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Obituary: Birdy Sweeney

THE NORTHERN Irish character actor Birdy Sweeney will be best remembered for his role as the crafty old hill farmer Eamonn Byrne in the hugely popular BBC television series Ballykissangel.

With his long face, lank hair, and trademark woolly cap, Sweeney personified a certain rural Irish type, the solitary rustic who lives with his livestock, is suspicious of outsiders, and who always has an eye out for the main chance.

Born Edmund Sweeney in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, in 1931, he earned his nickname "Birdy" from his childhood ability to imitate bird calls, a talent which later brought him his first stage work, and on which he was able to call again when, in 1995, he played "Birdy" Doyle in the play The Only True History Of Lizzie Finn.

Sweeney was a latecomer to dramatic acting, first carving out a lengthy career as a stand-up comedian. In the early 1980s, after more than 30 years on the club circuit, and feeling increasingly out of sympathy with what he termed the "aggressive" style of the new "alternative" comedians, he found work as an extra in the BBC Northern Ireland production Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), which starred Kenneth Branagh.

In 1984, Sweeney appeared in the British-made film Every Picture Tells a Story, and then, in 1985, The End of the World Man, an Irish feature which told of an attempt to save a rural beauty spot from greedy land developers.

More significant was Joe Comerford's Reefer and the Model (1988), a dark- edged thriller co- written by Comerford and Eoghan Harris. The following year, aged 58, Sweeney made his stage drama debut at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in Bob Falls's prod- uction of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.

Although confined to minor roles, Sweeney's film credits included such prestigious works as Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), Stephen Frears's adaptation of Roddy Doyle's The Snapper (made for the BBC, but also given a cinema release, in 1993), and Jordan's The Butcher Boy (1997), based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McCabe. At the time of his death, Sweeney had completed work on Alan Parker's forthcoming adaptation of Frank McCourt's novel Angela's Ashes.

However, it was the Ballykissangel character of Eamonn Byrne with which Sweeney most identified, having spent a large part of his childhood in the countryside surrounding Dungannon. In one memorable episode, Byrne, chasing that Holy Grail of Irish agriculture, the EU subsidy, places cardboard cut-out sheep on the distant hills in an inventive, but doomed, attempt to feather his nest.

Speaking in 1997, Birdy Sweeney observed that "Every small rural community in Ireland has an Eamonn. He thinks he's cunning, but the fact of it is you can see through him right away." A regular since the show's first season in 1996, Sweeney had recently re-joined the cast and crew for the filming of a fifth series on location in Co Wicklow.

John Exshaw

Edmund "Birdy" Sweeney, actor: born Dungannon, Co Tyrone 14 June 1931; married (six sons, two daughters); died Dublin 11 May 1999.