Father Ted, Ireland and the Irish

The cast from the TV series Father Ted. Credit: Channel 4

Father Ted, the brain child of two Irish comedians and writers, Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, ran for three series from 1995 – 1998 on Channel 4. It depicted the antics of three priests and their housekeeper, banished to live on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. Ted is there for embezzling money from the Church. (‘The money was just resting in my account!’ he protests continually.) Dougal for his involvement in the mysterious Blackrock incident which ‘irreparably damaged’ a number of people’s lives and Father Jack, a monosyllabic raging alcoholic, for something unnamed that he did at a wedding in Athlone.

The show attracted criticism from the Catholic church. The fact that it was shown in Ireland showed a significant change in society and the diminishing power of the church. In a Radio 4 documentary, Pauline McLynn, who played Mrs Doyle, recalled seeing Dave Allen on the BBC when as a child she visited family who lived in the border region. She was surprised that irreverent humour about the church, which she very much enjoyed, was permitted in the UK. Due to the influence of the Catholic church, Ireland was extremely socially conservative in the latter half of the twentieth century. Divorce was only legalised in 1995, following a very narrow referendum. (Amusingly, in one episode Ted bets money on a horse called Divorce Referendum). The sale, importation and advertising of contraception were outlawed in 1946, only to be legalized in 1979 although if you were unmarried, you required a doctor’s prescription to buy condoms from a pharmacy.

Previously a teacher, it is suggested in flashback scenes that Father Jack was also a violent paedophile. Staggering levels of physical, sexual and psychological abuse were endemic in the Christian Brothers schools, which educated 35,000 boys in the decades following the 1930s. Unmarried pregnant women were also treated appallingly, told they would have to pay for their sins. Women who gave birth in the highly abusive Magdalen laundries, run by the Sisters of Mercy, were denied pain relief in labour. This seems a brutal and literal interpretation of the verse from Genesis 3:7 – ‘In sorrow thou shall bring forth children’. Women who could not make a financial contribution to the Sisters were expected to work for three years in the laundries to ‘make amends’ for their pregnancy. Children were often removed from their mothers, many suffered abuse in church-run orphanages or were adopted by couples in America, widely thought to fetch considerable sums of money. Even married women were subjected to cruelty at the hands of doctors, with symphysiotomies reported to have been carried out on 1500 women, without consent and sometimes without anaesthetic. Many of these women were left incontinent, disabled and in chronic pain. Although caesarean sections became much safer following the 1950s, doctors in Ireland continued using symphysiotomies. It was considered unsafe to have more than three caesarean sections and to avoid the use of contraception to prevent further pregnancies, Alex Spain, the master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, decided on moral grounds it was preferable for women to undergo a symphysiotomy.

The church possessed an unquestioned level of authority and held tremendous power over the education and healthcare systems. ‘The pervasiveness of clericalism in Irish Catholic culture contributed to a culture of noblesse oblige among the clergy, and civil authorities were far more likely to defer to bishops and the superiors of religious orders when deciding whether to pursue cases of misconduct.’ (Keane, 2018)

The show touches, admittedly quite lightly, on some of the very dark recent history of Ireland. The show attracted criticisms of blasphemy but I find myself scratching my head as it does refer to things that actually happened; specifically the horrific treatment of women and children, the hypocrisy of the church and its failure to address abuse scandals, often simply transferring priests elsewhere. I’m also stumped that an institution responsible for such awful things would raise such criticisms or feel it had a leg to stand on. I am however struck by how whimsical and slapstick Father Ted is, in the light of Ireland’s history, or how that history is used in a humourous context. For example, a number of very unpleasant priests in the show were inspired by priests who taught at Christian Brothers’ schools. The actors who played Bishop Brennan and Father Fintan Stack based their character on priests who had taught them.

In terms of church scandals, the show was very current when it was released. Referencing the discovery of Bishop Eamon Casey’s affair with Annie Murphy and their son, Ted finds a VHS tape of Bishop Brennan with a woman and a child, having a family day out together on the beach. (The child is amusingly seen building a bishop’s mitre out of sand.) The episode also coincided with the news that a priest named Michael Cleary had an affair and two children with his housekeeper. Both Casey and Cleary were very high profile figures, appearing regularly on radio and television, even introducing Pope John Paul II to the crowds when he visited Ireland in 1979. In the Christmas special episode, Father Tom McCaskell calls Ted from Rome and says ‘I might have to head off to South America for a while. You know she’s going to write a bloody book about it?!’ Ted responds by saying ‘Ah, now that’s not fair’, neatly highlighting the hypocrisy of the situation in Catholic Ireland.

In the episode ‘The Passion of St Tibulus’, Ted and Dougal are ordered by Bishop Brennan to protest against a blasphemous film with adult content being shown on the island. Their protest however results in The Passion of St Tibulus becoming the most successful film ever shown on the island. This story was inspired by Luc Besson’s film ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ about Mary, which was banned in Ireland. Banning a film can be quite an effective way of piquing people’s interest in it. ‘Is it a nudey sort of thing, Father?’ asks one of the inhabitants of the island and walks straight into the cinema when Ted replies ‘You wouldn’t believe the amount of nudity!’

Part of the criticism of the programme came from how thoroughly unsuitable and well, un-priestlike many of the characters were. An article in the The Catholic League took issue with the portrayal of some of priests’ more whimsical activities but surely no-one believed that priests actually led such surreal, entertaining lives or dressed up as the Supremes or Elvis for lookalike competitions. (There was a touring show called the All Priests’ Roadshow, charmingly referred to as the Holy Roadshow. The priests did however perform in clerical wear rather than fancy dress.) An article from the Catholic Herald commented on how Father Ted highlighted the issue of the number of young men who entered the priesthood, despite being poorly suited to the role or lacking a sense of vocation. I assume Father Dougal is an expression of this; in one episode Ted asks Dougal how he joined the priesthood, suggesting that it might have been a freebie in return for collecting twelve crisp packets. In a Radio 4 programme on the Catholic church, Pauline McLynn talks about the national shortage of priests and how she amused she was by a roadside billboard seeking to recruit priests. This perhaps highlights changing social norms, of joining the priesthood no longer being seen as a career option; the declining number of priests was described as a ‘sign of the times’ by Dermot Farrell, the Bishop of Ossory,

Sitting in a hospital waiting room, Ted tells Dougal how the favourite son in a family often became a doctor whereas the idiot son would become a priest. He suddenly becomes less interested in the conversation when Dougal points out that Ted’s brother is a doctor. I am curious about the falling numbers of young men joining the priesthood. I’ve read a lot about the increasing secularisation of Irish society, widespread disillusionment with the Church in the wake of the abuse scandals and the fact that priests no longer occupied the same social standing or commanded the same level of influence. I also wonder if the lack of economic opportunities led some young men to enter the priesthood. People left Ireland in droves following the famine, with the population declining by 55% between 1841 and 1851. Industrialisation only took place in some parts of the country, mostly Dublin and Belfast (specifically brewing, linen and shipbuilding). Heavily reliant on agricultural export to Britain, it was hard to separate Ireland’s economy from its dependency on the British economy. There was very little increase in manufacturing between 1900 and 1990; what industry there was, was specialised to maximise export. The 1980s saw an expansion of public sector jobs and a decline in the manufacturing industry, with higher unemployment rates in Ireland than in the UK. (Bradley, 1999)

I remember a friend’s grandfather saying how no-one was fat when he was young, save for priests. Perhaps joining the priesthood meant an easier life than one of physical labour; a house and steady livelihood provided with no need to leave your home country. I wonder if it also appealed to bright young men who might not have had the opportunity to continue their studies, had they not entered the seminary. Perhaps the sense of camaraderie was also a draw. (As Father Todd Unctious says, ‘Do you remember all the fun we had in the showers at St Colm’s, Ted? Have you still got the big aul hairy arse?’ ‘It was downy fluff.’ Ted tersely replies.)

Ted is the most sane, sensible inhabitant of Craggy Island parochial house, which isn’t saying much really. In comparison to Fathers Jack and Dougal, he is the only one capable of carrying out any priestly duties, ill suited for the role though he may be. Jack refuses to do Mass, ever. Drunk, angry and violent, he is a man of very few words. Oddly articulate when it comes to alcohol, he identifies wine by the sound of bottles clinking together as Ted puts them into a picnic basket, barking ‘Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay 1992!’. Beyond that he says little, save for short expletive laden phrases including his signature ‘Drink, feck, arse, girls’ and occasional phrases such as ‘How did that gobshite get on the television?’, referring to Dougal. With a visit from three bishops impending, Ted goes to great pains to teach him to say ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. Dougal, though very affable and pleasant, is not to be trusted. He inadvertently causes the hearse to crash and go up in flames when he covers a funeral last minute that Ted forgot about. ‘YOU LET DOUGAL DO A FUNERAL?!?’, Ted roars incredulously at Mrs Doyle.

Ted is more of a three dimensional character than his housemates but much of the humour hinges on how he doesn’t really want to be a priest. He craves fame and attention and it seems, to be surrounded by women. Not terribly suited to celibacy, Ted fantasises about Dervla Kirwan’s character in Ballykissangel and has a rather obvious crush on Polly Clarke, a novelist who visits the island. He’d love to be on television and is delighted when a fellow priest suggests he get himself an agent. Ted’s attempts to realise his dreams of living the high life in Las Vegas have resulted in him getting ‘a one way ticket to Palookaville’, i.e. Craggy Island. When he raises the idea of moving to a new parish, Bishop Brennan roars, ‘You’ll stay here until every penny of that money is accounted for! You went to Las Vegas, whilst that poor child was supposed to be in Lourdes!’

While it was very popular in Ireland, some Irish people living in England or English people with Irish parents were less keen. The writers said they weren’t having a go at the church. The characters were exaggerated versions of existing Irish stereotypes. Graham Linehan scathingly debated a woman from Manchester on television who felt Father Ted was discriminatory and made the Irish look stupid; she wanted her children to be proud of their Irish heritage. Graham Linehan felt it was ridiculous to suggest the Irish couldn’t make fun of themselves.
In his novel Brooklyn, Colm Toibín describes the lonely existence experienced by Irish migrants, forced to leave Ireland to find work. A friend’s stepfather went to England to work so he could send money home to his family as there were so few opportunities. Perhaps these people were tired of Paddy jokes but also remembered genuine discrimination towards the Irish in England – rooms for rent in the 1970s sometimes specified ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. The Irish certainly had reason to resent the English – Cromwell’s massacre in the 1600s, the Great Famine and the shockingly inadequate response of the English government to the Famine. And now the bastards wouldn’t even rent them rooms! We’ve moved to a position in the UK where the Irish don’t really count as immigrants any more, probably because they are white and English speaking. White immigrants from other parts of Europe now face discrimination.

On the note of Paddy jokes, the English aren’t very good at making jokes about the Irish. They like to say ‘Top of the morning to you!’ and talk about pots of gold and Lucky Charms, a sugary American cereal for children. My dad had an English colleague who couldn’t understand why no-one responded when she said ‘Top of the morning to you!’. He patiently explained no-one actually said that and more importantly, her comic brogue was ill placed in Belfast, as people have entirely different accents north of the border. In short, people probably won’t laugh if you loudly demonstrate that you are both unobservant and know nothing about them. (We have noticed how little you English know about the Ireland, north or south. Brexit, anyone?)

I suspect Father Ted’s irreverent tone and mocking of the Irish works because it was written by two Irish comedians. I think a lot of it felt like an in-joke; recalling familiar experiences or satirising some very Irish things like the Lovely Girls Competition which took the mick out of the annual Rose of Tralee contest. Hence I am somewhat surprised at it annoyed people in England. I am always pleased by the range of different Irish accents from across the entirety of the island that are heard in the show.

Ireland is now a very liberal European country with an openly gay, mixed race Prime Minister or Taoiseach. Same sex marriage was legalised in 2015 and the ban on abortion was repealed in 2018. The latter was strongly linked to Savita Halappanavar being refused treatment for a miscarriage and subsequently dying of septicaemia.

Ireland has a well- educated English-speaking workforce and an increasingly diverse population. While migration among the young is still common, the tech boom and favourable taxes rates for businesses (there’s a euphemism for you) means Dublin is home to a number of big tech companies including Google and Salesforce. Joining the European Union benefited Ireland enormously, bringing infrastructure developments (I remember there was no motorway between Belfast and Dublin until the EU funded one in the 2000s) and access to new markets and immigration. I remember going to Dublin in 2005 and noticing that the population no longer seemed so homogenous. Visitors to Dublin commented that it was hard to find an Irish person in Dublin, perhaps referring to the large numbers of people who came from Eastern Europe to take up jobs in the service and hospitality industry. EU-mandated austerity measures deeply affected the economy, bringing with it some anti-immigrant feeling in the face of high unemployment rates.

I was always quite taken with the portrayal of life in a religious community on a remote island, as we lived on one. Remembering being a bored teenager there, a part of me can relate to Father Jack when he sobers up (for once) and exclaims ‘Don’t tell me I’m still on that fecking island!’ There is something familiar about the way all the priests know each other. Wherever we went, my parents would bump into people they knew, not terribly well, from our community, and would have conversations about mutual friends and their bizarre adventures. Our house in Wicklow looked very like the one Father Finnegan, the dancing priest, lived in. Mrs Doyle reminds me of my late grandmother; she was a Londoner but took a very similar approach to hospitality. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that both she and Mrs Doyle served meals at ‘eleven, one, half two, three, five, seven and nine’ with snacks available at all times. I was specifically struck by the towering pile of sandwiches prepared for her ninetieth birthday party.

On that note, there certainly is some mocking of religion in the programme beyond the corruption of the Church – kicking a bishop up the arse, for example. Pointed comments on the use of artificial contraception, papal infallibility and the Church’s stance on homosexuality highlight the gap between the Church’s views and people’s lives. Irreverent indeed but it’s hardly a Dawkins polemic. Dougal voices some of his rather rudimentary doubts about Catholicism which results in a visiting bishop renouncing the cloth and leaving on a road trip to India in an camper van full of hippies. This highlights the idea of getting stuck on rules and regulations, rather than basing faith and life choices on something deeper. I can’t help thinking this scene is perhaps a silly fantasy on the writers’ part that religious people aren’t aware of inconsistencies in scripture and could be very easily talked out of their beliefs.

I don’t feel the show makes fun of religion for the sake of it. I don’t like people criticising religion for the sake of it, people who treat those with faith as if they are stupid, loudly saying how daft religion is in an absolutist sort of way; as if belief is so stupid you don’t need to exercise any manners or consideration. It’s usually male arrogance but I find it really ignorant and lacking in theory of mind, certainly not befitting the educated. Other people’s beliefs generally make little difference to your life but I certainly understand why people object to religion being forced on people, enforced on society at large. Ireland is perhaps an excellent example of why it shouldn’t be, which leads us to the difference between genuine religion and abuses of power or awful things done in the name of religion. It’s rarely productive to insist on people following rules when it’s not backed up by belief and done by free choice. It beggars belief to demand others follow rules when even the authorities, the rule makers don’t follow these rules, hypocrisy in the extreme. I suspect in the wake of the scandals, many people with faith felt the need to pick apart matters of genuine religion and abuse of power, perhaps focussing more on their own relationship with God and less on human intermediaries. It would feel remiss not to talk about how much religion does mean to people, rather than only focussing on the negative. For example, a family friend revisited her faith and was confirmed as a Catholic in her 40s. Her faith is life enriching, a source of support, of meaning of hope, of community, of solace when life is hard. It would just be rude to knock that. And who am I anyway to comment on other people’s life experience?

But back to Father Ted. I watched it the year I lived at home, horrified at the state of my personal life and job prospects, struggling to sleep. It made me laugh and I felt light-hearted. I first saw it when I was about eight, my friend’s mum being somewhat more relaxed than my parents about children’s viewing habits. I remember enjoying the rather childish, slapstick humour and visual jokes. I rediscovered it as a teenager, watching episodes on VHS. (We were very late adopters of the DVD…) I was given the complete DVD set when I was at university and a copy of the scripts, which I dipped into to write this. I’ve seen each episode far too many times but I still find the programme very funny. Unlike Friends or other programmes that were popular in the nineties, the location couldn’t be less glamourous, there are no characters to fancy, there are no fashion choices or hair cuts to aspire to, nothing to hide behind. Yet it was hilarious and still is today.

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Image taken from https://news.sky.com/story/ah-go-on-classic-sitcom-father-ted-to-make-musical-comeback-11392798