in his Speedo's" to the consternation of his daughter, who encountered him so attired in Sandycove. He was also a keen fisherman, sailor, traveller, practical joker and engaged in eccentric pursuits, such as brewing his own beer - which once blew the door off the kitchen press as he tried to increase the alcohol content.

Kelly had no problem describing himself as a "jobbing" actor, playing on the boards of many theatres in Ireland, England and America. He also got parts in television and films like Ryan's Daughter, where he spent much of his time in Tom Long's pub in Dingle, drinking with Trevor Howard, Leo McKern, Sarah Miles and others. In The Italian Job he was the prison warder who released Michael Caine and he got a part in Taffin with Pierce Brosnan.

But it was his comic turns on radio and television that transformed Frank Kelly into a national institution. His gombeen county councillor Parnell Mooney on Hall's Pictorial Weekly morphed into his own creation, the comic figure of Gobnait O'Lunacy from the fictional town of Ballykilferrit. He received a letter of congratulations from Queen Elizabeth after performing The Twelve Days of Christmas on Top of the Pops.

In 1992, during what he described as "a very quiet time" in his career, he was asked to audition for the role of Father Jack Hackett in Father Ted. It was an inspired piece of casting as the writers, Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, remembered Kelly from Hall's Pictorial Weekly. He was slightly puzzled by the direction to shout "feck" "arse" and other epithets, but did so with gusto and got the job.

"I was apprehensive lest the series might be merely cheap jibes at Catholic doctrine and the committed priests. Commitment is never a thing to be ridiculed," he wrote in his autobiography The Next Gig, published last year.

With Dermot Morgan and Ardal O'Hanlon, Kelly became the third priest in the fictional parochial house near Mullaghmore, Co Sligo and filmed in Co Clare and studios in London. He particularly liked a stage direction that read: "Warning. It is extremely dangerous to approach Father Jack." The death of Dermot Morgan and the final episode were, he wrote, "the end of what had become a way of life", although it had only lasted three years.

Although he had been ill for the past eight years with cancer and Parkinson's Disease, Frank Kelly continued working, notably performing on stage in John B Keane's Moll, coming almost straight from hospital treatment to the stage. Born on December 28, 1938, he died last Sunday aged 77. He is survived by his wife Bairbre, six children, 17 grandchildren, his brothers Aidan and David, his sister Pauline, and a wide circle of friends, both personal and professional.

Sunday Independent

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