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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

BallyK ballyhoo

I know that someone in Ireland watched Ballykissangel. While I never saw it here myself, I do remember seeing it listed the RTÉ Guide. It’s just that I can’t recall ever talking to someone in Ireland who had seen it. The few times it has come up in conversation, it always seems to elicit a vague sense of recognition. But I have yet to meet someone (and this is admittedly miniscule sampling of Irish people) who claims to have watched it on any kind of regular basis.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. The Missus’s only Irish sister-in-law (who hails from County Wicklow, where the series was filmed) seemed quite familiar with the series when it came up in conversation and she seemed to be an avid viewer. On the other hand, I once heard the Missus’s only Scottish brother-in-law, who lives a stone’s throw from Avoca, the village where the series was filmed, dismiss it as a quaint anglicized view of Ireland.

I am just not in a position to judge how close to their hearts the people of Ireland hold this series. It never seemed to be as prominent in the public consciousness as, say, the tawdry rural soap opera Glenroe (also filmed in Wicklow). I don’t think this has to do with the BBC involvement in its production. British producers certainly didn’t stop the republic from embracing the breathlessly irreverent Father Ted. And it clearly didn’t have to do with a lack of Irish talent participating in the series. Just about every actor in Eire seemed to pop up at one time or another, although a few Brits were in evidence too.

My suspicion is that a lot of Irish people watched the show but didn’t go advertising the fact. The Irish always seem to be on guard to keep a distance from anything that might be of use to the tourist board. And Ballykissangel did make Ireland seem a lovely place to be. For a start, I can remember precious few episodes where it actually rained.

No, the people who regularly and unabashedly proclaim to me their love for this television series are the Americans. They have clearly taken it to their heart, as was particularly evident at the end of October, when the America-based Christian Film & Television Excellence Society heaped several awards on the program. Americans who love Ireland (and a heck of a lot of them do) have been drawn to Ballykissangel, even though it can be darn hard to find on the television dial (PBS affiliates), depending on where you live. Personally, I started capturing the series on my (now much lamented) TiVo in an effort to assuage the Missus’s homesickness. I naively thought maybe it would make life in the U.S. easier for her to bear. Silly me. We ended up moving to Ireland anyway.

At first, she pretended not to be interested in BallyK. After all, it wasn’t even about the west of Ireland. But before long, we both became mildly addicted to it. Its mixture of comedy and melodrama went down easy, and at the end of the day, it really was like a brief visit to Ireland.

But, in watching the series, I always had slight sense of déjà vu. It all seemed vaguely familiar somehow. Eventually, it hit me. I developed a strong suspicion that BallyK was actually an Irish remake of the American series Northern Exposure. The parallels were too strong to ignore. Both were about small towns that were idyllically remote. Northern Exposure was set in Alaska, America’s last frontier (but actually filmed in Washington state; exteriors in the Cascade town of Roslyn, interiors in the Seattle suburbs, a scant mile from my own front door). BallyK was set in Wicklow, but it was a Wicklow that seemed leagues away from the urban problems of the nearby Dublin metropolis. Both towns were more or less run by an entrepreneurial autocrat: Cicely by Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin), BallyK by Brian Quigley (the late Tony Doyle). The running storylines involved sexual tension between a feisty young woman and a young professional outsider assigned to the town (the New York doctor and his bush pilot landlady in Northern Exposure, the English priest and the publican in BallyK). The supporting cast of both series included an independent-minded lady shopkeeper as well as local handymen, whose sometimes crazy schemes provided the series’ humor. The parallels seemed endless.

Mostly what the two series had in common was a vision of community, where people of all political and religious persuasions could live in harmony and form something like an extended family. In a way, the town of Cicely, Alaska, was the way many Americans would have liked to see themselves in the 1990s—just as the Mayberry of The Andy Griffith Show represented how many Americans wanted to see themselves in the 1960s. Northern Exposure was particularly soothing, coming on the heels of another seminal TV series about American small-town life (and which also used Pacific Northwest locations), David Lynch’s twisted and dark Twin Peaks.

So, the question remains: was Ballykissangel an expression of how the Irish would like to see themselves? Or how everyone else would like to see Ireland? The truth is: the Irish don’t need a television series to perceive themselves. Like Europeans in general, they know who they are. They didn’t have to invent their country. It has been here for ages. The idea of having to define themselves is as alien to them as, well, a dry winter. They would rather look at movies and television and point out how they do not reflect the real Ireland.

Still, a lot that occupies the Irish mind these days did find its way into Ballykissangel. Gentrification of rural areas, the relevance of Catholicism at the dawn of the 21st century, the return of Irish living abroad: it’s all there. Ballykissangel may be a mythical place. But, like all myths, it is based on some element of truth.

-S.L., 14 November 2002

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