Graham Linehan on his DVD commentary on the first episode says that Father Ted was a character Arthur Mathews came up with and who was played by third member of the group Paul Woodfull when they did standup gigs in Ireland, playing as a band, The Joshua Trio. Morgan was picked for the role because he had previously played a priest in standup. As "Father Trendy", Linehan appeared in the first episode of Father Ted wearing a red jacket and a white "bobble" hat.
The series was responsible for propelling a number of highly successful actors and comedians into the limelight, including Ardal O'Hanlon, Pauline McLynn, Graham Norton, Tommy Tiernan, Patrick McDonnell, Don Wycherley, Joe Rooney, Jason Byrne, Pat Shortt, Ed Byrne and Brendan Grace. Dermot Morgan, who played the title role, died in 1998, aged 45, from a heart attack he suffered during a celebratory party the day after filming the final episode.
The three priests answer to the fierce, uncompromising Bishop Len Brennan, who makes frequent visits to the island, often to cast his disapproving eye over the trio and their backwater parish. He is apparently responsible for their exile to the less-than-desirable island parish - the reasons for the move are hinted at across the several seasons. They appear to stem from a mixture of incompetence and embarrassing conduct: Father McGuire due to his incompetence (with particular regard to "the Blackrock Incident", in which a large number of lives were irreparably damaged although they were "only nuns"); Father Hackett because of his alcoholism and implied womanising, which caused severe embarrassment to the Catholic Church; and Father Crilly for alleged financial impropriety. Ted still insists he was innocent, regularly claiming that "the money was just resting in my account", and that it was "a perfectly legitimate monetary transfer".
The show also introduced many catchphrases that are well known in Ireland and Britain, most notably Mrs Doyle's "Go on, go on" and Father Jack's cursing, mostly monosyllabic expletives including and almost entirely limited to "Drink!", "Feck!", "Arse!", "Girls!" and "Gobshite!".
Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan) is the most normal of the priests on the island, although he still finds himself in very confusing situations. He is a bon vivant, exiled to Craggy Island for something referred to only as "that Lourdes thing." - an apparent misappropriation of church funds which had been intended to fund a poor child's pilgrimage to Lourdes, which Ted allegedly spent as part of a Las Vegas gambling spree. Ted's defense has always been that the money was "just resting in my account." Ted was previously a priest in Wexford, which is also the home town of the series director, Declan Lowney. His greatest desire is to escape Craggy Island and to find a wealthy parish and a life free of embarrassment, although he is also shown to be as easily seduced by fame as by money.
Ted is the devious schemer of the series and most of the plots are driven by some plan or other that Ted, a fantastic liar, has hatched to either extricate himself from a bad situation or escape Craggy Island for fame and fortune. Often the pursuit of these schemes necessitate Ted hiding from or separating himself from the company of Mrs Doyle, Father Dougal or some other character on flimsy pretexts such as "I think actually I'll just stay here and have a quiet pray". Father Dougal has been shown to be suspicious of Father Ted when he says this though. In one episode when Father Ted tells him that he is going to have a quiet pray, Dougal looks at him and says in a good-humoured way: "What are you after Ted?". Father Ted looks surprised and replies that he is not up to anything, and that it is "not unusual for members of the clergy to sit and pray from time to time." Indeed the more devious Ted is being, the more likely he is to say something about prayer or wanting to pray. He frequently justifies his intended sins and schemes to Father Dougal. For example saying that by committing a small sin they are preventing a big sin. Ted is probably the most complex of all the characters and despite his cynicism he often seems to be genuinely disturbed when Father Dougal makes innocent, frequent and sometimes fairly philosophically damning statements or observations about the faith. Despite this, and despite not always seeming to take Catholicism seriously, in the episode "Hell", in reply to Dougal saying about Jesus " ahh he was great wasn't he", Ted adds, "ahh, he was brilliant", smiling and nodding at the same time.
Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O'Hanlon) is a very simple-minded soul, in exile for a mysterious incident - the "Blackrock incident" - involving a group of nuns and a Sealink Ferry, presumably caused by his stupidity. His inability to grasp the simplest of everyday concepts provides much of the humour in the show. Dougal also regularly expresses doubts about the validity of Catholic Orthodoxy (indeed, he appears to have no religious belief whatsoever, even questioning the existence of God in front of a visiting Bishop, who eventually gives up the faith and becomes a hippie) and has trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. He also has an addiction to rollerblading, which proves his downfall when he tries to give it up for Lent ("Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading"). The sun is always shining in his world and he often doesn't understand what Ted means.
Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly) is an alcoholic, lecherous, violent and foul-mouthed elderly priest, who is basically incapable of functioning normally as a human being, let alone as a priest.
He is on Craggy Island for all of the above, although one episode mentions the cause of Father Jack's exile as being a wedding he performed in Athlone. No details are given but a shot of his face shows a lecherous expression, suggesting he may have acted in a manner sexually inappropriate for a priest, or perhaps been carried away by his own alcoholism.
His vocabulary is mostly restricted to four shouted words: "Drink!", "Feck!", "Arse!", Girls!". Sometims, he adds cryptic comments on a situation. ("Big Bras!" "I am a happy camper!") Father Jack also has a fear of nuns, often crying 'Nuns' and then jumping out of the window when they are near him.
Although he can usually be found drinking alcoholic beverages, Father Jack is also known to drink other household liquids including, but not limited to floor polish (which gave him death-like symptoms such as decomposition), brake fluid, motor oil, castor oil and Toilet Duck (which causes him to embark on a hallucinogenic trip of sorts). In one episode he also drank a whole bottle of sleeping medicine (Dreamy-Sleepy-Nightie-Snoozy-Snooze) and subsequently fell asleep for two weeks. In his younger days he was a fire and brimstone preacher and is said to have been the first priest to denounce The Beatles ("He could see what they were up to"). According to one of Graham Linehan's former peers at Catholic University School (C.U.S.), Fr Hackett was apparently based on one of the priests resident at his former secondary school. In the commentary to series two, Graham Linehan also suggests that Jack was the writers' acerbic response to the stereotype that the Irish are genial drinkers. During the episode, "Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading", Jack gave up alcohol and Ted remarked that he had been drunk for so long that sobriety must be like a strange, hallucinogenic drug to him. In this rare lucid period Jack cried out in anguish "What?! Priests? Don't tell me I'm still on that feckin' island!"
Mrs Doyle (Pauline McLynn) is the priests' manic housekeeper. Apart from being "Mrs" rather than "Miss" Doyle, the only reference to her marriage is her remark in the episode "Night of the Nearly Dead", "This reminds me of the time my husband...I've said too much." Her marriage also seems to have informed her attitude towards sex: in the episode "Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading", she describes marital intercourse as "a dirty, filthy thing" and exhorts Ted to "imagine your husband standing over you with his lad in his hand, wanting you to degrade yourself".
Hospitality, especially serving tea ("Ahh, go on! - Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on...") is Mrs Doyle's mission in life; other items served include a mountain of sandwiches, an array of cakes which after much persuading (mistakingly claiming they contain cocaine) she eventually withdraws from offer in spite of much protest, the lettuce and water she brings for Dougal's pet rabbit Sampras in "The Plague" and the cakejumper she bakes for her idol Eoin McLove in "Night of the Nearly Dead". She spends a significant amount of time trying to clean the large window in the living room, a task which usually sees her plummet to the ground upon trying to get back down from the sill. She also has the occasional tendency to fall from the roof of the parochial house.
Her first name is never mentioned in the series. The third series episode, "The Mainland", maintains the secret in a scene where her name was spoken twice but on both occasions is blocked out by a loud noise, preventing the audience from hearing what was said.
However, Mrs Doyle's first name is given in the script for the episode "Competition Time"; Linehan and Matthews describe it in their footnote as "a very good example of the kind of information one carelessly flings about in the early days of writing a sitcom, without realising that it has the potential to be a lovely dark secret for years and years.
Bishop Leonard "Len" Brennan (Jim Norton) is Ted's boss, originally from Limerick (as Ted reveals when trying to stall him from entering his rabbit-infested bedroom). Len has little patience with Ted and his friends, to whom he refers as "the cast of Police Academy" and gets very angry when Dougal refers to him as simply "Len". In the episode The Plague it transpires that the bishop also has a terrible fear of rabbits, having been involved in an "horrific incident" inside an elevator, where "[the animals] "nibbled on my cape and everything" ". He has a secret mistress and son living in California, not unlike the real-life Eamon Casey, former Bishop of Galway.
On his DVD commentaries Graham Linehan suggests that also in the Brennan mix is the public persona of Father Michael Cleary, Casey's friend, one of the most popular faces of the church and a regular guest on the RTÉ Late Late Show whenever there was a debate about religious matters. Cleary's stringently expressed views on sexual morality were famously exposed to be at odds with his own private life when a book about his 26-year secret affair with his housekeeper Phyllis Hamilton entitled Secret Love: My Life with Father Michael Cleary was published in 1995 (the year the series started). The book was co-written by Hamilton with Paul Williams. Ted is seen to be reading this book at the start of an episode in series 2 and it is referenced in many other ways throughout the series run.
Father Dick Byrne (Maurice O'Donoghue), Ted's opposite number and arch-nemesis on the nearby Rugged Island. Dick is forever up to no good. As Ted pithily states, "As priests go... he's a really bad priest." His two colleagues on Rugged Island, Father Jim Johnson (Chris Curran) and Father Cyril MacDuff (Don Wycherley), are similar characters to Jack and Dougal, respectively. Dick Byrne and Father Ted are eternally involved in continual games of oneupmanship and become engaged in many and various bitter competitions (frequently betting four pounds on the outcome), in which both are more than willing to cheat. For example in the episode about Lent, ("Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading"), Father Ted's motivation to give things up is cited as: "I'm not going to be beaten by Dick Byrne in a giving things up competition, and that's what this is... a giving things up competition."
Father Noel Furlong (Graham Norton) and his reluctant St Luke's Youth Group. Father Noel is overwhelmingly enthusiastic, regaling everyone in his company with song and dance. Even when buried under a large pile of heavy rocks, he continues to talk incessantly and cheerfully. His version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a high point of the series. His youth group eventually ran off to Paraguay to escape him. He appeared without the youth group once when, as the guardian of Father Faye (the Monkey Priest of Killybashangel) on the last episode of series two ("Flight Into Terror"), he was involved in an incident which almost resulted in the deaths of a plane full of priests returning from a pilgrimage. According to Graham Linehan's DVD commentary to the series two episode "Hell", Father Noel is a deeply closeted homosexual whose repression of his own sexuality has "driven him slightly mad", though Arthur Mathews stated in the series' scriptbook that he imagined Noel as being asexual. According to Linehan's DVD commentary, he is supposedly based on a real priest.
Father Larry Duff (Tony Guilfoyle), a priest with a zest for life who Ted claims is "tremendous fun" around others. Ted often calls Larry for advice on his mobile phone. However, whenever Larry attempts to answer his phone, he suffers some horrible accident and apparently dies, only to return in the next episode. Over the course of the series he only answers his phone twice, once while being (inexplicably) held at gunpoint by the Irish army; although Duff survives this phone call, it results in another priest being machine-gunned to death, and the second time in answer to Ted wanting to load off some rabbits to him, in which he claims he doesn't want rabbits anymore because he has now got rotweillers. When he puts the phone down on Ted, the dogs attack him.
Local shop-owners Mary and John O'Leary (Rynagh O'Grady and Patrick Drury) who, while striving to appear sweetness and light to the clergy, are constantly at each other's throats and make numerous attempts to murder each other. As part of the continuing narrative, Ted and Dougal are constantly entering the store or encountering them on the island in the middle of a vicious argument. Ted always appears vaguely suspicious that all is not sweetness and light in their relationship, but to all intents and purposes Dougal appears entirely oblivious.
Tom (Pat Shortt) is an apparently insane resident of Craggy Island who appears whenever the need arises to highlight the surreal and manic nature of the island. He is always seen wearing an ancient, grubby t-shirt reading "I shot JR." Over the course of the series, he was implicated in a number of grisly and/or violent crimes, to which he either readily confessed ("I killed a man") or attempted to explain away ("Tis my money, I just didn't want to fill out the forms"). He reacts to most instructions or minor stimuli with outbursts of brutal violence, ranging from shotgunning a crow from three feet away to attempting to mutilate a family of rabbits with a katana after being asked to care for them.
It is probable that the name of the seminary known as St. Columb's, which Ted and a number of other priests in the show attended, was influenced by the name of St. Columb's College in Derry, Northern Ireland, of which Seamus Cassidy, a Channel 4 producer, was a past-pupil. In reality, Ireland's only remaining seminary is St Patrick's College, Maynooth.
Pauline McLynn reprised her role as Mrs Doyle in 2001 for a small set of adverts for the UK Inland Revenue, reminding people to get their taxes in on time by uttering her catchphrase ('Go on, go, on') over and over again. Not surprisingly, it was voted the most irritating advertising campaign of 2001, beating competition from the now-infamous Ferrero Rocher advert. Coincidentally, Mrs Doyle was also involved in a spoof of this confectionery-related ad in the episode "Tentacles of Doom".