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"He'll be the first to tell St Peter to feck off" - Ireland says farewell to Frank Kelly

The much-loved actor and Father Ted star was laid to rest this morning in Blackrock, Co Dublin.

02/03/2016 Frank Kelly funeral. Pictured, the coff Frank Kelly's family observe his coffin being delivered to the Church of the Guardian Angels in Blackrock today Source: Sam Boal

THEY CAME FROM far and wide to celebrate the life of Frank Kelly.

The funeral mass for the genial actor, best known in recent years for his role as the irascible Father Jack Hackett in TV’s Father Ted, was held this morning at the Church of the Guardian Angels in Blackrock, Dublin.

The huge church was packed to the rafters by the great and good on a beautiful, chilly March morning. President Michael D Higgins, a lifelong champion of the arts, was there with his wife Sabina.

Frank Kelly funeral Ardal O'Hanlon, who played Dougal in Father Ted, pictured at today's funeral Source: Niall Carson

So too were Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, creators of Father Ted (and Father Jack) and Kelly’s co-star in the sitcom Ardal O’Hanlon, who played the inimitable Fr Dougal Maguire. Former Fianna Fáil minister Mary Hanafin was in attendance. Comedian Joe Rooney who played Father Damo in the hugely popular sitcom. Gay Byrne. They had all come.

“I would pick Frank”

It was a sombre yet joyful occasion. Kelly was a man who inspired huge love in those who knew him and those who didn’t.

Chief celebrant Reverend William Fortune compared Kelly to author PG Wodehouse, “someone who brought real joy, real humour to literally millions of people”.

In his eulogy Fortune said: “If I could choose to spend the evening with Iris Murdoch, with Henry James, or Frank, I would pick Frank”.

02/03/2016 Frank Kelly funeral. Pictured (l to r) Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan arriving at the funeral Source: Sam Boal

Before the ceremony began proper, tokens to symbolise Kelly’s life were laid at his coffin – a copy of the Irish Times, whose crossword he had loved to solve daily, a photo of the family pet Lucky (“who’s missing him already”), a photo of the 40 Foot at Dun Laoghaire, where the actor loved to swim hail, rain or shine. A copy of his recently released autobiography The Next Gig was also placed at his side.

“He brought so much joy to so many people,” said Fortune.

As an irony, Fortune mentioned how the man who portrayed possibly the least engaged priest in existence was a devout Catholic.

“Every week for 35 years he was here. Ten rows back. Sometimes he looked very sick. But he was always here,” the priest said.

Kelly died last Sunday at the age of 77, in an ironic twist of fate on the 18th anniversary of the passing of Father Ted himself Dermot Morgan.

While he publicly acknowledged the fact that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease late last year, it seems he had been struggling with ill health for the past eight years.

He had battled three separate bouts of cancer in that time, and had struggled with heart trouble also.

Originally trained as a barrister, something he was immensely proud of, he diverted into acting.

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As his son Emmet said in his eulogy, “Dad would sooner starve on the stage than grow fat at the bar”.

Household names

His career spanned 50 years, taking in such household names as the Glenabbey Show, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, Wanderly Wagon, and latterly Father Ted. As well as being an actor he was a musician and a writer.

And it is Kelly’s Father Jack that brought him to the notice of millions.

“When dad gets to the pearly gates, and if they’re foolish enough to let him through the duty free, he’ll be the first person in history to tell St Peter to feck off,” Emmet said.

Emmet and his brother Stephen spoke of an endlessly warm man, whose love for his wife of 51 years Bairbre knew no bounds. Frank first met Bairbre while performing at the Gaiety Theatre in 1961. They married three years later and had seven children together.

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“So often he would tell me ‘I love your mother’,” said Emmet. “Is it any surprise their marriage was as strong as it was.”

“For a short time Father Jack was trending ahead of Donald Trump and Leonardo di Caprio – I think that’s pretty cool,” said Emmet.

“He had such a varied and interesting life and career,” said Stephen.

He spoke of a man who loved to row, who loved to cycle, who loved to swim, a man who supported many charities.

“He was a man who hated the empty page. He lived for the next gig,” Stephen said.

“The day before he died he said he wanted to go for a walk. He didn’t mean any walk, he meant the Camino in Spain to Santiago de Compostela.”

We didn’t tell him ‘Dad, you can’t', we said we would go with him, to be with him and to catch him when he would inevitably fall, as he had caught us so many times.
Little did we know the following day he would fall for the last time.

Frank’s wife Bairbre herself paid tribute to her husband in a touching poem titled simply ‘Memories’:

From happy days, when full of health, and of song, you honoured us. There is another place, where music plays. The stage is set.

The actor is survived by Bairbre, his children Aideen, Fiona, Jayne, Ruth, Emmet, Stephen and Rachel, and 17 grandchildren.

Read: Fascinating statistics compare modern-day Ireland to the country in 1916

Read: Dragon’s Den star Peter Casey wants to give rural Ireland a boost if he gets into the Seanad

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