The genius of Father Ted

by Donal Kennedy

IT'S OVER ten years now since the untimely death of actor Dermot Morgan who should live forever in the role of Father Ted.

For the comedy series was a work of genius, which worked at a number of levels. It was Very, very, well observed. For example, Father Ted was a sucker for new gadgets. The gadget makers find work for celibate hands to do.

A priest uncle of mine had a cine-camera from the 1930s. He was also prevailed upon to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in the 1950s, to his disappointment. Published by the University of Chicago, it had, he complained, every American Deputy-Sheriff and dogcatcher and was not that good for most of the world.

I checked on Thomas Francis Meagher, the 1848 Young Ireland leader and first governor of the US territory of Montana. It said he was educated at Stoneyhurst College, near Dublin. From the shores of Lake Illinois I'm sure it is, but the Irish Sea does intervene.

But, I digress. If you doubt Father Ted's closeness to real life I suggest you visit Rome (on the Tiber, in Italy) in mid-September, when the Irish harvest is in, the hurling final played and the football final a week or two away.

Some years ago my wife and I did. In a coffee bar near St Peter's were smart men with beautiful haircuts, superbly cut suits and shoes to die for. (The Vatican's Swiss Guards still wear uniforms designed by Michelangelo and Rome's fire brigade wear Armani. Italians believe that nothing is too good for men. I think Italy's darkest secret may be that it drowns ugly girls at birth.)

These smart men carried filofaxes and Gucci briefcases, drank espressos, and wore Roman collars. They were the Vatican's civil servants and a reminder that Europe's clerical workers were once just that, and that bishops and cardinals once ran principalities, kingdoms and empires.

Indeed if you are arranging a dinner for your friends in England, do remember that the prime minister should be seated next in precedence to the archbishop of York. (It's surprising how many of my parvenu friends have slipped up here.)

Anyhow, our own hotel was near the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Diocesand cathedral of the bishop of Rome, and one evening we went for a meal in a restaurant opposite it. There was a lone diner there before us, monsignor Denis Faul of Dungannon.

Together with Father Raymond Murray this scholarly headmaster had exposed the crimes of the British government in Ireland, campaigned for the reopening of the Birmingham Six and like cases and been a thorn in the side of the establishments each side of the Irish Sea. He was padre too to prisoners in Long Kesh and Armagh, but never their patsy and fell out of favour on the other side. Anyhow, there was Father Denis, minding his own business and starting his meal.

About ten minutes later there was an invasion of about twenty men, all white haired, in cheap sports shirts and trousers from the 1950s which they probably had since they mucked out the cowsheds and chickensheds on the family farms when on a break from their seminaries in their youth. They were noisy and wisecracking and backslapping.

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" may be good advice, but even if they had, nobody would have taken them for Italians. They were obviously, from a mile away, Irish priests letting their hair down. "Come, join us, Denis" they invited father Faul, who declined to join in the fun.

It could have been staged for an episode of Father Ted, but there were no cameras there.

You'd imagine that the introduction of women priests to rural, conservative, Church of England parishes would be material for a funny TV series. But no such luck. Recognisable characters, situations and décor, realism in fact, give Father Ted, with all its surrealism , an edge which mere facetiousness lacks. The jests of the Vicar of Dibley "do savour of a shallow wit" compared with the genius of Father Ted.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2009-08-31 22:15:44.
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