Rest in Peace, Father: Frank Kelly, 1938-2016

“History is always written by the victor and great men are only great because we make them so”

The words of Frank Kelly, best loved for his role in Father Ted as the filthy, lecherous drunk Father Jack. Kelly was speaking when launching my first book, Sean Lemass: Democratic Dictator (a biography of a former Irish prime minister), in 2011.

  Frank Kelly speaking at the launch in Dublin’s Mansion House, 2011
As much as I would like to, I can’t claim Frank Kelly as a friend although we emailed regularly and occasionally spoke on the phone. And I only knew him in his twilight years.

What so impressed me So much about him, though, was his irreverence. 

He inherited this from his father, the satirist Charles Edward Kelly (1902-1981) – and this was the reason that I asked Frank to launch my book: his father’s cartoons adorn the biography from front to back, all poking fun at Ireland’s political leaders of the day, especially Lemass. 

Charles Edward Kelly was a brilliant artist, regularly contributing to publications like Dublin Opinion and The Capuchin Annual.

This irreverence was no mean feat in independent Ireland from the 1930s to the 60s which – and much ink has been spilled about this – was conservative, clerical and deferential to its leaders.

 One of Frank’s father’s cartoons, particularly irreverent in doubting the Bold Men of the Easter Rising

Frank loved his father with a devotion I sometimes thought childish, so he was delighted to launch the book in his memory.

Beyond this brief meeting, we kept in touch. He was an incredibly kind, gentle well spoken man: the utter opposite of Father Jack. Friends, colleagues, family of mine struggled to reconcile the intelligence, wit and all-round south Dublin polish of Frank with his most famous role. 

This is the sure Sign of a good actor. On that note, I should add that I always got the impression he felt he had been typecast by Father Jack and was capable of more demanding roles.
I can’t really call him a friend but he was certainly a mentor to me, whether he realised it or not. In later years we chatted on the phone. Two nuggets of wisdom he gave me stand out when he gave me the encouragement and confidence to persevere in my profession as a university lecturer.

1) On online trolls: “these people spend all day absorbed by the Internet. They are, in the purest sense of the word, wankers”

2) On lecturing: “if you get any hecklers just remember you are at the pulpit, you are the priest and they are the congregation. And they therefore must mind their fucking manners.”

Frank only swore sparingly when making a big point. Knowing that, and as a teenager raised on Father Ted, I was so proud that Frank Kelly bothered to take me under his arm. The phrase is over used and hackneyed, but he was a true gentleman as well as a very good actor. And he carried it all off without ever kow-towing to authority.

On this last point in particular, his father would have been so proud.


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