Careful now: Will we ever stop talking about Father Ted?
Twenty years and thousands of repeats later, Ireland still lives in Craggy Island’s shadow
Part of the reason 'Father Ted' remains popular today is that its anarchic humour has a certain timelessness.
On October 1st, 2014, thousands marched through Dublin protesting against the imposition of water charges. Many demonstrators brandished home-made placards. Amid the swell of signage two stood out with Zelig-like inevitability.
“Careful now,” read the first. “Down with that sort of thing,” declared its comrade.
The same sentiments received an airing as Repeal the Eight advocates took to the streets last November. “Careful now,” announced a hand-written banner. “Down with this sort of archaic misogynistic legislation,” chimed its partner.
As you will know – because you are Irish and have been near the internet / a television at least once in your life – that these slogans are from Father Ted, which took its final bow 20 years ago this spring (it of course lives on in endless repeats).
There’s a good chance you can even name the episode in which they featured: The Passion of Saint Tibulus, where hapless Ted (Dermot Morgan) and Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are commanded by Bishop Brennan to picket the screening at Craggy Island cinema of a Last Temptation of Christ-esque art-house film
Catholic Church dominance had not long been sloughed off in this country when St Tibulus aired on Channel 4 for the first time on May 5th, 1995. Divorce, for instance, would remain prohibited until the referendum in November of that year. Ireland of the mid-1990s still arguably had the trappings of theocracy. Today, by contrast, it feels as if we are living in a Ted-ocracy.
We still make quips about money “just resting” in our accounts or categorise a thorny subject, best-not-mentioned-in-that-Irish-way, as “an ecumenical matter”. I once encountered a married couple who, fondly and in everyday parlance, referred to each other as “Ted” and “Dougal”. Nobody batted an eyelid.
Notwithstanding its musty provenance, Father Ted thus remains very much in the bloodstream of Irish culture. Craggy Island, one might go so far as to argue, has seeped into the real world. With the inescapable catchphrases and endless Ted talk, it can be difficult to discern where Ireland ends and the Crilly-verse begins.
“The significance of Father Ted’s afterlife in Ireland being much stronger than in the UK can in part be put down to the fact that there is a relative dearth of great television comedy emanating from Ireland, despite perhaps our own self-image as a funny nation,” says Dr Anthony McIntyre of UCD’s Film Studies department.
“Mrs Brown’s Boys, the only comparable Irish sitcom success, is a bigger winner all round in terms of quite staggering viewing figures and global popularity.
“The amount of critical derision Brendan O’Carroll’s series is subject to is in stark contrast to the cult popularity of Father Ted, and perhaps this sense of it being something that is appreciated both at home and abroad is also one of the main reasons why its popularity and cultural purchase remain so significant over two decades since its first appearance.”
The question that bears posing today is whether, two decades after the series concluded, it is finally time to wean ourself off Father Ted?
Something in our cultural DNA seems to fall back on humorous resilience when perhaps anger, shame, disappointment or some more negative response might be more appropriate
Does Ted speak to contemporary Ireland in any meaningful sense? Or do we just hang onto it because, as McIntyre points out, it is that rare Irish comedy you can watch without your toes curling in 15 directions at once?
“The ‘down with this sort of thing’ signs at protests are a bit hackneyed at this stage and seem only to undermine any significant point that such protests are trying to make,” he says.
“This also seems linked in some ways to phenomena such as Irish football fans cheering when they are getting beaten that Roy Keane had a bit of a tantrum about, or that infamous ‘Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work’ sign.
“Something in our cultural DNA seems to fall back on humorous resilience when perhaps anger, shame, disappointment or some more negative response might be more appropriate.”
None of this was planned by the show’s creators. Far from setting out to reshape Irish popular culture, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews have stated that they were consciously writing in the tradition of the British sitcom (Ted was produced by London-based Hat Trick and broadcast by Channel 4).
True, they’d debuted the Ted character performing sketch pieces on what passed for the early Dublin comedy circuit. However, it was Griff Rhys Jones, a mentor when they relocated to the UK, who lit the touchpaper in earnest and placed Ted, Dougal and Jack firmly within the continuum of British comedy.
Rhys Jones had pointed out that in the best sitcoms – Fawlty Towers or The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – the central character was always somehow trapped. Linehan and Mathews took the advice to heart and thus did Ted find himself in the purgatory of the Craggy Island parochial home, alongside Dougal and Jack.
“The great thing about British sitcoms,” Linehan told a British newspaper at the time “is that the sadness has always been implicit, whereas American sit-coms have to stop and then do the sad bit.”
More recently, his big regret was that he wasn’t paid higher residuals for the never-ending repeats. “When I see them on, I wish they were making more money,” he told the Radio Times in 2014. “Every time they are on I wish they were paying me more for them.”
Remarkably, there is no generational divide when it comes to Father Ted. Twenty-somethings love it as thoroughly as those ancient enough to have watched first time around. In part that is because its anarchic humour has a certain timelessness. Ted kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse is a masterpiece of surreal slapstick – as funny today as when John Bruton was taoiseach.
“We have a whole new generation of Father Ted fans,” says Janet Cavanagh of Ted Tours, which operates guided visits to the west of Ireland locations that featured in the series.
“We take kids aged eight or older and often they will know every word of dialogue. And it’s part of the childhood of people in their 20s and 30s. It is the equivalent of what Bosco represented to an older generation.”
Another reason Father Ted continues to speak to us, says Dr Finola Doyle-O’Neill, a broadcast and legal historian at UCC, is that the Ireland of 20 years ago is not so different from the country in which we live today.
Tensions between church and state – rarely explicitly called out by Mathews and Linehan but detectable in the backdrop – and the social issues the series grappled with, in an admittedly playful and surreal manner, remain current.
It saw the clash between de Valera’s Ireland and the onset of the Celtic Tiger. Father Ted predicted that there were going to be these tensions and conflicts . . . and that’s exactly what happened
An example is the violent bickering between husband and wife John and Mary, who represented, says Doyle-O’Neill, the chasm between the presentable face the Irish are typically eager to show to the outside world and the darkness that often goes on behind closed doors.
“Some people take it on a superficial level,” she says. “They do annual reunions on Craggy Island and that sort of stuff. But it was just so pointedly socially relevant. The Eurovision Song Contest, Riverdance, The Rose of Tralee, the family paradigm – everything was there . . . It saw the clash between de Valera’s Ireland and the onset of the Celtic Tiger. Father Ted predicted that there were going to be these tensions and conflicts . . . and that’s exactly what happened.”
The British, it is worth pointing out, also remain exceedingly fond of Father Ted – though for very different reasons. To viewers in the UK, Mathews and Linehan had created an anarchic, recognisably British sitcom, in the tradition of The Young Ones. Its deeper meditations on the suffering of the Irish mammy (as embodied by Mrs Doyle) or Father Jack’s ecumenical angst largely went over their heads.
They loved the Monty Python barminess (Dougal looks out the window and sees giant ants), the Fast Show-style catch phrases (“feck, drink, arse”), the gentle melancholy – a signature of British comedy going back to Tony Hancock.
“The material . . . has no logic but the pursuit of audience laughter,” went a 1998 London Independent review that spoke to the British perspective on Ted. “And so [it] needs a bit of surreal detachment from the dialogue.”
Ted, as Doyle-O’Neill points out, arrived just as de Valera’s Ireland was finally passing into history. It also, it can be contended, marked the birth of something else: an obsession with the minutiae and ephemera of Irish culture.
This fascination with insular Irishness has today metastasised into a vast industry. One that encompasses Daily Edge listicles, “Irish Mammy” books and Twitter accounts, wooden spoon references and endless seasons of RTÉ’s Brigid and Eamon.
As Irishness and Catholicism have decoupled, so we have looked to other signifiers of who and what we are. The process surely began with Ted and its riffs on the Rose of Tralee (The “Lovely Girls” contest), silently suffering mammies and Daniel O’Donnell-obsessed “auld wans”.
“The dramatic societal changes of the last few decades, in particular the Catholic church’s decline in significance for emerging generations, has left a bit of a void in terms of defining features of Irishness,’ says Anthony McIntyre.
“Technological and economic developments have meant that Ireland is more plugged in to and at the mercy of global financial and cultural flows and this in turn seems to have set off a wave of nostalgia that can be detected in popular culture.”
“Father Ted does appear to just keep going,” Ardal O’Hanlon once told an interviewer. “A lot of comedies fade into history after a while. It seems to be as popular as ever.”
He made these comments in 2007. Eleven years later, we continue to live in the shadow of Ted – a sitcom that didn’t merely burn itself into the national psyche but arguably reconfigured what it is to be Irish.
Crilly In The Name Of: Five Things That Wouldn’t Exist Without Father Ted
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It’s quite a distance from the whimsy of ‘My Lovely Horse’ – which The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon “knocked out in about 20 minutes” – to Blind Boy Boat Club rapping from inside a plastic bag. But the surreal humour that crackled through Father Ted unquestionably influenced subsequent Irish comics, giving them unspoken permission to veer as far off the rails as they fancied.
Irish Mammies on Twitter
With 218,000 followers,the @irishmammies has proved a huge springboard for droll comedian Colm O’Regan. The ghost of Mrs Doyle can undoubtedly be heard in the eponymous mammy’s melodramatic suffering and performed self-sacrifice.
Graham Norton’s stardom
Just a few minutes of screen-time as manic Fr Noel Furlong was enough to establish the West Cork performer as a rising face in British comedy. Within two years he was hosting So Graham Norton on Channel 4 – and the rest is light entertainment history.
The career of every significant Irish comedian of the past 20 years
Tommy Tiernan, Joe Rooney, Kevin Gildea, Patrick McDonnell and Jason Byrne are among the comics who had cameos in Father Ted and would go on to enjoy acclaim through the following decade. Appearing on Father Ted wasn’t mandatory if you wished to tread the comedy boards in Ireland – but at the time it certainly felt that way.
The Catholic Church in Ireland
Though Father Ted was perceived in some quarters (in the UK especially) as an assault on Catholicism, Ardal O’Hanlon (Fr Dougal) was of the opinion that the series humanised priests – this at a time when the church was rocked by scandal after scandal.
“Ted had a profound effect on Irish culture,” said O’Hanlon, “and sometimes I even think the show did priests a favour by humanising them. There’s something intrinsically sad about men without women.”