Wednesday 17 October 2018

My dad was Fr Ted (and I still miss him terribly)

As the annual Tedfest takes place, Rob Morgan opens up to Chrissie Russell

Proud: Rob Morgan has fond memories of his late father Dermot
Proud: Rob Morgan has fond memories of his late father Dermot

This weekend, hundreds of devoted Father Ted fans from around the world will flock to the tiny weather-beaten island of Inis Mor off Galway's west coast for the annual event that is Tedfest.

The continued success of the surreal festival is testament to the enduring fascination with Channel Four's irreverent comedy and the continued sense of loss felt at the death of the show's front man, Dermot Morgan, who died suddenly in 1998, aged just 45.

Dermot left behind a young family, who knew a softer, quieter side to the talented actor that the rest of the world never saw.

"Dad was more than just Father Ted," says his son, Rob Morgan, 28. "He was a satirist, a writer and a family man."

He adds: "He got huge enjoyment from doing the show, but it was always going to be the final series and I think he would have liked to do something written by himself."

Rob, a hotel manager in Dublin, is the middle of Dermot's three sons along with older brother Don, 30, and their younger half-brother Ben, 15, -- Dermot's child with his second partner Fiona. All three sons' names grace the cover of the 1999 book, Our Father, a tribute to Dermot Morgan.

Rob and Don were raised by Dermot and their German mother, Suzanne, in the family home where Dermot had grown up in Mount Merrion on Dublin's south side.

"I had one of the best childhoods you could hope for," recalls Rob. "It was 1980s Ireland and times were tight, but my parents worked hard and made a great team when it came to raising myself and Don."

Dermot was a hands-on dad, eschewing both the authoritarian father figure synonymous with growing up in 1950s Ireland and the self-obsessed stereotype of the stand-up comedian, more concerned with his audience's laughs than the needs of the family home.

"I remember dad getting calls from people wanting him to come out to parties and more often than not he would say 'Thank you, but I want to go home and spend time with the kids'," says Rob. "They were two wonderful, loving parents who always put us first."

The couple met in 1978 in a Dublin hotel when Suzanne, a language teacher and tourism operator, was on a trip from her native home in Hamburg, Germany.

Dermot's growing status on the comedy circuit, thanks to the Scrap Saturday radio show and appearances on Kenny Live, meant the family's house was often full of dynamic and interesting characters from the world of entertainment.

"Don and I used to play football in the back garden with Joe Elliott from Def Leppard," laughs Rob. "And Pat Kenny was round a lot of the time as well, as were Dennis Waterman and journalist Sam Smyth. I guess it was pretty cool -- but to me they were always just mum and dad's friends."

When Rob was 10, his parents separated. "There was no big fight," he explains. "They just grew apart. There was never any animosity -- when dad met Fiona and had Ben, that was another inclusion into all of our lives."

When Father Ted debuted on Channel 4 in 1995, catapulting Dermot into a new stratosphere of fame, Rob was just 14.

"To us it was just dad's work. I was young and I think a big part just went over my head. Eleven years on, it's still on TV. It's nice to be able to turn on the telly and see him."

Dermot was in London filming the third and final series of the comedy when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Rob. "It was a Saturday and Don and I had been out with friends in Blackrock having a few drinks. When we came back to the house there was a voicemail from dad's sister Denise asking mum to call her. I wasn't sure what to make of it but when mum called her back I could hear something was wrong. Then dad's brother Paul called at the door and I just knew.

"I've made my peace with it now," he says. "I think the good things of the person last with you, and you leave behind the bad feeling associated with the sense of loss.

'But there are still times when it hits me hard that he's not around. I was best man at Don's wedding in 2007 and it was difficult, knowing that dad should have been there."

He smiles: "And I have a bit of anxiety about what it will be like when I meet someone I want to settle down with. It's a hard one to throw into conversation -- my dad was Father Ted."

Rob left Ireland several years after his dad's death to work in hotels in the UK before returning last May to manage Dublin's Merrion Hotel.

"Dad spent a lot of time in hotels when performing and it was a life that always attracted me," he explains.

Nor has he any desire to follow in his dad's footsteps. But he believes there is a vacuum waiting to be filled by his dad's brand of comedy. He says: "Ireland is ripe for a good satirist at the moment; we need a Dermot to stand up and say we're not going to take it. We set up the Dermot Morgan Foundation last June to try and provide financial support for budding comedy writers.

"But above all, Dermot made it clear that it was all right to love your family and talk about your feelings. He always had time for people, and if I'm half the person he was I'll have done well."

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