Ardal O’Hanlon: ‘We had our kids baptised, that does expose me to charges of hypocrisy’

Sunday World [Dublin, Ireland]

January 15, 2024

By Eugene Masterson

Father Ted star Ardal O’Hanlon tackles falling priest numbers, and examines his own relationship with the church in new series, writes Eugene Masterson

Father Ted star Ardal O’Hanlon admits he could be accused of hypocrisy because he had his children baptised into the Catholic Church — despite renouncing religion.

The Monaghan actor — who played goofy Fr Dougal in the hit clerical comedy — fronts a new TV documentary about the decline in the number of priests.

A second programme in the series about the Catholic Church will be screened the following night. Presented by Dearbhail McDonald, it looks at a similar crisis among nuns here.

“For too long many Irish people didn’t see priests as ordinary fallible men,” says Ardal (58).

“We showed them too much respect, gave them too much power and were too slow to realise the horrendous liberty some of them took with that power.

“Yet the Church and its priests retain an unavoidable power over our cultural DNA, to turn to in times of tragedy and crisis, to help make sense of the mysteries of life, death and everything in between.”

Ardal returns to his local church in Carrickmacross and looks at the baptismal font as he reveals how he had his three children baptised.

“We had all our children baptised. And I know that exposes me to charges of hypocrisy, or cowardice, or complicity with the Church,” he reflects.

“But I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it to hedge my bets, or for the sake of intergenerational harmony, or for to conform to the status quo.

“I just wanted to mark the arrival of these precious beings into the world. To process the inevitable, in a solemn and time honoured and ritualistic way. Is that so wrong?”

He confirms to author and former priest Michael Harding that he is a non-believer.

“I have renounced my god and my religion, yet I still ask a Catholic priest to come along and baptise my child,” he points out. “Am I a hypocrite?”

Harding tries to comfort him.

“No, I don’t think so,” he says.

Ardal adds: “I don’t think we are going through the motions. I am, like most people I know, loosely a cultural Catholic. I am embarrassed at that term, don’t get me wrong, But I don’t think I’m just going through the motions when I’m going through those rituals, or when I’m witnessing those rituals and taking part in those ceremonies. I actually think it’s speaking to a very deep need.”

Ardal also meets Fr Jerry Carroll, an Army chaplain in Finner camp in Co Donegal.

Fr Carroll says he misses not having reared children in his life.

“What I miss most about the celibacy is not having children of my own,” he admits.

“That would be lovely. But it should be part of the discussion. And it should be optional. Celibacy is not for every man or woman, it’s not.”

When Ardal was born in 1965 there were 400 priests ordained in Ireland that year — last year there were just 10.

The average age of priests in Ireland is now over 70 — for nuns, it’s over 80.

Over the last 30 years, a litany of scandals has given rise to public disillusionment and frequent negative coverage of the ones who remain. In a country where clergy and religious sisters ran not only parishes, but schools, hospitals, housing and social services, religious vocations have now all but dried up.

Ardal and Dearbhail were both educated by priests and nuns and they examine how Catholic clergy influenced every aspect of society in Ireland and the diaspora, while considering what we could be losing if religious vocations continue to decline.

Dearbhail, who cut her teeth as a young journalist reporting on the clerical and institutional abuse scandals, examines whether we will miss nuns, who were once so ingrained in the educational and health systems.

However, nuns were also linked to the Church scandals which emerged in the 1990s and 2000s.

Speaking on camera for the first time, several sisters tell of their shock at learning about these scandals, the challenges to their own faith and how they have had to deal with negative perceptions of their legacy to Irish society.

  • The Last Priests In Ireland is on RTÉ1 tonight at 9.35pm. The Last Nuns In Ireland is on Tuesday on RTÉ1 at 10.15pm.