‘Father Ted’. An Irish comedy institution. Wonderful satire and just a good giggle. On Sunday last, Ireland lost a great comedian and gentleman, star of the nineties Irish hit show ‘Father Ted’ Frank Kelly. Kelly was 77 years old when he passed, after a time of illness. In an interesting twist, he passed away on the 18th anniversary of the passing of his co star, Dermot Morgan who played the protagonist Fr Ted himself.
This may not mean a lot to you in another country. You may never have heard of these comedians or this show. Just believe me when I say that this comedy is not just popular beyond belief in Ireland, but was intrinsic in mirroring our quirky culture to us in a humorous way. Like most successful shows, it made three series only and one special. People may have been insulted in 1995 when the show first aired. Appalled Irish citizens, in disbelief at the blasphemous path this ‘comedy’ was taking. No one had dared take a pop at the priests before and if so, not to this level. Were we allowed laugh? Was it OK to tune in weekly? Should you even mention to the neighbours that you caught ten minutes? Yes, the catholic church has taken many hits in the last twenty years as corruptions are exposed, cover ups revealed and awful tragedies are grieved. Rightly, the Vatican must answer. Yet I do believe that staunchly catholic Ireland was laughing at ‘Father Ted’ before the church was under scrutiny, and as a culture, we felt ‘allowed’ to do so. Originally it was the young who knew the show. Now I would find it impossible to find an Irish person who can’t quote the show at the drop of a hat, identifying situation similiarities in the everyday or who hasn’t nicknmaed a colleague or friend after the show all because of the extreme popularity (and I say genius) of ‘Father Ted’.
I was fifteen when Ted first arrived on our screens. Most certainly it was frowned upon as it was a no holds barred comedic set up of an Irish parochial house, the people living there and Irish catholicism in general. The jokes were risky at the time ( Father Ted being noticeably aroused by attractive writer Polly Clarkson) and it was hardly surprising it wasn’t aired on an Irish TV channels, but a British one. This show was hysterical to us. We always spent the next day at school talking about it. Did you see the bit where Mrs Doyle fell out the window…wasn’t it gas when Jack threw the bottle at the telly. ..God, wasn’t it brilliant when Ted kicked Bishop Brennan up the arse!
Remember, we were the age where ‘Friends’ and ‘My So Called Life’ were taking over TV. ‘X-Files’. ‘ER’ . A golden age! I believe however that Fr Ted by far boasts the most longevity in remaining part of our lives and even filtering our vernacular.
Ted Crilly was placed on Craggy Island, remote, western and free of opportunities for excitement or fun with two priests considered dead losses. Fr Jack is old, alcoholic, sleazy and hates nuns. Hates people too.
Fr Dougal doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together. As Ted quips, ‘ how exactly did you become a priest Dougal was it like collect ten packets of crisps?’.Dougal is played by Ardal O’Hanlon who portrays this young priest as a young boy, innocent and harmless. He is more interested in jam and films and seems oblivious to his position in life. Ted was clearly punished with this placement. This is funny to us as we know it happens in real life. Occasionally Ted has to defend charity bound money that was ‘only resting’ in his account, giving us some idea of the previous scandal he was punished for. Priests don’t get fired. They get punished. Anyone who has seen ‘Spotlight’ will painfully learn how far and wrongly that policy went. Ted is a gentle comedy that addresses these truths making us laugh.
Jack is one of the most iconic fictional characters of my time.’Drink.Feck. Girls’. This catchhrase was so inappropriate and immoral in the nineties, from the mouth of a priest, we giggled in horrified fashion delighted with the naughtiness of it all. Flashbacks into Jack’s past nod to the Christian Brothers’ schools and the revelations of cruelty and violence there. We see him leer at women. We see him shout and roar.
In his retirement, he drinks excessively, even downing the floor polish when nothing else suffices. Jack is an unpleasant, selfish human with no mercy in him. There is nothing funny about this on paper! Frank Kelly brought Jack to life with comedy and we find him hilarious to watch and imagine.Fr Jack on the loose, unsupervised falling into an AA meeting by accident, having his glasses stolen by crows or shoving the Holy Stone of Clonrickert into a Bishop’s butt to shut him up are funny to watch time and time again.
I defy anyone not to laugh at Jack on a roundabout on his chair, open mouthed in delight or telling Mrs Doyle what she can do with her cup of tea. ‘What do you say to a cup Father?’.
Many years ago I did a college diploma in journalism. The graduation ceremony was unusual, unlike my others. We were in a lecture hall in Dublin. Normal. We were called up and given our diplomas. Average. We were made pose as a group on stage smiling at our proud families like the last scene in a children’s nativity. Weird! This strange arrangement afforded me the chance to see who had been sitting behind myself and my family all the time. Frank Kelly. Beside myself, I was almost pointing and shouting to my sister, ‘Behind you, look behind you Father Jack!’. I spent the rest of the ceremony staring whilst trying not to get caught. A distinguished, well spoken gentlemen, proudly smiling with his graduate, it proved what a marvellous comic actor this man was to morph from Phileas Fogg into Jack Hackett for screen.
Recently I blogged about tea. Happily I found a blogging friend, blogging friendKatystuff was interested in what I had to say and I intrigued her with my definitions of ‘tea’. We had a good online chat and she then blogged her versions of tea in the US and her impressions of tea from her Irish genes. This was great! In my fumbling attempts to explain I had directed her to Fr Ted and Mrs Doyle ( the character, housekeeper to the priests) as giving excellent parodies of social occasions in Ireland involving tea! Little was I to know that I would blog about the show so quickly after due to the sad passing of Frank Kelly.
So to Mrs Doyle. Smiling, yet harried.Stooping, craggy and prune faced, yet full of energy.
This character satirises the traditional stereotyped Irish woman. The Mammy. The housekeeper. The working woman. She is expected to wear skirts. She is expected to cook and clean. She blatantly laughs at the good of a female lawyer arriving to the house from Corless, Corless and Sweeney. She is appalled by women who act outside their stereotype. Mrs Doyle can be found on the kitchen or scrubbing. Hyperbole is used beautifully to highlight the point as Mrs Doyle makes tea, sandwiches, and cleans but takes her role to the next level. She loves the milkman. She is obsessed with a country singer called Eoin McLove (thinly disguised Daniel O’Donnell). She also works on the roof. Digs holes in the garden. Baths Dougal McGuire.
Playing up a sexist Ireland is vital to the comedy of this show. From Mrs Doyle to parodying yearly actual Irish event ( not a pageant seemingly) ‘The Rose of Tralee’ with their own ‘Lovely Girls Competition’, we watched our attitudes on screen and laughed at ourselves.
I like to think we are much less sexist here now. I recently watched reruns of the US Celebrity Apprentice from 2012 and was bewildered at attitudes and comments that we would shun here now as unequal and sexist. Trump and his family (looking suspiciously like Twilight’s Volturi) barely bat an eye.
Maybe Ireland is progressing past its peers? After all we have had two female presidents in the last twenty years! This is a topic for again however as I don’t want to shake temperaments pre a US election! Who knows what’s coming down the line!
Lenton sacrifices also get the Ted treatment. The boys are challenged by their dreaded enemies, the priests on Rugged Island, led by Fr Dick Byrne, to a glorified ‘giving things up’ competition. The temptations of alcohol, cigarettes and, um, rollerblading pose an impossibility to give up and the big guns are called in. Boot camp style nun Sister Assumpta!! The tactics employed by the sister are questionable…and hysterical.
The lasting image however from the lenten episode is that of that of John from ‘John and Mary’, shop owners in a ‘behind closed doors’ mutually violent relationship that is always glossed over as marvellous in public, smoking in front of a fasting Ted. The words ‘lovely fags’ (slang for cigarettes) pop up on screen as he thoroughly enjoys the tobacco intake. On many occasions have I seen someone desperately trying to quit the habit with the same look on their face.
‘Fr Ted’ made the nineties unforgettable by placing many of its memorable moments in front of us. Like I said before, placing a mirror to our culture, showing us the truth but making us laugh. In the nineties, Ireland had a spate of wins with Eurovision, we were getting cocky with our talents! Linda Martin, Niamh Kavanagh and Eimear Quinn brought us three outright wins. The funny part is that along with kudos and glory part of the prize is getting to host the competition the following year. By win three, the Irish bank balance was looking dodgy and the organisers were getting itchy. It became widely thought that we deliberately sent our lesser powerful songs as we almost tried to lose the game. We just hadn’t the funds! The same thing happens in Ted. Ted and Dougal’s terrible but extremely memorable ballad ‘My Lovely Horse’ is brought to Eurovision much to their delight. Carefully chosen due to its awfulness, it gains ‘nul points’ across the board. Years later, many a busy Saturday night in Dublin,Cork or Galway, the lyrics to the wonderful ‘My Lovely Horse’ can be heard belted out across a joyful crowd. I have often given a bar or two of it myself.
My lovely horse Listen to the wonderful tune and watch the video somewhat inspired by country Irish band Foster and Allen!
Ireland’s teens were hooked! We were to see ourselves reflected however, in all our arrogant,somewhat over privileged, hormone raging, video gaming obsessed states through the character of Fr Damo. Fr Damo, bad influence on Dougal encourages rebelliousness and cheek, just wants to play games and even does the odd bit of smoking and stealing. Right on trend he puts the big question of the time to Dougal: ‘Oasis or Blur?’. It was so accurate. You just weren’t allowed listen to both in our nineties school, one or the other, as the feud between the bands found its way to the playground. The pop version of choosing between Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Your entire street credit rate depended on your answer …and who you were talking to!
Fr Damo see the moment here!
The show also addressed the idea of censorship by the church in the most comical fashion with long lasting effects. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ film wasn’t to air until 2006. I remember I was travelling at the time and watched it in a Lima cinema. Everyone recalls the controversial aspects of the film and the reaction of the Vatican. I don’t remember a priest actually picketing an Omniplex, yet their side and opinions were clear- and often addressed from the pulpit. ‘Fr Ted’ managed to predict the reaction however with the arrival in the Craggy Island cinema of blue movie ‘The Passion of St Tibulus’.
Ted and Dougal are ordered by the authoritarian somewhat Stalinesque Bishop Len Brennan to picket the cinema and oppose the film .
Naturally they have to see it first to know what the problem is. They then take to the picket. Jack doesn’t bat an eye as he barrels past them to have a look at the potentially raunchy blockbuster. The whole plot is a brilliant send up of censorship and the power of the church to stop people from reading or watching unsuitable material. Harry Potter novels and Dan Brown’s famous thriller were to get this treatment in their course. I love that these books and novels came after the creators of the comedy showed us and were based on previous banned books and films such as Edna O Brien’s magnificent offerings.
In Ireland, when strikes are mentioned, tempers flaring and contentious issues may be raised, someone is sure to say, ‘Down with that sort of thing!’ and get the cautious reply, ‘Careful now…’ with the exact motions and gestures of Ted and Dougal. They are assured to win a wry laugh!
Watch the picket! I defy you not to laugh. Watch out for the ladies portrayed against stereotype, explicit as opposed to carefully private.
In truth, this hit was a stroke of genius from comedy writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews.
The casting magic team of Morgan, O’Hanlon, McLynn and the marvellous Kelly (alongside many, many other smaller roles by excellent actors)never miss a beat. We learned to laugh at ourselves. This generation can have faith without fear. We now have a voice that Ireland was indeed missing. ‘Fr Ted’ has played a key role in giving us this freedom. Immorality, blasphemy and anarchy may now be available to us- but look at us! Now that we are ‘allowed’ chose, we really have chosen wisely. Ireland is now wonderfully more open minded. Look at our recent track record.We may not be perfect. Like Bus Eireann however, we are getting there! All by ourselves! Thank you Ted, Jack and Dougal.
Frank Kelly, Rest in Peace. 2016
Dermot Morgan, Rest in Peace. 1998
Finally, watch Jack run free in the forest. A wonderful actor. Fr Jack Hackett