It’s 20 years since Father Ted was first broadcast. Greg Daly looks at the impact of the comedy on Ireland and the Church.
It was a strange moment for fans of Father Ted when two years ago Graham Linehan, one of the show’s creators, said that he could never have written Ted in the current climate.
He’d grown up thinking of the priests who had taught him in Dublin’s Catholic University School as perhaps “a bit eccentric” but “harmless enough”, he said, but, “since Ted, and everything that’s come out, I’ve just come to really hate the Church. I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”
Things were very different when the show was first broadcast, with him telling reporters that he and his co-writer Arthur Mathews, who created the character of Fr Ted Crilly in the 1980s, “drew on the priests we knew, but not in a negative way,” adding “the priests who taught us were very fine, very pleasant”. The reason why the show “used priests”, he said, was “because of the mysterious thing religion is, you can make things up and spoof it”.
The show, then, always had an air of unreality about it, such that iCatholic.ie founder Fr Bill Kemmy, who always enjoyed it, believes “it follows on in a great absurdist tradition of comedy”, and far from being an “anti-Church vehicle” was “more a reflection on our flawed humanity and how all too often our dreams and ambitions go far beyond our abilities and commitments”.
Describing Fr Ted’s Craggy Island, which UCD sociology professor Tom Inglis calls “a Catholic dystopia”, as “an abandoned landscape”, Fr Kemmy says that “it’s almost Beckett territory where people are dislocated and cut off. They’re still holding onto some sense of connection, but they’re really just marooned people. People kind of relate to that, they relate to the fact that it doesn’t all make sense and that they’re just trying to keep the show going.”
Acknowledging that some people were offended by the show, he nonetheless says “I don’t think, looking back, that it was in any way sacrilegious or was a direct attack on things that I and others hold sacred.”
Among those who the show troubled at the time was the young Capuchin friar Fr Bryan Shortall, ordained while the show was in its heyday.
Despite as a youth loving Dermot Morgan’s Fr Brian Trendy, Fr Shortall says he initially disliked Father Ted, wondering if the show went too far in its portrayal of clergy and whether it was “fair to lampoon priests in that way”.
In hindsight, though, he recognises that as a newly-minted priest, he was perhaps somewhat oversensitive. Admitting that the show had “a very good concept”, he now thinks that even if “it poked fun at the Church and clergy, it didn’t do so in an offensive way”.
He describes some episodes as “rip-roaringly funny”, and says that ultimately, “anything that helps us to forget our fears and worries and helps us to have a good belly laugh is a good thing – helping people to switch off is very good.”
Brendan O’Regan, TV reviewer for The Irish Catholic, was another one unimpressed by the show in its early days, and not just for its attitude to the Church. “I didn’t like it at all,” he says, “and thought it quite tacky even at an artistic level – it looked slapdash and felt thrown together with dodgy plots.”
At the time, he thought it was “very disrespectful”, with many thinking, he felt, that Catholic clergy were “easy prey” for lazy writers.
While his “memory is that most of the criticism was because of the perceived irreverence” of the show, he also felt it was significant that it was made by a British production company for a British audience. “There was a certain amount of unease that English people were making fun of the Irish,” he says, adding of the writers and cast, “or perhaps that Irish people abroad were making fun of where they came from.”
Now, though, his view has mellowed, and his children are all fans. “I find it amusing and entertaining in spots,” he says, highlighting his fondness for Ardal O’Hanlon’s Fr Dougal McGuire. While he thinks the show had an anti-Catholic aspect, with “a few swipes at Church teaching”, he says that though it was “probably edgy at the time, it looks pretty tame in hindsight”.
Although some might argue that over the years the show has itself become impossible to criticise, as one of modern Ireland’s sacred cows, others would counter that it was always harmless, and doesn’t merely seem so because it was first shown a long time ago.
Portlaoise’s Fr Paddy Byrne never found the show problematic, proudly saying: “I’d be a fan of Father Ted.” Just 20 when it was first broadcast, he says, “I watched it at the time and my family didn’t see any harm in it.” After joining the seminary, he says he felt the show had its “finger on the pulse with the caricatures”. Regardless of how the Church in Father Ted comes across as unattractive and even irrelevant, he adds, “I still find it funny. We have to laugh at ourselves.”
People laughing at Father Ted were indeed laughing at themselves, according to Prof. Inglis, saying extreme examples can give an “insight into the normal and everyday”, and that what it did was to shine a light that revealed “inconsistences, levels of magical thinking, and different kinds of characters.
“We all know those ways of thinking, those ways of being, those characters.
While the show’s creators have always maintained they did no research (it not really being about Catholicism), it is clear in the show’s texture that two of Mathews’ uncles were priests.
Fr Shortall says “there’s some truth” in the show’s rendering of priestly life. Scenes where Mass duties are juggled and swapped were “very accurate”, he says, adding of “clerical conversations in the parlour and Mrs Doyle with tea” that “there’s a bit of that in every religious house, and once in every presbytery, though not so much in presbyteries now as priests tend to live on their own.
“I would have been in a few presbyteries back in the day which shared a fair bit of the decor of Craggy Island’s,” observes Fr Kemmy, who nonetheless rejects criticisms of the show’s failure to depict the reality of life at the priestly coalface in the way the BBC’s Rev. attempts to do for Anglican clergy. “That’s not the point of it,” he says, pointing out that nobody would have expected John Cleese and Connie Booth to have “done their research on hotel management” when writing Fawlty Towers.
“That wasn’t the point of it! It’s just a depiction of humanity and where we fail all too often, about the absurd clash of over-ambition and under-achievement.”
Catholic Comment’s Petra Conroy agrees: “It would have been a different kind of show if they had done research and made it more realistic. What they were showing most was the common perception of priests among young urban middle-class people in Ireland, and it reflects this perception accurately.”
Even devoid of research or an anti-Catholic agenda, the show highlighted real problems in the Church at the time, according to 27-year-old Dominic O’Reilly, part of a generation which has never really known a Ted-less world. He cites Jim Norton’s Bishop Len Brennan as “an obvious reference to other bishops in Ireland’s recent past that were the subject of much scandal”. Fr Byrne likewise singles out Bishop Brennan’s “sinister” figure as an example of problems in the Church when Ted was first aired, saying, “In the past, Irish bishops have had a gap between them and the men working on the ground”, such that “priests were often alienated and in fear of bishops.
“Pope Francis,” he quips, “would have a lot to say to Len Brennan if he got him over to the Vatican.”
Although the show made great use of such stereotypes as “the alcoholic Jack, the foolish innocent Dougal, the housekeeper Mrs Doyle, the priest offering platitudes, the bishop living a double life”, such clichés were, he adds, “not too far from reality of where the Church was at the time”.
“Father Ted,” he says, “highlights a time in the Church when dysfunction was the name of the day, and while lots of priests on the ground were trying to do their best, the show was bringing to the surface things that soon would erupt.”
Mr O’Reilly argues too that the possibility of imagining Ted and the empty-headed Dougal as priests itself highlighted a problem. It was, he says, all too clear that “Fr Ted himself sees his life as priest as a job and not much more. There is no mention of a vocation to the priesthood.”
Although numbers of seminarians have plummeted since the country had “a production line of priests at the ready”, Mr O’Reilly says that none of today’s seminarians will simply have drifted into the priesthood.
Overall, he says, it’s not a bad thing if the programme’s more pointed moments are difficult to watch. “If it causes us to address the problems of the past and ask questions of those around us to ensure that these incidents are not repeated then the programme has served its viewers well.”
The creators of the show, of course, would reject such analyses, having always insisted the show wasn’t really about Catholicism or priests, being in some ways a reworking of a tried-and-tested sitcom formula otherwise seen in, for instance, Only Fools and Horses: the schemer who’s not as clever as he thinks he is, the idiot, and the grouchy old man.
Regardless of intentions, though, “there’s always a gap between the preferred view that creators have and how readers and viewers interpret it”, according to Prof. Inglis, who says the show revealed the Catholic Ireland we all knew.
“It was a cartoon of Irish Catholicism,” he says, adding, “It could have been Doonesbury. Its themes and issues were universal, but the local reading was that we were able to laugh at those things we considered sacred and untouchable in a way.”
While the show in some ways shone a light on Irish Catholicism, opinions vary as to whether that light changed views of the Church and the clergy.
Mr O’Regan says he doubts Ted has shaped the “mental picture of clergy in Ireland at least for people who are regular attenders, and even for those who go just for weddings and funerals”, and Association of Catholic Priests co-founder Fr Tony Flannery broadly agrees, saying he is “inclined to suspect that it didn’t have much of an impact in terms of how people think of priests who they know in their parishes and families”.
Observing that irrelevance “and to a certain degree stupidity” marked the show’s presentation of priests, he speculates that perhaps it was the fact that the show was “so far removed from priests and the reality of their lives” that “made it harmless”. Fr Kemmy thinks it’s important not to downplay the show’s significance, though. He says it was “a cultural phenomenon that for a lot of young adults of that generation was as much exposure to the Church as they got, whether we like it or not. There’s no doubt that it’s entered into our culture,” he says, adding, “for some people, they view the Church almost through Father Ted.”
Fr Byrne similarly believes Ted “informed a particular generation that priesthood equates with something unreal and an ‘ivory tower’ kind of life, and a dysfunctional lifestyle that involves an immature way of living. It established itself in the consciousness of a generation that views the Church through a prism of a Ted-like image.”
The Church’s message through that prism, he says, “is unattractive, and is interpreted as being unrealistic”.
Although Donal O’Sullivan-Latchford of the Family and Media Association enjoyed the show, he feels there was more to it than “humour about priests”. A social message dropped unobtrusively into a show can be “very powerful”, he says, “because it’s almost hidden in the appearance and content”, and he wonders whether its depiction of Catholicism may have made people “feel foolish” about their faith.
He thinks it would be unfortunate if “it led people not to think deeply about the things that are important for their existence and their future”. Mr O’Reilly, though, thinks it more likely that instead of being a “catalyst for changing views”, the show was “more a reflection of incidents that changed attitudes”.
Indeed, attitudes may have changed before the show. In a 2013 interview, Mr Linehan denied being troubled by any hint of so-called ‘Catholic guilt’, saying: “I was the first generation who really didn’t give a damn. As soon as I hit puberty, it was over.”
It is difficult to see how the show could have become the cultural phenomenon it did if Ireland’s younger Catholics in the 1990s had thought the institutional Church truly mattered. Myths of widespread outrage are as easily refuted as those that claim RTÉ refused to produce the show; national letters pages from the era are remarkable for how few letters condemned the show.
While not saying that Channel 4 and later RTÉ should have been besieged by people wielding placards, Ms Conroy, who watched the show at the time “like everyone else”, says most people didn’t find it offensive because “in some ways we’re happier to laugh at ourselves than others”.
Reactions to Ted, she says, highlight an issue with contemporary Irish Catholicism. “Catholics are comfortable with the image of being harmless,” she says, adding that, “that’s not really good enough. We’re supposed to be salt and light, being bravely countercultural and stepping up to the front.”
Mr O’Sullivan-Latchford says it’s ironic that Ted’s ridiculing of clumsy censorship attempts has led to “something that is more insidious”, where Catholics can fear speaking out. This tendency towards self-censorship can lead to a situation where “politicians comment only on things’ superficial aspects”, he adds, “almost as though they’re not allowed to address the core and value of the things they’re dealing with.”
As for Mr Linehan’s feeling that he couldn’t write the same show now, Fr Shortall doubts anyone could, with Fr Byrne saying: “It’s a very different Church now. For most bishops now there are no priests to send to Craggy Island.”
Fr Flannery is inclined to think that clergy would be “less of a good subject for comedy now”, now that Ireland’s “priests are old and our influence in society has declined for all sorts of reasons”.
Saying that a modern Ted probably wouldn’t work, he says that “if it was being done now it would probably be sharper and a bit nastier and abuse would be brought in – after the reports, inevitably abuse would come in. There’s an underlying anger now that wasn’t so much there then.”
Prof. Inglis agrees the abuse reports have changed things. “Being able to make a joke of something is a way of emotionally coming to terms with it, but it’s too close in time to deal with that through humour.” He agrees with Fr Flannery’s point that the modern priest is a peripheral figure, unlike the more central clergy of the society presented in Father Ted, and wonders whether it would work to make a comedy out of “the priest as outsider”.
“It may be being done as we speak,” he says, “but it would be a hell of a cultural achievement to do so.”