The Weir actor Frankie McCafferty discusses ghost stories and character roles

He might still be most widely known for his role in hit 90s TV show Ballykissangel but Donegal actor Frankie McCafferty has been much in demand on stage and screen on both sides of the border ever since. He talks to Joanne Sweeney about treading the boards in his adoptive hometown of Belfast

Frankie McCafferty is performing in The Weir at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

FRANKIE McCafferty is probably one of the best known faces in Irish film, screen and stage, but always in a supporting character role, never the leading man.

Those who remember BBC Northern Ireland's Irish soap drama Ballykissangel (1996-2001) starring Stephen Tompkinson and Dervla Kirwan, will know of McCafferty as the hapless villager Donal Docherty who always seemed to be around when things were happening.

More recently, he appeared as Jemmy Fox in the hit Barry Devlin-penned BBC wartime drama series from last year, My Mother and Other Strangers, and also as Sinric on the History Channel-produced historical drama series Vikings.

The 50-year-old from Donegal is now performing in Conor McPherson's hit play The Weir at the Lyric Belfast, alongside north Belfast actress Kerri Quinn.

Written when the Dublin playwright, was just 26, the play is regarded as a modern theatre classic. It was voted one of the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century in a poll conducted by the Royal National Theatre, London.

For a travelling theatre troubadour like McCafferty, having a chance to play in his adopted hometown of Belfast, where he lives with his wife and young son, is much appreciated.

He's full of praise for the play, which won the Laurence Olivier award for Best Play in 1999.

"It’s a night in the pub in rural Leitrim," he says. "On the surface, it's four men in the bar and a newcomer, a woman, who has just moved into the area, and they tell stories.

"It’s as simple as that but it’s an extraordinarily effective play in that they all tell ghost stories, which is an Irish tradition. It starts off with a folk story about the fairies. The next story is a little stranger and the next one, mine, is even darker, and then the woman herself shares a personal story about something that happened to her.

"The play really weaves a spell and there’s something quite magical about it. It really sucks you in and there’s all the humour and the language you expect from four men in a pub."

He plays a 30-something bachelor Jim who still lives at home with his mammy, who's said to have been "fading fast for many years".

"Jim is the quietest of the men but the story he tells changes the whole camber of the storytelling and the young woman, Valerie, feels the need to then tell her story."

Storytelling and performance runs in McCafferty's family. He remembers fondly a ghost story that his maternal grandfather, Harry Gallagher, used to tell him and his five elder siblings.

"It was a tradition of ours that my grandfather told us ghost stories, although he wouldn’t have described himself as a storyteller," he says.

"He had a fantastic one called Johnny Martin and the Fairies and it was a real epic. The opening is really chilling and there are versions of it all over the country but his began with him missing the last train from Derry to Donegal and deciding to walk home along the train tracks rather than wait for the morning.

"He and Johnny Martin find two guys carrying a coffin who ask for help because they can't manage it and that’s where the story begins. It's an incredible yarn and it goes into another world as the side of the hillside opens up and the other side is the fairy world."

Frankie McCafferty with The Weir co-star, north Belfast actress Kerri Quinn

McCafferty has already performed in The Weir, earlier this year in Dublin's Gaiety theatre, and elsewhere in the south.

He says: "This is our third time out with it and we are still finding new things in it. As an actor, you don’t get bored with a play like this. It’s an astonishing piece of writing and Conor has an incredible ear for dialogue.”

As well as TV, McCafferty has appeared in highly popular Irish films such as In The Name of the Father, (1993), Angela's Ashes (1999), Philomena (2013) and Shooting For Socrates (2014) over the past 25 years. I ask him if he would like a part in a television drama again.

"Yes, I would, of course and I would love to get more interesting parts too,” he adds. “Obviously, I’m a character actor and I’ve never really been interested in being a leading man but there are character roles that are very interesting that I would love to get into.

"The problem is getting them. I remember talking to a director of a play and I mentioned a role that I would like to play and his answer was 'I can't really see you in that' and that was it. It can be so frustrating because they haven’t the imagination that you have."

He says that he can't remember not wanting to perform and thinks he got that from his father Desy who played all over Ireland with his uncle in the Paddy McCafferty band during in the big band era.

He ended up studying in Galway with the intention of becoming a teacher, but his mother put him off that idea.

"I thought I would go into teaching but my mum said to me, 'We already have teachers in the family, that’s a bit boring isn’t it?' So they were both very supportive of my acting and once I got into drama at university, that was it then".

Life at the Lyric has been good to McCafferty; he won the 2003 Irish Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actor in Frank McGuinness's Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme and was also nominated for Best Actor for playing Dinzee Conlee in John B Keane's dark play Sharon's Grave.

He's also in the new play by Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty, Fire Below: A War of Words, opening during next month's Belfast festival.

"It's a satire on the Ulster middle classes and I'm very excited about it. It's a fantastic character role and one of those interesting roles that I like to get," the actor says.

:: The Weir is at the Lyric theatre, Belfast, until September 30; Fire Below: A War of Words runs from October 12 -29, also at the Lyric. For more details and booking see

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