Sunday, June 26, 2011

BallyKissMe: Musings on Ballykissangel

I recently completed a return sojourn through the six series of Ballykissangel. BallyK, as its fans affectionately came to call it, was a BBC Northern Ireland programme, made with Irish government support, about a British Catholic priest, Father Peter Clifford (Stephen Tompkinson), who is sent from Great Britain to serve as priest for the small rural village of Ballykissangel in Ireland. Created by the Irish writer Kieran Prendiville Ballyk ran for 58 episodes on the Beeb from 1996 to 2001. I thoroughly enjoyed my return trip to and through Ballykissangel, my first since the show was first broadcast in the late 1990s and early 2000s and which I watched on local PBS affiliates.

While rewatching Ballyk a number of things kept running through my mind. I thought about how Ballykissangel reminded me of those other whimsical and eccentric dramadies that have become prominent since the 1980s such as the BBC adaptation of James Harriot's All Creatures Great and Small (BBC, 1978-1990), which like Ballykissangel, ran on the Beeb in the Sunday night family slot, like Carla Lane's sitcom dramady Butterflies (BBC, 1978-1983) about a housewife's midlife crisis, like Bill Fortsythe's films Gregory's Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983), and like Monarch of the Glen (BBC, 200-2005), another BBC Sunday night show. I thought about how Ballykissangel's eccentric Irish were rather like All Creature's eccentric Yorkshire men and women, like Forsythe's eccentric rural and urban Scots, and like Monarch's eccentric rural landholding, tenant, and village Scots. I thought about how Ballykissangel like All Creatures, Butterflies, Gregory's Girl, and Local Hero before it and Monarch of the Glen after it mixed and matched comedy, drama, tragedy, nostalgia, parody (and sometimes even satire), and topicality, something that has become more and more common in film and particularly television since the 1970s and 1980s. I thought about how, as with the tales of All Creatures, Butterflies, and Monarch of the Glen, Ballykissangel's stories and character arcs continued across episodes and even across series. I thought about how All Creatures's Skeldale House and Yorkshire, Gregory's Girl's Cumbernauld, Local Hero's Aberdeenshire, Ballykissangel's Ballyk (played by the lovely Irish village of Avoca south of Dublin), and Monarch of the Glen's Glenbogle are all just as important characters in each of these shows as any of the human characters and how All Creatures, Gregory's Girl, Local Hero, Monarch of the Glen all have a strong sense of place. I thought about how many of these shows and films begin with the arrival of an outsider to their very specific places, the vet James Herriot (Timothy Christopher) in All Creatures's Yorkshire, "Mac" McIntyre (Peter Riegert) in Local Hero's Scotland, the English priest Father Peter Clifford (Stephen Tompkinson) in Ballyk, and Archie, the prodigal son more at home in London who returns home to become laird of Monarch's Glenbogle, and use these new arrivals to introduce viewers not only to Yorkshire, Scotland, Ballyk, and Glenbogle but also to the people, and something about those people, who we will get to know in each of those places, Ballykissangel in a particularly elegant way.

Of all of these whimsical, eccentric, arc driven dramadies Ballykissangel, Bailie Coisc Angeal, the town which banished the angel--the Irish village becoming modern? Ireland becoming modern?--is perhaps the most tragic and emotionally intense of the lot of whimsical and eccentric British dramedies. Across its six series many characters I came to know and love departed for the supposedly greener fields of Dublin or London. Characters suffered from mistakes they had made in the past and present, drank too much, suffered from physical and mental pain, suffered from loves lost and loves wanted, among other things. Two major characters died during Ballyk's run. Assumpta Fitzgerald (Dervla Kirwin) and Garda Ambrose Egan (Peter Hanly) met dramatic and tragic deaths at the end of series three and the beginning of series five respectively, something you don't see very often on TV whether in the UK or the US. Assumpta's death at the end of series three before she and Father Peter Clifford were able to start the romantic relationship they had finally decided they would, a relationship most dedicated fans wanted to see consummated, was an important and shocking moment in Ballykissangel's broadcast life and lost the show a number of fans and viewers as the online posting sites and youtube comments about how Assumpta's death and Father Peter's decision to leave Ballk as a result continue to show.

Ballykissangel was also probably the most self reflective of the whimsical and eccentric dramadies of the 1980's and 1990's. Over its six series Ballyk parodied The Godfather (book 1969, film 1972), parodied Irish "traditions", satirised the Catholic Church, and even, on occasion, broke the fourth wall. In one episode of series four, for instance, the punters at Ballyk's gathering spot, the pub Fitzgerald's, watch a Spanish language telenovela on a new wide screen TV. The viewers, despite not understanding much Spanish, manage to make narrative sense of the telenovela they are watching in what has to be a shout out to those fans of the series who saw Ballyk itself as one big Irish soap opera. Over its six series Ballykissangel was the most religious and probably the least religious of the whimsical and eccentric dramadies which, I suppose, befits an Irish TV show made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, an era of increasing secularisation in Ireland. Musically, Ballyk did what is rare in a TV series, it used music to underline and counterpoint the narrative, to reveal something about character, and to foreshadow things to come. The theme tune of the show itself wonderfully captures the whimsy and eccentricity of the village and the village's "odd" residents. As I watched this wonderful programme I often caught myself wishing that I was one of these eccentric village inhabitants.

A word of warning about the Ballykissangel DVD's. The region one set includes the series three episode "Waiting Game" while the region two set does not. No idea why.


  1. What an interesting essay, I only just recently discovered BallyK, and I'm one of those viewers that after the death of Assumpta and Father Peter leaving, I could not bring myself to watch any further...I just could not imagine it would be the same: I was absolutely shattered, which seems to be a bizarre reaction to TV characters.

  2. I really got caught up in BallyK too. I loved the characters, particularly Father Clifford and Assumpta, and the relationship between them. I was devastated when Assumpta died and Peter left. I decided to keep on watching, however, and ended up enjoying the later series.

    Thanks for your kind words. Glad you found BallyK. It is a really wonderful show. I am watching another one of those other wonderful British whimsical dramedies at the moment, Doc Martin, set in small town Cornwall.

  3. Can someone tell me what ever happened to the Padraig O'Kelly character? I recall his son going off with his mother to London, and then trying to romance Orla. I also remember Padraig going on a "bender", and Brendan helping him, but the character seemed to just drop off the face of the earth after that. Can you fill me in? Thank you!

  4. Kaya, I don't remember precisely. I recall the emotionally wrenching story about Padraig, his son, and his wife. Wasn't the explanation that he moved away? I just don't recall.

    According to the Independent obituary (4 January 2008) on the actor who played Padraig, Peter Caffrey "Caffrey left Ballykissangel in 1998 after the first four series and, in 2000, ill-health struck again when a stroke left him partially paralysed and with impaired speech. With the aid of physiotherapy and speech therapy, he fought his way back once more although the right-hand side of his body remained paralysed to play a publican who suffered the same fate in the unreleased Irish film Sweet Dancer (2005)..." Perhaps ill health, he had health problems before BallyK, led him to leave the series.

  5. Thank you for the information, Ronald - Mr. Caffrey was a wonderful actor, sad news! The shows writers should have given his character a more poignant send-off! :(