Actor Frank Kelly remembered as man of deep personal faith

Stalwart of stage and screen mourned by wife of 51 years Bairbre, children, grandchildren

Frank Kelly, the actor best known for playing a filthy alcoholic priest in a cult television series that lampooned the Catholic Church mercilessly, was remembered at his funeral on Wednesday as a man of sophistication and fun who had a deep personal faith.

His friend, the celebrant Fr Bill Fortune, recalled Kelly as a dedicated parishioner of the Church of the Guardian Angels in Blackrock, who came to Mass "Sunday after Sunday . . . sometimes looking very sick, but there he was" in the same seat each week.

Kelly, who famously played Fr Jack in Father Ted and a host of other characters in series such as Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, as well as lampooning The 12 Days of Christmas (which saw him appear on Top Of The Pops), died suddenly on Sunday aged 77. He had been in poor health for several years, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, cancer and a heart condition.

He was mourned by Bairbre, his wife of 51 years whom he met in the Gaiety Theatre in 1961 when both were in a Brecht play, and their children, Aideen, Fíona, Jayne, Ruth, Emmet, Stephen and Rachel and their 17 grandchildren.


President Micheal D Higgins and his wife Sabina attended, along with the president’s aide-de-camp Lieut Col Micheal Kiernan and up to 800 friends and former colleagues from the entertainment world.

Religion and humour, and the rounded person behind the public persona, dominated the funeral service, together with music, another of the actor’s great loves – along with the French language, reading, hill walking, swimming, cycling, writing and acting.

Quick trip

The day before he died, he said to his wife that he would like to go for a walk, his son Emmet Kelly said in a eulogy. Given the state of his health, Bairbre thought he meant a quick trip to the shops to get a paper.

“But no,” said Emmet, “when he said he wanted to go for a walk, he meant the Camino way. He planned to walk 497 miles over 30 days” to Santiago de Compostela.

“When he gets to heaven,” Emmet continued, “and they let Fr Jack through the duty free to the Pearly Gates, it will be the first time anyone tells St Peter to feck off.”

He taught his children how to be generous and to love. They thought it was “pretty cool” when a letter arrived from the Queen saying how much she enjoyed The 12 Days. The family were amused also when Kelly died, he and Fr Jack were trending on Twitter “ahead of Donald Trump and Leonardo DiCaprio”.

Emmet recalled how his father was always telling jokes and had “a healthy disrespect for authority”. He recalled a limerick he would recite for the amusement of his grand children about a girl from Tipperary. . .

Whose chest was incredibly hairy

When she lifted her vest

It was like the Wild West

With two buffalos lost on the prairie. . .

Another son, Stephen, spoke of his father’s struggles with technology, how he kept dialling 999 on his mobile phone, mistaking it for his PIN number; how fishing off the pier in Ballyconneely, he managed to snare a seagull; how the fitness fanatic in him would see him row a boat single handed out to Inishbofin; and how he loved mimicking and playfully embarrassing people in public.

His father had no time for “notions or delusions of grandeur” but was proud of having been called to the bar and of his roles in Ryan’s Daughter, the Italian Job, and the Glen Abbey Show on radio, and his interviews with Roy Orbison and Ella Fitzgerald.

In his homily, Fr Fortune said that Kelly was “many things”. [He was] a son, sibling, friend, husband, father, grandfather, actor, writer musician, parishioner but however long the list you make, you cannot encapsulate him [because] he was much, much more than that.

“He was not the chance result of some evolutionary freak. He was created by God. Every life, every human life, is created by God.”

Soloist Janyce Condon, accompanied on piano by Conor Linehan and on violin by Geraldine O’Grady, sang Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus. The plain oak coffin, with a bouquet of ivory roses and greenery, was brought into the church to the strains of Meditations de Thaïs (Massenet).

An instrumental, We’ll be Together Again (Fischer and Laine), was performed by Jim Doherty on piano and Dave Fleming on double base.

Attendees included Fr Ted writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, actors Eamon Morrisey, Ardal O’Hanlon, Pat Laffan , Patrick McDonnell, Ristard Cooper, Barry McGovern, Emmet Bergin, Geraldine Plunkett, Ruth McCabe, Trish Barry, Rosaleen Linehan and her husband, Fergus; as well as Gay Byrne, Brendan Balfe, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, Ted Dolan, Michael Gill, Joe O’Donnell, Donal Shields, Gerry Lundberg, Mary Hanafin, former judge Hugh O’Flaherty and former censor, Seamus Smith.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times