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Top 10 screen priests from TV and film, including the Irish actor who considered taking vows in real life

The Catholic priest is a recurring figure on screen (Picture: iStock)
The Catholic priest is a recurring figure on-screen (Picture: iStock)

The BBC’s Father Brown is the latest in a venerable tradition of portraying Catholic priests on screen.

From the big screen to the small, we’ve had every conceivable character type, from hapless drunkards like Father Jack in Father Ted, to the priests in The Name of the Rose, who were happy to inform you they were just really zealous guys.

Here, we consider 10 great screen priests, the roles they played and the actors who played them.

From Craggy Island to craggy features — screen priests cpme in all shapes, including Brendan Gleeson (Picture: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney)
From Craggy Island to craggy features — screen priests come in all shapes and sizes, including Brendan Gleeson (Picture: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney)

Father James Lavelle (Calvary) — played by Brendan Gleeson

“I’m going to kill you, Father,” says the man in the confession box, “because you’ve done nothing wrong.” The film proceeds inexorably from this somewhat unusual opening conversational gambit.

THEME: Calvary, a film set in a small Irish parish, is focused on penance, paedophile priests and vengeance. It also presents a not particularly uplifting view of small-town communities.

Calvary is arguably the first film to concentrate on the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church — there is little of The Bells of St Mary about it. There again, were you to do a re-run of any cuddly Catholic film, you’d be unlikely to choose the muscular Gleeson as priest.

FILM ALERT: Look out in particular for Calvary’s arresting opening sequence; in the interests of not requiring you to alert your spoiler apparatus, we’ll not reveal it here.

Karl Malden enjoying a swift half pint after his endeavurs On The Waterfront (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
Karl Malden enjoying a swift half pint after his endeavours in On the Waterfront (Picture:,Keystone/Getty Images)

Father Barry (On the Waterfront) – played by Karl Malden

Yes, him of the celebrated nose; a schnozzle that Malden himself was happy to concede precluded him from ever being considered handsome. His most celebrated role was as Detective Lieutenant Mike Stone in The Streets of San Francisco, widely regarded as a seminal step towards more hard-bitten and realistic cop shows. Dixon of Dock Green this wasn’t.

PLOT: As Father Barry in On The Waterfront, Malden plays a crusading dockland Catholic priest who helps bring an end to crooked local politics.

FILM FACT: Fitzgerald won an Oscar for his role as the tough Father Barry, playing opposite Marlon Brando.

The priests' residence on Craggy Island (Picture: JuneGloom07, public domain)
The priests’ residence on Craggy Island (Picture: JuneGloom07, public domain)

Father Ted (Father Ted) – played by Dermot Morgan

Strangely enough, of all the priests on this list, it is Declan Morgan — the most irreverent — who once actually considered taking vows. He was brought up a devout Catholic, but eventually eschewed the priesthood for a career on stage and screen.

THEME: The calamity-ridden Father Ted is exiled on Craggy Island, along with a gaggle of similarly unhinged priests who can’t quite get the hang of celibacy, poverty or abstinence.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: At the time of his death Morgan was hoping to portray Archbishop John McQuaid in a film about the Ireland versus Yugoslavia football match affair in 1952. McQuaid managed to get the match cancelled as the Yugoslavs were Communists. Ireland was so dotty back in the 1950s that it probably more resembled Craggy Island than a modern European democracy.

Rod Steiger relaxing between takes (Picture: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)
Rod Steiger relaxing between takes (Picture: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

Father Delaney (The Amityville Horror) — played by Rod Steiger

At just about the opposite end of the spectrum from Father Ted, Father Delaney is the priest in The Amityville Horror. Sadly, a little like Father Jack on Craggy Island, Delaney suffers a loss of faith. Unlike Father Jack’s fall from grace, Father Delaney’s troubles don’t come from drink, but from a completely different source altogether — the Devil.

PLOT: Newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz and their three children move into the house that has been the site of a mass murder. Trouble, indeed terror, quickly ensues. Father Delaney is sent for; he quickly sums up the situation – and performs an exorcism on the house. But calm being restored to the area is still some way off.

TOP TRIVIA: Honey was rubbed on Rod Steiger’s head to draw the flies to accentuate a particularly stressful scene. A trick that surprisingly wasn’t used in Father Ted.

Robert Bresson, one of the greats of french film (Picture: Gabriel Duval/L/AFP/Getty Images)
Writer and director Robert Bresson, one of the greats of french film (Picture: Gabriel Duval/AFP/Getty Images)

The Priest of Ambricourt (Diary of a Country Priest) — played by Claude Laydu

Although predating Clavary  by 63 years, the French film Diary of a Country Priest, based on the 1936 novel by Georges Bernanos, shares some of the bleakness and hostility of rural village life. Written and directed by Robert Bresson, Journal d’un curé de campagn features an idealistic young priest assigned to his first parish.

PLOT: The priest arrives in a village in northern France, but from the outset his catechism pupils bait him, his colleagues taunt him over his frugal life style, and cruel rumours are circulated about him.

Claude Laydu’s debut performance in the title role has been described as one of the greatest in the history of film. Diary of a Country Priest won eight international awards.

FILM FACT:  The director Martin Scorsese said the film influenced his Taxi Driver.

GK Chesterton's Father Brown — modelled on a Tipp priest (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Writer GK Chesterton. His Father Brown is  modelled on a Tipp priest (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Father Brown (Fr Brown) — played by Mark Williams

Author GK Chesterton based the title character of his Father Brown series on an Irish priest serving in England, Monsignor John Joseph O’Connor.

BACKGROUND: Clonmel priest Mgr O’Connor had a long, distinguished career in the Church, eventually becoming privy chamberlain to Pope Pius XII. He was regarded as a great intellect, a lover of the arts and literature, and a friend and confidant of statesmen.

The monsignor’s priesthood was spent in Bradford, where he was largely responsible for the construction of the Church of Our Lady and the First Martyrs of Rome in Heights Lane.

PLOT: The poverty the Tipperary priest came across in Victorian Bradford inspired Chesterton to create the criminal underworld where his sleuth, Father Brown, operated.

FAITH FACT: Mgr O’Connor eventually received Chesterton into the Catholic Church.

Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain The Thorn Birds (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Father Ralph de Bricassart (The Thorn Birds) — played by Richard Chamberlain

Father de Bricassart is the strikingly handsome Irish priest in The Thorn Birds, a saga focusing on three generations of the Cleary family.

PLOT: Based on the novel by Colleen McCullough, the story unfolds on a substantial Australian sheep farm called Drogheda. Father Ralph is the true love of Meghann “Meggie” Cleary, the only daughter of Paddy, an Irish farm labourer done very well indeed. This is no recipe, predictably enough, for a smooth career path in the Church.

NIT-PICKING FACT: Throughout The Thorn Birds, Drogheda is pronounced Drog-HEEDA, a million miles from its correct Louth pronunciation of a long drawn out Draw-da.

Barry Fitzgerald pictured with fellow Going My Way actor Bing Crosby (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Barry Fitzgerald pictured with fellow Going My Way actor Bing Crosby (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Father Fitzgibbon (Going My Way) — portrayed by Barry Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald played Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way opposite the youthful Father Chuck O’Malley, played by Bing Crosby.

PLOT: Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives in New York with an unconventional style that will transform the parish of St Dominic’s. O’Malley’s ideas and his informal appearance fail to impress the older priest Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald).

FITZGIBBON FACT: Despite portraying many priests throughout his career — as well as a few Inquisition-level Catholics — Fitzgerald was a Protestant. Several times when filmed crossing himself he makes a hames of it.

Monsignor Hugh O'Flahery, portrayed onscreen by Gregory Peck (Picture: public domain)
Monsignor Hugh O’Flahery, portrayed onscreen by Gregory Peck (Picture: public domain)

Father Hugh O’Flaherty (The Scarlet and the Black) — portrayed by Gregory Peck

The Scarlet and the Black is based on a true story, about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a priest serving in the Vatican during World War II. O’Flaherty, born in Cork and brought up in Kerry, was a senior official of the Roman Curia. Mgr O’Flaherty’s campaign of resistance to the Nazis helped save an estimated 6,500 people during the war years.

The stellar cast includes John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII and Christopher Plummer as Colonel Herbert Kappler, the Nazi officer in charge of wartime Rome.

FANCIFUL (BUT TRUE) FACT: Peck revealed that President Lyndon B Johnson had told him that, had he sought re-election in 1968, he intended to offer Peck the post of U.S. ambassador to Ireland – a post Peck, owing to his Irish ancestry, said he might well have taken.

Ballymena man Liam Neeson does a mean American accent (Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Ballymena man Liam Neeson manages to invest The Simpsons’ Father Sean with dignity and erudition — see ‘Top Quote’ below (Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Father Sean (The Simpsons) — voiced by Liam Neeson

Father Sean is a Catholic priest at St Jerome’s Catholic School which Bart Simpson attends.

PLOT: On his first day of school at St Jerome’s, Bart is punished by by a nun and told to hold up two dictionaries, in order to feel some of the pain Jesus Christ felt during his crucifixion. After finding Bart in the hallway, Fr Sean tells Bart how he converted to Catholicism after a drunken fight with his father. After the fight, badly injured and lying against a lamp post, St Peter appeared to Sean and told him to mend his rebellious ways. Bart is impressed, and after reading a comic book about the saints — given to him by Fr Sean — is ready to become converted.

TOP QUOTE: Father Sean recalls the exact words St Peter said to him: “Sean, you w****r, repent of your wicked ways or sod off.”

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Mal Rogers
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Mal Rogers is a columnist and reporter with The Irish Post

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