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Thursday 14 December 2017

My craggy Island Odyssey

The rickety sign that greets arrivals at the tiny Inis Mor airport reads "Failte go dti Craggy Island". It doesn't look out of place amid the barren Aran Island's landscape. Actually, it seems strangely fitting.

I've arrived on the island alongside 250- or-so revellers for the fourth TedFest, a fan convention that celebrates the much-loved Channel 4 programme Father Ted.

The island becomes a homage to the fictional Craggy Island for the three-day event and the festival-goers complete the grand masquerade by donning all manner of ecclesiastical attire.

This isn't so much a festival but a surreal journey into the heart of the cult comedy programme. The last episode of Father Ted may have been made more than a decade ago, but the fans' appetite for the programme has not been quelled.

Nun and priest costumes prove the most popular, closely followed by the anachronistic 'I Shot JR' T-shirt worn by local lunatic, Tom, as played by Pat Shortt. There's a gaggle of Mrs Doyles and a handful of men in drag.

Sisters Nora and Gina Costigan from Dublin have come to the island with both day and evening wear. On Saturday they changed out of their nuns' habits and into matching Ziggy Stardust costumes (inspired by the Competiton Time episode). Mita Ghosh from Toronto didn't bring a costume, but was wowed by the effort put in by fellow revellers.

According to one of the organisers, a previous festival saw a man wearing a Spiderman costume and a nappy (a Spiderbaby, you see). The festival-goers are young and old, Irish and international. The only universal characteristic is that they are all craic merchants. This is a festival by headbangers, for headbangers.

Inis Mor's amenities have been given an overhaul too. Watty's Pub is The Parochial House; the local cinema boasts a screening of The Passion of St Tibulus, complete with 'down with this sort of thing' and 'careful now' placard-carrying campaigners outside. The community centre has become the throbbing late-night entertainment centre on the Ireland, aka Shebango's nightclub. An 80s-inspired cartoon of a sassy young woman with the words 'how's she cuttin'? greets guests on arrival.

It's a celebration of utter inanity and, after just a few hours on the island, reality and unreality begin to blur into one.

Tedfest is the brainchild of TV producer and events organiser, Peter Philips. The curiously chilled Welshman has a taste for the bizarre and a brain for business. He also runs an Elvis festival, a Priscilla, Queen of the Desert drag-queen festival and he'll soon roll out Ireland's first rockabilly festival.

"Don't tell my mum that," he laughs. "She thinks I'm a chartered accountant."

TedFest is both a tribute to the original series and a continuation of the outlandishness that Father Ted's makers made their own. The programme looks as if it was devised through the medium of LSD.



angel

A group of people have decided to parade a 10-foot fibreglass Mrs Doyle angel around the island on a milk float that doesn't work.

There's a game of Hide a Nun and Seek on the beach; a Priest v Nuns beach volleyball challenge and, new to the line-up, a Bicycle Ride to Chinatown (or rather, the foot of Dun Aengus) in homage to the Yin family in the original series.

Philips managed to convince a radio journalist who interviewed him ahead of the festival that an entire Chinese community lived on the island. During a previous TedFest, the owner of Watty's Pub gave an interview to Sky News in which he claimed to be a local priest. He expressed outrage at tourists convening on the island like "a swarm of locusts" and his mock diatribe was aired on the news channel.

If anything, the locals -- all 800 of them -- make the festival. The bed and breakfast owners leave their doors open and their house rules to the side for the weekend. Hotels become late-night watering holes. Keith Madigan, owner of the Aran Islands Hotel, says he prefers to think of his hotel as a pub with 22 rooms rather than a hotel with a pub.

"You're in room 100," he tells us upon check-in. "It's upstairs somewhere. Sure, have a wander around and you'll find it," he concludes, before hightailing it back to the bar in a fit of laughter.

I was beckoned into the cinema late on Saturday night where its owner was pumping out ska music while he painted murals for the next day's events. His dancing partner was his dog, a huge white Samoyed who was up on his hind legs alongside him.

The same dog came to the nightclub the previous night dressed in a 'that would be an ecumenical matter' logo T-shirt. You couldn't make it up. "On Friday, the festival has the atmosphere of a fancy-dress party," laughs Philips, "but by Saturday afternoon it has become normal."

"It makes no sense at all," agrees Rob Morgan, son of the late Dermot, who has been involved with the festival since 2008.

"On Thursday, a Swedish tourist found himself in Watty's Pub where there was an actual wake for an islander and the first event of the festival.

"The poor fella now thinks Irish funeral tradition involves getting s**tfaced and playing Buckaroo with a load of people dressed up as nuns and priests!"

The festival unintentionally dovetails with the anniversary of the death of its lead actor, Dermot Morgan. His son considers it a fitting tribute.

"Sunday was his 12th anniversary," explains Rob. "I'd rather be here seeing everyone enjoying the festival than sitting at home and mourning and feeling sorry for myself." Morgan judged Saturday night's Lovely Couple contest, the prize for which was a wedding the next day. Only the winning couple scarpered and a reserve pair had to be pulled out of the pub at short notice. The ceremony was overseen by an actual Celtic monk and priest, Dara Molloy, who lives on the island.



charity

The next fixture was the much-anticipated Lovely Girls, which had a field of five genteel young ladies -- myself among them. After a forage through Oxfam and Saint Vincent de Paul charity shops, I pulled together a suitably hideous outfit. A baker in Galway made me a priest gingerbread man to impress the judges. Lovely Girls are expected to be just that.

"If I was to visit you at home, what meal would you prepare and how would you entertain me?"

"You can't beat a traditional roast. Then, we'd listen to 41 Christian Classics by Panpipe and I'd show you examples of my needlework."

"If you were an alcoholic drink, what kind would you be and why?"

"A West Coast Cooler: sweet, inoffensive and the type of drink you'd never take to a party."

"Have you got a performance piece?" asked the presenter bedecked in a priest costume and purple lame jacket.

"I don't," I gasped. What I did have was five minutes to come up with something suitable. I plumped for the indignity of an Irish jig, using a sweeping brush as a prop.

"Housework can be very boring for men to watch, so I like to make it interesting," I trilled. The photos later revealed that the frenetic dance routine caused the bustier of my dress to slip down to modesty-defying lows.

The judges later revealed that I lost points due to my revealing dress. "Just remember, it's a Lovely Girls contest, not Ladies' Day at Ascot," Philips chided.

And so, despite my gracefully executed walk through the traffic cones (the first challenge for any aspiring Lovely Girl), I was out of the competition.



laugh

The final two battled it out with a 'Loveliest Laugh' contest which went to the girl who could emit the most gentle of tinkles.

As for advice for the next batch of Lovely Girls? "Just be lovely. Think lovely," says Philips. "One Lovely Girl did a far too raunchy dance around the traffic cones. It was more like the loveliest pole dance."

"More is more," weighs in Morgan. "The gamey ones don't win it -- they need to learn that. Trying to be sassy, sexy and saucy for the judges doesn't cut it."

The next Lovely Girls competition takes place this weekend on the island of Inis Oirr. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the event -- and the canvassing of Inis Oirr locals who consider their island to be the real ancestral home of the programme -- the TedFest is going island-hopping. Let the madness begin.

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