One of the fascinations of Left-Liberalism, since the 1960s, has been the domain of popular culture. Liberal academics are endlessly fascinated by popular entertainment and their students attend lectures to be taught how to consume this material properly. They are taught to think critically about popular culture, which is to say, assess said culture for authoritarian or illiberal or right-wing tendencies. Amazingly, they are always able to locate such tendencies, and sometimes publish books about them.
This whole field of academia, which broadly speaking is cultural studies, has one enormous blind-spot of course. These academics never acknowledge that virtually every arena of media and popular culture is dominated by people who think exactly like them. The creative sectors and the media are generally to the Left of everybody else in society. It follows, quite naturally, that these sectors push the society in a leftward direction. They can’t help but do so.
Occasionally these academics will acknowledge that something is subversive. A drama subplot is subversive, which is to say, something is breaking through the authoritarian mean. But they will never admit that the subversive has become the mean. Subversion for the Liberal is always liberation. And there must be a hard totalitarian shell to be liberated from. Without it they cannot function, they cannot write papers, they cannot publish books. Where it does not exist they must invent it.
The effects of popular culture on society can only be appreciated and understood if you acknowledge that the culture industry itself is liberal. Or what has come to be called liberal. Even when a playwright or television writer thinks they are being neutral, they are generally being liberal.
Three Priests on an Island
Irish people of my generation were introduced in our primary school years to the phenomenon of Father Ted. Written by Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, and featuring the cream of Irish comedy talent, the show first aired in 1995. On the cusp of a totally new Ireland. Nobody would deny that the Channel 4 produced sitcom, synonymous with windy locations in West Clare, has had a significant effect on the psyche of Irish people.
At the time of its release it still carried a faint sense of taboo which has dissipated with familiarity and a changing Ireland. The show has been repeated endlessly. For twenty years, one cannot own a television and not be exposed to the reruns of the same jokes, the same gags, the same situations. We may have forgotten our times-tables or the Angelus Prayer or the rivers of Munster, but we have not forgotten the punchlines of Father Ted. For the state broadcaster has not allowed us to.
The genius of the show was to penetrate the Irish sense of self and provoke a sense of recognition while at the same time, packaging it and gift wrapping it. The Irish, who have a great disdain for the kitsch Irishness of the tourist industry, nonetheless fell for this vision hook, line and sinker. Why? Because it was soaked in irreverence and irony. It presented an Ireland that had broken through the fourth wall of De Valera’s picaresque ideal, and found a way of laughing at itself. It was a way of taking ownership of self-deprecation. Or it was sold that way. The show’s humour had broad appeal to Irish people and we felt we had secret access to it. It linked in with the strange self-confidence of the boom years. We went from being a nation of downtrodden know-it-alls to invincible know-it-alls. And nothing was sacred any longer.
The show functioned on several levels. At one level it was peculiarly nostalgic and affectionate for the small details of a passing Ireland. The set design of Craggy Island parochial house, with its floral wallpaper and Sacred Heart armchair covers, was full of warmth, memory and gentle parody. On another level it was a highly efficient, well oiled comedy machine. A blistering sitcom, packed to the walls with gags and twists. On a further level it was a highly subversive deconstruction of Irish identity. Not in a didactic or intellectual way, but in a way that seeped into the unconscious. This went far beyond the religious trappings of the show, which in many ways seem incidental now.
It has often preoccupied me as to why Father Ted in particular had this subversive power. Other contemporary “piss-takes” of rural Ireland seem innocent or harmless by comparison. The early work of John Kenny and Pat Shortt for instance. Nor did they have such widespread appeal. Maybe because it was local people making jokes about local people. Father Ted always had the X factor of a slick West Brit production. A show that would play to an audience in London or Sydney just as well as an audience in Mayo or Clare.
This last point is highly significant because it suggests the globalising nature of Father Ted. Produced by a British company, it was marketed all over the world. Not only that, but Irish people travelling abroad, still bring it with them. They carry the one-liners as one carries preconceptions, and they apply them to the world around them, not merely as comic relief, but as a kind of hipster morality.
The respectability of Father Ted comes not simply from its excellent production values but from its embrace by the intelligentsia. They recognised its significance and power early on. The zaniness and irreverence of the show seem quite familiar to us. There is something we recognise there. Matthews and Linehan didn’t pull it out of nowhere, for it is discernible in the cycles of Irish myth. It is discernible in Joyce and in Flann O’ Brien. It is discernible throughout the history of Irish storytelling. Something primal and chaotic. It merely had to be tapped into.
Playing on a Loop
Flann O’ Brien’s novel The Third Policeman was not published during his lifetime. That he quickly gave up on trying to have it published is sometimes attributed to the ambivalence he felt about the work. A story about a man, who having committed murder dies and enters a kind of Hell, is deeply nihilistic. The setting for this Hell is rural Ireland and it is marked by endless repetition, Déjà vu, forgetfulness, surreality and a general meaninglessness. But the book is also very funny. And as such, it is easy to see a commonality between it and Father Ted. The sitcom about three priests stuck on an island is clearly a descendant.
Father Ted appeals to a remarkably wide audience. Unlike other attempts at comedy shows set in rural Ireland, it bridges the divide between rural and urban audiences. This is mainly because of its use of irony, its overall liberal bent and its general high quality. The fact that it was produced by a British production company might also have something to do with it. The London seal of approval still means a lot to our Dublin intelligentsia. It is as much the last great English sitcom as it is the only great Irish sitcom.
The most significant effect of Father Ted was to redefine Irishness as irreverence. It appropriated the aspects of Irish culture which liberals found embarrassing and gift wrapped them. The achievement of Matthews and Linehan was to convert those aspects of Irish culture into a standing resource for infinite self-deprecation. Irish people of my generation have been trading on this like a commodity ever since.
Along with various other phenomenon (Riverdance springs to mind), Father Ted set a sort of tone for the Celtic Tiger years and for the liberalisation of Irish culture. One day someone will ask “What is Irish culture,” and someone will reply, “Oh, you know it’s a sense of humour. You know… Have you ever seen Father Ted?” It might seem ridiculous, put a very similar process has occurred in Britain, particularly regarding English culture. After Father Ted, it was difficult to take a rooted view of Irish culture seriously. Elements like the Craggy Island China Town episode, were a form of cultural inoculation. And those who were wise to it, would have seen what was coming.
Products such as Father Ted de-legitimised in advance the possibility of defending or even pursuing an authentic Irish culture, because it made claims to authenticity seem absurd. This is one of the fundamental elements of the Liberal outlook, which is the idea that there are no innate truths. The world is basically meaningless. This is very close to what Flann O’Brien arrived at in The Third Policeman, his greatest masterpiece and his most nihilistic. It is the post-cultural moment. It is the post-national moment. It is the moment which leaves the individual by himself or by herself. Divorced from origins. Alone, stranded in an endless scepticism of infinite possibilities. Everything in this world is possible, but nothing can be done. If The Third Policeman were produced as a series it would have a Father Ted laugh track.
In marketing terms, Father Ted represents the mainstream depiction of Peak Irishness. The slick, polished product that represents us to the world. It is the Irish certified Paddy joke. The only one we don’t take offence at. After twenty years of Father Ted, it is very difficult to make any sort of claim on what Irishness might be, because we have crossed the Rubicon of self-referential arsing-about. Like an RTÉ schedule we have endless repetition, déjà vu, forgetfulness, surreality and a general meaninglessness. We have entered the abyss. And though there is much going on, and much at stake, there is nothing real to hold on to. If we try to make a claim to meaning, or to nationality or to rootedness, we will be laughed at. The 90s sitcom about three priests stuck on an island, is not so much what Peak Irishness looks like, as what post-Irishness looks like.