Peter Caffrey: Padraig in 'Ballykissangel'

Peter Desmond Caffrey, actor: born Dublin 18 April 1949; married 1980 Brenda Banks (marriage dissolved 1990); died Manchester 1 January 2008
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The Independent Online

The actor Peter Caffrey found his greatest television success when he returned to his native Ireland in 1996 to play the dry-witted garage owner Padraig O'Kelly, a regular at Fitzgerald's bar, in the Sunday night comedy-drama Ballykissangel. The BBC series, based on its creator Kieran Prendiville's memories of childhood holidays in Co Kerry, quickly attracted up to 15 million viewers.

It began with the arrival in the sleepy village of Ballykissangel of an English priest, Father Peter Clifford (Stephen Tompkinson), who fell for the feisty bar owner Assumpta Fitzgerald (Dervla Kirwan). Padraig O'Kelly's estranged son Kevin (John Cleere) turned up and moved in with him and later he was shocked by the sudden return of his wife, Fionnuala (Frances Tomelty), who had left for London and a career as a lawyer soon after giving birth to Kevin. Padraig had turned to drink and his fight with the bottle proved to be Caffrey's biggest drama in the show.

Born in Dublin in 1949, Caffrey enjoyed acting in school plays but subsequently went to a seminary for two years with a view to becoming a priest (he later played one in Coronation Street). He came out an atheist and studied English at University College, Dublin, before teaching at a primary school for a year.

His chance to act came with the Project Theatre, in Dublin, where he also worked behind the scenes while sharing a flat with Liam Neeson. Caffrey's first screen appearance, alongside up-and-coming Irish actors such as Gabriel Byrne and Stephen Rea, was in the director Thaddeus O'Sullivan's experimental film On a Paving Stone Mounted (1978) about Irish immigrants in Britain.

After several roles in productions for the Irish television network RTE, Caffrey returned to the big screen in the acclaimed thriller Angel (1982), playing a rock band manager. He moved to London the following year when he starred in Children of a Lesser God at the Albery Theatre. His first television break came with the role of Danny, one of four alcoholics who meet in hospital in both series of the BBC comedy-drama I Woke Up One Morning (with Michael Angelis, Frederick Jaeger and Robert Gillespie, 1985-86).

A steady stream of screen parts followed, in the television play Shergar (for "Screen Two", 1986) and series such as Saracen (1989) and Casualty (1989), as well as the film Venus Peter (1989).

Then, in 1992, Caffrey was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth and told that most of his tongue would have to be removed. However, that was avoided when radical new radiotherapy treatment proved successful. It left him unable to speak properly, but he was acting again within nine months, taking the part of a bishop on screen in a black comedy set in Northern Ireland, Arise and Go Now ("Screenplay", 1991), despite the reaction of a BBC producer at his audition.

"The producer knew nothing about my illness and I could see his jaw dropping as I spoke," recalled Caffrey. "He asked me what the hell I was doing there. All the optimism I'd mustered went and I started heading for the door when the director said: 'Why shouldn't the bishop have a speech impediment?' He really went out on a limb for me." The director was Danny Boyle, who later made the cult film hit Trainspotting.

Before joining Ballykissangel, Caffrey played the Rolls-Royce-driving chauffeur Lloyd in Carla Lane's sitcom Luv (1993-94), about the rags-to-riches Liverpool couple Harold and Terese Craven (Michael Angelis and Sue Johnston) and their dysfunctional family.

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), another black comedy.

His other film roles included the villainous loudmouth Frank Grogan in the gangster picture I Went Down (a box-office success in the United States, 1997) and a transvestite in the thriller Night Train (starring John Hurt and Brenda Blethyn, 1998). On stage, he acted with the National Theatre Company in Whale, The Crucible and Piano.

Anthony Hayward