“My mum hated it,” Margi Murphy, a Londoner with an Irish mother recalls. “What really pissed her off was when I said ‘go on…go on go on go on go on go on’ when offering her a biscuit.”
Any true fan will already know which sitcom Murphy’s referred to, but for everyone else out there, it is fair to say Father Ted was designed to offend. A sitcom about an opportunist Irish Catholic priest exiled to the remote Craggy Island, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, it relied on digs at the Catholic Church and Irish provincialism (episodes include the legendary “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse”). The offending quote above comes from Mrs Doyle, an eccentric housekeeper who is positively fascist about making sure you’ve had your tea.
My Mancunian Irish Catholic family, on the other hand, loved it. A straw poll of Irish Catholics (lapsed or otherwise) soon revealed we were not alone. “You could hear us shrieking from miles away,” one Irish-born Londoner tells me. She could not think of anyone who was offended: “People still love it.” Another Irish friend agrees. Another still, a practising Catholic, laments the fact it was not initially shown on a domestic TV channel: “Such a loss.” Even priests have come round to it.
Father Ted might have gifted the world the protest slogan “Down with this sort of thing”, but the sitcom’s devotees can be found at the highest echelons of power. A recent meeting with a leading Brexiteer broke into laughter after I mentioned the sitcom. A City worker told me how her family regularly quote sections of the show to each other, the most popular referring to an episode where Father Ted and other priests get lost in the lingerie section of a department store. Despite running for a modest three series, I’ve heard of fans in Canada and South Africa. There have been other shows about religious figures, but it is Father Ted who has endured. Why?
The first is the characters. Father “the money was just resting in my account” Ted is a cunning man forced to share a dreary home with two other priests and Mrs Doyle on a windswept island. Father Dougal, his companion, is naïve. “Ted, do you believe in the afterlife?” he asks in the episode “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”. Ted: “Well generally priests have a very strong belief in the afterlife.” Dougal: “Ooh, I wish I had your faith, Ted!”
Father Jack, on the other hand, is a curmudgeonly old drunk, and an audience favourite. (A Scottish Irish friend who works in the whisky industry in Scotland got in touch to claim he was in the process of getting Father Jack tattooed on to his leg). There are also repeat appearances by the hyperactive, guitar-strumming Father Noel (Graham Norton), and Ted’s nemesis, Father Dick Byrne.
All the same, I suspect Father Ted wouldn’t be half as funny if wasn’t for the Catholic Church. It looms over everything, less as a theology, and more as a hierarchical institution that is just asking to be turned upside down. “I think it was the satirical element,” one Irish Father Ted fan says of why her family loved it. “Very cheeky to be so ‘mean’ about priests.” Just as kids read The Bash Street Kids for the tussles with authority, so Irish Catholics tuned into catch Father Ted trying to avoid impending disgrace. It’s not a revolution, it’s a giggle.
This makes even more sense when you consider that Catholicism is not simply a spiritual movement but a set of physical encounters that are – even for the lapsed among us – inevitable. As well as the mysterious church rituals, there are the family christenings, weddings and funerals, the schools, the confirmation names (shout out to my cousin Sexburga), the confirmation dresses, the charities, the deep-held prejudice that Catholics are just more friendly, and of course, the Pope, which everyone has an opinion on. You can’t navigate all of this without a joke from time to time. Father Ted captures the familiar detail – the squabbling couple who fake marital harmony when a priest walks by, the collision between Catholicism and modernity – while offering up the fantastical, like the nun singing Ave Maria down the phone to Ted when his call is put on hold.
Based on my conversations, it seems those who were offended by Father Ted were mostly older Irish immigrants to Britain fed up with “Paddy jokes”, rather than blasphemy. For younger generations, on the other hand, Father Ted is something to hold on to. Dermot Morgan, who played Ted, died at the age of 45 in 1998. (Morgan was said to be keen to be known for something other than Father Ted, but as one fan joked: “God had other plans.”) As for me, my upbringing among laughing Catholics has always made me suspicious of those who think religion is purely a serious matter. I stopped going to church long ago, my closest Irish relations have passed away, but you’ll still find me humming along to Father Ted’s 1996 Eurovision entry, “My Lovely Horse”.
This is part of the New Statesman’s look back at classic sitcoms from the 90s. You can find our takes on Alan Partridge here, Ab Fab here, Only Fools and Horses here, Sex and the City here and Brass Eye here.