Its success defied logic. Why should a British audience warm to the adventures of four Irish religious misfits - a catatonic, monosyllabic drunk, a wide- eyed simpleton in a brown sleeveless jumper, a bouffant-haired optimist obsessed with getting on television, and a slatternly gargoyle of a housekeeper with a huge mole and a shocking tea habit? Why should the Channel 4 audience get the (surely niche-market) jokes about the hairiness of retired priests or the wilder shores of Catholic ritual? Why should British schoolchildren recite lines from the show in the playground, like Catechism answers? Why should my tiny daughter, not quite three, have learnt to say "Feck off, tea," like Father Jack?
One answer is Ardal O'Hanlon, whose Father Dougal is a great comic creation. Dougal is an innocent, bewildered by the sophisticated world. He is baffled by sex, terrified of women, doubtful about religion and confused as to whether the cows he sees in a field are a) small or b) far away. He is an eejit-savant with occasional flashes of insight.
A bloke shambles into the bar, some kind of van driver with specs, cropped hair, a burly overcoat and a tense expression. We glance at each other, incuriously. He goes out again.
O'Hanlon's trademark is a surprised-pigeon stare of apprehension, and a way of carrying himself that suggests a man in a neck-brace. He has the unblinking, tactless, unimpressed gaze of a child. The episode featuring Eoin McLove (an emetically bland TV entertainer based on Daniel O'Donnell) in which Eoin and Dougal played pat-a-cake in the bathroom, revealed his true nature as a six-year-old boy. He ... The van driver walks back in. "Are you from The Independent?" Good God, it's him. But Ardal O'Hanlon looks nothing like Father Dougal. His short hair is gelled. His glasses are crucial. His clothes are dark blue and black. His skin is deathly pale. His demeanour is friendly but wary. And his conversation is almost entirely serious, with little flashes of satire.
"This," he says looking round the Clarence's pastel decor, "is one of the few bars in Dublin that doesn't have pots and pans all over the wall. You know why? Because Dublin, unbelievably, has imported the idea of the Irish theme bar from England. The theme bar was something I ran a mile from in London. Now I come home to Dublin and they're doing it, too."
For the past four years, while pursuing his stand-up career and learning to live with a dog-collar, he's lived in Crouch End, the fashionable north London suburb where, famously, Bob Dylan once came house-hunting. It's a far cry from Carrickmacross, the town in Monaghan where he was born, 32 years ago, where he and his neighbours knew each other's movements like they knew the stains on their kitchen walls. His generation of teenagers went to the same disco-bop evenings on Saturday nights as every other bunch of teenagers, and dreamed of being different, getting away, counting for something. O'Hanlon has wrestled with his alternate love and contempt for his Monaghan township, and from the struggle has produced his first novel, The Talk of the Town (Sceptre, pounds 10). It's a fusillade of venom at provincial life, a hymn to frustration set in the fictional town of Castlecock and narrated by Patrick Scully, aged 19, out of school and listlessly working as a Dublin security guard. The book moves through meetings, dance-halls, drinks, bus rides, sexual encounters and a rain of cliches, as Scully heads for self-destruction. The swoon and horror of teenage life howls auto-biographically from the pages. It's a surprisingly dark book to come from such an apparently sunny source.
It's causing him grief back home. "All these people in Carrickmacross are reading it and ringing me and saying, `Who's this character?' and `Who's that meant to be?' and, `Is this based on that?' I'm saying, No, this happens in every small town in Ireland, if not the world. I'm trying to extract some essential things from it." Given its naively sincere rhapsodies about snogging and masturbation, I wondered if it was written some time ago. "It's based on a short story I wrote 10 years ago." Why did he want to write about the teen years? "It's when you're experiencing extremes of emotion for the first and, in some cases, the only time in your life, before you get jaded and cynical and lose hope. There's a better story to your life then than any other time. And I'm attracted to stories of violence, because it's extremely alien to me. I'm interested in what drives people to extremes."
His own childhood was blissfully secure. He was the third of six children. His father, Rory, was a TD (an Irish MP) and a former Minister of Health. Both his parents were practising Catholics, but it wasn't an identity that weighed heavily on him. "My father's family come from Armagh, north of the border, but from a very non-violent Republican tradition." And he could get out of having to say the rosary by claiming to have a bad knee. At school, the majority of his teachers were priests, "and we always found them ridiculous. They were there to tax your mind to see who could come up with the best nickname." At 15, Ardal's religious certainties about God and Hell began to crack. "Once you start questioning all that, it becomes terribly frightening. I'm scared, talking to you now. When someone asks me, Do you believe in God?, I have to say, as a rational human being, no. But at home, alone at night with the wind howling outside, I expose my buttocks to the bunsen burner, and I kneel on nails and say, I'm sorry, God. I didn't mean it. It was just a joke."
To his parents' disapproval ("My father would have preferred it if I'd taken an interest in his politics at election time"), he went to the capital and invented the Dublin stand-up circuit. With two friends he started The Comedy Cellar. "The Cellar audience was just a bunch of friends who hadn't been exposed to that kind of stand-up before. When I started, I hadn't seen a live comic. There was nothing to follow on from, unless you went back to Dave Allen. It was all very silly and anarchic and undergraduate, but it developed. But it was always frustrating, because there was nowhere to play. The move to London was inevitable." In the Big Smoke, he was an instant hit. He won the 1994 Hackney Empire Newcomer Award just three days after getting off the plane.
Had he experienced hostility, catcalls, rotten fruit, hecklers? O'Hanlon is shocked. "No, never." No cries of "You're crap, get off"? "No, I'd retire immediately." But doesn't every stand-up go through a baptism of fire until the act takes off? "I never had that problem. But I never confronted people in a way that made them leave a room. I selected my gigs. I never went to places where people were going to hate me. Why would you do that?"
O'Hanlon, eyes widened with innocence, is suddenly transformed into Dougal. Had he conceived of him as a kid? "Yeh, I saw him as a child rather than as stupid. I think Ted is the stupid one because he has notions about himself. Dougal is just otherworldly. It's not Stupidworld, it's different, it's Out-there-world." Had he studied the behaviour of six-year-old boys? "No, I think it's more to do with dogs. Dougal behaves like a dog a lot of the time. I think my baby does, too. Any stimulus in the room, and you get all this... " he looks around, blue eyes widen " ... endless curiosity."
He first met Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted, some years ago, at a television debate prophetically entitled "Why Doesn't Irish Television Do More Comedy?". "He was fairly well known as a political satirist, a kind of Irish Rory Bremner," says O'Hanlon. "He bought me coffee and tried to pick my brains about comedy in case I had something he could use later on. He was always a live wire, always a barrel of ideas." Morgan died, tragically young, between the end of filming the third Father Ted series and its first transmission on 12 March. It was, it seems, overwork that got him. "There was no sign that he might be about to die. He was always hyperactive. He always, even during the last series, had other projects on the go. He was always on the phone, always had a round of meetings every day. He must have been under terrible stress - and it was all self- induced." O'Hanlon and Morgan were for a time inseparable. "We were a double-act, on and off the stage. We used to play football together. We drank together a lot. We spent every day together and lunch together. After the first series we had to stop going out every single evening because we had families and responsibilities. I saw more of Dermot than I did of my own family."
Morgan's death left, along with a psychic wound, an unfillable hole in the sitcom he so brilliantly starred in. "It sort of ends the speculation, doesn't it?" O'Hanlon asks, laconically. "The Are-we-aren't-we-doing-another- series? thing". But it means that, at 32, he may never be in so successful an enterprise again. So he's going back to stand-up comedy and doing a major British tour in the autumn. After little walk-on roles in a handful of movies (My Left Foot, The Butcher Boy, Moll Flanders), he's open to film offers. He gets a lot of scripts with dog-collar parts and turns them down. He sees a lot of sitcom ideas and rejects them, "because Ted was a good one and I don't want to do a shite one". And he's got his book to promote, in the teeth of the expected Irish backlash. ("It's an Irish trait. They'll say: `You're a comedian. You do jokes. You have no business writing a book ...'").
What he'd really like, after the upheavals of the spring, is a little rest. The childish Dougal surfaces for a moment: "I'd love to take a break, but this job doesn't allow it. The mother will be on my back saying, `What're you doing next? What're you doing now?' I've just written a book, I'll say, and finished an award-winning series. Can't you leave me alone?"Reuse content