Like the truly great comedy vehicles, it is permanently repeated on channels from RTÉ to E4; a timeless classic in every sense of the word, even if it did only last for 25 episodes from 1995 to 1998.
One of life’s little joys is coming in after a long day and happening upon an episode of Fr Ted. It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen it, watching the madcap adventures of Ted, Dougal, Jack, and Mrs Doyle will never grow old.
It threw off the shackles of safe Irish comedy and brought real Irish humour to the masses — as well as finally showcasing the greatness of Dermot Morgan to a worldwide audience.
Morgan was already a well-known feature of the Irish comedy scene by 1995, thanks to the likes of radio programme Scrap Saturday, but his portrayal of the frustrated Fr Ted gave him the audience he richly deserved. Three years later, and one day after he filmed the final episode of Fr Ted, he died of a heart attack. Just as his star was about to ascend further, he was taken at just 45 years old.
Created and written by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, the show had its origins while the pair worked for Hot Press. In the late 1980s, Mathews, along with Paul and Kieran Woodfull, formed a U2 tribute band, The Joshua Trio. They performed sketches in between songs, one of which was an early version of what became Fr Ted.
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After moving to London in 1991, Linehan and Mathews lived together and wrote for comedy programmes such as The Fast Show, and eventually had an idea for a mockumentary called Irish Lives — featuring one episode about a priest called Ted Crilly (never Fr Curly!).
Linehan said that, once they settled on Morgan for the main role, their star drove the writing process. “Dermot helped us dive into deeper depths with Ted,” he told The Guardian. “Writing for him we came up with Ted’s obsession with money, his fantasy of going to Vegas.
“We started to feel for him in a way that you can’t really feel for Dougal or Jack or Mrs Doyle. They’re foils who are only really there to torture Ted, but Ted’s very nearly a rounded human being.”
For Linehan, Fr Ted couldn’t work today, given the revelations about sexual abuse that have emerged in recent years.
“The stuff that’s come out about the Catholic Church since Ted is so horrific, and so real, that you just couldn’t play the priesthood for laughs. It just couldn’t work,” he said.
The series featured a number of Irish comedians and actors at the peak of their powers or only just beginning.
Gerard McSorley aka Fr Todd Unctuous — or should that be Fr Chewy Louie, Fr Spodo Komodo, or Peewee Stairmaster? — was already a master of the stage when he starred in the institution of a Christmas special, A Christmassy Ted.
Tommy Tiernan shows up in the final episode of the sitcom, playing a suicidal priest who Ted saves from jumping out a window.
But perhaps the most revered guest star was Graham Norton, whose turn as hyperactive youth worker Fr Noel Furlong was so powerful during the episode ‘Hell’ that it capsized a caravan.
Ardal O’Hanlon (Fr Dougal McGuire) sums it up: “Ted had a profound effect on Irish culture and sometimes I even think the show did priests a favour by humanising them.”