D'ja hear about the priest and the barmaid?

A tiny village in Co Wicklow is overwhelmed by Ballykissmania. There's no escape - not even in the local pub
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY (SUNDAY), on the eve of its reincarnation as Ballykissangel the BBC soap, the charming village of Avoca, Co Wicklow was, in every way, saturated. At one point, a coach from North Wales, a camper van with English plates, a tractor and a cavalcade of wedding limos leaving St Patrick's church came into honking conjunction.

And there was serious saturation also at Fitzgerald's pub, where drinkers had spilled out on to the street. At Fitz's, it seems, the stout is of superb quality. "It's a great pint," said one. "So fresh. They sell so much that it's always fresh."

But what Avoca is chiefly saturated with is Ballykissmania. Coach after coach with GB plates rolls in filled with fans of, as they prefer to call it, Ballykay. They are intensely curious about the new series. What will the new priest be like, the one who will take the place of beloved, tragic Father Peter? How can the new barmaid, played by Victoria Smurfit (in real life an Irish heiress), possibly replace Assumpta?

And so they pile into the Ballykay Mini Market where, unendingly on a loop, panpipes play "Galway Bay" to buy the Ballykay souvenirs which far outnumber the normal items of Leprechauniana - Ballykay tea-towels, keyrings, thimbles, bookmarks, fudge and naturally Ballykay T-shirts which, unlike the Tour de France T-shirts, are not marked down.

And then they scatter to drink in the sights. Yvonne Fogwell has come all the way from Australia - she is a computer supervisor in Sydney - and now she stands on the old bridge over the Avoca River. "Everybody watches this at home," she says. "I've got every episode on tape." She stares at the water. "Oh my God!" she exclaims suddenly. "This is the exact spot where Father Peter threw his clerical collar over the bridge..."

It's Fitzgerald's pub, though, that is the epicentre of Ballykissmania. Everybody wants to stand in front of it being snapped supping a pint. Most of the locals, however, prefer to hang out at the Avoca Inn across the street. Said Michael Byrne, "I come in here for a bit of peace". Told a new series is starting, he rejoins, "Is that right?" and turns back to his conversation with Quentin Doyle who works in a factory nearby. At my urging, they reluctantly turn their attention to Ballykissmania.

"There's tourists getting lost all the time looking for Ballykissangel," says Michael. "It would be better all round if they changed the feckin' name of Avoca altogether."

"Mind you," says Quentin, I got pounds 10 just for standing around outside Fitzgerald's for a half-hour when they were filming this new series."

And finally local pride takes over. "St Patrick's was the only church in the whole of feckin' Ireland that looked right on TV," says Quentin. "Have a drink," he adds. "That's the only cure for living around here."

Having a drink in Fitzgerald's is what everybody wants to do. And to talk about the new series. How can it possibly go on without Assumpta and Father Peter? Assumpta, you may recall, was just about to start a new life with Father Peter at the end of the last series when she was ruthlessly electrocuted mending a fuse in the basement of the pub.

Patricia Corcoran, who had travelled from Blackburn, was sanguine about this: "It's like Coronation Street. They said it couldn't survive without Bet Gilroy, but it did."

Meantime the bar is a lot flasher than the one in the soap and there are jokey signs up that would have seriously upset Father Peter. Like "If Assholes Could Fly, This Place Would Be An Airport". But the tone of discussion in the group I join is more serious. It consists of the hardcore of guests left over from a wedding here the previous day. Plus the bride and groom themselves, Niamh and Johnny Craven, from Dublin. Niamh opines seriously. "The new priest ... well, he won't be a liberal like Father Peter, that's for sure. But Ballykay needed revamping."

This inspires a rebel thought from one of the guests who has clearly been in Fitzgerald's for some time. "An English priest trying to get it on with a local girl!" he declares, referring to the last series. "That was twisted! Demeaning to Ireland!" "Ah, come on," says another. "There's a priest in Glencoe [a soap on Irish TV] who shags women. It took the BBC to make a good Irish soap."

"I'm going to miss the first bloody instalment!" squeals Niamh, who is about to leave with Johnny for Barbados.

I wander out of the bar and start across the bridge then, with his back to me but still unmistakable - the bulky figure, the silly tweed pork pie hat, the padded waistcoat. It has to be Brian Quigley, it has to be! It's Ballykissangel's - fairly lovable - chancer of an entrepreneur.

Reality supervenes as a red-faced farmer turns round. But it just shows how infectious Ballykissmania can be after an hour or two in Fitzgerald's.