Saturday, March 09, 2013

March 9, 2013, column:
Irish 'Mayberry' offers laughs, reflection

The stars of Irish TV series “Ballykissangel” included, front row: Stephen Tomkinson, playing Father Peter Clifford, Dervla Kirwan (Assumpta Fitzgerald), Tony Doyle (Brian Quigley), Tina Kellegher (Niamh Quigley) and, back row: Peter Hanly (Ambrose Egan) and Niall Toibin (Father Frank MacAnally). The series is available on DVD and online. (BBC Photo)

By Mike Haynes
            Kathy and I were 15 years behind, but when we stumbled upon “Ballykissangel” a few weeks ago, we were hooked like sheep on clover.
            It’s a TV show, produced in Ireland, that aired in Great Britain from 1996 to 2001 and was shown on some PBS stations. Only the first season ran in Amarillo, in 1998 and 1999, according to KACV-TV program director Jackie Smith.
            But what a show. Father Peter Clifford, a Catholic priest about 30 years old, is sent from his home of Manchester, England, to the village of Ballykissangel, Ireland, and the first person he meets is a young woman in her mid-20s who runs the local pub.
            The show combines comedy and drama and bits of irony, starting with the initial conversation between Father Peter and that woman, Assumpta Fitzgerald. Despite her given name that refers to the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven,” Assumpta is hostile to religion, especially the Catholic variety. She gives the new priest a ride, and he humbly says, “Don’t let me take you out of your way.” Her caustic reply: “We’re used to carrying the clergy.”
Despite her attitude and the harsh treatment Father Peter receives from his boss, Father MacAnally, “Ballykissangel” doesn’t mock Christianity. As the main character, Peter soon shows his compassion for people, whether they attend Mass or not. He is a caring counselor, both in the confession booth and in the pub. He joins village life, filling in as a goalie for the town team and cooking for a Chinese food competition.
One reason I love it is the similarity to “The Andy Griffith Show” – with some touches of “Cheers.” The acting ensemble includes Ambrose, the local policeman who isn’t quite as clueless as Barney, and the regulars at the pub: a teacher, a mechanic, an old farmer, the doctor, two handymen and a female veterinarian.
Its last episode was new a dozen years ago, but I write about it because it still is readily available on DVD and in online instant video form. “Ballykissangel” ran for six seasons, but Kathy and I have stopped after Season 3 because Stephen Tompkinson, who played Peter, and Dervla Kirwan, who played Assumpta, left the show. I’m afraid going beyond that would be like watching “Mayberry RFD,” which included secondary characters but no Andy Griffith or Don Knotts.
Those seasons provide plenty of laughs, tears and situations that turn your thoughts to God. A man reveals to Father Peter that years ago, he helped his terminally ill wife commit suicide. Ambrose’s girlfriend, Niamh, wants them to live together to be sure they’re compatible, but he resists, knowing that would be a sin.
The comedy often is provided by village businessman Brian Quigley, who always has a moneymaking scheme going but also does things like donating to the parish a modern confessional booth that includes a fax machine.

 Like Mayberry, Ballykissangel is a fictional place where life is simpler. It’s a place of escape but also raises complicated issues. It has joy and tragedy. It treats religion seriously. Most of the villagers are devoted Catholics, but there are clashes between Father Mac’s legalism and Father Peter’s more flexible approach to his flock. Many scenes are in Assumpta’s pub, where she might let loose a bitter barb about hypocrisy. She doesn’t believe in the last rites that Peter gives to an old mountain man, but her face softens when the priest says, “It makes a difference to his wife.”
I admit that I get immersed in stories easily, but this series moved me enough that I hope you will go out of your way to watch it. Or at least ponder what Father Peter says in an emotional episode:
“The words don’t matter. It’s what we do – and how we look after one another.” 
The stars of Irish TV series “Ballykissangel” included Dervla Kirwan, left, playing Assumpta Fitzgerald, Tony Doyle (Brian Quigley), Stephen Tompkinson (Father Peter Clifford) and Tina Kellegher (Niamh Quigley). The series is available on DVD and online. (BBC Photo)