Back in the 1990s, Channel 4 took a big gamble on an odd idea.
The sitcom that premiered on April 1995 concerned the adventures of three priests stranded on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland (so remote it wasn’t on any maps- “we’re not exactly New York”). They’d all been banished to Craggy Island for misdemeanours that made them unfit to minister on the mainland. Father Ted Crilly (the late Dermot Morgan), the straight man of the series, had misappropriated a Lourdes fund for a trip to Las Vegas, giving rise to the immortal fiscal excuse “The money was just resting in my account.” The preternaturally stupid Father Dougal Maguire (Ardal O’Hanlon) had endangered the lives of several hundred nuns in an incident which was sadly never elaborated on. The alcoholic Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly) was too drunk, lecherous and disgusting to remain an active priest. A “frustrated old bag” of a housekeeper, Mrs Clank-Clank Doyle, kept them in vats of tea and built small greenhouses around the parochial house before collapsing of overwork.
Father Ted shouldn’t have worked. Dermot Morgan and Frank Kelly were famous in Ireland but unknown in the UK. It was hard to imagine a British audience taking to a comedy about Irish Catholic priests. The writers-two young Dubliners called Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews- worried about what Irish audiences would make of the whole thing- would it be seen as disrespectful, or far worse, a case of English television mocking the Paddies?
Luckily, Father Ted was produced at exactly the right moment. Old stigmas about the Irish in Britain were lessening with the peace process and the success of Irish bands and films. While reports of abuse in the Catholic Church were beginning to emerge, the true scale had yet to be uncovered. This meant that Father Ted’s priests were easily sympathised with, yet fun could be poked at the Church- for example, Bishop Len Brennan’s similarity with Eamonn Casey.
And of course, analysis aside, Father Ted was downright hilarious. The scripts were sharp and surreal- a special kind of Irish madness. It’s often been said that in parts of Ireland, Father Ted was a documentary. Every village in Ireland has a Tom- the Dallas-loving throwback with a propensity for extreme violence (“Have ye nothing I can kill at all?!”).
It was zany and surreal but like all the best comedies it had a warped logic all of its own. Ted could be vain and greedy, but he always won the audience’s sympathy. And like all the best fictional universes, the detail in Father Ted is astounding. In some ways the small things make Father Ted a cult classic- it’s a universe where sheep drink tea, crow steal glasses and “freak pointing” is a legitimate fairground attraction.
Graham Linehan told the Irish Post in a recent interview that Father Ted was a “specific kind of magic” and it’s difficult to argue. Calling the programme a cult classic is an understatement. It joins the likes of The Simpsons in being a cultural reference point- someone says “go on, go on, go on” and an Irish person knows instantly what they mean. It has spawned its own festival- Tedfest- which began in 2007, and this year took place from February 23 to 26.
Back in 2007, Inishmore and Inisheer fought to the death-well a five-a-side soccer match- for the honour of being Craggy Island. Inishmore won, making Inisheer Rugged Island, the rival parish of Father Ted’s exact double and sworn enemy, Father Dick Byrne. Tedfest has taken place every year since on Inishmore. People dress up and participate in Ted-inspired lunacy- the Lovely Girls Contest, Morning Games with Sister Assumpta and Ireland’s Smallest Lingerie Department are just some of the events over the three days. Back on the mainland, the Roisin Dubh here in Galway also hosts some Tedfest events- the Toilet Duck Awards, and stand-up comedy from three stars of the show, Paul Woodfull (Father Stone), Joe Rooney (Father Damo) and Patrick McDonnell (Eoin McLove).
It’s seventeen years since the first episode of Father Ted premiered, and the show is bigger than ever. As Dougal might say, “That’s a bit mad Ted!”
This article appeared in Sin on February 27 2012.