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What it’s like to hang out with Father Ted’s biggest fans on ‘Craggy Island’

Feck, drink and gerls – the Father Ted festival has it all, discovers Helen Coffey

Helen Coffey
Thursday 14 March 2019 15:02 GMT
Ted Fest: Father Ted festival held on the Irish island of Inishmore

It’s finally here. My big moment.

I roll up my shirtsleeves and make the mistake of looking into the eyes of the elderly priest opposite – there’s a steely determination there I didn’t expect. We’re both hungry for a win tonight.

“And next up, it’s Father Rooster in the red corner, up against newcomer Father Coffey,” the compere booms over the microphone.

As the music throbs and the lights swirl, I pop and lock, chasse and jump, even incorporating the sign of the cross into my signature moves in a bid to reign supreme in this, the biggest priest dance-off final of my life.

(OK, the only priest dance-off final of my life.)

It’s not enough. Father Rooster – who must be in his late sixties at least – outperforms me with laughable ease, his feet gliding across the floor as his hips roll with all the smoothness of a young John Travolta.

“And Father Rooster takes it,” shouts the compere to tumultuous applause. I hang my head in shame. Later, I will drunkenly tell anyone who’ll listen that “I was ROBBED”.

What’s interesting about this story is that it’s not even the oddest thing to happen to me while at Tedfest, the annual festival dedicated to Father Ted. Not by a long chalk.

Just getting to the festival, which takes place on Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, requires a certain amount of low-level insanity. Door-to-door from my flat in north London, it takes more than 12 hours to reach the real-life “Craggy Island”, involving a Tube, flight, coach, bus and ferry.

And while making a festival difficult to get to might not seem to make the most marketing sense, it’s actually intentional.

“It becomes a sort of pilgrimage – it’s all part of the experience,” says organiser Peter Phillips.

There is a skewed logic to it; getting here is such an achievement that, by the time they arrive, the 200 or so attendees are ready to let their hair down in pretty serious style.

Human buckeroo is no laughing matter

For the uninitiated, Father Ted is an Irish comedy series that first aired in the Nineties. Featuring three Catholic priests – the sardonic Ted, his slow-witted but charming sidekick Dougal, and the foul-mouthed and permanently drunk Jack – the sitcom quickly gained cult status for its surreal humour.

“It’s iconic,” says Irish expat Ciara, who travelled all the way from Singapore to attend this year’s festival. “It’s one of those things that will never get old, and it’s brilliant because it’s Irish comedy. It’s probably our best comedy.”

She’s dressed as the character Mrs Doyle, the priests’ housekeeper – one of around 30 Mrs Doyles I see during my three days at Tedfest, along with dozens of priests, nuns and bishops. And then there are the obscure costumes.

Crunchies in a car is one of the more obscure costumes on display

Forget looking good – here, it’s all about being as extravagantly esoteric as you can.

There’s a woman with a tube on her head covered in pictures of goats; a man with a bespoke travel Scrabble T-shirt; four girls dressed as Crunchies in a car; and a guy who reportedly spent €300 on his showstopper of a costume, a giant fertility statue complete with 4ft-long member. (Full marks to anyone who understands every one of these references.)

As anyone who’s read pick-up artists’ manual The Game will know, wearing crazy clothes is the perfect ice breaker. Two women dressed as opticians with promotional packs of Carlsberg cross the room to embrace like old friends, despite never having met before. Cathriona, a gorgeously friendly Tipperary native, quickly befriends newcomers by passing around a hairy baby she fashioned herself to pose in decidedly creepy selfies.

And it’s not just the costumes. Perhaps it’s the shipwrecked nature of the location, but there’s an ease and friendliness to Ted-heads that is frankly astonishing coming from London.

The Lovely Girls competition is one of the most anticipated events

I’m not the type who feels confident introducing myself to strangers and I’d worried that going to a festival solo might leave me feeling like a lonely oddball. I remember this anxiety and smile to myself as I sit in a hotel room later that day with six of my newly adopted friends, who’ve taken me under their wing to such an extent that I’m greeted with hugs and swiftly given a vodka and lemonade (it’s 2pm – the party starts early on “Craggy Island”).

“It’s really inclusive – everyone’s made to feel welcome,” long-term attendee Sarah had told me on the ferry ride over. “Somebody once described this festival as ‘a beautiful madness’. I think that’s the perfect description for it.”

I’m inclined to agree as Tedfest goes on: “beautiful” and “mad” sum it up.

One minute I’m cheering until I’m hoarse as three-man teams compete in Human Buckaroo – the rules of which are too insane to fully explain here – while “My Lovely Horse” plays on repeat. The next minute, I’m having an in-depth discussion with someone wearing a dog collar and gold sequinned jacket about child abuse in the church, and how Father Ted was actually a hugely subversive show in Ireland with its outright mockery of the clergy.

A bevy of bishops gets a selfie

There’s not much time to explore in between Blind Date with Eoin McLove, jive dancing for priests and Ted’s Got Talent. But on a brief tour of Inis Mor I’m struck by its stark, desolate beauty – the hazy sun sparkles on wind-ruffled waves as they lap a completely empty white-sand beach on the easternmost edge of the island. Drive 15 minutes in the other direction and you hit the resident seal colony, with at least a dozen of them sitting resplendent on a rocky outcrop.

Back to the festival, and the big guns come out on my final night. After my humiliating dance-off defeat, I get to redeem myself by living out every Father Ted fan’s fantasy – being a judge on the Lovely Girls competition.

In this parody of a beauty pageant, contestants are asked to walk around cones, answer questions and perform a talent. Loveliness is the name of the game, with any girl deemed too “sexy” (or drunk) immediately disqualified. My fellow judges and I narrow it down to two contenders, who go head-to-head to determine whose laugh is loveliest.

Crazy costumes provide the perfect icebreaker

Time speeds up alarmingly. I’m dancing to “We Are Family” with a group of nuns who freak out every time the line “I got all my sisters with me” comes on; seemingly seconds later I’m shovelling down a hearty veggie lasagne at pub Watty’s, one of the festival’s two main venues, while loudly singing along to the live band’s crowd-pleasing cheese-fest of Abba covers and songs from Dirty Dancing. A final gin and impromptu conga line later, I bid goodbye to at least 10 people, all of whom I feel an overwhelming fondness for that belies our two-day-old acquaintance.

It’s like the anti-Fyre Festival, I think, as I amble back to my hotel. Nothing about it is slick, or glamorous, or cool – but it is tremendous fun. Ironically, for all that the sitcom poked fun at organised religion, the closest comparison I can think of is a church: a broad church, where all are welcome. As long as they can quote all the lyrics to “My Lovely Horse”.

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Other events for Father Ted fans

Father Ted Festival 2019

This festival takes place over the May Bank Holiday (3-5 May) in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare. For €25, guests can take part in priests and nuns karaoke, the Lovely Girls competition and enjoy episodes on the big screen. An extra €10 will get you tea and cake in Father Ted’s house on Inis Oirr (return ferry tickets €18).

Ted tours

Take a tour around County Clare to see all the key places featured in the series, including the real Parochial House and the Holy Stone of Clonrichert, led by expert guides; €29.

Travel essentials

Tedfest 2020 will take place from 20 to 23 February; tickets €150, including all activities. Excludes accommodation and travel.

The Aran Islands Hotel offers doubles from €120, B&B.

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