Putting the gay into the Gaeltacht


From newwaysminstryblog.wordpress.com


Well, that was great.  With world events at the moment so generally grim that you almost feel afraid to peek into a newspaper or channel-surf anywhere near a TV news channel for fear that you’ll become suicidally depressed – thanks to the activities of Islamic State, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, Marine Le Pen and Katie Hopkins – the revelation that the citizens of the Republic of Ireland have voted by an almost two-thirds-to-one-third majority to legalise gay marriage has been wonderful.


Yes, amid all the bad news coming relentlessly from elsewhere in the world, the Irish gay-marriage referendum result has felt as welcome as…  Well, probably as welcome as the sight of that dove carrying a ‘pluckt-off’ olive leaf felt to Noah in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 8, Verse 11 — signifying that the topmost branches of the trees had at last begun to poke above the Biblical floodwater.  In this modern-day deluge of bad shit, it’s heartening that some twigs of human decency are still able to poke up into view, above it all.




Bear in mind that this has occurred in a country that decriminalised ‘homosexual acts’ only 22 years ago.  Back in the early 1990s, of course, the Roman Catholic Church still wielded a degree of power and influence there.  But now that church is seen as a discredited, hypocritical, child-abusing carcass – and the good folk of the Irish Republic have just well-and-truly stomped on it.


A few reactionary types aren’t happy about the result – though oddly enough, these were the same voices who’d lamented that legislation for gay marriage had been passed in other countries without the public being given a chance to vote on it.  For instance, in the Spectator, sour social conservative Melanie McDonagh has been lamenting about the ‘groupthink’ and ‘one-sidedness’ of the Irish gay-marriage debate: “There’s a creepily imitative quality to the liberal consensus – as though the colonial mind-set has morphed through clericalism to a self-congratulatory adolescence, perpetually in revolt against the vanished authority of the church.”  That’s right, Melanie.  The outcome of the vote had nothing to do with people wanting to show compassion, and fairness, and empathy, and respect for other people who happened to differ from them in their sexual orientation.  Rather, it was to do with people behaving like stupid teenagers and wanting to wave their middle-finger at some nasty old kiddie-fiddling priests.


The result, of course, focuses attention on Northern Ireland, which is now the last major area of the British Isles to oppose the legalisation of gay marriage.  I must admit to having a depressing feeling that hell will freeze over well before the bigots in the Democratic Unionist Party, who are a major component of the Northern Irish government, follow the example of southern Ireland.  Their attitude is only slightly less extreme than that of my current bête noir Susan-Anne White, the looney-tunes evangelical-Christian pontificator who a few weeks ago ran for Parliament in my old constituency in Northern Ireland.  Yesterday, she raved on her blog that “(t)he homosexual lobby are coming for Northern Ireland and intend to force sodomite ‘marriage’ on our Province…  We will resist this madness, God helping us.”


Oh Susan-Anne.  You are a demented old bat.


Incidentally, just a few weeks ago, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association rated Scotland as being the best country in the world for offering legal protection to gay people.  (I know that, strictly speaking, Scotland doesn’t qualify as being a country.  But because it has its own autonomous system of law, it does in legal terms.)  So there’s another large part of the Celtic world that can congratulate itself on its gay friendliness.  It’s mind-blowing that just a couple of generations ago the Republic of Ireland and Scotland probably seemed two of the last places that a gay person would want to live in, thanks to their being dominated by two particularly unappealing, intolerant and life-denying brands of Christianity, severe Catholicism and severe Calvinism.


So, all you Irish and Scottish folk out there, forget about such rabble-rousing appeals to your patriotism as Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  If you really want to feel some nationalistic pride in yourselves, bask in the accolades you’re currently getting for showing a bit of decency towards your fellow human beings in the gay and lesbian communities.  That’s a true reason to be proud to be a Celt.


God wants your vote


(c) The Belfast Telegraph


The 2015 UK general election – voting takes place tomorrow and then it’s all over, thankfully – has, even by the usual standards of British general elections, been a depressing experience.  The current generation of mainstream party leaders, surely, are more blatant in their peddling of empty, meaningless platitudes, obfuscations and evasions than any generation of leaders that’ve gone before them.  And they’ve been aided and abetted in making this election campaign as disillusioning and unappetising to voters as is humanly possible by an idiotic national press.  Owned by half-a-dozen millionaire / billionaire tax-dodging Europhobic right-wing dingbats, the majority of Britain’s big newspapers have stuck unrelentingly to a simple formula – malign Ed Miliband and the Labour Party as far as you can go without ending up in the law-courts in England, and do the same to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party in Scotland.


Actually, I thought that Ed Miliband wasn’t having that bad a campaign, despite everything – I even found myself warming to him during the leadership debates – but then he went and ruined everything.  As a publicity stunt, he unveiled an eight-foot-high limestone plinth with six Labour Party promises carved on it.  Carved in stone – get it?  Cue a million cruel jokes about Ed fashioning his own tombstone, about Ed sinking like a stone, about Ed’s plinth not having planning permission, etc.  It’s the sort of blunder you’d expect to see only in an episode of Armando Iannucci’s political sitcom The Thick of It.


At least, I thought, there’s one consolation amid all this.  Despite its ludicrousness and its sneaking underlying dishonesty, British politics at least doesn’t have the God factor to deal with.  It isn’t beset by the mentality that you get in the USA wherein certain politicians on the right have no compunctions about mixing their brand of cretinous hanging-and-shooting-and-nuking politics with God, Christianity and the Bible.


A good (or bad) example of this is former House of Representatives member and general all-round extreme-right Republican gob-shite Michele Bachmann, who has been recently predicting that the Rapture is about to happen, as a result of Barack Obama’s policies towards Iran and his espousal of same-sex marriage.  That’s the Rapture in the Biblical sense, i.e. the claim that prior to the Second Coming true Christian believers will be raised into the clouds whilst hell breaks out on earth below.  Not the Rapture who were a rather funky indie rock band from New York.


Yes, there seemed some consolation for me in the fact that you don’t get that bollocks in British politics.  However, I then stumbled across, in the online edition of the Belfast Telegraph, an article about Susan-Anne White.  Ms White is standing as an independent candidate in tomorrow’s election in the West Tyrone constituency of Northern Ireland and her campaign promises are ones you’d more expect to see carved in stone than Ed Miliband’s promises.  They’d be promises carved on two tablets of stone brought down by Moses, after he’d conferred with God on top of Mount Sinai.  That’s if God is really as much of a wrathful, blustering bigot as some people like to think He is.




Among the things in Ms White’s manifesto are opposition to the 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland; the banning of ‘amoral’ sex education from schools and the reintroduction of corporal punishment into them; the raising of the age of consent to 18; the banning of ‘gay pride parades’; opposition to ‘the LGBT agenda’ and the ‘redefinition of marriage’ and the upholding of ‘Biblical man / woman marriage’; the abolition of the Equality Commission Northern Ireland and the Human Rights Commission Northern Ireland; withdrawal from ‘money-wasting and decadent Europe’; opposition to the ‘Islamisation’ of Britain and the building of mosques; and restoration of the death penalty.


(c) The Huffington Post


Ms White is also an ardent opponent of ‘the global warming fanatics and their pseudo-science’.  I assume such objectionable pseudo-science also includes practices like zoology, geology, astronomy and palaeontology – or as they’re sometimes known, science – that dispute the fact that God created the universe and everything in it during six very busy days about 6000 years ago, which Ms White and all other good, sensible people know is true because it says so in Genesis.  That’s Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.  Not Genesis, the rather boring progressive rock band from the 1970s.


Talking of which, the Belfast Telegraph article stated that Ms White wanted to ban rock music for being vulgar and promoting ‘sexual anarchy’, although she has since denied this in her blog (https://thetruthshallsetyoufreeblog.wordpress.com/).  Her main reason for disliking rock music, she claims, is because it’s bad for your ears.


As well as ‘global warming fanatics’, Ms White is also severely down on feminists.  She regards feminism, in fact, as being “responsible for many of the social ills we see all around us.”  This includes the dire state of the economy, because “they destroyed the whole concept of the family wage with the father as the bread-winner and the stay-at-home mother.  They make women feel they have to be out in the workforce.”


Well, it’s a free country and I believe people have the right to believe any old claptrap they want as long as they don’t try to force it down other people’s throats – although I suspect this is what Ms White would be doing if she ever became MP for West Tyrone.  (Even in Northern Ireland, the chances of this happening are thankfully very slim.)  However, if she’s so hell-bent on opposing women leaving their homes and venturing out into the workforce, what on earth is she doing trying to win employment as West Tyrone’s elected representative in Westminster?  Shouldn’t she be at home, vacuuming the carpets, washing the dishes, making the tea, etc., while her husband goes out and wins the bread?  Tsk, tsk, Ms White.  At least practise what you preach.


What I find particularly amusing / worrying is that Susan-Anne White comes from the County Tyrone village of Trillick, which is just three miles along the road from where I used to live in Northern Ireland.  (In fact, my home was in the same parish as Trillick.)  From what I remember of the area, there lived there a couple of gentlemen who, while they were very conscientious about showing their faces in church every Sunday, were also a little bit, shall we say, amorous with the ladies.  Maybe that’s why Ms White is also advocating making adultery ‘a punishable offence’.  Aye, good luck with that one.


The Belfast Telegraph article is followed by a thread full of comments poking fun at Ms White and her barmy views.  It’s sobering to think, though, that some of those views are not far removed from those of Northern Ireland’s Free Presbyterian Church and its political wing, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), both of which, once upon a time, were headed by the Reverend Ian Paisley – a pulpit-thumping demagogue, close exposure to whom would do more damage to your ears than any amount of rock music.


For example, Iris Robinson, the former DUP Member of Parliament and former DUP Northern Irish Health Minister, famously described homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ that was worse than abusing children and called for gay people to receive psychiatric counselling.  (However, Iris parted company from Susan-Anne White’s opinions when it came to committing adultery; because in the late noughties, very famously indeed, she had an extra-marital affair with a lad of 19, who was about a third of her age.  This was much to the embarrassment of her husband, Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson, and much to the amusement of nearly everyone else in Northern Ireland.)


Mind you, though she shares some opinions with them, Ms White is not above offering the DUP criticism.  On her blog, for example, I saw her having a go at Fiona Paisley, daughter-in-law of the late Reverend Ian Paisley and wife of his imaginatively-named son, Ian Paisley Junior.  She’d been dismayed to see Fiona tweeting photographs taken of herself while she worked out in her local Crossfit gym.  “However, as women are 40-50% weaker than men (generally speaking) women should not be lifting weights at all,” said a disapproving Ms White, “and Fiona Paisley is at risk of serious injury if she continues to place such unnatural and unnecessary strain on her body.”


Anyway, in the event of a hung parliament, which on Friday morning seems a likely outcome of this general election, David Cameron will no doubt go scuttling off to see Susan-Ann White’s fellow religious nut-jobs in the DUP about securing their support in a new right-wing coalition.  Yes, having such people in positions of power in an administration of the United Kingdom as a whole – now that’s a prospect far more depressing than the election itself.


A Ted talk


(c) Hat Trick Productions


One of the problems with growing older is that every time an anniversary – of something you love or that’s important to you – crops up, it affects you like a punch to the solar plexus.  “Jesus, is it really ten years since they released that album?”  “Bloody hell, no!  It can’t be 15 years since that movie came out!”  “What, 25 years ago that happened?  25 f**king years?  No!  Surely not!”  The result, once the initial wave of shock has passed, is that you spend five minutes studying your ravaged face in the mirror.  Then you spend the rest of the day in a daze, reliving fond – though now bitter-sweet – memories from long ago.


And the same thought keeps flashing inside your head: “Aw!  I was so young then!”


I had an experience like that recently when I read in the Guardian that this month is the 20th anniversary of the debut, on Channel 4, of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ much-loved situation comedy Father Ted.  Yes, that surreal and slapstick-ridden saga of three hapless priests and their demented housekeeper living on a remote Irish island is now two decades old.




The very first episode of Father Ted reached our TV screens in April 1995.  Which was the year of the Oklahoma Bombing, the Tokyo Subway gas attack and the Unabomber; of Jacques Chirac becoming French President, Nick Leeson bringing down Barings Bank and O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder; of the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, the feud between Blur and Oasis and the release of the world’s first full-length computer-animated feature film, Toy Story.  It was that long ago.  Now please excuse me while I go off and stare at myself in the mirror for five minutes.  Aw!  I was so young then…


Okay, five minutes have passed and I’m now back at my keyboard.  The thing with Father Ted is that the show feels like it’s never left us.  This is despite it running for just three series, plus a Christmas special, and notching up just 25 episodes.  Also, the fact that its third season would be its last was tragically underscored when the show’s star, Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack just 24 hours after the final episode had finished filming and two weeks before Channel 4 began to show the final season.  Thus, even before Father Ted had ended its TV run in 1998, fans were sadly aware that it was all over.


However, those 25 episodes have seemingly spent the last decade being broadcast on an endless loop on Channel 4’s digital / Freeview subsidiary More 4.  If you desperately need a Ted-fix, it seems to be there for you most evenings.  And every Christmas-time, Channel 4 still gives a prominent festive airing to the 1996 Christmas special, the one where Ted and gormless sidekick Father Dougal and half-a-dozen other priests get trapped inside the ladies’ lingerie section of a giant department store.  I suspect this is the only TV programme some people in Britain watch at Christmas-time.  These days, it’s the only thing I ever watch at Christmas-time.


So why was Father Ted so good?  There are many factors that can contribute to the success of a TV sitcom.  And if you wrote those factors down in a list and started ticking off the ones that apply to Father Ted, you’d probably find at the end that you’d ticked all of them.  For example…


(c) Hat Trick Productions


Being trapped

The clue is in the term itself: situation comedy.  The more limiting the situation the characters are in, the more they get on each other’s nerves and the more comedy is generated as a result.  See Slade Prison in Porridge (1974-1977) or the World War I trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).  Father Ted’s setting isn’t quite as claustrophobic as those.  But the Parochial House is pretty bad – with Dougal practising his relentless buffoonery, Father Jack sitting drinking and swearing in the corner and Mrs Doyle torturing her charges with endless cups of tea.  And the wider environment, Craggy Island, isn’t much better – it’s populated by misfits like Tom, the village idiot / truck driver / pest-control officer / armed bank robber, and John and Mary O’Leary, the shop-owning couple who when they aren’t grovelling to the priests are busy trying to murder each other.  The place is maddening for someone with Ted’s intelligence and aspirations.  Which leads neatly to…


Frustrated aspirations

Many great sitcoms have a lead character or characters who believe they’re capable of greater things but are continually thwarted by their circumstances and the less able souls around them.  Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (1962-1974) was forever trying to climb the social ladder but was held back (1) by his being a rag-and-bone man and (2) by his wheedling, devious and utterly exasperating old dad.  The elderly leads of Dad’s Army (1968-1977) were brave former soldiers desperate to do their bit for King and Country against Hitler, but because of their age and infirmities they had to make do with playing at being soldiers in the local Home Guard unit.


Ted’s aspirations aren’t complex.  He’s a regular bloke pining for money, comfort and an easy life (as in the episode Going to America) or for the love of a good, preferably beautiful and wealthy woman (as in the episode And God Created Woman).  Fulfilling those aspirations isn’t going to be easy, though, as Ted – despite his apparent disinterest in religion – has somehow ended up becoming a priest.  The fact that the community of priests that Ted belongs to consists mostly of idiots doesn’t help, either.


(c) Hat Trick Productions


Recognisable characters

Obviously, it helps a sitcom’s success if viewers can identify with its characters.  Ted is a recognisable everyman figure, but the show’s other characters – though drawn with hugely-broad brushstrokes – are hardly ones that people in Ireland, south or north of the border, are unfamiliar with.  You don’t have to wander far on the Emerald Isle before you encounter an amiable young dimwit like Dougal or a cantankerous old drunk like Jack.  As for Mrs Doyle, I seem to remember Northern Ireland being overrun with types like her in my childhood – ladies of a certain age, both Protestant and Catholic, who’d treat their guests to an almost psychotic level of hospitality.  If you set foot in their parlours and didn’t immediately consume a gallon of tea and several kilos of their best cakes, buns and biscuits, they’d take it as a mortal insult.


A family unit

Many successful sitcoms are about families.  Many others feature a set of characters who interact in family-like ways.  Their relationships are recognisably parent-child, brother-sister, husband-wife, etc.  Thus, in The Thick of It (2005-2012) we have an abusive father (Malcolm), a well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Nicola), a bratty child (Ollie) and a dotty uncle and aunt (Glen and Terri).  And the family dynamic doesn’t necessarily require the presence of both genders.  In the all-male Porridge, there’s an overbearingly strict father (MacKay) and another well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Barrowclough), plus two sons chaffing against their parents’ authority, the streetwise older brother (Fletcher) and the naïve kid brother (Godber).


Thus, in Father Ted, it isn’t difficult to see how Ted, Mrs Doyle, Jack and Dougal fill the roles of stressed-out dad, hectoring mum, sozzled old granddad and naïve young son.


(c) Hat Trick Productions



Some of the greatest sitcom characters, in Britain at least, are defined by their jobs – world’s worst hotelier (Basil Fawlty), world’s worst office manager (David Brent), world’s worst D.J. (Alan Partridge).  Meanwhile, sitcoms like The IT Crowd (2006-2013, written by Linehan) and Black Books (2000-2004, with both Linehan and Arthur Mathews contributing to the scripts) show the endless jealousies, rivalries and antagonisms that arise in a workplace.  These are invariably petty conflicts that outside observers, i.e. the sitcom audience, find both ridiculous and hilarious.  It’s a variation on the first item on this list, being trapped.  You don’t want to spend 40 or more hours every week with these losers and misfits around you.  But you signed the job contract and they’re your colleagues.  You have to.


Ted probably isn’t the world’s worst priest.  (That title may well belong to Dougal or Jack.)  He is, though, tortured by his work situation.  He has to deal with the army of oddballs who make up the local priesthood – bores (Father Paul Stone), annoyances (Father Noel Furlong), delinquents (Father Damo Lennon), bitter rivals (Father Dick Byrne) and utter sadists (Father Fintan Stack, the priest who plays his beloved jungle music really loud).  He also has to deal with the idiocies of the organisation that employs him – such as the All Priests Over-75s Five-a-Side Football Championship, the All Priests Stars in their Eyes Lookalike Competition or the church hotline that puts you on a hold while a real nun sings Ave Maria down the phone-line at you.


Lies that escalate

Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) mined comic gold from the deceptions of Basil Fawlty.  His attempts at, say, hiding a dead body from the hotel guests or hiding a pet rat from a hotel inspector would trigger chains of events where confusion escalated into embarrassment and then into disaster.  Similarly, Ted is forever trying to lie his way out of tricky situations.  How can he hide the fact that he’s just destroyed the car that was going to be the prize in the big fundraising raffle from his parishioners?  How can he hide the fact that the Parochial House is infested with rabbits from his bellicose superior, Bishop Brennan, who’s coming to visit and who coincidentally has a massive rabbit-phobia?  Predictably, each lie ends up causing him a hell of a lot more trouble than the trouble it was originally meant to avoid.


(c) Hat Trick Productions



It’s an easy route to comic success.  Load your comedy show with catch-phrases and hopefully the public will be shouting at least some of them on the street the next day.  It often works, though.  Look at how The Fast Show (1994-1997), The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) or Little Britain (2003-2006) quickly imprinted themselves on the national consciousness.  Father Ted, of course, is choc-a-bloc with them – Jack shouting, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!” or Mrs Doyle going, “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” or Bishop Brennan bellowing, “Crill-eee!”


Even one-off lines from individual episodes have passed into everyday usage – “Down with this sort of thing!” (from The Passion of Saint Tibulus) or “That would be an ecumenical matter!” (from Tentacles of Doom).  Indeed, just the other day, while I was having lunch with someone, I suddenly found myself intoning: “There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island.  And I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”  At which point my girlfriend told me not to order another pitcher of beer.


Of its time

Dad’s Army couldn’t have appeared at any period other than the 1960s / 1970s.  World War II still loomed large in many people’s memories but sufficient time had passed for its awfulness to feel less pronounced, so that it was the right moment for a sitcom making gentle humour out of it.  The Office (2001-2003) was perfect for the early noughties.  Tony Blair and the Nu-Labour government were at their peak and Britons were supposed to feel good about themselves – the economy was booming but everyone now inhabited a nicer, more civilised, more PC and touchy-feely environment.  But the suspicion – which the show confirmed – was that, under the surface, working practices were just as callous, exploitative and horrible as they’d been before.


Similarly, Father Ted couldn’t have arrived at any time other than the mid-1990s.  Ireland had become more cosmopolitan and streetwise and it now had the confidence to poke fun at its old stereotypes and clichés.  Sadly, this was also before the dark secrets of the Catholic Church came tumbling out of the closet.  Indeed, Linehan, interviewed two years ago in the Independent, said he wouldn’t have penned a series about loveable buffoonish priests if he’d known what he knows now about the industrial levels of child abuse perpetrated by his country’s clergy: “I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”




Come to think of it, modern-day Ireland would be a lot more at ease with its religious heritage if the Catholic Church had been staffed purely by the likes of Fathers Ted, Dougal, Jack, Dick Byrne, Noel Furlong, Fintan Stack and so on.


(c) Hat Trick Productions


Big man in a box


(c) BBC


Imagining Northern Ireland – where I spent my childhood – without the Reverend Ian Paisley is a bit like imagining South Africa without Nelson Mandela.  Note that I’m making this comparison not in terms of virtue, but in terms of presence.  Just as Mandela (even in prison) was a colossus in South African politics, so Paisley dominated Northern Irish politics for generations.  The difference, of course, is that a Mandela-less South Africa is an undeniably sadder, sorrier place.  A Paisley-less Northern Ireland?  Probably not.


For years and years, and decades and decades, Paisley — or ‘the Big Man’ as his supporters called him — was always there in Northern Ireland.  Whether you liked it or not, he was a basic fact of life.  His name cropped up regularly in conversations among family-members at the kitchen table, among neighbours in the shops and pubs and even among youngsters in the playground.  A day rarely passed when you didn’t see his mug on the telly, usually uttering the word ‘no’ in a variety of permutations: no to the reformist policies of Northern Irish Prime Minister Terence O’Neill in the 1960s, no to the power-sharing initiatives in the 1970s, no to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s and no to the Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s.


Alternatively, or simultaneously, he’d be castigating whoever or whatever had raised his ire at the time in extreme, often Biblical terms.  The multi-state EU, or the European Economic Community as it was in the 1970s, was actually the multi-headed beast forecast to rise out of the sea in the Book of Revelation.  Paisley’s antipathy to the EEC / EU didn’t stop him from becoming a Member of the European Parliament and drawing a hefty salary from Brussels.  The Pope was ‘the scarlet woman of Rome’ and ‘Christ’s enemy and Antichrist’.  I never had much time for the ultra-conservative Pope John Paul II, but I like how, while he was visiting Scotland in 1982 and trundling along in his Pope-mobile, he noticed Paisley and some placard-waving followers protesting against the papal visit at a street-corner, smiled beatifically and blessed the old bugger.


The Roman Catholic Church generally was the ‘seed of the serpent’, reeking of ‘the brimstone of the pit’ and acting as ‘the parrot of Beelzebub’.  Homosexuals were so unspeakable that in 1977 he launched a campaign called Save Ulster from Sodomy.  Margaret Thatcher, once she’d put her signature to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, was a ‘jezebel’ – I find that insult quite funny, actually.  Moderate (relatively speaking) Protestant / Unionist leader David Trimble, who got up onstage at a U2 concert in Belfast and posed with Bono and Catholic leader John Hume in support of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, had ‘rock and rolled with Satan’.  Alcohol was ‘John Barleycorn and the devil’s buttermilk’.  Dancing was ‘an incitement to lust’, with ‘sexual gestures and touching’.  And so on and so forth.


If you were a Northern Irish Protestant between the 1960s and the 1990s, Ian Paisley was a PR disaster.  A few others were visible in the media, like actor James Ellis and the BBC’s political editor John Cole, but if you asked most people in ‘mainland’ Britain to name an Ulster Prod, in 99 cases out of 100 ‘Paisley’ was the first thing you’d hear in reply.  Therefore, when you were introduced to somebody at a party and you identified yourself as being one, you’d spend the remainder of the evening wondering if your new acquaintance viewed you as a loud, blustering religious bigot.


Indeed, comedian Harry Enfield once performed a sketch in which a Paisley-like character called ‘William Ulsterman’ attends a party and starts bellowing at the hostess.  “I have made a legitimate and peaceful request for cheddar cheese and pineapple on a stick!” he roars when she offers him a quiche slice.  After she apologises, he rants, “I totally and utterly reject your expressions of sorrow!  Let nobody be in any doubt these are crocodile tears ye are crying!  For hundreds of years my community has enjoyed cheddar cheese and pineapple on a stick and today ye have been seen to trample our demands contemptuously into the mud!  Ye vile hag, ye shall be judged unreasonable!”


It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Paisley’s influence was finally on the wane and when younger and more normal-seeming folk with Northern Irish accents were starting to appear on TV, like actors James Nesbitt and Adrian Dunbar, that it became slightly cooler to be an Ulster Prod.  Fascinatingly, when there was talk a few years ago about a film being made of Paisley’s life, it was actually a Catholic actor, Liam Neeson, who was suggested for the lead role.  Neeson understandably didn’t seem too keen on the idea; though if the project had gone ahead with him on board, he’d have been in the unique position of having played both Ian Paisley and Michael Collins.


Yesterday, at the age of 88, Paisley finally departed for the great pulpit in the sky – although a lot of people are of the opinion that he’s actually gone to a different place.  (I noticed one person on an online comment-thread express the hope that he’s currently getting ‘a red-hot poker rammed up his arse’.)  When you write about the just-deceased, it’s customary to say a few positive things about him or her, though I have to admit it’s not easy in this case.  Oh well.  I’ll have a go.


Over the years, different people have told me that, as a member of the British and European parliaments, he was assiduous in looking after his constituents, whether they were Protestant or Catholic.  Supposedly, he took good care of the economically-fragile Catholic communities that he represented, such as the inhabitants of Rathlin Island and the eel fishermen living beside Lough Neagh.  I suppose from this you could argue that he did, quietly, regard Roman Catholics as human beings and what he said publicly about Popery and the Harlot of Rome was just the stuff of knockabout street politics.  Though it was knockabout indeed if you were a Catholic and ended up on the receiving end of mob-violence incited by his rhetoric.


And finally in 2007, of course, he did do the unthinkable and sit down with Sinn Fein and agree to a deal that saw him become Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Sinn Fein politician and ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness become his deputy – thus helping to ensure a more peaceful and stable Northern Ireland where the Troubles, hopefully, were a thing of the past.  Only the previous year, he’d said of Sinn Fein: “(they) are not fit to be in partnership with decent people.  They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.”  Though many would argue that as Paisley didn’t qualify as a decent person, he could go into partnership with Sinn Fein without contradicting himself.


Paisley won praise for this compromise, although it’s worth remembering that already he’d destroyed David Trimble as a political force by opposing power-sharing and denouncing him as a sell-out and traitor.  Once Trimble was out of the way and Paisley was established as the indisputable and unrivalled political leader of Northern Irish Protestantism, he then performed a U-turn, climbed into bed with McGuiness and co., and enjoyed all the prestige and perks of being First Minister.


I suppose one more thing we should thank Paisley for were his services to comedy.  For many years he was an absolute gift to comedians, satirists, gag-writers and cartoonists – not only just Harry Enfield, but also Dave Allen, Phil Cool, Mark Thomas, Spitting Image and so on.  I must have heard a thousand Paisley jokes over the years, although my favourite one is short and simple: “Ian Paisley has been injured in a traffic accident.  His car crashed into a tree.  The IRA say they planted it.”


Once he’d settled into that cosy, if unlikely, partnership with Martin McGuiness, the laughs at his expense inevitably grew louder.  Paisley and McGuinness became known in Northern Ireland as ‘the Chuckle Brothers’, after the bumbling, slapstick-comedy duo on British children’s TV played by Barry and Paul Elliot.  Mind you, when I see pictures of Paisley and McGuiness together, it’s a different comedy double-act I think of:


(c) Newsletter

(c) ITC / Henson Associates


So that’s him gone.  It sometimes doesn’t feel like Northern Ireland has arrived in the 21st century yet; but perhaps, with the passing of the most formidable and vocal member of the political / religious old guard, we can now make some progress from where we left off in the 20th.


James Ellis: 1931 – 2014


(c) BBC


I was sad to hear about the passing of Belfast actor James Ellis the other week.  When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Ellis’s accent seemed to be the only sane Northern Irish accent that was broadcast regularly on UK-wide television.  You heard plenty of Northern Irish voices on the BBC and ITV news thanks to the madness that was going on in the province at the time, but they usually belonged to nut-job politicians, nut-job preachers or nut-job terrorists.  On the other hand, Ellis, who played policeman Bert Lynch in countless episodes of the BBC’s long-running series Z-Cars, was a welcome reminder that most Northern Irish folk were ordinary, decent citizens just trying to get on with things like anyone else.


Ellis had acted since the early 1950s, first with the Ulster Theatre Group, where his duties included managing the group’s summer theatre in the port-town of Larne, north of Belfast.  The Troubles were not to ignite in Northern Ireland until the end of the following decade, but the atmosphere there was still uptight and sensibilities were easily offended.  For instance, Ellis had a small role in a 1958 production of Gerard McLarnan’s play The Bonefire, which was a tale of a mixed Catholic / Protestant couple who try to commit suicide in an unusual and symbolic way – using a Twelfth-of-July bonfire as their mode of departure.  It was enough to cause demonstrations outside the theatre.


Later, when Ellis tried to stage Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge, which was about a sectarian dispute in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, he discovered that the Ulster Theatre Group were unwilling to back him.  The group’s board of directors told the Belfast Telegraph that the play “was full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public.”  Ellis and other actors left the group, formed their own company and put the play on anyway.  During a six-week run in Belfast it attracted 42,000 paying punters and it later played in Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London.


By 1961 Ellis had moved to England and was making television appearances.  In 1962 he found his way into the cast of a new BBC police series, Z-Cars, which was instrumental in moving British TV’s portrayal of coppers away from the saintly, idealised figures featured in the likes of 1950s shows like Dixon of Dock Green and presenting the force in a grittier, warts-and-all manner, more like the police-procedure dramas of today.  The show was massively successful and remained on the airwaves until the late 1970s.


Many of the actors who appeared in Z-Cars during its initial years became big names because of it – Stratford Johns, Frank Windsor, Colin Welland and a relatively quiet but still sonorous Brian Blessed – although Ellis was the only one who stayed with the series until the very end, his Lynch character maturing from a young, excitable and smart-Alec Irish constable into an older, wiser and avuncular inspector.  (Johns and Windsor, playing the impeccably worldly-wise detectives Barlow and Watt, did appear in a couple of spin-off shows, including an oddball docu-drama in 1973 in which their Z-Cars characters investigated the Jack-the-Ripper killings a century earlier.)


Post Z-Cars, Ellis’s most famous acting assignment was probably playing Norman Martin in a trilogy of plays shown as part of the BBC’s drama-anthology series Play for Today and scripted by Northern Irish writer Graham Reid: Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983) and A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984).  The working-class Belfast Protestant family of which Ellis – now visibly older and bulkier than in his Z-Cars days – is the patriarch does not have its troubles to seek.  There’s the ongoing unrest of Northern Ireland’s political and security situation rumbling in the background, of course, but the main threats to the Martins’ well-being are internal ones.  In the first play Ellis’s wife is dying in hospital, Ellis himself is a bullying, violent and drunken boor, and the two eldest children – the titular Billy and his sister Lorna – are struggling to hold the family together.


The first instalment, Too Late to Talk to Billy, was grim and unflinching by the standards of the time, thanks mostly to the physical and emotional violence emanating from Ellis’s hard-man character.  However, later in the trilogy, Ellis mellows as he leaves his family in Belfast, travels to England to find work, falls under the spell of a fussy middle-class Englishwoman and gets ‘tamed’ by her.  Billy, on the other hand, seems to go the other way.  By the time Reid got around to writing a postscript to the trilogy in 1987, simply entitled Lorna, it’d become clear that the quiet, plain and hard-working eldest daughter of the family is the truly heroic one.  Meanwhile, Billy is showing signs of becoming a knob-end as bad as his father at his worst.


Playing Billy, incidentally, was an unknown young actor called Kenneth Brannagh.  Yes, the man who’d later be hailed by the London press as the Great White Hope of English theatre, and who later still would direct the likes of Sleuth (2007) and Thor (2011), is actually Northern Irish – although his family moved from Belfast to England when he was nine and he quickly anglicised his voice to avoid getting bullied at school.  But he managed to put the old brogue back on for the Billy plays.


(c) BBC


On TV, for a long time, James Ellis was the go-to man if you needed a big hearty Irishman in your show.  Accordingly, he turned up in Only Fools and Horses, In Sickness and in Health, Bird of a Feather, The Bill (a show that obviously owed a big debt to Z-Cars), Boon, Lovejoy, Doctor Who, Casualty, Heartbeat and, inevitably, Ballykissangel.  In the early 1990s, he also appeared in Channel 4’s admirably bizarre late-evening sitcom Nightingales, alongside Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall.


In addition, Ellis appeared in the very occasional film.  I notice that according to his IMBb profile he had a bit-part in Stuart Gordon’s gory zombie horror-comedy Re-Animator (1985), although I suspect that’s an error.  Surely it was a bit-part American actor also called James Ellis who was in the Re-Animator cast.  But maybe I should watch the movie again and check.


The James Ellis was definitely in the same year’s No Surrender, scripted by Liverpudlian writer Alan Bleasdale and set in the antagonistic world of Liverpool’s Protestant-Irish and Catholic-Irish diasporas.  We see Ellis at the very beginning of the film, playing a blind man who gets mugged in a city underpass – well, two youths attempt to mug him but Ellis’s character, who was once a professional boxer and still has formidable fighting skills even though he can no longer see, manages to beat the crap of them.  That sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is a comedy that’s as black as coal.


(c) Palace Pictures


No Surrender charts the events of a single, chaotic evening in the life of its hero, played by Michael Angelis.  He’s just taken on a new job as a nightclub manager, not knowing that (a) the club is run by gangsters, and (b) the previous manager has decided to show the middle-finger at those gangsters by making Angelis’s first night on the job as difficult as possible.  Angelis’s predecessor, it transpires, has done some creative double and triple-booking.  He’s booked in parties from the city’s Irish-Protestant Orange Lodge and from its Irish-Catholic Hibernian Club, who hate each other to the point of violence, and to top it all he’s also booked in a group of patients on an outing from a psychiatric hospital.


Meanwhile, for the evening’s entertainment, he’s lined up a manically depressed magician (played by Elvis Costello), whose white rabbit has just died, and a stupendously bad punk band whose leader, if memory serves me correctly, is played by one of Merseyside’s many McGann brothers.  Even worse, Angelis discovers, the club’s owners have found out what the previous manager was up to and are now busy torturing him in a back-room on the premises.  Joanne Whalley is also involved in the shenanigans – her presence there, in fact, is the only piece of luck that Angelis has all night.


Ellis appears among a lovely ensemble of veteran Irish actors, including Ray McAnally, J.D. Devlin (who’d been a member of the Ulster Theatre Group too) and Mark Mulholland (who’d appeared in the Billy trilogy as an ailing, slobbish and irascible uncle that – just to add to their woes – the Martin family get lumbered with).  Ellis’s character, though, spends most of the film in an amusing double-act with the character actor Michael Ripper, who during the 1950s and 1960s had appeared in countless Hammer horror films in small roles as innkeepers, poachers, man-servants and grave-robbers.


No Surrender is all but forgotten today, partly due to the fact that the sectarian culture it portrayed is less prominent now, in English cities at least, and partly due to the fact that many people found its tone unpalatable.  But if you’re familiar with a world where the question ‘What school did you go to?’ is intended not to determine your social class but to determine your religion, and if you like your humour dark, No Surrender is worth tracking down.


In recent years, ill-health meant that Ellis was sadly absent from Britain’s TV screens.  However, he definitely deserves his place in the annals of Irish acting.  Nowadays – in this, the era of Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, John Lynch, Michael Smiley, Ciaran Hines, Adrian Dunbar and James Nesbitt (an actor whose career seems to oscillate between being Bofur the Dwarf in The Hobbit movies and being annoying in various Yellow Pages and Thomas Cook advertisements) – it feels like you can’t sit down and watch a movie or TV series without being immediately hit by a Northern Irish accent.  But James Ellis was the man who blazed the trail.  In fact, during the grim days of the 1970s, he sometimes seemed to be the only positive advertisement there was for Northern Ireland.


DUP – Determined to be Upset Party


(c) Reduced Shakespeare Company


A comedian – it may have been the great Dave Allen, about whom I wrote a few entries ago – once told a joke about somebody dying and going to heaven, where he was shown around by St Peter.  Passing through the heavenly throngs, St Peter pointed out a group of people who were Jews, a group who were Hindus, and also Buddhists, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc.  Then the newcomer saw a high wall and asked what was on its other side.


“The Roman Catholics,” explained St Peter.  “It’s so they think they have the place to themselves.”


I hope that if heaven exists, God has also seen fit to build a smaller enclosure to house the members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, which was founded by and had as its moderator for 57 years one Reverend Ian Richard Kyle Paisley – so that they think they have the place to themselves too.  Otherwise, folk in heaven might have to spend all eternity listening to Paisley raging about them letting in ‘heathens’, ‘pagans’ and ‘idolatrous’ Catholics.  Folk in Northern Ireland, after all, have had to listen to Paisley fulminating for most of his 87 (and counting) years against this, that and everything else, and that’s been painful enough.


This week the Reduced Shakespeare Company was supposed to stage two performances of its play The Bible: the Complete Word of God (Abridged) at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland.  Now, however, the Newtownabbey performances of the play, which reviewers have described as being a bit silly but certainly not blasphemous and which hasn’t attracted a single complaint at any of the other 42 venues on its current UK tour, have been cancelled.  This was thanks to pressure put on the local borough council’s artistic board by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – another prominent body in Northern Ireland set up by Paisley.  Indeed, it shares much of its membership with the Free Presbyterian Church.  The Belfast Telegraph reported the cancellation with the headline BIBLE SPOOF PLAY BAN MAKES NORTHERN IRELAND A LAUGHING STOCK.  That’s a pretty international laughing stock, by the way.  The ban has been reported in journals as distant as the New York Times.


It’s depressing but I suppose it isn’t surprising.  The DUP / Free Presbyterians in Northern Ireland have always been quick to mobilise, rush out, picket and shout down anything that offends their pronounced senses of morality and holiness.  In the mid-1970s, I remember seeing crowds of them on the TV news demonstrating outside a Belfast theatre that’d dared to mount a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the satanic musical show that’d been authored by the Antichrist himself, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Then in 1982 somebody tried to open an Amsterdam-style sex shop in Belfast, which had them protesting on the streets again.  (I suppose to the DUP / Free Presbyterian mind-set, Holland hasn’t exported anything of value since King William of Orange in the late 17th century.)  That year, incidentally, saw approximately 110 people die because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  No wonder at the time of the sex shop furore someone wrote to one of the local newspapers and politely inquired what the problem was with people wanting to ‘make love, not war.’


In the Bible Jesus famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8:7).  So I assume those DUP members who’ve cast metaphorical stones at musicals, sex-shops and satirical plays over the years, being well-versed in the teachings of their Saviour, are devoid of sin themselves.  That presumably includes the party’s leader, the Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson.  That presumably also includes Robinson’s wife Iris, who has served as a DUP councillor, a DUP mayor and, from 1998 to 2009, a DUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  In fact, Iris Robinson has declared that “the government has the responsibility to uphold God’s laws,” and has been quick to condemn unbiblical activities such as homosexuality.


Oddly though, Iris’s own holiness wasn’t enough to prevent her, back in 2008 when she was in her late-fifties, getting embroiled in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old youth and in a financial scandal.  This was an unwise move for a member of an organisation as sanctimonious as the DUP, and indeed the laughing stock it made of the DUP at the time was 100 times greater than the laughing stock that its members made of Northern Ireland last week with the Reduced Shakespeare Company farrago.


Of course, having an extra-marital affair with a man 40 years her junior was also an unwise move for someone whose title happened to be ‘Mrs’ and whose surname happened to be ‘Robinson’.  And now here’s a totally unrelated youtube video.