Patrick West asks why the cult comedy was not more controversial Tm, UNTIMBIX death of television's most famous priest, actor Dermot Morgan, has left a legion of distraught Father Ted fans bereft of one of the most popular television icons, and iconoclastic shows, of the 1990's.
Father Ted, which portrayed the tomfoolery of three dim witted Irish priests on the mythical Craggy Island, was one of Channel 4's most successful programmes. Yet the series was never without its controversy, not least among sections of the Irish clergy, for whom the series was seen as beyond the pale. Last October, spokesman for Dublin Archdiocese Father John Dardis claimed that ordinary priests were "fed up with Father Ted images," and that they were "fighting back for the real and proper image of the priesthood." Underlying much of the clergy's displeasure was the fact that the programme had failed to cause widespread controversy. British-made satire of the Irish is by no means an unproblematic area. Indeed in Father Ted we had Fathers Dougal and Jack, the simpleton and the drunk, arguably two of the most enduring Irish stereotypes since time immemorial. So why didn't Father Ted spark off a diplomatic crisis as the BBC's Eastenders almost did last year?
The reason for this was that we laughed at the characters, not because they were Irish, but because they were priests. This was modern, urban, secular Ireland mocking its old-fashioned rural, Catholic self. The fall of Catholicism from its venerated position in Irish society has been a well documented phenomenon.
From the 1972 referendum that saw the rescission of the clause in the Irish constitution which had given the Church a "special position" in the state apparatus, and concluding with the divorce referendum of November 1995 and seemingly countless "priestly scandals", the Church in Ireland is no longer taboo or above criticism. Indeed it has become an object of ridicule by liberal Ireland. Applications for the priesthood have plummeted while Mass attendance, particularly among the young, seems to be in free-fall.
Thus in this climate parody became acceptable, something that one of its co-writers Arthur Matthew freely acknowledged. He claimed the programme could never have been transmitted ten years ago, "people would have been very upset, but recent revelations of wrongdoing have meant there is less respect for the church," Perhaps one of the reasons why the series escaped wider criticism was that it was so undoubtedly funny, and completely absurd. The iconography of Craggy Island parochial house was lurid and clearly pre-Vatican II; bishops would carry mitre and crook with them to the beach; nuns sported pre-war wimples.
"It's nothing to do with portraying priests as a bunch of drink-sodden, foul mouthed mad men in Father Ted. Most real priests think the show is a right laugh," said Morgan in one of his last interviews. "It's just me: I hate the Catholic Church with a passion." Dermot Morgan was just another disillusioned Catholic, yet he was one of many in Ireland. The show's , popularity will be interpreted 1 by future media students as indicative of late 20th century cynicism, not only towards Catholicism in Ireland, but to Christianity in general.