By Fred Tuite
This week, The Kilkenny Observer Newspaper caught up with Kilkenny resident Fred Tuite as he reminisced about the late writer and actor Dermot Morgan.
In October 1972, I returned for my second year to UCD to find the Belfield Arts Block filled with new first year students trying to find their way about. Making my way through this excited crowd, I met a friend coming the other way. “Come with me” she said. And so, I followed her into Theatre L, that huge amphitheatre lecture hall crowded with expectant first year students for their first lecture in English.
The lecturer, a lanky figure with a shock of black hair, in priestly garb, came and took his place on the podium. A hush descended on the packed hall.
“Good morning students, I’m Father Michael Paul Gallagher and these lectures will be on Practical Criticism”.
“But that’s not Michael Paul Gallagher!” I whispered to my companion.
She put her finger to her lips and motioned for me to listen on.
“Ah yes,” he continued, “Practical Criticism. I recall a student who went to Professor Donohue saying, ‘I have Practically Criticised this poem’. ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘practically, but not quite’. But at the end of this course, you will gain new insights into poetry, new visions and understanding.
You will look at a poem like “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, All the Kings Horses and All the King’s Men, couldn’t put Humpty together again”, and you will see this not as a nursery rhyme but as an existentialist exploration of the situation of modern man fallen from grace and searching for meaning in an absurd world…”
Will the real Fr. Michael please stand up.
“Who are you?” said a bearded clerical figure who’d now arrived at the podium.
“I’m Father Michael Paul Gallagher” the lecturer replied.
“No, I’m Father Michael Paul Gallagher!”
“Right, sorry!” the imposter cried, and off he ran to the cheers and groans of the first-year students.
We caught up with him outside. He was flushed and excited from his act and keen to know how we thought it had gone. This was my first encounter with Dermot Morgan, second year student and all-round funny guy. We became good friends, and as we were both doing English, we saw a lot of each other. I was thoroughly entertained by him on every meeting, for he never stopped performing whether on stage or with company. His energy was manic and his comments hilarious and apt. He was liable to turn up anywhere and everywhere, in the guise of his latest character. He even showed up at the Tramps’ Ball in the Restaurant Building fronting a band called Big Gom and the Imbeciles. But he had to give up that act, he told me, as people were taking it too seriously and missing the satire, wanting to book the group for dances, while all he wanted to do was poke fun at the country music scene with songs like “Castleblaney Blues”, “I walk Blacklion” or “Be nobody’s darling but wine”
After college we drifted apart, but I followed his comedy career through his letters to the early morning Mike Murphy radio show, and on to “The Live Mike” on television –where Father Brian Trendy, his next priestly incarnation, appeared.
This was an altogether smoother priestly character, well-groomed in his leather jacket smiling at the camera as he gave us his little bit of religion. He advised us to be like the Irish soccer team and “Pick Devine”, or act as a fishing rod for God to catch a sole and fillet with love.
But again, there was the danger that his bite-sized pieces of religion were taken for real and my mother, for one, loved his little sermons.
A bit of a Charlie
His next incarnation was as the growling, irritated voice of Charley Haughey in his own radio show Scrap Saturday, with Gerry Stembridge. This was full of cutting impersonation and biting political satire that to me represents the height of his career. Maybe it was too close to the bone as after a few seasons Scrap Saturday was scrapped.
He went on to play his third and most famous priestly role, Father Ted, and gain international fame. Father Ted Crilly dreams of bigger things then the dead-end wilderness of Craggy Island, a parish to match his abilities, recognition, fame and fortune. But everywhere his projects crumble under the reality of the people he is surrounded with. It was a wonderful farce, extremely well written and well-acted by a fantastic cast. But I kept thinking that for all its quality Dermot Morgan has so much comic ability underused in the series.
The last time I met him was in Kilkenny when he was on a solo tour called Black Magic. He’d been in the news recently having appeared in court and been fined for speeding through Mountrath in County Laois. His comment to the audience on this was as acerbic as ever.
“Did you ever see Mountrath?” he thundered, “Fifty miles is too bloody slow to go through the place!”
We met and talked after the show, but he had to return to Dublin early and promised a real UCD reunion at a future time.
Died at the height of his fame
That reunion never happened, and he died at the height of his fame playing the vainglorious Fr. Ted. He never lost the manic energy and enthusiasm he showed in Belfield, where he constantly had us all in fits of laughter with his antics. While the world got to know and love him as the farcical Fr. Ted, it was in UCD in front of those bemused and bewildered first years that he played the first of those oddball priests that were to bring him so much fame.
Fred Tuite is a retired Guidance Counsellor living in Kilkenny. Along with some private work he edits the Guidance Counsellors’ journal Guideline and is very involved in the Alliance Française in Kilkenny. This text was broadcast on RTE Sunday Miscellany on Sunday 25th October 2023.