I grew up watching British comedies, and I still watch many of them, with the likes of Bottom, I’m Alan Partridge and The League Of Gentlemen being particular favourites. Seeing Father Ted of course stuck out like a sore thumb. The accents were of course a huge aspect. The portrayal of a “twee”, rural, out in the “shticks” Ireland stood out too.
As an adolescent I wasn’t really mature enough to “join dots” and develop a world perception. This was truly Irish because it looked, sounded and felt that way. It did not matter a fig to me that the show was produced by a British company for Channel 4 and rejected by RTÉ. It was a sore thumb in that simply it came across as highly amusing at the time, and was not English.
This show was quite revolutionary, in the sense that it was symbolic of a transitory period in contemporary Irish history and social life. It mercilessly satirized an old order (the Catholic Church and clergy), and ushered in the coming of a new, more liberal, inclusive, post-Catholic one.
It told an absurdist story of three exiled priests (on Craggy Island), their tea lady, their tribulations with their parishioners, and their rivalries with fellow clergyman Dick Byrne of Rugged Island.
Indeed, creator Graham Linehan stated that “Ireland’s 1950’s happened in the 90’s”, and many of the scenarios within the show tend to reflect those juxtapositions.
Within the contemporary mindset of modern day Ireland, it has become a national cultural meme. Culturally, Father Ted was a leap away from the Ireland of the Sacred Heart picture on the wall, the street ballad and the céilí towards the Ireland of the drag queen, the Rubberbandits and the Millenium Spire.
My understanding of Irish humour, traditionally, was primarily based in storytelling and narrating. The “natural” humour of an Irish person was not something that was to be depicted in the forced setting of the stand-up comedy routine, or in visual media for that matter.
I perceived it as something that came across as quite lyrical and musical. Irony and snideness, whilst they may or may have not been present, were not used for the sake of it. It is not the kind of realm in which I see the snarky likes of “comics” such as Dylan Moran or Chris O’Dowd being as comfortable as they would normally find themselves.
Coming to Ireland permanently in my early twenties, gradually making friends and acquaintances amongst fellow Irish millennials, I noticed that one could not forgo a social outing without references to Father Ted, or adjacent British sitcoms. Such references, heavy in sarcasm and irony, would often be used as a rhetorical device that would derail the potential for any conversation to take a serious turn, or a put-down towards any sort of positive moral assertion. A lengthy quotation from a previous Burkean article, “The Weight Of Banality” exemplifies this perfectly;
Another example of this banalisation is the ubiquity of quotations from the TV series ‘Father Ted’, which mercilessly lampooned the supposedly narrow-minded, hypocritical, pious Ireland of the past. The show was genuinely witty, at the time, but more than two decades later, lines from it are regurgitated in Irish discourse to the point of tedium, each one delivered as an unanswerable put-down.
If you express offence at some particularly egregious display of vulgarity on TV, you can confidently expect the jeering rejoinder: “Down with this sort of thing. Careful now!”. If you suggest Ireland is at risk of losing its Irishness to multiculturalism, you will be met with the line: “I hear you’re a racist now, Father! Should we all be racist now?”. And don’t dare question whether greater prosperity and freedom is always a good thing, or some wiseacre will pipe up: “Maybe I like the misery!”.
That being said, there is an irony truly greater than the show’s use of irony in itself. Two decades later, the show’s creator, Graham Linehan now finds himself a pariah due to his remarks about “transgender” individuals.
True, to his liberal sentiments, he has criticized “trans rights” and activism from standpoints which are unabashedly sympathetic towards the concerns of some feminists and gay people. He has since been banned from Twitter for simply claiming that “trans women” (i.e. men who claim to be women) are not biologically female, and his marriage has broken down.
Hozier, potential Bono MKII, singer of soulless “soul” music and poster child of contemporary global-liberal Ireland labelled Linehan’s views as being part of a “a weird, obsessive little culture war”.
Those words alone without context could almost render Linehan as if he were the archetypal arch-conservative, culturally “backwards” parish priest who he himself satirized in his own Father Ted screenplays. But the opprobrium against Linehan comes from people whose advocacy and astroturfing for extremely arbitrary “human rights” should ultimately be more aligned with him.
In other words, Linehan has been devoured by the very Leviathan he helped build the scales of. Whilst Father Ted did not bluntly express any sort of direct ideological intent, Linehan’s worldview of how Ireland “should look” is amusingly alluded to in an episode of I’m Alan Partridge.
Appearing as a visiting RTE executive who is considering giving a show to the curmudgeonly, embittered ex-TV presenter turned local radio DJ, Partridge’s character (played by Steve Coogan) outlines what he sees as a “major image change” of public and media perceptions of Irish life.
True to Partridge’s character as the disgruntled, middle-aged, middle-Englishman, these perceptions are deeply negative and pejorative. Talking of the “old image of leprechauns, shamrocks, Guinness, horses running through council estates, toothless simpletons”, as well as “badly tarmacked drives” (a reference to Travellers), “men in platform shoes being arrested for bombings” (the IRA, who else?), Linehan’s character is clearly cringing.
Almost certainly, these perceptions of Ireland also made Linehan cringe in real life, and he was very keen to present Ireland in a way that was aligned with the progressive direction of the wider Anglophone world. That progressive direction within mainstream Irish discourse has become full on accelerationist, and left Linehan behind.
If the notion that “conservatism is liberalism driving at the speed limit” is to be believed, then Linehan could be begrudgingly rendered a conservative, albeit in a classically liberal sense. The ecology he has helped shape in contemporary Irish show business has now rendered him unfit to breath and work within it. As the creator of a culturally highly relevant television series, it says a lot about the wider zeitgeist.
Many Irish millennials and Gen-X’ers are now in the midst of a rude awakening. One where their progressive ideas and values which were pursued in the name of what they saw to be common sense have clearly shifted into an aggressive, toxic, irrational overdrive, which manifests in the form of astroturfed.
The resentment that they carried for the vestiges of an old Ireland they relentlessly mocked and caricatured has mutated and spawned into a new reality which will willingly discard them from the new polite society, should they rhetorically or ideologically digress.