Fondly remembered and occasionally quoted, Father Ted has its place in the broad canon of the British sitcom. But in Ireland, even 25 years since its finale, it has always been so much more. Its status is closer to Fawlty Towers in England or Cheers in the United States: the national sitcom, a piece of light entertainment that nevertheless Says Something Meaningful About Us.
Not only was Father Ted one of the few successful TV representations of Ireland, it was made during Ireland’s version of the Swinging Sixties, our flux decade of the Nineties. The accelerating collapse of the Church and the exposure of longstanding political corruption coincided with the dawn of the Celtic Tiger years, lending peripheral Ireland a sense of self-conscious modernity. It was a unique national turning point, where our 19th-century past seemed to co-exist with our 21st-century future. In reflecting this upheaval, Father Ted has become not just a social historical document, but a portent of where Ireland stands today.
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It’s not the sort of thing that national epics are normally made of. The programme is about three Catholic Priests — Fathers Ted Crilly, Dougal McGuire, and Jack Hackett — on Craggy Island, a remote settlement off the west coast of Ireland. All three priests have been exiled to this purgatory by the terrifying Bishop Len Brennan (their misdemeanours are never referred to directly, but Ted often makes oblique reference to the fact that “the funds were only resting in my account”). Most episodes revolve around an absurdist version of Church life, Ted’s schemes to escape the island and their interactions with the island’s townsfolk.
Rarely for domestic Irish TV, it was a sitcom written by Irish people and it was set within a central Irish institution, the Catholic Church. And the dearth of representations of Irish people in entertainment meant it crystallised many Irish archetypes for the first time. Ireland itself hadn’t always been a welcoming place for satirists. Ted star Dermot Morgan knew this well — his major project before Ted had been a political comedy radio show named Scrap Saturday, which upset all the wrong people, and was eventually cancelled amid allegations of political interference.
Unlike Scrap Saturday, Ted never sought to be political or self-consciously “relevant”. But Craggy Island is a capsule of Irish life at this time of major social change — not least for gender relations and the Church. Take one married couple, John and Mary, who own the corner shop on Craggy Island. They contrive to show a winsome, loving front to the priest whenever they encounter him, but turn to violent bickering once his back is turned. At one point, Mary tries to drown John in a bucket of water; at another, Father Ted comes into the shop and finds John has locked Mary in a cupboard. When he leaves, they’re arguing over a shotgun.
This peck-and-scratch marriage is still funny, but in 2023 the laughter it provokes is nervous. It’s a product of an Irish society still processing the reality of divorce, only legalised by a referendum in Ireland in 1995, the same year Ted first aired. Though it was not uncommon at that time for people to separate, the divorce campaign had been ugly and emotional. One billboard for No bore the slogan “Hello divorce, goodbye daddy”. The referendum was passed by the tiny margin of 9,000 votes.
Divorce was only one step in the very gradual withering of religious power in Ireland — far more gradual than the rest of Europe. Remember that abortion was only legalised in Ireland five years ago. When Ted was broadcast, the Church was formally still one of the central pillars of Irish life, but its authority rang hollow. Priests often felt like administrators of a vanished country. And on remote Craggy, Ted, Dougal and Jack mirror this directly. All good sitcoms feature characters who are trapped, but Ted is doubly so: first on his island; and second in an institution people are coming to see as irrelevant. He is still an essential member of the community, more than just a ceremonial functionary for weddings and funerals. But it’s just not clear what the essential thing he does is anymore, beyond being a common reference point that deserves token respect.
Ted and Ted therefore stand at a crossroads, and capture the more fundamental social change in Ireland at this time: the collapse in respect for older establishment hierarchies generally. These were not unlike the changes many other countries had experienced in the Sixties, a meritocratic, levelling upheaval against an entitled ruling elite. In a symbolic Late Late Show appearance not long after Ted ended, Irish EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn terminated his career by seeming to brag inappropriately about the extent of his pay-packet, and the attendant difficulties of maintaining multiple houses, housekeepers and cars, and extensive foreign travel. Such blithe venality had been deemed impassable.
The insistent pulse of Irish political life in the Nineties was a series of tribunals on corruption in public life, covering subjects such as tax evasion and illegal payments to politicians. The names of those tribunals — Flood, Mahon, Moriarty, McCracken — are unknown in the UK. But for an Irish person who was politically conscious in 1997, these were seismic events. The Mahon tribunal in particular lasted 15 years and created an endless and era-defining thrum of news stories about shady political dealings that rarely left the front pages. It created the sense that Ireland was run by an elite who fattened themselves while the public starved, but who had finally been exposed — though the extent of their punishment was often limited, pace Ted, to a kick up the arse.
Even within its small world, Father Ted finds room for these hierarchical upheavals. Bishop Brennan is the terrifying figure at pinnacle of Ted’s world, but his personal failings ultimately allow Ted to, if not topple him, then at least manoeuvre around his influence. On one occasion, he successfully blackmails Brennan when he uncovers a tape showing the Bishop frolicking on the beach with a woman and acting paternally towards a young child. Rarely for the show, this closely parodies the real-life case of the Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, whose secrets were exposed in yet another bombshell Late Late Show interview in 1993.
But perhaps what’s most interesting in Ted are the issues it doesn’t linger on. For obvious reasons — it’s a zany comedy — neither the Northern Irish peace process nor abortion get much airtime. Homosexuality, only legalised in Ireland three years before Ted went on the air, is also largely absent. (The closest the programme came was its introduction of Graham Norton to an unsuspecting world.) Similarly, while the Nineties was also the decade in which Ireland became a country of net immigration, Father Ted remains monoethnic and monocultural — note its famous “I hear you’re a racist now, Father” episode, in which Ted offends Chinese family with an ill-advised impression. But it’s a “Ted, you big eejit” moment, not a herald that Ireland is changing.
These unconscious elisions, as we might now read them, draw attention to the pace and scale of change in Ireland since the programme’s finale, in the passage of barely one generation. The Ireland of the last year — which witnessed immigration protests and the controversy around gender self-ID laws — was unimaginable in 1998, and probably a decade later as well. In this regard, an interesting companion to Father Ted is the 1993 film The Snapper, adapted from Roddy Doyle’s novel and directed by Stephen Frears. It’s the story of a young woman who becomes pregnant outside marriage and the turmoil that ensues in her community. But it ends on a positive note (with its main character and reconciled family crowded round the new baby), and presents a picture of an organic Dublin community that is unimaginably plainer and closer-knit than today.
For anyone who grew up in Ireland, especially Dublin, in the Nineties, returning to Ted and The Snapper is thus a profound and melancholy experience — like looking at a picture of yourself from before a war. This was the genius behind its surreal comedy. Like Ireland, it had its feet in two worlds, occupying that strange place when, as the earth shakes, a chasm opens up between the past and the future.
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