But Mrs Doyle Makes the Tea (Rock a Hula Ted)

doyle imageThe Catholic Church’s relationship with women is initially flagged as an issue in Father Ted’s first series, but it’s not until “Rock a Hula Ted” that this thread is brought to its devastating conclusion. The episode marks the show’s definitive statement on the matter, which is clearly close to Linehan’s heart. Its story, which is as thematically coherent and focused as the show has ever been, involves Ted being selected to judge the annual Lovely Girls Festival – a particularly vapid beauty contest. Meanwhile, feminist singer Niamh Connolly comes to the island in search of an idyllic country home, only for Dougal to give her the keys to the parochial house. When she discovers Mrs Doyle’s atrocious working conditions, Niamh agrees to return the house, on the condition that the priests give her one night off every week.

The main story threads – Niamh’s arrival, the Lovely Girls competition, and Mrs Doyle’s workload – all comment on aspects of the Church’s attitudes towards women. With a little scrutiny, it becomes apparent that the simultaneous emergence of these three sequences of events is terribly convenient, but the interplay between them feels natural enough that the audience barely notices the contrivance.

Subtly rounding out the episode’s thematic concerns are the minor male characters, most of whom also serve in some way as a commentary on the gender politics of the Irish Catholic. Equally important, the episode provides copious opportunities for everyone to say “bra”, a word beloved by the writers for the delightful way it seems to stop halfway thorough.

As the organiser of the Lovely Girls competition, Father Liam Deliverance perfectly embodies the link between the Church and misogyny. (The festival is based on the very real Rose of Tralee, an embarrassingly anachronistic Irish beauty pageant which continues to this day. It’s not organised by priests in reality, but it might as well be – the connection feels so natural the writers must have found it irresistible, and it certainly aids their attempt to distil the competition to its ugly essence.) Rather than correcting Ted’s “lovely bottom” faux pas, he eggs him on, and his careless sexism around Niamh is enough to make even Ted wince. Not unrelated is Liam’s implicitly masculine tendency to destroy household items for their “shoddy workmanship”, his paternalistic airs of experience and wisdom masquerading as expertise.

When Ted arrives at the festival, he’s greeted by four drunken middle-aged men, tellingly referred to in the credits as “The Lads”. They seem to have no interests beyond leering at the teenage contestants, but Ted’s joking criticisms of their behaviour amount to tacit encouragement. We shouldn’t be surprised, of course – they’re his faithful parishioners, just another component of the archaic social structure he helps prop up.

The only real flaw in the episode is Father Jack’s subplot. Centring on a rather weak running joke about Jack’s resemblance to Bob Geldof, it fails to connect meaningfully with the political commentary cementing the other storylines.

At the heart of the episode is Mrs Doyle’s internalised sexism, an aspect of her character always present but rarely explored in depth. She makes vague allusions to the Church having helped her through a difficult time in her life (presumably the same series of events that instilled her disgust at sex, her hatred for attractive young women, and her reluctance to mention her husband – the pieces aren’t difficult to put together). Evidently a damaged woman, Mrs Doyle was left with an undying loyalty for the organisation, a pathological fixation on aiding them, and a willingness to overlook any and every slight against her gender on their part. She accepts the roles imposed on her with an unquestioning smile, to the point that it’s often easy to overlook the carelessness with which Ted and Dougal treat her. (And if Linehan’s peculiar suggestion that she first met Ted by winning the Lovely Girls competition herself holds true, the years certainly haven’t been kind.) Much of the episode’s power comes from pushing Mrs Doyle to her limits, with Ted giving her a series of increasingly difficult and dangerous tasks around the house (digging drainage ditches, cleaning roof slates, building a little greenhouse). It’s nasty, it’s cruel, and it’s exactly what’s needed to explicate the immorality inherent in these characters and the social order of which they’re a part. (The choice to limit Mrs Doyle’s overt mistreatment to the episodes where it’s thematically relevant is wise – using her as a punching bag any more often would twist the show into a wearyingly cynical satire that no-one could really love.)

The show often introduces guest stars through the priests’ television, but with Niamh, the approach is taken much further. In the opening scene, the priests watch her being interviewed, followed by a performance of her song. Later, Ted finds Dougal reading an interview in a magazine with her photo on the cover, and we cut to another television interview where she declares her intention to move to Craggy Island. She’s become almost ubiquitous before we even see her in the flesh, with narrative shockwaves anticipating her arrival. She embodies and dominates the medium of television, and media in general, in a way we’ve never seen before. (The second interview was recorded in the production company’s make-up room, practically outside the fictional boundaries of Ted – there’s even another television looming behind her.) In short, Niamh is modern Ireland as an ontological force – the herald of a new age. When Dougal answers her knock on the parochial house door, the show doesn’t even bother showing us what happens next – we’ve seen enough that it doesn’t need to.

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how strange Clare Grogan’s performance as Niamh really is. The Ted cast, both stars and guests, has always been split roughly evenly between “proper” actors and comedians. Clearly it’s not a show that demands convincing drama from all participants, but even in cases where the actors have little to no screen experience, they generally make an effort to synchronise their performances with the level of reality one might expect from a traditional British sitcom with a clerical twist. Not so here. In the scenes she shares with O’Hanlon and Morgan, Grogan never quite manages to keep the edge of a self-aware smile from her face. She remains visibly conscious of the live studio audience, and her body language is the most ostentatiously theatrical, complete with sly glances towards the viewers – she just about gets away with twirling round to hide her laugh when Dougal tells Ted he’s given her the house. These tendencies reach a critical level when Father Liam refers to her as a “lovely girl” – Grogan bites her lip to hide an obvious grin, then shakes her head in mock exasperation, clearly making actual eye contact with the audience. Savvy and cynical, she feels like a being from another world, her acting style flouting the rules of Craggy Island just as much as her character’s politics.

(A more mundane explanation is that Grogan has a background in music – her casting may have had more to do with her experience fronting pop group Altered Images than her acting ability. Very few Ted characters get a song written for them, and the usual technique of just dubbing in Neil Hannon’s voice wasn’t an option here – it really helps that she can actually sing.)

There are no pretences here – not a trace of the piety of Mrs Doyle and Mary O’Leary and Sister Assumpta; none of the frailties that drive Polly Clarke to the Church. In some ways, “Rock a Hula Ted” feels like a sequel to “And God Created Woman” in that its thematic terrain is largely the same. Niamh is Polly’s counterpart, and also allows Ted’s attitudes to be interrogated, albeit in a very different way. Polly was Ted’s dream woman until she became subsumed by his religion, whereas Niamh is his nightmare; a direct affront to all he believes in. (There are subtler hints of some equivalence between Ted and Niamh; completely unrelated scenes have both characters mentioning Peter Gabriel, and both using the phrase “gets my goat” to express annoyance.) She is what the show needed to reach one of the pinnacles of its satirical potential. She is anathema to Ted’s sheltered, backwards world. She’s having none of it.

(Grogan’s previous significant sitcom character, Kristine Kochanski in Red Dwarf, haunted that narrative in a similar way, appearing only in flashbacks and dream sequences, holograms and illusions. But while Kochanski embodied Dave Lister’s hopes and dreams of eventual escape to a better future, Niamh represents an active attack on the established order of things. Her seizing of the parochial house poses the most significant risk to the status quo this series, and threatens the show’s foundations in a way that makes the problems posed by Father Noel or Father Damien seem trivial. She would destroy the way of life Ted can never admit he hates, overruling his moral judgement with her own, retooling his world to suit her beliefs. In some ways it’s a reiteration of Grogan’s earlier role, only active rather than passive – not a symbol of a shining future but its bringer.)

Niamh is clearly inspired by Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish feminist singer who famously protested against the child abuse endemic in the Church by ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Ted‘s answer to this display is decidedly more whimsical, with Niamh discussing such matters as the pope’s conversion of potato factories into children’s prisons during the Famine. While the interviewer fidgets as if humouring a ridiculous person, Ted seems to accept her claims as factual, instead suggesting that there was nothing wrong with these practices. (It’s interesting to ponder whether Niamh and Ted are wrong, or the show is set in some kind of funhouse alternative universe where the Church really did these things.) Niamh’s self-professed fondness for “crude religious imagery” might have seemed unintuitive, but it fits well with O’Connor’s love of appropriating and subverting Catholic iconography – the singer had herself ordained a priest by an independent Catholic group in 1999, and sometimes performs in full priest outfit (lending Ted’s “Women priests!” line a prophetic quality). While the episode clearly invokes O’Connor, it does little to interrogate her views, with the effect being less a parody than a thought-experiment – “What if we collide Father Ted with Sinead O’Connor?” Niamh is used to poke fun at preachy liberal celebrities, but’s compared to the episode’s attack on the Church, it’s mild stuff – while the writers didn’t wish to be partisan, it’s clear that they’re broadly on Niamh’s side, and rightly so. (For her part, O’Connor seems to have taken it well – she was in the studio audience for the Christmas special later in the year. Try to see if you can hear her laughter in the sound mix the next time you watch it!)

The lyrics for Niamh’s song were written by Linehan and Mathews, who asked Hannon to compose some Sinéad O’Connor-style music to accompany them – a proposition the musician found challenging. The result – usually referred to by its opening line, “Big Men in Frocks” – is a strange hybrid more like a future echo of Hannon’s 1998 track “Thrillseeker” than a riff on O’Connor’s usual power ballads. Niamh’s performance is suitably drenched in feminine imagery, with an enormous glowing Venus sigil in the background and, in one of the show’s most under-appreciated jokes, a heavily pregnant woman translating the lyrics into sign language. The dark background and pink-edged blue lighting seem lifted from O’Connor’s 1990 performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” on Top of the Pops. While it’s a good visual shorthand to communicate the connection, the lyrics are more broadly evocative of O’Connor’s work and politics, with added references to the Church’s oppression of women. Curiously, the song concludes with a paean to an imagined matriarchal past: “You give us all your rules / But that’s not the way it was / Women ruled the land of Tír na nÓg / Tír na nÓg…”

In Irish mythology, Tír na nÓg was an idyllic other-world untouched by death, misfortune, or scarcity – its name, roughly translated, meaning “Land of Youth”. It was inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann, an immortal race of gods or superior beings who once ruled Ireland, but were driven from the mortal world by an invading people.

An illustration of Oisín and Niamh travelling to Tír na nÓg on the back of the lovely horse Enbarr. Drawn by PJ Lynch for An Post.

The most popular story of Tír na nÓg concerns Oisín, a mortal man taken there by a red-haired Tuatha Dé Danann princess to be her husband. (Details vary slightly depending on the telling, so I’ll recount the most relevant version.) After what he perceived as three years with her, Oisín began to long for his family, and took his leave. Arriving back in his own world, he found that three centuries had passed, and that all his people had gone; he became an old man the moment he set foot on mortal soil, and died soon afterwards. Most stories portray Tír na nÓg as underground, but this one depicted it as a small island located off the west coast of the country. The princess’s name was Niamh.

The mythological Tír na nÓg has no particular feminist connotations. Still, considering that Niamh Connolly’s song specifically references its supposed matriarchal society as an ideal, and that its best-known ruler is her namesake, perhaps a closer look is in order. Connecting Tír na nÓg to Craggy Island seems oddly natural – not only for their analogous geography, but for their other-worldly status. Indeed, there seems to be something in the collective Irish consciousness that requires the presence of such a place; consider Hy-Brasil, the phantom island which lurked for centuries on the western edges of our maps, but was never found. Miserable though Craggy Island might be within the narrative, in reality the Irish people think of it as a wonderful place, as our constant pilgrimages to the Aran Islands or “the Ted house” in County Clare will attest. Like Tír na nÓg, its inhabitants will never die – not really, so long as they’re on our screens. Having spent three years in that fantastical world, Dermot Morgan planned a triumphant return to his work in Ireland, but as in the myth, tragedy intervened; he would never be able to come back.

But that’s too real. Within the fiction, Craggy Island is not a modern-day Tír na nÓg but a dark mirror of it; a hellhole in place of a paradise. Yet in Niamh’s second interview, she offers us a mission statement, in no uncertain terms: “Craggy Island’s the place for me. I see it as being a safe haven for those who wish to escape the hypocrisy of the mainland. I wish to create a world free of sexual and religious intolerance.” It even reads like a manifesto. Her wildly inaccurate impression of Craggy Island’s glory is entirely unique, and makes one wonder where she sources her information – perhaps some instinct or ancestral impulse. In this act of idealisation, Niamh explicitly aligns herself with a mythic, pre-Christian Ireland.

She comes in search of Tír na nÓg, but finds only a decaying husk with all its unearthly insularity and none of its sublimity. The halcyon other-world dreamt of by the Celts has become purgatory itself; a place of punishment presided over by a new, fatherly God. (Tellingly, some versions of the Oisín myth have the hero tell Saint Patrick his story before dying – the myth itself ushering in that which will replace it in the people’s collective consciousness.) A conception suggests itself of Craggy Island as a qlippothic artefact – the decaying ruin of a paradise which has sold its transcendence for the trappings of the modern age.

Once Niamh learns that the island is not what she had dreamed, she doubles down on her initial scheme. Rather than simply find a home and become part of the local community, she seizes control of the parochial house – the very seat of the Church’s corrupt, patriarchal hold on the island – with plans to convert it into a recording studio, a symbol of the media and dawning revolutionary culture she embodies. A new Tír na nÓg, a secular feminist utopia with herself at its centre. The effect is to suggest a curiously cyclical view of history – she seeks to tear down the decaying idols of modernity and replace them with something older; rawer. The red-haired maiden of myth, disenchanted by her lover’s betrayal, returns at last.

Using lies and platitudes, Ted persuades Niamh to return the house, but she is appalled to learn of the housekeeper’s suffering at the last moment. After some off-screen negotiation, she agrees to return the house, her only condition being that Mrs Doyle is given a night off every week – a disappointingly modest demand considering Niamh’s transformative energy and ideology. We’re invited to laugh at the priests’ doomed efforts to function without their housekeeper, but in truth the status quo remains largely unaltered. Niamh’s grand idea – to remake the world – is simply put away.

Still, progress is incremental, assuming it’s even possible on Craggy Island. In a late scene, Lovely Girls winner Imelda goes out for her celebratory dinner at the Thai Cottage with the festival’s judge – except that Ted’s place is taken by Mrs Doyle and Niamh. With all stages of the life cycle present, the women form a reasonable facsimile of Robert Graves’s neopagan Triple Goddess; along with the nearby statue of Shiva as Nataraja (echoing Niamh’s earlier praise for the ancient Indian matriarchy), their union seems to gesture towards a brighter future, more equal and more diverse.

But at the last, each of the women falters in some way. Mrs Doyle remains visibly uncomfortable leaving the priests to their own devices; Imelda, despite her age, still seems a little lost without any clergymen in the room; and Niamh’s dogmatic vegetarianism suggests an unwillingness to compromise with the others. There’s an impression of unreadiness and disarray; a sense that Niamh’s time has not yet come, that the stars are not yet right. But Niamh is the future, and she cannot be denied. Craggy Island remains on the wrong side of history, and one day the waves of material social progress will wash its poisons away.

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