Since this is a sitcom dealing with Irish Catholicism, it was inevitable that the Church’s attitudes towards sexuality would become both a source of humour and an opportunity for social commentary sooner rather than later. What’s surprising about this episode is the sheer meticulousness of its critique. Father Ted episodes vary widely in the extent to which they actually explore religion and its effects on society. “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” is as far as the socio-religious approach is pushed in the first series, and sets an example which the show will seldom match.
The stage is set for this critique with the appearance of Father Hernandez, a very different kind of priest. Virile and exotic, he may as well be a visitor from another world. This is emphasised by his Spanish dialogue, which is clumsily dubbed over in English by producer Geoffrey Perkins in one of the show’s more surreal jokes. Wildly unlike any Craggy Island priest, Hernandez makes lecherous comments about Mrs Doyle, openly complains about his vows of celibacy, and gives Ted a Cuban fertility symbol with the blokeish suggestion that it will do for Ted what it did for him. Having put the episode’s motifs in place, he zooms off in his bright-red sports car, never to be seen again.
As mentioned previously, “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” was written and produced with the intention that it would be the first episode to air. This was certainly Arthur Mathews’s preference, but Graham Linehan felt that the episode’s direct discussion of the characters’ backstory was “too obvious” for a premiere. In the end, it was shuffled forwards to become the third episode, with “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’” taking its place – an introduction that simply lets the characters be themselves. Still, traces of the episode’s original introductory purpose can be detected. The opening shot quickly establishes the misery of this godforsaken place, and Dougal’s immortal “Looks like rain, Ted” would have been a strong opening line, both for the character and the show. In the first scene, Father Hernandez suggests that Ted has a “great life here on Craggy Island”, in what would have been the first time the setting was named; its irony quickly becomes apparent when Hernandez mentions Ted’s “good friends”, Father Dougal and Father Jack, and the camera cuts to illuminating close-ups of both priests. The line about the island’s west side breaking away in a storm is a suitably off-kilter introduction to the show’s surreal geography. Ted’s description of his last parish as the “big city”, followed by the reveal that he is referring to Wexford, is as sadly funny as any introduction to the character could hope to be. Later, Bishop Brennan even reveals to the audience the sins for which each priest was banished to the island: Ted stole a child’s Lourdes money to fund his own trip to Las Vegas, Dougal damaged the lives of many nuns in the “Blackrock incident”, and Jack performed a disastrous wedding in Athlone. (Many sitcoms open with an episode showing how the characters originally come together, but Linehan and Mathews opted to skim over the Father Ted origin story, which they believed would be funnier as a series of vague, bizarre-sounding fragments. In some ways, this is a pity – it’s easy to imagine an episode in which Ted meets Dougal, Jack and Mrs Doyle for the first time being enormously entertaining.) On a more mechanical level, Hernandez’s video player can be seen in the background in both “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’” and “Entertaining Father Stone”, suggesting that the broadcast order and narrative order are not necessarily the same. In the commentary, Linehan jokes that the video player travelled back in time. Perhaps it was a Class-One Relic all along.
The episode begins in earnest when the terrifying Bishop Len Brennan arrives on Craggy Island and instructs the priests to protest against The Passion of Saint Tibulus, a blasphemous film which is being shown locally. Naturally, their efforts result in the film’s popularity skyrocketing. (The show occasionally refers to fictional, borderline-mythic religious figures; the sexually-liberated Saint Tibulus is the first instance of this world-building trend. Unfortunately, we never get a good look at the film’s painted poster, though it’s clear that some proper effort was put into it – we can just about make out “An Antonio Broadera Production” and “Directed by Matthew Costa” at the top, but that’s as much as we know.) It’s telling that Brennan, a recurring character who embodies many of the darkest failings of the Roman Catholic Church, is introduced in terms of his affair and secret son in America. As any adult watching this episode on its 1995 premiere would have known, the character was based directly on Eamonn Casey, an Irish Catholic bishop who caused an unprecedented national scandal in 1992, when it was discovered that he had secretly fathered a child with an American woman. Another influence which Linehan and Mathews have acknowledged is the similar Michael Cleary scandal, which emerged in 1993. Both of these events contributed to the gradual decline of the Church’s once-tremendous power in Irish society. It’s fitting, then, that Father Ted should weave these events into its own narrative backstory at this early stage. In a sense, the show itself would take up this mantle, continuing the same process of attrition and undermining the Church’s status with its own insidious silliness and humanisation of the clergy.
The precise nature of Bishop Brennan’s relationship with Craggy Island is complex. He clearly despises the island and its inhabitants, choosing for himself the lavish lifestyle of a skilled but corrupt career clergyman, a lifestyle involving copious quantities of wine and women. Brennan considers himself part of a higher order than the Craggy Islanders. The irony here is that Brennan’s moral high ground is itself based on a deception – he has committed the sin of lust, rendering him no better than our protagonists. As he mentions in this episode, he had to pull many strings to prevent the Vatican from becoming involved in the Blackrock incident, suggesting a culture within the Church of actively moving around troublesome priests to suppress embarrassment – a practice whose horrifying realities would not become fully known until the publication of the Ryan Report in 2009. Purely in the context of Father Ted, this makes it seem quite plausible that Brennan’s superiors in the Church assigned him to the diocese containing Craggy Island as punishment, and to keep him out of the spotlight while rumours of his affair circulated. If this is the case, Brennan’s predicament is not unlike that of the priests, the difference being that he is condemned to oversee the island rather than live on it. Under the purgatorial reading, Brennan can perhaps be seen as a satanic figure: a high-ranking member of a holy order who has fallen from grace to become the ruler of a desolate underworld, a place of suffering to which he is bound. Indeed, if we listen very closely to the phone call in the first scene, we can actually make out Brennan’s final lines from the end of the episode: “If you think this place is bad, wait till you see your new parish… just wait until you see!” His rage and hatred form a hellish cycle, transcending time itself. The bishop’s toxic symbiosis with Craggy Island will become more pronounced and tangled as the series goes on.
The scenes where the priests encounter the laypersons of the island complement the episode’s central messages from slightly different angles. Local couple John and Mary O’Leary have always been one of the show’s few concessions to satire: though trapped in a loveless, mutually abusive relationship by religious laws against divorce, they immediately adopt a mask of marital bliss in the presence of any priest. (We never see them truly happy, but one imagines they must have loved each other, once; there’s a faint trace of that “Fairytale of New York” bittersweetness below the surface. Linehan and Mathews thought of giving them children, but decided it would simply be too sad for the show’s tone; thus Craggy Island remained essentially childless.) In this episode, the O’Learys serve an additional purpose, illustrating the absurdity of the Church’s focus on image and the imagined influence of media over the well-being of their own followers. Ted’s conversations with the parishioners on their way to the cinema reveal that the quaint old locals are not quite so innocent as the Church would like to think. (Doubly so in the case of Mrs Glynn, since she seems to be leading a double life as the Funland fortune-teller.)
Despite the episode’s generally sharp religious commentary, its most famous component by far is the pair of protest signs reading “Down with this sort of thing” and “Careful now”. Disconnected from the story’s point, if not its subject-matter, this is simply another instance where the show pokes gentle fun at the Church’s out-of-touch daftness. All the same, these slogans have achieved enormous popularity in Ireland and even abroad, and are now the two most recognisable lines in the show. This is eventually acknowledged in the text itself, with the slogans being the only lines audible in the flashback montage which concludes “Going to America”, the final episode. These lines have merged with the wider popular consciousness to the unique degree that it is possible to recite them without really invoking thoughts of the show itself. Even the railing to which Ted and Dougal cuff themselves in this scene has achieved mildly iconic status, with a shot of the two priests on the couch, still chained to the railing, being used for the show’s ad-break idents on Channel 4 in the early 2000s.
The final scene opens by smoothly transfiguring the handcuffs, a clear symbol of illicit behaviour inherited from another one of Craggy Island’s old guard in Sergeant Thornton, into another tendril of the unholy inquisition. The last token of defiance is lost, and the priests are locked in place to become defendants in a sham trial. Bishop Brennan leers over the spinning globe like some mad god circumscribing the fates of his subjects, having appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner; Urizen and Valeyard.
The resolution provides an interesting inversion of the television’s role in the show. Usually it provides a way into the story, a window through which outsiders can be drawn into Craggy Island, but with the climactic discovery of Brennan’s home video – his very own “blasphemous film” – the television becomes the priests’ salvation, showing them the means by which they can escape the bishop’s wrath. (That Hernandez’s video player becomes an instrumental plot device is another subtle instance of the episode’s unusually intricate plotting.)
And so we come to the pinnacle of one of the show’s most damning critiques. Bishop Brennan’s continuous cruelty and viciousness, even his plan to effectively murder the priests by sending them to dangerous parishes, all go completely unpunished. Instead he is brought down by something entirely innocent: a home video showing him on a California beach, kissing his laughing girlfriend and playing with their young son, who’s building sandcastles in the shape of birettas. All of Brennan’s behaviour is permissible under the auspices of the Church – except, of course, for the one and only moment where he is seen to function as a human being.