Notes from a Craggy Island: The Father Ted Festival

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Ten years, and a million DVDs since his demise, Father Ted has spawned a fully-fledged cult. John Walsh slips on his dog collar and joins the faithful

I think it was the moment when a sardine sandwich, flung by a chap in a Pink Panther suit, went whizzing past my ear, and a furry gorilla flew through the air and cannoned into Joe the MC, that I finally grasped the long-term ramifications a television show can produce in our me-too culture.

It was hard, mind you, trying to follow a serious train of thought when, onstage before me, a whole line of Lovely Girls were doing their final, virginal twirl before an audience of yelling, whistling and over-stimulated priests, nuns, bishops, housekeepers, Elvis impersonators, milkmen, hairy babies, monks and giant rabbits. I'm not sure the island of Inishmore has seen anything like it. But, for a few hundred deranged fans, this isn't Inishmore. It's Craggy Island and, though it started life as a fictional location, it's as real to them as their bricks-and-mortar homes in Dublin, London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Ottawa and Tokyo.

Perhaps I should explain. I was in the west of Ireland, attending TedFest II, the second celebration of Father Ted, a TV sitcom that filmed its final instalment 10 years ago. The show, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, ran on Channel 4 for three series (plus one extended Christmas Special, set in the lingerie section of a department store) between April 1995 and May 1998; it was popular at the time, but, thanks to frequent repeats, acquired a massive following after its demise; more than 1 million DVD box sets have been sold.

A year ago, Welsh film-maker Peter Phillips met Irish film editor Fergal McGrath in Sri Lanka on a children's therapy project. The former had set up the successful Elvis Festival in Porthcawl, and the two men discussed doing the same for Father Ted. "We didn't want it to be a TV-watching festival," says Phillips. "We wanted to create Craggy Island with a few like-minded people."

The Friends of Father Ted festival was born, in a storm of drink, fancy dress and sporting events. This year's marked a poignant anniversary. The star, Dermot Morgan, who played Ted, died 10 years ago last week: he suffered a fatal heart attack the day after they filmed the final episode. It was spookily well-timed. No further series had been planned, nor could any be planned now, since no one could take Morgan's place.

It's easy to see why the sitcom became so cultish: viewers feel they could, without much trouble, step inside the action, visit the "parochial house" on Craggy Island and meet the inhabitants: Father Ted Crilly, genial, 40-ish, grey-haired and ambitious who, behind his worldly demeanour, lies and schemes like Sergeant Bilko; Father Dougal McGuire (played by Ardal O'Hanlon), a wide-eyed, 20-something halfwit in a variety of knitted jumpers who fails to grasp basic facts about the world ("This cow," Ted tells him, holding up a plastic toy, "is small. Those cows [real ones, seen through a window, grazing in the distance] are far away"); and Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly,) red-faced, wild-haired, catatonic, drool-stained, voraciously alcoholic and foul-mouthed; "Drink!", "Arse!", "Feck!", "Girls!" constitute almost his whole conversational repertoire. Then there's their housekeeper is Mrs Doyle (Pauline McLynn,) a middle-aged, much-exploited slattern with a large mole on her lip. Psychotically hospitable, she regales priests and visitors with gallons of tea, hills of sandwiches and mountain ranges of cake, which she urges them to consume with cries of "Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on..."

We learn that they've been sent to the island, out of harm's way, after a number of scandals involving money, nuns and unspeakable damage. They're never seen performing religious duties but while away the hours plotting to win the All-Priests' Stars in Their Eyes Lookalike Competition, or fending off the irruptions of unpleasant strangers to their peaceful home, whether stroppy women rock stars (a wounding dig at Sinead O'Connor), sinister oddball clerics, or the ghastly pop star Eoin McLove.

Theirs is a world of moth-eaten innocence and surreal anarchy. The only moral action they ever take is to picket a rude foreign film at the cinema, where they carry meek placards bearing the legends "Careful, Now" and "Down With This Type of Thing," thus making it the most popular film in Craggy Island's history.

TedFest II started last week with a gathering of fans in Kilfenora, Co Clare, where much of the show's external footage was shot, and climaxed on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. None of the action was shot on the Arans, but the opening credit sequence is an air-shot of Inisheer, the smallest of the three. Clear? Last year, Inisheer objected to Inishmore's giving itself airs as "the real Craggy Island", and they held a football match to decide who had the right to the title. Inishmore won.

The island's residents may wonder if this was the happiest outcome, as they watch revellers arrive by every ferry, and cram every B&B, hotel room, lodging-house digs or tent, transforming their bleak limestone citadel into the setting for the biggest, silliest and probably booziest fancy dress party in what's left of Christendom.



****



My first sight on landing at Inishmore was a small scurrying figure on the quayside in a tweed jacket, woolly hat and apron, bearing a tray of teacups and cardboard egg sandwiches. It was the first of several dozen Mrs Doyles (male and female) I was to see during the day.

I fell into step beside Aisling, 23, a hazel-eyed beauty from Dublin pulling a builder's brick on a string leash. (Do keep up – Father Jack briefly adopts a brick in the episode "Speed 3" and makes it a pet.) Aisling recently graduated from Trinity in Politics and Sociology and drove across the country with two friends at 5am, fortified only by Buckfast Abbey Tonic Wine, the Dublin alkie's tipple. None had a ticket, but the security, she says, is "a pile of shite because, if you're in a costume, nobody checks". The girls had a brilliant time last year. Their ambitions are "to have a few drinks and a laugh and maybe hop up on a priest."

In Paitin (ie Poteen, or Irish moonshine) Jack's Bar at the Ostan Arann, the only hotel on Inishmore, a handsome, three-star establishment run by PJ O'Flaherty in a dog-collar, the Bishop from the ferry is on his second Guinness, talking to a small boy with a dog; the kid is weighed down a by a huge cross around his neck, as heavy as an albatross.

Aisling and her friends are at a table with a Pat Mustard, one of several incarnations of the lecherous milkman who, in the show, has sex with all the Craggy Island housewives and sends Mrs Doyle into a delirium of flirtatiousness. He is hairy, ear-ringed, has a chain round his neck; he has single-handedly populated the island with hairy babies. I worry about Aisling. Will her innate virtue be eroded by an excess of Buckfast Tonic, or an excess of Mustard?

The bar fills up with nuns. They come in all configurations, but seem startlingly young to be fans of a show that packed up a decade ago. Marie and Bernadette are twin sisters, aged 23, from Limerick; they're here with their neighbour and friend Sarah, 25. "We just love the pro-gramme," said Marie. "We know all the lines. Give us any line from the three series, we'll tell you where it's from." Not since the heyday of Monty Python have so many people memorised the lines of comic sketches. "I'm surprised people get the humour," said Bernadette. "It seems very Irish to me."

"Sometimes, for Irish people," said Marie, "it's like watching a documentary." They explained that, for girls at TedFest, the choice is to dress as Mrs Doyle, a nun or a Lovely Girl. Bernadette bought their costumes from a shop in Camden, north London. There had, she explained, been some saucy, mini-nuns' outfits, "but," she said, "I'm bein' quite blasphemous enough as it is without wearin' the tarty version."

Blasphemous? Was she serious? Probably. In an economically booming, successfully Europeanised, post-punt, post-emigrant and almost post-Catholic culture, this dressing-up as the clergy who ran the country in their parents' and grandparents' days is clearly a form of rebellion, but some vestigial guilt remains. "When she heard Dermot Morgan was dead," one girl told me, "me mam said, 'I'm not a bit surprised. That's what you get for cheekin' the priests.'"

I can't hang around the bar, though, because the five-a-side football is under way near the harbour. At the pitch – a small, indescribably muddy field whose goals must have been bought in a toyshop – I'm surprised to discover the real-life Sicilian five-a-side footie team gracefully warming up.

What are the Italians doing here? It's a piece of Irish logic. The Craggy Island World Cup, sponsored by Paddy Power, the bookies, is open to all "islands off the coast of Ireland". Teams have been fielded from two of the Arans, plus Clare Island, Tory Island, Rathlin Island, Inishbofin and a few others. Then last month, Giovanni Trapattoni, the Italian football coach, signed up to become the Irish national team's manager, starting this May, and the Craggy Island organisers asked the island of Sicily – certainly "an island off the coast of Ireland", though it's 1472 miles "off" – to send a five-a-side team.Which is why there are five well-groomed, wavy-haired (or fashionably shaven-headed) Italian Adonises on the muddy pitch alongside the hard men from Inisheer.

Scores of nuns press forward for a better view of the Sicilians' thighs. (Even the man from BBC Sport Northern Ireland is in full habit.) The first Mrs Doyle from the jetty is there, re-doing her jammy smudge of lipstick, beside a dispirited chap in a gorilla suit. Italian macaroons are handed round as a gesture of friendship. Despite being 10/11 favourites, the Sicilians lose to the islandmen, 4-2 on a penalty shootout. Four games later, the final sees the host island, Inishmore, playing Inishbofin for World Cup glory. The commentator is hilarious. "Inishbofin is playing into the – no wait, both teams are playing into the wind," he says. "The ball is cleared by No 4 there, the man with the highlights, obviously done at home by his cousin... The atmosphere is electric – like a hairdryer in the bath." When a goal is scored, a ragged cry goes up from the home supporters, outnumbered though they are by be-mitred bishops and hirsute milkmen. "I don't know how to say this," says the commentator, "but I just heard a nun behind me say 'Fookin' hell'..."

Back at the hotel, I discover that I've been invited to be one of the judges at the Lovely Girls beauty contest this evening. I am stunned by the honour (and when I ring the children in London to tell them the news, a note of genuine respect enters their voices for perhaps the first time ever).

In the bar I celebrate with a glass of Burgundy. The bar is crammed with lunching clergymen, red-faced monks and a contingent of Lovely Girls, chosen from local heats around the country. The girls drink gin and tonics, simper, flirt and take snaps of each other on their mobiles. One explains how much she likes "the humour of the fancy dress, because it's so subtle. It just creeps up on you, and you see something and say, 'Oh God, yes.' Like Eileen there, with her fake arms." I'm mystified. What arms? What is she talking about? "Eileen," she says, "show John the arms, willya?" A sweet-faced teenager, at a table of friends, displays two fleshy plastic forearms, attached to her wrists.

"I don't remember a Father Ted episode with fake arms," I say, stupidly. "When was that?"

As one woman, the six girls take a collectively aghast deep breath; one clamps a horrified hand to her mouth. I have made the most appalling gaffe. (The fake arms feature, of course, in "Escape From Victory", when Ted cheats at a football match.) A history professor announcing at high table that he'd never heard of the Franco-Prussian War would have felt less of a fool and an imposter. Will I be thrown out on my ear?

I retreat swiftly, to find the Sicilians surveying their lunch with distaste. On Saturday afternoons, many Irish people lunch on "soup and a sambo" (ie sandwich); perhaps the nomenclature confuses the stylish Italians. Their steely manager sips a pint of Guinness and grimaces.

Struggling through the mass of T-shirts saying, "Careful Now" and "I Love My Brick" and "It's A Priest Thing – You Wouldn't Understand", I discover Ken Robertson, head of communications at Paddy Power, the sponsors, who have shelled out £5,000 for the winner of the football, and a "significant" sum to get their name on the TedFest literature and T-shirts.

"It's the bizarreness of the event that attracted us," he says. "We like to get involved in unusual sports. Two years ago, we held the biggest ever strip-poker event with 400 players at the Café Royal, and this year we're supporting the Bingham Cup, the gay rugby world cup, which will be the biggest sporting event held in Ireland this year. We're really getting behind it, excuse the pun."

By the door, the glum Italians are leaving. "Can we just say goodbye to the Sicilian team?" says Peter Philips, the organiser, "who lost the tournament but brought us some lovely cakes?" The departing players beam at the wild cheers this provokes.

By teatime, the crowds have swelled even more, for an hour of Buckeroo Speed Dating, which involves silver-tongued men pressing their attentions on scornful young women, while loading a plastic donkey with buckets and ropes until it kicks them all off.

In the bar, extra Lovely Girls have been drafted in for tonight's contest, by a Wild Card system. One is Lisa Smith, a dark-haired, hyperactive management consultant from Galway, with a fondness for "touch rugby." Around us the costumes are getting sillier. One man is dressed as a six-foot bottle of beer. One is dressed as Henry Sellers, a walk-on TV personality with a fondness for sherry in an early episode. There's a score of men in silver-grey Ted wigs. People in rabbit heads wander past (Bishop Brennan suffers an infestation of rabbits at the parish house in "The Plague") and a very sensible-looking girl called Sarah, in pearls, pleated skirt and wimple says, "Sure, what else is there to do than be extremely silly sometimes?"

Huge amounts of drink have been consumed since 11am, but nobody seems actually drunk; the lecherous Pat Mustards redouble their hairy seduction attempts over more Bulmers. Urgent canoodlings in the corridors suggest there may be a high incidence of priest-hopping before the evening is over. It occurs to me that few people have dressed up as the decrepit Father Jack – but I suppose it makes it harder to pull, when your shirt-front is covered in drool, vomit and dribble. What about the Mrs Doyles, in their aprons and picture hats? They seem, surprisingly, to be much in demand among the boys. There must be some atavistic (can it be Oedipal?) impulse in young Irishmen to part these decent, God-fearing, pinafored ladies from their foundation garments. I'm almost sure I felt a twinge myself, once or twice.

The climax of the weekend is the Lovely Girls beauty contest, in which nine prime examples of Irish womanhood are put through their paces in the island's small but glamorous dance-hall. Talent, everyone explains to me, is not the point. Nor are good looks. What's important is loveliness. My fellow judges, Ken and Maria, explain that we're judging "the concept of loveliness of a bygone age".

This contest is a piss-take of the Rose of Tralee Festival, Ireland's hilariously old-fashioned beauty contest, whose entrants must display such things as moral rigour, respect for their parents and an interest in charitable works, as well as have an acceptable figure, in order to win. You can bet the Rose of Tralee girls have never faced such a howling mob of desperadoes as the Lovelies face tonight. One is dressed in a Pink Panther suit (the connection? There's a passing mention, in "Are You Right There, Father Ted?" of Kato, Peter Sellers's domestic manservant/assailant in the Pink Panther movies) and a two-man horse can be seen in the crowd. The Limerick nuns are at the front, plus a slew of disruptive hardnuts dressed as sheep (uh-oh).

We judges take our seats, to much barracking. The compère Joe Rooney (who played Dougal's disruptive young pal Father Damo in one episode) brings on the girls. One by one, they must walk, or sway, successfully around traffic cones to show off their lovely bottoms (I'm sorry, but the word "bottoms" is right there in the Rules) and talk about their dreams of domestic virtue and marital servitude.

Madeleine, in a fetching green beret, explains that the women in the audience shouldn't be out tonight, but "at home, cooking supper for our husbands". If they had need of a job, it should be "doing the little drawings in a parish newsletter". Katie from Kilfenora, a brazen minx with dyed black hair, carries on a pottery hen, extracts plastic eggs and sends them flying over the first 10 rows. Lots of girls bring domestic props – scone-making mix, copies of The Irish Catholic, scrubbers, kitchen tools, holy water bottles – and cakes. One cake is shaped like a Toilet Duck. One is a gigantic scone, from inside which Miss Belfast Lovely Girl – Bridie O'Reilly – extracts a woolly jumper.

My heart is stolen away by the favourite, Miss Cork, a care worker called Tess Marnane, 21, and far too beautiful to be merely Lovely, who performed a charming feather-duster dance; but Miss Galway was also strongly favoured, because of her hand-knitted bloomers. You know Aran sweaters and their thick, white-ribbed material? She recommended Aran knickers as a corrective to the skimpy thong abominations in modern shops, and had brought along a pair, which she pulled on beneath her skirt, to roars from the crowd. "What's this little pocket at the front for?" asked the compere. "It's where I keep my rosary beads," said the girl. "Are they the kind that vibrate?" countered the wicked Mr Rooney.

As a final test, the Lovely Girls were required to make sandwiches in a sudden-death play-off. Each was given a tray of white sliced bread, Kerrygold butter and a tin of sardines and the resulting sandwiches were minutely examined with magnifying glasses, tape measures, calibrated forceps. One girl, disgusted by her efforts, hurled a slice of bread over her shoulder into the crowd. So did another. Soon they came hurtling back on to the stage, along with other, unrelated items of food, and soft toys...

But this is where we came in. I'm not sure what the TedFest says about Irish culture, the preoccupations of the young, the role of the priesthood, or the desire of young men to dress up as rabbits. To some extent, it's the spectacle of modern Ireland unburdening itself of its excessively religious past and embracing a world of anarchy in which identities don't matter. Then again, it's a colossal fancy dress party, where total strangers can admire each other's efforts, and there's no host except a fictional priest impersonated by a charismatic, grey-haired actor who died 10 years ago. A deliciously bogus celebration of churchy virtue and old-fashioned decency, it's the closest thing I know to a pagan saturnalia. As Ted himself might have written on his placard: Up With This Type Of Thing.

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