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Inspired by his boxer grandfather and his granny, Daniel Kelly's play on the effects of dementia packs a powerful punch

Ahead of the opening night of A Thought for Your Pennies, the actor and writer tells Linda Stewart the play is both challenging and humorous and why the venue is so special


Daniel Kelly has written a new play based on his boxer grandfather, Harry

Daniel Kelly has written a new play based on his boxer grandfather, Harry

Daniel Kelly rehearsing for his new play, A Thought for Your Pennies

Daniel Kelly rehearsing for his new play, A Thought for Your Pennies

Harry Fagan

Harry Fagan

Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly

Teresa Fagan

Teresa Fagan

Daniel’s grandparents, Harry and Teresa

Daniel’s grandparents, Harry and Teresa


Daniel Kelly has written a new play based on his boxer grandfather, Harry

Actor and playwright Daniel Kelly (29) cites his late grandfather, professional boxer Harry Fagan, as one of the inspirations for his first play, A Thought for Your Pennies, which is being staged by Tinderbox Theatre Company from tomorrow as part of the EastSide Arts Festival.

The fictional tale tells the story of Ray, a young man who was raised by his grandfather, an international boxer who gradually begins to show signs of dementia.

As Ray's boxing takes off, his granda's health regresses as he develops a common condition among older fighters called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which causes rapid deterioration.

Ray must learn to transition from being his granda's student to becoming his carer while also dealing with his own boxing career, the girl he loves and the everyday struggles of life.

While it's a fictional tale, Daniel draws on his memories of his grandfather, Harry Fagan, who died when he was just seven - and what is particularly touching is that the play debuts at St Matthews Sports and Social Club in the Short Strand, the club where his grandfather fought for so many years.

"He did well as a boxer - he fought for about 10 years professionally and, according to my uncle, Gerry, he was a hard enough guy in the ring," Daniel says.

"My grandfather fought for St Matthews - that was his club. The whole family is originally from the Short Strand, so it's really nice to be able to bring it there."

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Many of the scenes depicted in the play are based on Daniel's own life. "There's a scene where the granda is talking Ray through his first boxing lesson - I remember that. I remember watching a fight with him when I was young. The granda is an amalgamation of my granda and my uncles, not a direct depiction of him," he explains.

But there's another key figure in Daniel's life who has been even more of an influence in forming the character of the granda in the play - his beloved granny, Teresa Fagan, who was Harry's wife.

While Daniel grew up in the Co Down village of Killough, he lived for many years with his granny in Beechmount - and it was she who inspired the heart-rending tale of the dementia that gradually steals a loved one's memories and personality.

Daniel says the whole family noticed the early signs of what would eventually develop into vascular dementia, and these began to grow more and more pronounced.

"She wouldn't recognise some of the aunts and uncles and she would confuse them with each other," he explains.

"When she was talking to the grandkids, she would go through 14 names until she got to the right one.

"As it developed more and more, it became obvious that I couldn't be there all the time, doing a full-time degree and working and running after her.

"Everyone was starting to take nights with her - there would be two of you staying over - because she was a flight risk. The number of times I went running round the street after her... I wanted to put a sat nav thing on her ankle.

"It's not possible for any family to be able to look after someone like that 24/7."

His granny now lives in Fruithill Nursing Home in Andersonstown.

"It was a challenge to find the right place for her, but they are great there," Daniel says.

"She still breaks out all the time. She loves going on her wee walks."

It's a testament to the love and esteem in which the family holds Teresa that her story has also inspired Daniel's sister, singer Cora Kelly.

The young performer is probably best known for her emotive song Moments, a touching composition written about her grandmother's dementia.

Earlier this year, a profile of Cora was published in the Belfast Telegraph and the spread was shown to Teresa.

"She said, 'It's says here that I have dementia - I don't have dementia'. We had to tell her it was about my sister's other granny," Daniel says.

"Black humour is our speciality and it is the only way to deal with things sometimes."

Daniel and Cora were brought up in Killough, close to Ardglass, but their parents, Maura and Laurence Kelly, originally moved there from the Short Strand in east Belfast, like many of their neighbours.

"There are a lot of people in Killough who came from the Short Strand and the Markets. It was a great place to grow up," he says.

"I went to St Patrick's Grammar School in Downpatrick and was boxing from when I was about 13 or 14. Because my grandpa was a professional boxer back in the day, it was something I was drawn to. Lots of my friends boxed and we trained together in Killough."

Daniel admits he certainly had no notion of becoming an actor when he was growing up.

"That came in more by accident. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. It was something I never gave a huge amount of thought to. I was always very present in the moment," he says.

"I worked as a plumber for five years. I worked in the building sites in Belfast, but it ended when the economy went belly-up. I found myself back in the tech in Downpatrick and I got into Queen's after that."

Daniel embarked on a degree in Film Studies at Queen's at the age of 23, so he was a few years older than his fellow students.

"My classmates took great joy in reminding me every day - and still do," he says.

He had to pick an elective module and it was almost by sheer chance that he chose Theatre and Performance with David Grant.

But within weeks he was hooked and ended up switching to do a full-time drama degree.

"I finished the drama degree in 2016 and I got my first professional job while I was still at Queen's," Daniel says.

"It was a play called Tartan about the tartan gangs in Belfast in the Seventies, who were a UVF youth gang. The play went down really well and it was a great learning curve for me.

"Then I just kept going from strength to strength, doing everything, every project I could get my hands on and every play I could get into just to keep learning."

Over the next five years he "had a ball" performing with a host of theatre companies in Belfast, including Pintsized Productions and also the Replay Theatre Company, with which he played in the futuristic adventure Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World.

"I've done lots of different wee projects and lots of bigger ones. It's the life of an actor - you've got to roll with the punches," he says.

The seed for Daniel's first written play was planted five years ago, when he was still at Queen's and had a cast on his arm from a boxing injury, which sparked a conversation with lecturer Dr Mark Phelan.

"That's how we got talking about boxing and acting," Daniel says.

"He was interested in doing a boxing play. The play we were looking at was set in Dublin, but we couldn't get the rights, so he urged me to start putting pen to paper.

"At the time my grandmother was affected by dementia and I couldn't really see past that. That's when the idea came.

"I stopped trying to write a play and I wrote about what was going on in my life through the backdrop of boxing. That is how it came about.

"I submitted ideas for the play to Tinderbox and they developed it. That's how it came into being."

Daniel plays the two characters, Ray and his grandfather. The play charts how Ray is finding success as his granda begins to succumb to dementia, and how that distorts both their lives.

"There's more than one victim with dementia," he says.

The play is stuffed full of humour, as well as tragedy.

"It deals with every aspect of it. Certain things, when you're living with someone with dementia, can be impossibly funny and then there's times you'll have your heart broken, often in the same day," Daniel says.

"My grandmother knows about the play, but she probably only knows for about five or 10 minutes. You ask her a question in 15 minutes and she thinks she's talking to my cousin."

Because so many people in Killough are from the Short Strand and many remember his grandfather, the play is almost sold out, with crowds of friends and family planning to come along this Saturday.

"Everybody has been super-supportive - the aunties are picking up the Kleenex," says Daniel.

"It's a close community in Killough and you couldn't ask for better support. There are buses of them coming up on Saturday... they'll be climbing through the windows.

"I'm playing the two characters, so it's tricky. It's a new thing for me. I've played multi-roles before, but in this play I'm playing people I know, which is always a bit strange."

For the play to be held in St Matthews Sports and Social Club is an incredible privilege.

"The play is largely based on my own life and deals with boxing and dementia. My own grandfather, along with his brother, Gerry, both boxed for St Matthews," Daniel says.

"My mother and father are both originally from the Short Strand, and for me to open my first play there is a proud moment."

Tinderbox presents A Thought for Your Pennies, written and performed by Daniel Kelly, for EastSide Arts Festival. It runs at St Matthews Sports and Social Club, Mountforde Road, Belfast, from tomorrow until Saturday at 8pm. Tickets cost £8 and may be booked via www.eastsidearts.net or by calling 028 9024 6609

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