A Televisual Representation of Roman Catholic Priests: Father Ted

Chapter Three

One Cleric's Interpretation of Father Ted

Fr. Ted: "That's the great thing about Catholicism:
it's so vague and nobody really knows what it's about."

Excerpt from "Tentacles of Doom" episode of Father Ted.


As a Roman Catholic priest I find that I cannot help having an interest in Father Ted. The very popularity of the series should prompt every priest to review at least one episode. Whether a given priest enjoys Father Ted is another issue, to be taken up in the next chapter. In this chapter I shall consider my reactions to the programme and its characters, and shall present my initial analysis of the televisual representation of Roman Catholic priests in Father Ted.
I do not pretend to view Father Ted with a totally open mind. I am a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus), two worldviews I cannot ignore. I also bring other peculiarities to my analysis: I am an American viewing a British-produced sitcom, set in Ireland.
The humour of Father Ted lies in the characters and their development, as well as in the jokes and sight gags thrown in for good measure. The show itself is a situation comedy hybrid: a domestic sitcom combined with a workplace sitcom. While the characters are brought together through their 'jobs' as priests, each episode is set in the parochial house where they all live together as a family. Thus it has the setting of a domestic sitcom while being able to draw upon the tensions of the workplace.
The setting of Father Ted is extremely important for a proper understanding of its humour and storyline. Not only is the series written and performed by Irish citizens, it is set against a long history of Catholic dominance in Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church was (and to some extent still is) politically strong in Ireland. As one Irish Catholic woman working in the media told me, "To be Irish is to be Catholic, it is difficult to make a distinction."
1 My analysis shall demonstrate the importance of this connection, for the programme cannot be understood apart from its Catholic roots. While making the most of this connection, however, the programme's humour does not rely upon it. Thus the programme is accessible to a British audience as well as to others such as myself.

Photo of Father Dougal
Ardal O'Hanlon as Fr. Dougal

Neither can the predominance of Catholic imagery and iconography in Father Ted be ignored. Viewers of the programme cannot help noticing the myriad of religious paintings and pictures on the walls; the crucifixes; statutes; and even pillows and blankets with religious imagery on the sofa. Then, of course, the three principal characters always dress in black clerical attire. In some episodes, the audience never sees a 'normally' dressed person, with the exception of Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper. "Tentacles of Doom" is a fine example. This episode features three bishops visiting Frs. Ted, Dougal and Jack. The only other character seen is Mrs. Doyle. The bishops, who in real life would wear black clerical clothes like priests, appear in formal purple cassocks for the entire visit.
Despite the claims of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, a viewer can never forget that the three main characters are priests. In fact, some of the programme's comic effect does depend upon this priestly identity. The constant barrage of religious topics and imagery, combined with characters dressed in clerical clothing, can only signify a program based on religion-specifically upon Roman Catholicism. Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the programme must originate from a culture highly influenced by Roman Catholicism. These facts are inescapable while watching Father Ted, even if we are not totally conscious of them at the time.

"The Unholy Trinity"2

As a priest, one of the most humorous-and frightening-aspects of watching Father Ted is to look at the three main characters and see persons one knows or has seen. To have known priests like Fr. Ted, Fr. Dougal or even Fr. Jack, makes me smile, even as it raises serious concerns about the state of priestly life.
As a Jesuit priest, I am a member of a religious community. We tend to live together in houses with as few as four members and with as many as one hundred. Jesuits rarely live alone.
During the past eleven years, I have lived in five Jesuit communities of various sizes, and have visited countless more. I have met and come to know Jesuits as young as 20 and as old as 94. I feel as though I have encountered every possible type of priest. Given this, when I first watched Father Ted I found myself thinking, "I've known someone like that!" My sense of recognition applied not only to the three main characters, but also to many of the priests who would come to visit.
As I watched more episodes of Father Ted it became clear to me that the resemblance between the show's characters and actual priests was superficial. More often than not, I had been reminded of but a few characteristics I had seen in others. I came to the happy conclusion that no priest I had ever known was either as stupid as Fr. Dougal or as repulsive as Fr. Jack.
Fathers Dougal and Jack are priestly stereotypes-the idiot priest, and the alcoholic priest. Yet even as stereotypes, Father Ted's characters are taken to an extreme: an alcoholic who drinks floor polish and window cleaner; and a priest who does not even know how to make 'the Sign of the Cross' or say the 'Lord's Prayer.' In reality, someone in Fr. Jack's condition would not have lived through the show's first season, and someone like Fr. Dougal would never have made it into the seminary.
Fr. Ted, the programme's protagonist, is easier to accept. He has none of his fellows' eccentricities. Fr. Ted comes across as more normal, more approachable, and more human than the other two. However, if Fr. Dougal and Fr. Jack are caricatures, then Fr. Ted is more life-like. Life for him is a constant struggle, not just for happiness, but for sanity. His priestly work is a job, not a vocation. He seems to have no spiritual life, and indeed no personal life outside the parochial house. As such, he lacks aspects that are essential to the life of a healthy and productive Catholic priest.
Despite his drawbacks, the character of Fr. Ted comes closest to reality. There are most certainly some priests who, at least at times, think of their occupation more as a job than as a ministry to God's people. The larger the parish, the easier it is to lose contact with individual parishioners, and thus to see one's priestly role as that of an administrator or supervisor. But Fr. Ted does not seem to work in a large parish. In fact, his priestly role is of such little importance to the show that we are given no indication as to whether his parish is large or small.

Father Ted Episode Analysis

I will now look at the televisual representation of Roman Catholic priests in more detail by means of a closer look at the two episodes that are at the centre of my study.4 I chose these episodes because they contain unusual amounts of religious imagery and scripts that are laden with religious dialogue.
"Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest" was the sixth and final episode of the first series. While it was the final episode transmitted, it was actually the first one written for the series. The episode's purpose was originally to introduce the character of Fr. Jack.
5 Thus he appears to die, giving the other characters a chance to reminisce about his life before he mysteriously returns to his old grumpy self.
Christians, of course, believe in life after death. Nonetheless, when Fr. Dougal asks Fr. Ted if he believes in life after death and Fr. Ted says that "most priests have a strong belief in the afterlife," the dim-witted Fr. Dougal responds "I wish I had your faith." The exchange is crucial to understanding their spiritual life because it relates to one of the tenets of the Christian faith, namely the resurrection of the dead. Each priest's response is telling.
Fr. Ted's "most priests have a belief in the afterlife" is offered in such an offhand and clinical manner that it sounds insincere. Does the priest really believe it? Is he afraid to answer the question? Why is his response so coldly clinical? My initial assumption was that on my first viewing of this exchange I assumed Fr. Ted was simply reacting to Fr. Dougal's penchant for asking stupid questions. On further analysis, however, it seems he is responding as the Fr. Ted who sees his ministry as nothing more than work. There is no passion-let alone faith-in his response. To the contrary, he responds as he assumes any priest would.
Fr. Dougal's question, although perhaps indicative of a weak faith, is not that unusual. Many Christians at different times in their lives question whether the existence of life after death. This kind of questioning may occur after the death of a relative or close friend, or as a person nears his or her own death. It is human to doubt and struggle with one's faith. When Fr. Dougal responds that he wishes he had Fr. Ted's faith, the audience is to assume that he does not believe in life after death- not surprising for Fr. Dougal. The audience is encouraged to laugh at such stupidity in a priest, but also to react warmly to Fr. Dougal's child-like innocence.
The scene concludes with Fr. Ted asking Fr. Dougal how he became a priest. He wonders whether Fr. Dougal merely sent in twelve crisp packets and got a diploma. Fr. Dougal's vapid naïveté frequently causes us to wonder how he was ordained; or indeed how he was admitted to the seminary in the first place. Such scenes as this one appear to stress the stereotype of the foolish priest, Fr. Dougal winning the prize. However, the writers never even attempt to provide viewers with a competent example of a priest. As we see in this scene, the best they can do is a fun-loving, day-dreamer obsessed with beautiful women and gambling in Las Vegas. Fr. Ted may be 'more normal' than Frs. Dougal and Jack but he cannot be seen as a response to their weaknesses.
Nonetheless, the writers use Fr. Dougal to introduce important issues of Christian faith, such as the issue of life after death. In "Tentacles of Doom" Fr. Dougal will again raise serious questions about Christian faith and practice. Just before the scene recounted above, Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal are discussing the life and career of Fr. Jack. They remember him has a "great priest." This is in stark contrast to the Fr. Jack we know, who is constantly screaming: "Drink! Arse! Feck! Girls!" Although we seldom see him actually drinking, he frequently throws bottles of wine and spirits at the wall, at the television, and at people.
Fathers Ted and Dougal recall some of the qualities of this "great priest:" Fr. Jack was the first to denounce the Beatles; children hated him because he beat them with a stick; one of his pupils became a mass murderer; he disagreed with many of the teachings of The Second Vatican Council, he loved to preach hellfire and brimstone; he did not like to hear confessions; and he regularly cheated at games. From these reminisces, we learn not only a good deal about Fr. Jack, but as well we learn what being a priest means for Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal.
After all we learn about Fr. Jack it is not surprising he became, or was, an alcoholic. Of course Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal remember on selected incidents of his life. Those incidents we might consider 'ordinary' are not recalled because they would have no comic effect. Most Catholics would probably claim to have known a priest like Fr. Jack who made their life miserable, thus the reminisces of Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal are able to turn those memories into a comic moment.
As Fr. Jack awakens, or rises, on the morning of his funeral, we return to the question of death. So as to prevent Fr. Dougal's imagining that Fr. Jack has been resurrected in the manner of Christ Jesus, Fr. Ted tells Fr. Dougal that Fr. Jack must be like the character "E.T." In the film E.T., the extraterrestrial appears to be dead, but comes to life just in time to return home. Similarly, Fr. Jack only appeared to be dead. The floor polish produced "the effects of death" without causing actual death. As with many television programmes, everything is wrapped up quickly and neatly, and restored to a state of 'normalcy.' The viewer, however, is left wondering about the significance of life and death.
Death is a tricky subject to tackle, especially on a television sitcom. The fact Fr. Jack was not dead is of little importance to this programme, unless we see it as a necessity for further episodes. Instead, it elevates Fr. Jack to a higher status. Fr. Jack is now something special, whether we believe he is like E.T. or even Jesus he is not a mere mortal because he has cheated death. It would be difficult and possibly inappropriate for a sitcom to treat death seriously. Fr. Jack's apparent death serves its purpose of explaining who he is to the audience and adds religious significance as he appears to rise from the dead.
On the other hand, Fr. Jack's death seems to strike Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal chiefly as a means to financial gain; they express little sorrow. Fr. Dougal finds the whole topic of death to be "morbid," and refuses to talk about it. And the distinction between life and death is loosely drawn: at the episode's beginning, Fr. Ted accuses the apparently deceased Fr. Jack of playing a joke-how could a man actually be dead who rarely seems to be alive? For Fr. Ted, the essence of life seems to be gambling in the company of beautiful women, preferably in Las Vegas. The scene following the episode's closing credits, in which Fr. Dougal is seen forcibly removing Fr. Ted from a casino, reinforces this. This, apparently, is life as Fr. Ted imagines it ought to be lived.
Life appears to be the preoccupation of Frs. Ted and Dougal, as it should be. However, as priests they would have to deal with death. We do hear of other deaths on Craggy Island and Fr. Dougal even performs a funeral, which we do not see, but the stress on life and the enjoyment of life reflects the sitcom genre. It would be easy to label a priest obsessed with women and gambling as a reprobate if he were not a character in a surreal sitcom. In Father Ted we not only accept the character but we are able to laugh at him because his dream is so foolish, he will never get off Craggy Island!
"Tentacles of Doom," from the second series, takes the viewer in another direction. In this episode, the audience is given the pleasure of laughing at the priests from Craggy Island, together with the pleasure of laughing at three bishops from the mainland. These bishops arrive to bless the "Holy Stone of Clonrichert" and raise it to the status of a "class three relic." In the process we learn much about the Catholic Church and her clergy, at least as seen by the show's producers.
Priests, for example, cannot perform even simple household repairs (Fr. Ted and Fr. Dougal cannot repair the toilet)
6; priests rarely say anything intelligent (especially Fr. Dougal); some priests cannot speak at all (Fr. Ted teaches Fr. Jack how to say seven words)7; some priests know neither Catholic ritual nor terminology (Fr. Dougal). As for the Church, we learn that the hierarchy in Rome arbitrarily chooses which relics to upgrade; that the clergy are the "ground troops" of the Church; and that "bishops love sci-fi."
Once more if the viewer were to take these findings as an actual criticism of the Catholic Church and her priests, they would be horrified. Actually, the potential to provoke horror supplies the humour in these events. The fact that Fr. Jack cannot speak provides a vivid and humorous scene where Fr. Ted teaches him a couple acceptable phrases. And when Fr. Dougal exclaims that "bishops love sci-fi" the viewer should ask, "Why not?" The humour in these events does not arise at the expense of priests but from the absurdity of the entire situation.
Another line of dialogue reveals Fr. Ted's comprehension of the faith he preaches: "That's the great thing about Catholicism: it's so vague and nobody really knows what it's about." This line is central to an understanding of Fr. Ted's spiritual life, as well as his life as a Catholic priest. It supports the writers' claim that Fr. Ted sees his ministry only as a job-and one he does poorly. And, of course, Catholicism always seems to be a mystery to Fr. Dougal, as we saw above.
The entire episode revolves around this line. Each of the three visiting bishops expresses his confusion with the Church. Bishop Jordan is concerned about relations with the laity, and enjoys visiting "ordinary" clergy to get their opinions on the subject. Bishop Facks is concerned about what he perceives as an anticlerical bias in the media. Finally, Bishop O'Neil has real concerns about his personal faith and what it all means.
Each bishop is paired with one of the regular members of the Craggy Island community. Bishop Jordan spends his time with Fr. Ted, who probably confuses him even more by telling him the lay community should be kept a couple of miles away. Not only would such a state of affairs make for interesting liturgies, but it reflects as well Fr. Ted's desire to have as little as possible to do with the 'People of God.' That would mean work!
Bishop Facks, paired with Fr. Jack, spends most of his time ranting about the anticlerical bias of the media. His whine raises the question not only of bias but of compatibility between the Church and the media. Must the media be opposed to the Church?
8 Is there any way the two can work together? Is there any way the Church can make use of the media? Might Father Ted itself be seen by some as having an anticlerical bias? If people (and priests) are as ignorant about the Church as Fr. Ted professes, the Church could certainly use the media as an educational tool.
When it comes to personal faith, who better to speak with Bishop O'Neil than Fr. Dougal, who does not even know how to make the Sign of the Cross or pray the Our Father. Fr. Dougal says he doubts just about everything-a more accurate assessment would be that he fails to understand his faith. Bishop O'Neil, seemingly blessed with more native intelligence than Fr. Dougal, should have a highly developed spiritual life. Yet, after his conversation with Fr. Dougal, Bishop O'Neil decides to leave not only the priesthood but the Church as well. At the end of the episode he gets into a mini-van and heads off to India with some hippie friends.
In "Tentacles of Doom" Fr. Dougal again plays an important role in the programme's presentation of religious and spiritual matters. Since the priesthood is merely work for Fr. Ted, the producers use Fr. Dougal's naïveté to raise meaningful questions. For example, after describing the entire "profession of faith," Fr. Dougal tells the bishop, "That's what I don't get."
9 Then, showing a somewhat more nuanced grasp of theology, Fr. Dougal asks Bishop O'Neil "What about eating meat on Friday? It used to be illegal, but now it's not? What about people who ate meat in the past? Where are they now? Did they go to hell or what? It's mad!" Far from giving Fr. Dougal any answers, Bishop O'Neil agrees with him and tells Fr. Ted "Blind faith is all we have to go on. Aliens, now there's something that might just be possible. Everlasting life and big demons with red-hot pokers, I don't think so." Thus a supposed pillar of the faith ends up professing belief not in God, but in men from Mars.
With all of his doubts, we are left asking ourselves why Fr. Dougal is still a priest. Numerous times in the series he tells Fr. Ted, "God, it's great being a priest," but never explains why. Indeed, why are any of these men priests? Fr. Ted would be happier in Las Vegas, Fr. Jack should be in a retirement home, and Fr. Dougal needs constant care as well so why are these men priests? They are fictional priests created to provide humorous light entertainment for the viewing audience and at that they are quite successful.
By the end of "Tentacles of Doom," Bishop Jordan has died of a heart attack, Bishop Facks has the Holy Stone of Clonrichert shoved up his rear, and Bishop O'Neil has left the Church. Considering this chaos, Fr. Ted proclaims, "Went pretty well I thought!" Life has returned to normal on Craggy Island. Although 'normal' on Craggy Island might be described as what the outside world would call 'abnormal' and vice versa. The visit of three bishops to Craggy Island provided an abnormal state of affairs for Fr. Ted. The three priests had to behave in a proper (normal) clerical fashion and appear to know what they were doing. Once the bishops departed Frs. Ted, Dougal, and Jack could return to their normal life, which often seems abnormal and thus humorous to the viewing audience.
Another issue that must be addressed is the treatment of women in Father Ted. Throughout these episodes there is a distinction drawn between 'real women' and 'other women.' The latter include mothers, blood sisters, nuns and housekeepers. While the former appears to include women who would be a physical or romantic threat to the priests.
"Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest" provides a number of significant encounters between women and Frs. Ted and Dougal. As the episode opens, the priests of Craggy Island are saying goodbye to the visiting Sr. Monica. As she goes off to freshen up, Fr. Dougal says, "I suppose she'll be putting on makeup." Fr. Ted responds "she's a nun!" Fr. Dougal then explains how it is easier to speak to a nun than to a real woman.
As Fr. Ted is about to take Sr. Monica to the boat, a female solicitor, Ms. Laura Sweeney, arrives with Fr. Jack's will. Mrs. Doyle announces that there is a woman to see them. Fr. Ted attempts to correct her by saying, "You mean a nun, Mrs. Doyle." "No, a real woman, with a skirt!" Mrs. Doyle responds. Sr. Monica is left on her own to walk to the boat.
When told by Ms. Sweeney they must spend the night with Fr. Jack's body, Fr. Ted tells her they will negotiate that with the solicitor. She insists she is the solicitor, but they refuse to believe because she is a woman. Ms. Sweeney apparently smacks Fr. Ted, as he later comments that "career women" certainly are strong-willed.
Finally, there is Mrs. Doyle. Mrs. Doyle occupies an unusual position on Craggy Island. As the parochial housekeeper, she is the only woman seen regularly with the priests. As far as we know she actually lives in the parochial house. This is of little concern, because she is not a 'real woman.' To the contrary, Mrs. Doyle is a maternal figure. She cooks, cleans and generally takes care of the three priests. In "Tentacles of Doom," we learn that she even bathes Fr. Dougal. Mrs. Doyle is the obedient and asexual woman who knows her place in the home and the hierarchy.
Thus, women in Father Ted are generally treated shabbily. Housekeepers and nuns are worthy of minimal respect, because they are subservient and non-threatening. On the other hand, 'real women,' who are powerful, independent, and who aspire to equality, warrant no respect. One might expect these views from a patriarchal organisation such as the Catholic Church. Just as Frs. Ted, Dougal, and Jack are exaggerated caricatures; the characters of Mrs. Doyle and some of the nuns are also caricatures. The 'real women' encountered by Fr. Ted, like Ms. Sweeney, are less a caricature and they do appear to make a point about the treatment of women in society. They also provide the viewing audience an opportunity to laugh at Fr. Ted or Fr. Dougal, who do not seem to have a clue about how to treat women properly.


Father Ted might be summed up by the quote placed at the beginning of this chapter. This line that expresses Fr. Ted's grasp of the Catholic faith might also express some people's grasp of Father Ted-"it's so vague nobody really knows what it's about." Is Father Ted about the depiction of Catholic priests or about providing light entertainment? While Father Ted has a number of humorous elements, it also promotes the potentially negative view of priests I have outlined. Whether or not this view was intended is hardly the question. The viewer's interpretation of the programme is as important if not more than the writer's. Chapter Five will bring these views together while attempting to explain what Father Ted is about. Meanwhile, Chapter Four will consider the observations and opinions of other priests and seminarians.

Notes for Chapter Three

1. From a conversation with Cable News Network International anchor/reporter Fionnuala Sweeney, based at CNN's London Bureau.
2. Title given to the three main characters of Father Ted in Channel 4's press releases.
3. Fr. Dougal certainly would not have been accepted by the Society of Jesus.
4. "Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest" and "Tentacles of Doom," for a brief synopsis see Appendix Two.
5. Author's interview at the writers' offices, December 10, 1996.
6. In another episode, "Rock-A-Hula Ted," we learn that Fr. Ted and fr. Dougal cannot even make a cup of tea on their own.
7. Normally all Fr. Jack says is "Drink!, Feck!, Girls!, and Arse!" In order to speak to the bishops Fr. Ted teaches him to say "Yes" and "That would be an ecumenical matter."
8. This issue of anticlerical bias in the media might have a factual basis in Ireland. Some have been concerned over the high exposure in the media of 'Church scandals.'
9. This profession of faith is recited at every Catholic Mass and its acceptance is required for admission to the Catholic Church.

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Changes last made on: Tue May 15, 2005