The secret lives of the priests in Father Ted

What links the classic sitcom to The Smiths, Freddie Mercury, Star Wars, Trainspotting, Ballykissangel, Emmerdale and the cream of Irish journalism? Martin Doyle confesses all

 

Me and Father Ted go way back. Okay, I wasn’t actually in seminary with the lads, but I was at the press launch for the very first series, in the Irish Club in Belgravia – very fancy – in April 1995.

Feck, I was even at the press launch the previous year for Paris, the first sitcom which Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan wrote together, (starring Alexei Sayle as Alain Degout, a feckless artist in 1920s Paris), where they told me about their unlikely plan for a comedy series about three priests banished to an Irish island.

I used to go to the recording of the shows at the London Studios on the South Bank on a Friday night – a sneak preview of the next series and a free bar: what wasn’t to like? That’s where I was the night the IRA broke its ceasefire on February 9th, 1996 with a bomb in London’s Docklands – way to spoil a party. And I was there too for the recording of the very last episode – I’ll come back to that – on February 27th, 1998, the day before Dermot Morgan, who played the title role, died of a heart attack at the peak of his fame.

Having watched every episode more than once over the years, I felt I knew all there was to know about the show and its cast. How wrong I was. All it took was a Facebook post innocently shared by Linehan’s wife Helen, about the double life of one of the priests in the show, to blow my mind and make me realise there was another story to be told. I made a few phone calls, sent a few emails but most of the credit must go to my trusty research assistant and unpaid intern, Google.

Ardal O’Hanlon offered up two nuggets for posterity: “The guy who does the door at the Gate Theatre, Vincent [Brightling], was one of the Kraftwerk-type band and my daughter Emily was one of the hairy babies (the one in the red and white hooped babygro).”

I’m guessing that everybody knows about the back stories of the famous actors who played Bishop Len Brennan (Jim Norton) and Frs Fintan Stack (Brendan Grace), Noel Furlong (Graham Norton) and Todd Unctious (Gerard McSorley). And that Clare Grogan from Altered Images played Niamh Connolly, the Sinead O’Connor parody. And pretty much every Irish comedian of the period had a walk-on part, from Pat Shortt to Jon Kenny, Joe Rooney to Kevin Gildea, Mark Doherty to Paul Tylak. (Did you know, though, that Ed Byrne played a teenager in A Christmassy Ted?) But this goes a lot deeper.

Readers, I give you ... the secret lives of the priests in Father Ted.

1. Father Fitzgerald

This is the 24-carat nugget of trivia that got me started. Seán Barrett, who plays Fr Fitzgerald, the priest with the most boring voice in the world, whose dreary drone over a department store’s PA system enables the priests to escape undetected from the lingerie department in the episode, A Christmassy Ted, also appears on the cover of How Soon Is Now?, the classic single by The Smiths.

How serendipitously cool is that? My favourite sitcom and my favourite song as an averagely tormented adolescent, together at last.

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The still on the Smiths cover comes from the 1958 film Dunkirk. Seán Barrett is on the left, beside Bernard Lee, the original M from the James Bond films, and John Mills. Barrett, who was born in Hampstead, London, in 1940, is also, irony of ironies, the narrator of a host of audiobooks, including four by Jo Nesbo and – showing his range and his Irish roots – three by Samuel Beckett: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable.

2. Father Jose Fernandez

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You remember the Cuban priest who drives a red convertible Porsche 930 and visits Ted and Dougal, giving Dougal a video recorder and Ted a Cuban fertility symbol, and who speaks only in Spanish which a narrator translates, laughter and all – heh, heh, heh? He is played by Derrick Branche, who was born in Bombay in 1947 and went to school with none other than Freddie Mercury, and played in his first band, The Hectics, from 1958-62. And there’s more. He was also Gupte, the nurse (below), in Only When I Laugh (which also starred Richard Wilson, who appears as himself in another episode, The Mainland).

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3. Father Deegan

The young and despairing Glaswegian priest, fresh from the seminary, who is part of the group that gets lost in the lingerie department in A Christmassy Ted, is played by Kevin McKidd, who also starred that same year as Tommy in Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle. Today he is best known as Owen Hunt in Grey’s Anatomy, but he also provides the voice of John “Soap” MacTavish in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

4. Father Jessup

The most sarcastic priest in Ireland and PA to Bishop Brennan in Kicking Bishop Brennan Up The Arse. His sarcastic comments include, “No, I’m up in space, doing important work for NASA.” He is played by Ian Fitzgibbon, who has gone on to find fame as a leading film and TV director. In 2014, he won an IFTA for directing the sitcom Moone Boy. His other credits include the films Spin the Bottle, A Film with Me in It, Perrier’s Bounty and Death of a Superhero, and the sitcom Threesome, starring Amy Huberman and featuring Pauline McLynn – Mrs Doyle in Father Ted – as her mother.

5. Father Liam Deliverance

All the priests in Father Ted

The priest with the gift of self-fulfilling prophesy who sees shoddy workmanship everywhere and proceeds to wreck all round him in the parochial house to prove it before assisting Ted at the Lovely Girls competition in Rock-a-Hula Ted. “Dermot Crowley is interesting. Apparently you get could a Star Wars figure of him,” confides Arthur Mathews. Sure enough, a quick search confirms Crowley played General Crix Madine in Return of the Jedi. He also came within a hair’s breadth of another stellar part, auditioning for the role of the Seventh Doctor for the show Doctor Who but losing out to Sylvester McCoy. What’s more, he played Sergeant François Duval in Son of the Pink Panther.

6. Father Gallagher

Graham Linehan would put Alfred Hitchcock to shame for his enthusiasm for getting on screen. The writer appears in Flight into Terror as Father Gallagher, who after hearing that the plane is in danger of crashing, suggests they pray to God for help. This idea is met with disdain from his fellow priests. His companion, Father Cave (Kevin Gildea), is prompted by their impending doom to reveal his true feelings to their mutual embarrassment. But Linehan has more cameos than an old lady’s jewellery drawer.

“That’s me passing by the house saying ‘some nutcase has put up a cross’ and I’m also the one who keeps saying ‘Fucking hell’ in the crowd at the king of the sheep competition. In the first episode, that’s me ‘Goading The Fierce Man’. I was also one of the Kraftwerk priests.”

7. Fr Larry Duff

The accident-prone Fr Larry Duff appears in no fewer than eight episodes, meeting an unfortunate end every time he gets a call on his mobile phone from Father Ted. He is played by Tony Guilfoyle, who according to several sources including IMDB is credited with being the man behind the cartoon version of the Horrid Henry series.

8. Father Shaft

Kevin Sharkey plays the black priest in Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest, who, when Sister Monica asks him what he thinks of all the work being done in Africa by priests, says: “Sure I wouldn’t know, I’m from Donegal”.

Sharkey was Ireland’s first black TV presenter, on RTÉ’s Megamix. He is now a successful artist, whose collectors include Charles Saacthi, Bob Geldof, Michael Portillo, Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, Matt Lucas and President Michael D Higgins. His painting Roisin raised €26,100 in 2008 for People in Need in the RTÉ Telethon. Moolah, a life-sized cow covered in €50,000 of real banknotes, satirised the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. His Public Enemy Number One exhibition featured Jordan as Myra Hindley, Barack Obama wearing Ku Klux Klan robes (made from US flags), the Pope marrying a gay couple, and Angelina Jolie and Madonna passing each other in a supermarket aisle pushing trolleys full of multi-racial children.

9. Father Harry Coyle

Paul Woodfull, who appeared in several episodes, as Fr Coyle in Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse, as a taxi driver in The Plague, and as Paddy Jordan in Competition Time, is better known as the co-writer, with Arthur Mathews and Michael Nugent, of I, Keano, the hit comedy musical.

(Speaking of musicals, Graham Linehan told the Radio Times in January that he wants to make Father Ted into a musical. “I would never bring back the TV show, because of the risk you poison people’s memories of the original,” he said. “But if you were to come up with a completely new format, I think it would be worth doing. I have this vision of a dance number, with spinning cardinals.” Arthur Mathews is “not as convinced”, said Linehan, but “I think it could work.”)

Woodfull was a member of the Skank Mooks band in the late 1970s, and also created, and performed in, various musical tribute groups, including U2 tribute band The Joshua Trio (with Arthur Mathews), the Glam Tarts and Abbaesque. He has various alter-egos, including cabaret singer Tony St James and republican balladeer Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly, who appears in the Roddy Doyle-scripted film When Brendan Met Trudy. He also wrote the comedy series Val Falvey TD, and co-wrote Stew, an RTÉ sketch series, with Paul Tylak.

10. Father Austin Purcell

Featured in Think Fast, Father Ted, he is “the most boring priest in the world”, according to Ted. The entire population of a village in Nigeria once sailed to their deaths on a crocodile-infested lake to escape him. Ben Keaton, the Irish actor who played him, was the first Irishman to win the Perrier Comedy Award at the 1986 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, receiving a £1,500 prize from Jonathan Miller for his debut show, The Intimate Memoirs of an irish Taxidermist.

Keaton has also appeared as Jeff Brannigan in the ITV soap opera Emmerdale and played Spencer in BBC’s Casualty between 1999-2002. He also played a priest in the film East is East.

11. Father Buzz Cagney

He appears in the last episode, Going to America. After seeing Ted save Father Kevin from killing himself at the “It’s Great to be a Priest ‘98” celebration, he offers Ted a chance to work with him in a parish in Beverly Hills. Jeff Harding, who plays the part, played the character Ed Winchester in The Fast Show, the entire sketch often involving the character just saying “Hi, I’m Ed Winchester”.

Harding, from Andover, Massachusetts, is also known for narrating audio books, includng The Da Vinci Code, The Bourne Identity, Kane and Abel and Secrets Of The Code.

12. Father Paul Cleary

The extremely aged priest who attends Jack’s wake in Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest and who refuses Mrs Doyle’s “diagonal” sandwiches is named after the lead singer of The Blades. Tommy Duggan, who died in November 1998, was an Irish actor whose film roles included Thunder Rock (1942), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), The Omen (1976), Superman II (1980) and Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981).

13. Father Derek Beeching

The priest who mucks in to help with the milk-float crisis in Speed 3 and is particularly fond of saying Mass, is played by veteran Irish actor Eamon Morrissey, who played Ned, the emigrant, in the 1964 world premiere of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! In 1974, Morrissey adapted the satirical writings of Brian O’Nolan into a long-running one-man show entitled The Brother, a “porter-swilling, nose-picking pub philosopher with ingenious solutions to the world’s problems”. In 1977, Morrissey won a Jacob’s Award for his performances in Frank Hall’s long-running satirical TV series, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. He also plays Cass Cassidy in the RTÉ soap, Fair City.

14. Father Cyril MacDuff

Fr Dougal’s equivalent on Rugged Island, who Dougal thinks is “an awful eejit”, is played by Don Wycherley, whose other roles include Fr Aidan O’Connell in Ballykissangel and Raymond in Bachelors Walk. He is the brother-in-law of Tina Kellegher, who also appeared in Ballykissangel.

15. Father Paul Stone

Father Paul Stone, the exceedingly boring priest who featured in Entertaining Father Stone and comes to stay at the parochial house every year, is played by Michael Redmond, one of the first and finest Irish stand-ups. His live show Eamon, Older Brother of Jesus was adapted for a BBC Radio 4 series, but scrapped by the station’s Catholic controller. Redmond played another priest in the film Voodoophone.

16. Award ceremony priest

There is no role so obscure in a sitcom as the one that ends up on the cutting-room floor. That was the fate that befell Pat O’Mahony, the award-winning television & radio producer, director and presenter, whose credits include Reporters at War, Access All Areas, Head 2 Toe and eight years standing in for Dave Fanning on RTE Radio.

He tells the story entertainingly on his blog here.

But the gist of it is that he ran into the show’s casting director Greg Kyle and successfully auditioned for a part in the Christmas special, only to freeze in front of the camera and make a hames of his two lines. As he was to discover, when the director said cut, he meant it. A letter from the production company explain that, time-wise, they couldn’t fit him in, yet “whatever contract I signed, my name is still in the credits at the end of the episode – for years younger relatives would get a kick out of trying to spot it as it flew past in a blur – and up until recently I still got albeit small cheques from Channel 4 every year for repeats and international sales. This entirely undeserved bit of annual income always made me laugh.”

Years later, he met the writers: “So guys,” says I, “how come I didn’t make the Christmas special final cut? Was it as Hat Trick suggested, a matter of running out of time, or was it, as I strongly suspected, because I was shite?” In unison both turned and without missing a beat or a hint of malice said, ‘Oh yeah, you were shite.’ It was a beautifully honest, funny-as-hell moment.”

When it comes to missing out on his five seconds of fame, O’Mahony has previous. “I very nearly got the role of the guy from Eejit Records – eventually played by comedian Sean Hughes – in Alan Parker’s hugely successful Dublin-based The Commitments .”

17-20. Fathers Liam Fay, Ken Sweeney, Liam Mackey and Martin Doyle

Perhaps the best wine has been saved till last. Having watched a load of episodes being recorded, I began to notice friends of the writers appearing as extras. I cheekily put my hand up and before I knew it was trying on a dog collar for size. I wasn’t the only fan with a typewriter. My fellow priests in the final, fateful episode, Going to America, included Fr Liam Fay, Fr Ken Sweeney and Fr Liam Mackey. There was also a little guy in the line-up called Fr Brian Eno, who was possibly a downtable sub on the Indo, and Fr Greg Kyle, the show’s casting director, which now that I come to think about it was surely a conflict of interest.

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That’s us in a line-up at the It’s Great To be A Priest ’98 awards being introduced to Father Ted when Fr Kevin (Tommy Tiernan) steals our limelight by threatening to jump from the window ledge. Typical Tommy – anything for attention. Whatever happened to him anyway? We all rush over to the window to try and save him, or stay in shot, whatever.

Fay and Mackey had worked with the writers on Hot Press before going on to write for the Irish Sunday Times as TV critic and the Irish Examiner as soccer correspondent respectively. Sweeney is now entertainment editor on the Irish Sun but was then in the indie band Brian, which was signed to Setanta, the London Irish label that also featured The Divine Comedy, who composed Father Ted’s signature tune, later reworked as Songs of Love, and the Eurovision classic, My Lovely Horse.

The band’s singer, Neil Hannon, was the son of the Bishop of Clogher, of course. But did you know that Hannon also wrote The Miracle Is Mine, sung by Fr Dick Byrne, wrote and performed My Lovely Mayo Mammy, sung by Eoin McLove in Night of the Nearly Dead, and wrote Big Men in Frocks, sung by Niamh Connolly in Rock-a-Hula Ted, the Kraftwerk-esque priests’ electronica and the Priest Chatback phone line jingle? Me neither.

But enough already. It’s a long time ago but I’m sure there was more of me and the other journalists in the last episode, that had to be cut out when the episode was re-edited after Dermot Morgan’s tragic death the day after the recording. Perhaps that’s why my agent’s phone never started ringing. That said, we all had an eyewitness account to write for our papers. Is that where the phrase, “Extra, extra, read all about it” came from? No, but it would have been perfect. Arthur Mathews grew up in Termonfeckin. Is that where feck comes from? No, but...

Linehan sheds light on how the series was meant to end. “The original ending was just Ted ending up on the windowsill like Tommy Tiernan’s character. It actually suggested the series was going to continue, so we opted for something that said ‘That’s all, folks!’”

That’s all, folks.
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times

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