DARAGH O’Malley is probably one of the most interesting actors I have ever had the pleasure to interview.

Not only is he a gifted star of stage and screen well-known to the public thanks to his having played Patrick Harper in Sharpe since the series began in 1992, but his family background is completely fascinating.

His father Donogh, once engaged to Richard Harris’s sister, Audrey (who died during their engagement), was Irish Minister for Education from 1966-68, introducing the free secondary and third level education system in Ireland.

And his mother Hilda, a doctor, was the subject of Patrick Kavanagh’s legendary love poem On Raglan Road.

He’s coming to Basingstoke to star as Father Jack – no, not that Father Jack! - in Brian Friel’s equally legendary 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa, which begins its run here. The story of the Munday sisters and their brother, who reside the fictional Donegal village of Ballybeg, it has been regarded as a contemporary classic since its premiere.

Quite unbelievably, in a career like his, it’s the first time Daragh’ll have starred in one of Friel’s works.

“That’s the reason I’m in this one!” he erupts. “It’s a masterpiece. It’s been ten years since I last did a play (in Los Angeles) so I am quite excited. And scared, too.

“I was actually at the original opening night of the play at The Abbey (in Dublin) and the main focus that night was the sisters and Jack was an addendum. He didn’t get his time to shine. Here’s a guy from Donegal who obviously had a secondary education and went off for 25 years to a leper colony. He has a soul. The role is really well written but it’s a role that can be lost so I am happy to have a go at my interpretation of who Jack is.

“When we hear his stories of Uganda, we realise there is no religion in Ireland, not really. The religion is repressed. There’s repression of sexuality, fear of the Catholic Church, fear of invasion by pagans. No acceptance by the church of how we live whereas Jack’s every living breathing moment in Uganda, when they eat etc, is a religious ceremony given to their goddess. Friel’s commentary is so subtle.

“It’s only when I focused on it that you think, wow, this is really something special. In generations to come, they’ll realise what an indictment of how we live our lives in Ireland it is. I think it will be a wonderful production.”

Born in Dublin, Daragh left Ireland a long time ago for the bright lights of LAMDA. His career has taken him to America for spells but he now lives in Portugal after an ill-fated return to his homeland.

“I don’t have a family but I have a wife, my parrot and my dog Paddy. We came back from California and bought a house in Ireland but the Ireland I came back to wasn’t the Ireland I left. We went to sell the house and we haven’t sold it yet and we moved to Portugal two years ago.

“The house has been on the market for 20 months and it hasn’t had one viewing. Listen, I think Ireland is a great place to be from, if you know what I mean. I was working there during the summer on a TV series in Dublin and it’s really depressing. It used to be really vibrant, the rock capital, but I don’t know what it’s the capital of now.

“Dublin was always there was a germ of ideas, an avante garde frontier, something happening, a bohemian shade to things. But it’s absolutely, as Sean O’Casey says ‘null and void’. It’s so sad.

“The Irish haven’t got the facilities. I was in California when Silicon Valley collapsed and thousands were all out of work. That was a Friday but they were back in action on Monday morning doing something else where Paddy will sit down and say ‘I’ve lost my job. What am I going to do now?’”.

He adds resignedly: “You never really leave Ireland; I don’t know what it is about it. I find myself even if I am in London for a little while, buying The Irish Independent again every morning. It’s actually an affliction.”

Getting away from this sad subject, let’s move on to his most recent project, The Sharpe’s Children’s Foundation, which he set up after a Sharpe filming trip to India a few years ago.

“We were sat by the banks of a river shooting Sharpe’s Peril watching maybe 30 or 40 children bathing in a receding river, swimming away in a river of sewage. The boisterous actors unusually fell silent and we all felt something had to be done.

“When we came back to London – as if the world needs another charity - I investigated how we could best serve the children we left behind. The need for a foundation was quite compelling and it became obvious that education was the only way. These children die in abject poverty and no one in the media covers it. Being weak in life seems to make you more invisible in death.

“We hope to start construction on the first Sharpe education centre in July and all 220 children it will help will be first generation learners, no one in their families having ever gone to school before.”

And he has roped in help from anyone and everyone, including of course, Sharpe’s key cast member Sean Bean.

“Sean said, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it’ (Daragh imitates Sean’s accent perfectly). So we had our launch in October in the Duke of Wellington’s house at the bottom of Park Lane. He’s never allowed it to be used but I wrote to him and four months later I got a reply saying, ‘Yes, I like the way my ancestors are depicted in your television series. I will allow 100 people but there will be no red wine, no red spirits and no Coca Cola. No red drinks as you’ll damage the pictures.’

“Nearly everyone showed up. I don’t know if you’ll appreciate the difficulty of getting Sean to spruce up and turn up but he was there and actors and supporters from Sharpe. Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) was in Sharpe and I am trying to get him to offer a set visit prize.”

Sounds like a fantastic idea. How glad is he that he secured a job in such a successful series, in addition to all of his other projects?

“I was amazingly lucky to get a series like Sharpe. I was living and working in Los Angeles when it was being made. It’s found a second life on satellite and cable. It’s huge in the army – they see different things in every episode. At the launch of the charity and I said to Sean, you know, we’re gay icons. He says, ‘You what?! What are you on about?’

“I am very lucky. I have worked and travelled all over the world and taken great joy from what I have been allowed to do. So many actors are out of work every single day that I am so, so grateful I’m still doing what I set out to do.”

*See Daragh in Dancing at Lughnasa at the Haymarket from Wednesday, January 26 until Saturday, January 29. Tickets are available from the box office on 01256 844244 or online at anvilarts.org.uk.

Further information on the Sharpe Children’s Foundation is available online at sharpeschildren.com.