Why Does Father Ted Hold Such a Timeless Appeal?

by JoHarrington

A sitcom about three priests living on an island off the West coast of Ireland doesn't sound too promising. But watch it and you'll end up quoting it for the rest of your life!

It was 2014 and I was in a tent in the middle of the Glastonbury Festival. With a pitter-patter herald, the Heavens unleashed a torrent of rain.

"No!" I screamed in horror at the oncoming mudfest. "Down with this sort of thing!"

All around me a chorus of festival goers took up the same cry. "Down with this sort of thing! Down with this sort of thing!" Followed by a tiny voice adding, "Careful now."

We were mostly strangers (and a band of friends) situated in another country, nearly twenty years after those immortal words were first spoken on the television. Yet we could ALL quote 'Father Ted'.

It was a true testament to the show's enduring success and its ubiquity in our cultural lexicon.

What Makes Father Ted so Successful?

The fact that people across the world are still quoting it two decades on - and watching it - means that the sitcom is undoubtedly a timeless classic.

Image: Father Ted Dublin Mural by William MurphyWriters Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews were looking to create a sitcom which combined the chaos of The Young Ones with the hilarity of Fawlty Towers. They succeeded.

Both men had been raised against a background of Irish Catholicism. Arthur's uncle was a priest, who frequently invited other priests into the family circle. The writer watched scenes like those depicted in his sitcom unfold every day.

For all of that, Father Ted wasn't really about Catholicism. Nor about the priesthood. It could have been any three men living together, surrounded by a bizarre community. They could have been police officers, farmers, accountants (with money just resting in at least one account) or students. Though the latter would have been too much like The Young Ones.

Irish Catholicism and the fact that they were priests was merely a framework. Never once, in the whole series, did you actually have to know a thing about either in order to enjoy the jokes. I watched it as a British Pagan and laughed along with the rest.

In short, the appeal was universal, even as the setting was unequivocally Irish. That's a huge part of why Father Ted was - and remains - successful. But the number one reason is that it is simply a very, very funny show.

Image: Father Ted Mural in Dublin's Temple Bar snapped by William Murphy.

Father Ted: 'Small... Far Away'

After Father Ted and the intellectually challenged Father Dougal accidentally go on holiday without any games packed, they have to make their own entertainment.

Watch All Three Seasons of Father Ted

Another huge reason that 'Father Ted' has stood the test of time is that only three seasons were ever made. The series stopped at the top of its game.

The Characterisations in Father Ted

Most of the characters - Ted Crilly aside - were larger than life caricatures, yet we somehow knew people just like them!

Image: Father Jack Hackett from Father TedIn the best tradition of The Young Ones, Linehan and Mathews opted for characters that were often quite two-dimensional. Yet hilarious in whatever aspect drove them to the fore.

This was quite deliberate. We saw the world of Craggy Island largely through the eyes of Father Ted Crilly (an extremely rounded character), and it's a foible of human nature to concentrate solely on the most overt characteristics of the individuals around us.

Therefore Father Jack Hackett was reduced to being a vile, sadistic, drunken old school priest ('of the sort that our fathers knew...' according to Graham Linehan) capable only of seeking alcohol, and uttering his catchphrase words, 'Feck! Girls! Drink!'  Father Dougal was stupid. Mrs Doyle pressed tea upon everyone constantly with all the determination of a heroin pusher. Bishop Brennan was terrifying. Father Noel was hyperactive. Father Jessup was 'the most sarcastic priest in Ireland'.

As much of the humor that came in exploiting those single characteristics, there was even more to be had in the hints of a fuller personality in the background. All the things that Father Ted didn't see, or else willfully ignored, had great capacity for hilarity behind his back.

For example, John and Mary O'Leary were there to poke fun at people who always pretended everything was alright in front of priests. It was the hypocrisy that made them amusing - especially since we all do something similar, if not with priests then with the neighbors, or our boss, or family members. But most of all, it was the fact that Ted genuinely appeared to not notice the things that were patently there for all to notice. It would have been too awkward to do so. And that's all part of the etiquette of polite society too.

In this way, Father Ted held a dark mirror up to 'civilized' behavior and showed us all something unsavory about our blinkered world. That's the job of great comedy, with the laughter often landing in the slight sense of unease thus engendered. We might not even realize precisely why we're laughing, but we do so anyway.

Linehan and Mathews did that in Father Ted with aplomb, and by focusing on human interactions - rather than political satire etc. - they ensured that the gags are as relevant twenty years on, as they were at the time.

Image: Father Jack Hackett screenshot by Insomnia Cured Here.

Father Ted: Mrs Doyle with A Nice Cup of Tea

The way that tea is pressed upon all and sundry is a facet dear to the national psyche of all Irish people, and the British too. I've BEEN Mrs Doyle.

Father Ted Tapping into Cultural Cliches

Nobody in Ireland nor Britain is ever given a crash course in tea etiquette. No manual exists in the market. Half of us don't even grasp that we've been socialized into understanding every nuance. But we know and live by it all the same.

Father Ted parodies that whole aspect of our cultural psyche in the form of Mrs Doyle.

Nor is it the only snippet of Irish (and British) national knowing that is strung up for fond ridicule.

Part of Father Ted's undying success is that it does tap into something undeniably part of our national identity. It makes US the subject of the comedy, but with such charm and hilarity that none of us can resist laughing at ourselves.

Mrs Doyle Teapot

The reverse of this teapot says 'Go on! Go on! Go on!'

Linehan and Mathews plundered dozens of cliches, codes and Things We Just Do, then turned them on their heads for laughs. Once you see them played out - despite the reality probably being standard in every household watching - they all become utterly audacious.

The old joke about every baby being fathered by the milkman is quite literally restaged, when every baby on Craggy Island IS sired by Pat Mustard. The lecherous nature of beauty contests is awkwardly enacted in the Lovely Girls Competition.

Social scares are held up in all their hyperbole, when the theft of a whistle swiftly escalates into everyone buying guns and fearing the breakdown of society. Blindly following the pronouncements of authority figures is shown in all its unthinking stupidity, when Farmer Colm asks if they all have to be racist, now that Father Ted is assumed to be so (only he doesn't know how he'll fit the racism in between the farm work and chilling out in the evenings, but he will try...).

Nor are those seeking to save the world exempt from caricature. Niamh Connolly (obviously based on Sinead O'Connor) is portrayed as a rather short-sighted and shallow celebrity, despite her scathing Feminist pronouncements. While Ted and Dougal's attempt at a protest has become one of THE epic moments in the show, reproduced endlessly in real world protests, even decades later.

Father Ted: Down With This Sort of Thing

The Streisand Effect in all its glory! A polite protest causing more publicity for the subject than ignoring it would have done.
Image: Anonymous Down With This Sort of Thing (2008)
Image: Anonymous Down With This Sort ...

'Down with this sort of thing' was in fact the quote that prompted this whole article.

It illustrates beautifully what happens when a nation noted for politeness and not making a fuss, suddenly want to make their opposition felt.

It parodies very well that general sense that speaking up is a tremendous breach of etiquette, and we're probably going to get into trouble for this. It's testimony to the fact that our parents battered into us as infants the notion that all is well, as long as we're good and don't show them up by causing a fuss in public.

Image: Anti-Austerity Protest, London (2011)
Image: Anti-Austerity Protest, London...
Image: Anti University Fees Protest, Dublin
Image: Anti University Fees Protest, ...

Is Father Ted Quintessentially Irish (and/or British)?

Comment yes with examples, if you've spotted something poking fun at us. Comment no with examples, if you find it has a more international appeal.
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Did Father Ted Ever Go Too Far in its Cultural Parodies?

There are those who really think it did. Graham Linehan had no time for them at all.

Image: Graham LinehanOn the whole subject of parents worrying about their kids showing them up in public, I heard a cute anecdote about the making of Father Ted.

Graham Linehan's mother heard that her boy was making a sitcom poking fun at the Irish clergy. It worried her. She read the script, then turned up on set to watch some of the filming. Then she spoke with every one of the actors individually.

'Is it funny?' Mrs Linehan mithered, becoming more and more reassured as the likes of Dermot Morgan and Ardal O'Hanlon assured her that it was most definitely funny. After all, they were stand up comedians, on the television, they'd know.

Only then did she get off Graham's back and switch to proudly supporting his show. I could so imagine that being my mother, or indeed any Irish or British mother in the history of the Isles. Careful Now is practically etched into all that we say and do!  (And if Mrs Linehan should be reading, let me add my voice to the rest - 'Your Graham's doing great! Father Ted and The IT Crowd were both very funny. It's all good.')

However, not everyone was as easily appeased. During the run of the first season of Father Ted, Graham Linehan found himself on the current events talk show Right to Reply having to defend his sitcom.

A second generation Irish lady from Manchester, England, wasn't impressed. She thought that Father Ted didn't so much tap into cultural norms as propagate negative stereotypes as if they were truths. The racist image of a drunken, stupid Irishman found cheap expression in Father Jack and Father Dougal. The thieving Gael was right there in Father Ted himself.

How could she raise her child to be proud of her Irish heritage, when the Irish were being portrayed in this manner?

Born and bred in Dublin, Graham Linehan was contemptuous. He asked her whether the Irish had to be denied the opportunity to laugh at themselves? And whether their culture, history and traditions were so fragile, that they couldn't stand the comedic self-analysis? In short, the very notion of trying to sanctify a white-washed national identity was itself the quickest way to erode all that it was to be Irish.

On the whole, it seemed that the public agreed with him.

However, Linehan has recently admitted that Father Ted couldn't have been made today, or at least not in the same fashion. The specter of abuse in the Catholic church couldn't be ignored in such a sitcom, but its inclusion would have darkened things way past the point of humor.

Father Ted Box Sets on DVD

Sales are still going strong on these, twenty years after they were first aired.

The Quotable Father Ted

Another huge reason why 'Father Ted' has remained in the spotlight is that it produced a funny quotation for most situations.

Is there any moment of confusion which couldn't be answered with 'that would be an ecumenical matter'? I think not.

Last night, I was reading about the Garth Brooks concert planning fiasco currently (at the time of writing) underway in Dublin.

Basically the artist had been booked to play five sell out gigs in Croke Park. He'd commissioned a whole stage set accordingly. But the promoters hadn't actually received permission for the concerts to take place, and they all breached the agreement with local residents to only allow a fixed number of major events per year.

The debate raged long and hard. Was this bureaucracy gone mad? Was this the planning department justifying its existence by being awkward? Or were they heroes for championing the rights of the Irish people inconvenienced by such stagings?  What about the rights of concert-goers, who purchased their tickets in good faith?  Is Dublin over-governed? Should we always capitulate, when an international celebrity wants to do something?  Will Ireland get in trouble for causing a fuss?

In the midst of the long and intense debate, someone had simply posted, 'Is there anything to be said for saying another mass?'

It was a Father Ted quotation, as applicable in matters of high government as another was to react to the rain falling on the Glastonbury Festival. My quotation was an expression meaning, 'I respectfully disagree with the turn of events'. They had chosen one which translated, in Ted parlance, to 'are we absolutely certain we've explored every avenue of possible solution here?'

Father Ted is eminently quotable. There are whole lists devoted to the fact that there's at least one line from the show, which can be employed in any given scenario that you care to mention.

I think this accounts, in very large part, to why Father Ted has enjoyed such an enduing appeal. If we're all still quoting it, on a daily basis, then we're also reminding our peers of the show's existence. I returned from Glastonbury to watch all three seasons, one after another, then I wrote this Wizzle, all because a quotation put Ted firmly back onto my radar.

Now, will anyone be wanting another cup of tea? Ah! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!

Father Ted - the Complete Series on DVD

Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Ah! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!

Best of Father Ted Clips

I'd personally be hard pushed to narrow it down to just ten minutes worth of clips, but YouTuber Liam Morrison gave it a good go.
Updated: 08/25/2014, JoHarrington
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Why do you think that Father Ted is a timeless classic?

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JoHarrington on 08/11/2014

I watched a documentary where they went inside the 'parochial house'. It was like going through the rabbit hole, because the inside is nothing like we expect it to be. The family who live there have so many visitors that they've now opened a tea shop in the parlour!

frankbeswick on 08/10/2014

We have no connection with the house. It was never a real parochial house, but one hired for the program.

JoHarrington on 08/09/2014

Oh wow! What a brilliant surprise! :D

frankbeswick on 08/09/2014

Surprise! After watching Julie Walters on Who Do You Think You Are? Maureen was delighted to watch a program on her mother's county, Mayo, and began some research.She recognized names from her mother's area, and the program came alive for her in a powerful way. It transpires that her great grandfather came from the parish where the house used as Craggy Island Parochial House is situated. That is not in Mayo, but in County Clare,at the edge of the Burren, as the family moved to Mayo to further their cattle dealing business. She came in, I showed her the picture and said "Your great grandfather came from near there." She was amused. We cannot establish a link between her family and the house though.

JoHarrington on 07/14/2014

>.> I may have believed there was one until quite recently. Last couple of seconds in fact.... -.-

frankbeswick on 07/14/2014

I hope that no one believes that there really is a golden cleric award. The present pope has got rid of the honorary title, monsignor. Those who have it can keep it; but none will be given.

JoHarrington on 07/14/2014

I would have given you a Golden Cleric, if it was in my power to give it. Would a Burnt Gold digital one from a Pagan do?

That bit with the nun singing Ave Maria at them over the telephone absolutely cracked me up. Wouldn't it be hilarious if it transpired that all holding music was like that? Someone listening in, as they tinnily play Strauss or Mozart on every holding line ever.

Yes, you really do have to laugh.

frankbeswick on 07/13/2014

Having drawn out the religious undertones of the main characters in Father Ted, I must say that none of the priests that they meet are of any special religious significance. They are merely comic characters. I suppose that Larry Duff is a caricature of trendy priest, but there is no significance in that.

One episode that amused me was the one with the manic nun who was giving the trio penance after they have been tricked by the evil Dick Byrne into actually doing something for Lent. They phone the convent to book some penitential sessions, are put on hold, and the music comes from an aged nun singing Ave Maria down the line. Amusing, but I could just imagine it happening. That was for me part of the humour. Whoever wrote Ted did not dislike nuns, but could see the comic side of their enthusiasm. Jack for some reason hates nuns to the extent of fleeing the house when they come in. You have to laugh.

frankbeswick on 07/13/2014

The unorthodox bit is the problem, not for me, but for others. I am a firm believer in women priests and married priests.

Would I have got a golden cleric?

JoHarrington on 07/13/2014

Personally I think you'd have made an amazing priest. But you don't have to wear a dog-collar to do that kind of work. The uniform and parish just means that you're paid for it.

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