From Bardic to Bally K
Emma Heatherington tracks the marvellous career of the late Birdy Sweeney
As an 11-year-old, the late Edmund Sweeney earned his nickname 'Birdy' by imitating blackbirds on BBC Radio Ulster. The name stuck, his first name was dismissed, and he became known only by his nickname in a wonderful career as a comic, impersonator and much later, an actor on the small and silver screen.
‘I was christened Edmund, but it doesn’t mean a thing,’ he once said of his real name. ‘If someone whistled it at me I wouldn’t even turn around for them.’
Having suffered from diabetes since his thirties and a heart attack aged forty, it would appear that Sweeney's health was always against him.
This didn’t deter him from developing a fantastic acting career, which took off at a time when most people consider retirement. Despite being a celebrity in Ulster for many years, the father of eight from Dungannon did not begin acting professionally until the age of 57.
Sweeney's love of drama was nurtured in the early days by many theatre performances in Northern Ireland including Owen McCafferty’s The Private Picture Show and Marie Jones’ adaptation of The Government Inspector.
He also treaded the boards at Donaghmore’s Bardic Theatre, where he is still remembered fondly by all those who had the pleasure of working with him. In 1997 he was invited back to Bardic to present over fifty young people from the south Tyrone area with Skills of the Stage certificates.
‘I am quite sure if I had the opportunity in my own youth that Bardic offers young people nowadays, my road to Ballykissangel might have been somewhat shortened,’ said Sweeney, in a special foreword he penned for Bardic’s production of Pool’s Paradise.
‘Indeed, my involvement in that fine production, The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolff Mankowitch, still shines through as the highlight of my career.’
Undoubtedly, Sweeney's career had many highlights, but if it wasn’t for the suggestion of his eldest son, Terence, that Sweeney audition for a film role Terence himself was trying for, his acting career may never have taken the route it did.
Before long, he notched up an impressive list of acting credits which featured him in Neil Jordan’s Oscar nominated The Crying Game, the film of Roddy Doyle’s novel The Snapper, and the big screen interpretation of Frank McCourt’s Limerick memoir, Angela’s Ashes.
Sweeney was soon in demand. In 1996 he became a household name as the loveable sheep farmer Eamonn Byrne in Ballyskissangel.
The long-running drama series, which launched the careers of Dervla Kirwan and Stephen Tomkinson, explored village life in rural Ireland and was filmed in Avoca, south of Dublin in the Wicklow hills.
When Sweeney's character, Eamonn, was elevated into a more prominent role following his popularity with viewers, the actor couldn’t believe the recognition that Ballykissangel brought.
‘It’s incredible. I had a letter from a sheep farmer in Texas. He wanted to know about sheep farming,’ he said with a smile.
Despite worldwide success, Sweeney was determined never to leave his home town of Dungannon, and travelled to and from filming sessions by train.
‘I will never leave there,’ he said, when asked about the tedious trek he made from Dungannon to Avoca several times a week.
'Luckily these days you don’t need to live in London or Dublin. Dungannon is only an hour away from anywhere’.
A gentle, unassuming man on set, Sweeney was quite unaware of the high regard he was held in amongst his fellow actors. He was a man whose deadpan humour on screen belied the open warmth he constantly radiated off screen.
His comic timing was impeccable. Such fine drama skills and humour quickly earned him the respect of his Ballykissangel colleagues who included Tony Doyle, Tina Kellegher, Niall Toibin, Lorcan Cranitch and of course Colin Farrell, who played Eamonn’s nephew, Danny Byrne.
‘The first day I ever worked on Ballykissangel was with Birdy, and most of my scenes were with him,’ said Farrell when asked about his early memories on set in Avoca.
‘I never, ever either lost a friend or a member of my family before, so Birdy was the closest person to me that I lost. I'm glad I got to work with him. He was a brilliant man with a heart of gold.’
In another interview for BBC, Farrell, who has since found fame in Hollywood starring alongside movie icons such as Tom Cruise (Collateral) and Angelina Jolie (Alexander), was asked which episode of Ballykissangel he was most fond of.
‘Any scene with Birdy Sweeney would by far be my favourite work. He was such a pleasure to work with and just a gorgeous, gorgeous man. He was my Ma’s favourite character by a mile.’
Sweeney died from a suspected heart attack on April 11, 1999, at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. He was filming the fifth series of Ballykissangel at the time and a special appearance in BBC’s Give My Head Peace was due to be aired only weeks later.
Whilst the departure of his character Eamonn was never explained in the Ballykissangel script, the second episode of series 5 was dedicated to him. Over a thousand gathered for his funeral in his beloved home town of Dungannon. He was sixty eight years old.