It's not a satire, it's surreal

 

`Jobs Not Condoms" ran the headline on the ultra-right religious pamphlet, Majority Ethos, that was distributed around Irish Catholic churches in the summer of 1991. Published by the newly-formed political grouping, The Christian Principles Party, Majority Ethos also called for "Marriage, Not Sex" and "Faith, Not Sodomy".

The party's sworn enemies were "liberals and socialists" (i.e. "the parties that promote condoms and sodomy"); their ideology was refreshingly simple: Protestants should be distrusted, women should stay in the kitchen and sex was a terrible thing altogether. A mailing address was published in the pamphlet, and the members of The Christian Principles Party received many letters of encouragement and congratulations from "right-minded" people across the country.

The leader of the party was in fact Arthur Mathews who published Majority Ethos as a media prank. "Horrified" that some people took his demented ramblings seriously, he disbanded the party and went back to what he did best: writing works of comedy greatness for Viz magazine, the NME and In Dublin. A few years later he created and co-wrote the multi-award winning sit-com, Father Ted.

But the irrepressible rogue that he is, he's resurrected Majority Ethos, except this time in book form. Called Well- Remembered Days, it reads like Peig Sayers on crack cocaine.

Mathews digs up his old Majority Ethos alter-ego, Eoin O'Ceallaigh, to write the memoir of a 20th-century Catholic life. This autobiography graphically portrays O'Ceallaigh as a religious fundamentalist who wages a holy war against anti-clerical forces and promoters of sexual liberty (or "filth" as he would have it). A writer, extremely bad poet, and "physical force" republican, one of O'Ceallaigh's greatest boasts is that he kept jazz, modern dancing and "filthy" books out of the land of saints and scholars for the best part of a century.

"I love Eoin," says his creator. "The trick with him is always to keep him on just the right side of believability. He's been in my head for a long time, but first really came to prominence when he wrote a column for In Dublin magazine. He's really just your standard arch-Catholic/ Teetotaller/Believer in Physical Force Republicanism character. He's had his fair share of convictions down through the years, mostly for harbouring paedophile priests, but he doesn't really like talking about that. He's better talking about his opposition to sex. He's totally against women, in any form. In fact I was going to call the book Against Women as a play on Amongst Women, but didn't in the end."

He's been taken as real before, will that happen again? "Some people are mad," says Mathews, "I can't help that. I think there is still a rump of people in Irish life who share Eoin's insane views, there's probably a few like-minded people in the Dail. But as far as I can see, younger Irish people don't really care about all that archCatholic stuff, they didn't grow up in the dark days of the 1940s or the 1950s and don't know about all the fuss about the Condom Train in the 1970s. I'll probably still get complaints from some people about the book, but all I'll do is agree with them. That's the best way to handle them, I've found."

He's been there before with Father Ted, with some people complaining about the show's "stereotypical" portrayal of Irish life. "Some people have difficulty telling the difference between something that is surreal and something that is satirical," he says. "This book is not a satire, it's a surreal autobiography. Like Father Ted, it's too silly to be taken seriously. I don't really have any particular axe to grind with the Catholic Church."

O'Ceallaigh's persona is not terribly dissimilar to the early version of Father Ted, in which Mathews himself did the priest as a stand-up character before giving the role over to Dermot Morgan for the TV series. "Exactly, that's why I think this book is an adult version of Father Ted. In the book, I talk about the Irish phenomenon of the Republican Paedophile Priest. That just wouldn't have fitted into the TV show. And there's a lot more Irish cultural and political references in the book that we couldn't have put into a Channel 4 sitcom. Incidentally, Frank Kelly (Father Jack from Father Ted) is doing the audio version of the book - he's great, he really gets a Sean O'Faolain-type voice going."

Certainly parts of the book could be mistaken for out-takes from the TV show, as in when O'Ceallaigh details an upcoming trip abroad: "I was to go to Scotland for the first combined euthanasia/artificial insemination conference hosted by Father Liam Stack. Father Stack was a very popular veteran of the euthanasia/artificial insemination scene and was known as the `fun-loving Jesuit'. As a great bonus, entertainment was to be provided by the Liverpool/Irish comedian Tom O'Connor, whose brand of bawdy but `knowing' vulgarity had always appealed to me . . ."

Mathews simply can't understand where his fascination with all things Irish and clerical comes from. Born in Meath and raised in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, he was educated at Castleknock College before training as a graphic artist in the National College of Art and Design. Now 42, he says that growing up in the Ireland of the 1970s in a Catholic school had a profound influence on him. "When I was about 14 or 15 I used to think about religion a lot and how it was all inexplicable. It wasn't the Catholic belief system as such, maybe more all the things that surrounded the church. But I also have a massive interest in history, particularly Irish history from, say, 1916 up to the present. And it's that mingling of history, politics, culture and religion which fascinates me, because the Irish experience has been so strange in that respect. But then I'm the sort of person who brings books about Irish Civil Servants away with me to read on holiday."

As a comic Irish autobiography, Mathews has created a work that shares the central device of maddening solipsism with Ian MacPherson's criminally ignored but devastatingly funny Deep Probings novel (published by Thirsty Books - well worth seeking out). While Mathews's character is blinded by his devotion to Catholicism, MacPherson's central character (an Irish poet) is blinded by his own sense of genius. The two books taken together - and in many ways they are companion pieces - represent a high point in Irish comic literature.

The contradiction, though, of Well-Remembered Days is that, while Mathews is adamant the book is a "surreal fiction", he takes great delight in pointing out the real events in Irish religious/historical life that helped shape the story. He points to the inclusion in the book of a real historical document, "The Prayer Crusade" from the official Eucharistic Congress programme published in 1931, which details the yearlong frenzy of masses, benedictions and spiritual communions which preceded the congress proper. "It's just unbelievable really," he says, "I just had to get that in the book." Similarly, he mentions how he once read in one of his many books on Irish history and culture (and he's got a formidable collection) that one of the major changes that the advent of the motor car brought to rural Irish life was that Catholics were able to drive to a different parish to get a quicker mass.

"It's a fact," he insists. In the book, he writes: "Cars made it easier for people in the countryside to seek out short masses in another parish if their own priest was inclined to `go on a bit' during a service. Thanks to this greater mobility, people would often travel up to 20 miles if they knew of a priest who could `bring in' a mass under half an hour. You could imagine how this saddened my friend Larry, who loved long masses and would buck the trend by deliberately seeking out mavericks who specialised in marathons. Larry used often to travel down to Kilcullen in Kildare, where Father Denis Boylan did a spectacular three-hour-long mass, including a legendary meandering sermon which famously veered on and off the point like a racing car driven by a monkey with Alzheimer's disease . . ."

Apart from his extensive, and slightly weird library, Mathews says the main influences on the book are the website www.onion.com (which specialises in parodies of newspaper stories) and the writer, Bruce McCaul, who used to write bogus articles for National Lampoon. These influences aren't too far away from his present work, the creation of a spoof Irish radio phone-show. RTE had originally commissioned the radio work, called Morning Arousal (a beautifully humorous take on Marion Finucane/Joe Duffy and the people who ring in to them). RTE then didn't broadcast it, claiming it was "inappropriate". Mathews hopes to have the show broadcast by BBC Radio soon.

"After that, I really want to get away from writing about Irish stuff," he says. "I think I've done enough. I'm currently working on a new series of Big Train (the brilliant, Dada-esque sketch show) for BBC2, and then I'll be working with Chris `Brass Eye' Morris." Ironically enough, the funniest thing about Arthur Mathews doesn't appear in his book: the man who has written for Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse and Chris Morris, as well as creating/writing Father Ted, Big Train and Hippies still can't get a gig with RTE.

We take our leave of this talent from Termonfeckin, just as he's idly wondering what he would do if anyone suggested making a film out of Well-Remembered Days - "I'd only agree to it if David Mamet did the screenplay and it was directed by Lars Von Triers." And despite all his protestations that it's time to move on from all things Irish, he mentions that he's just been reading Francis Stuart's Wartime Broadcasts: "You know Eoin O'Ceallaigh was a big fan of the Nazis. I wonder if I put him in Berlin during the war . . ."

Well-Remembered Days (The Memoir Of A Twentieth-Century Catholic Life) is published by Macmillan, at £9.99 in UK.