Ballykissangel first appeared on our television screens a quarter of a century ago. A gentle-paced drama laced with Irish wit, it was a massive hit not only at home, but in Britain, America and Australia. Kay Doyle takes a look behind the Wicklow scenes, and uncovers a litany of familiar acting faces that had major roles to play in its success.
Announcing itself in a rather unorthodox fashion via a runaway confession box, Ballykissangel literally rolled itself on to our television screens twenty-five years ago, in February, 1996. It was the opening night of a hugely popular Sunday-night show that would attract ten million viewers at its peak, and run for six series.
Those six seasons were highly eventful as the programme produced drama, comedy and tragedy, both on and off the screen. It was a warmly received BBC-produced project that allowed a small breathtakingly picturesque Wicklow town, previously famous for its copper mines, to wallow in the limelight. And yet, Avoca wasn’t what the production team had in mind when they finalised their first script.
Ballykissangel was meant to be a town with a square, not linear, like Avoca, and there were plenty of alternatives dotted around Ireland that still had ready-made squares.
But once they had inhaled the beauty of its surrounding vale, famously celebrated in Thomas Moore’s song The Meeting of the Waters, their hearts were won.
With the River Avoca (translated from Gaelic as ‘great river’) flowing vivaciously under its bridge, the show’s creator, Kieran Prendiville, finally had a home for his project, which was to replicate a small town in Kerry where he had spent happy childhood holidays.
Kieran’s father grew up in Ballykissane (sound familiar?), outside Killorglin, before he moved across the water to Rochdale to practise medicine, and where son, Kieran, was born on Christmas Day, 1947.
Kieran attended Clongowes Wood College, in Kildare, following in the footsteps of his father. He had a successful career in television with the BBC and ITV, and Ireland’s Own readers may remember him presenting That’s Life in the mid-1970s, or later on the groundbreaking scientific series Tomorrow’s World. Football fans might recall him reporting on Saturday afternoon matches for Grandstand.
For ITV, he wrote scripts for hit shows like The Bill and Perfect Scoundrels, before he turned his attention to a new personal and Irish project, which he wanted to shoot on location in the land where his father was reared.
“I wanted to write something about the place where he took us on holidays,” he said when reflecting on Ballykissangel, “something that showed rural Ireland as the metaphorical breath of fresh air I knew it was.”