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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

BallyK kudos

So, there we were, sitting in the Unitarian Church in Dublin, watching flamenco dancing.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

It was like something out of a movie. A mysterious woman contacts a group of seemingly unrelated people, all in different parts in the world, and convinces them all to meet in the same place on the same night in October. The curious invitees arrive, but they find that the mysterious woman is not even there. What strange events lie ahead for the evening?

Earlier this year, I started getting emails from a woman in Oklahoma named Deborah. She sent me a couple of press releases about a group called the Christian Film & Television Excellence Society (CFTES) and the awards it was giving out. As I do with any email I get at my address (that isn’t completely offensive or libelous), I dutifully printed it on my reader feedback page—and thought nothing more about it. Then, in September, she sent me an email thanking me for printing her press releases and inviting me to attend their awards ceremony in Dublin on October 29. At that moment, the Missus and I were in the middle of our transatlantic relocation, but when the dust settled, I realized that we were now living only three hours away from Dublin by car, and why not attend? After all, the ceremony was to be in the Unitarian Church on the west side of St. Stephen’s Green, and I had often seen that building in passing during the Missus’s and my Dublin days, and I had always been curious what it was like inside. So, we put the CFTES event on our calendar.

In a way, it was a minor miracle that we actually made it there. Between getting settled in the new house, dealing with workmen, bureaucratic snafus with the container bringing our personal effects from the States, our little munchkin’s cold, and a few family emergencies (including a new niece born eight weeks premature on the 27th), the odds of getting away for one night to Dublin were looking particularly iffy. But somehow we got away on the afternoon of the 29th, just in time to land in on the Missus’s cousins, wolf down the dinner they had kindly prepared for us and get dropped off at St. Stephen’s Green, without a minute to spare. (It is a testament to my Irish in-laws’ communication grapevine, which emphasizes speed over accuracy, that by the time we left for Dublin, they were all convinced that I personally was receiving some sort of award.)

We had no idea what to expect when we seated ourselves in the pews of the Unitarian Church. Apparently, neither did many of the other people there. The ceremony went more or less flawlessly, but each person who took to the podium told a similar story of being contacted by Deborah and being convinced to come and take part in the ceremony. And, like ourselves, most of these people had never even met Deborah. And we still haven’t, since she wasn’t there!

She had arranged the entire evening, virtually by remote control. She had convinced the Unitarian Church to host the ceremony, even though it has no connection with the CFTES. The same was true of the awards recipients and the other participants, although some of these actually were connected with the CFTES. After the umpteenth story from someone about how they had been contacted by Deborah, whom they had never meant, someone suggested that perhaps she didn’t even exist. Maybe she was an angel!

The CFTES, as I now know, is a US-based interdenominational organization that offers support and recognition to films and television programs that illustrate Christian values. This specifically does not mean “Christian TV” or evangelical programming. They focus on regular, old mainstream secular entertainment. It probably won’t surprise a lot of people that, of the literally thousands of programs produced in the US, only two met the criteria of exhibiting Christian values (7th Heaven and Touched by an Angel). But the series that got far and away the most votes, in all categories, was the Northern Ireland-produced/Republic of Ireland-located Ballykissangel. The individual 2001 winners were Kieran Prendiville, who created and wrote series; Aine Ni Mhuiri, who played the village’s pious spinster shopkeeper Kathleen Hendley; and Niall Toibin, a fixture on stage and screen in Ireland and internationally, who played the town’s cantankerous older priest, Father “Mac.” All were there in the flesh to pick up their statuettes.

After a few readings and performances (including the aforementioned flamenco dancing), we got down to the main events. Aine Ni Mhuiri, who has performed on the stage for years and has had parts in such films as Time After Time, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Field and The Playboys, was radiant with excitement upon receiving her award. She gave an acceptance speech (partly in Irish) worthy of the Oscars themselves. But the real treat was Niall Toibin who (even by Irish standards) is a master of public speaking and one of the funniest men on the planet—something that may not be obvious to those who know him only from his work on Ballykissangel. He has shone on stages all over the world for decades and has managed to be in most movies that have any Irish connection at all—including Ryan’s Daughter, Eat the Peach and Far and Away. In addition to Ballykissangel, he also had television roles in Brideshead Revisited and The Irish R.M. He had all of us rolling in the pews with laughter—and also provoked a few tears when he paid tribute to his late wife

Niall Toibin accepts his award
Niall Toibin accepts his CFTES award

By cosmic coincidence, it happens that years ago the basement of the Unitarian church housed an Irish language theater, where many of the actors and others present that evening had worked and rehearsed and performed. Toibin noted this fact with irony and conveyed perfectly the appropriateness that his and Ni Mhuiri’s careers had come full circle. He recalled that years ago the two of them had performed together, playing lovers in a rather “steamy” affair. He observed how à propos it was that, decades later, they would be reunited in Ballykissangel, “she playing a spinster and I playing a celibate priest who was almost certainly childless.”

The self-effacing Kieran Prendivlle gave the briefest of acceptance speeches. He recounted how, when informed of his completely unanticipated award, he protested over the phone to the elusive Deborah that he hadn’t written Ballykissangel “to preach.” She recommended that he look again at the series’ sixth season and at “how much God was there.” In the end, Prendiville showed up. As did we all. Thank you, Deborah (wherever you are), for a memorable evening.

-S.L., 7 November 2002

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