Assumpta Fitzgerald: At the Beginning of Season 1 vs At the End of Season 1 of Ballykissangel
On re-watching this 90s Irish gem (actually it’s probably, like, my fourth or fifth complete rewatch), I was struck by how subdued the character of Assumpta was in the initial episode. This is something I’d never noticed before and, though it could be put down to the characterisation not being quite established yet, I prefer to take it as canon. It’s tempting with the first three seasons of this show to concentrate solely on the major and exquisitely angsty changes that play out in the green Father Clifford’s life. You can become so caught up in how coming to BallyK changes him, his life, his heart and soul that you don’t notice the more subtle changes occurring in his favourite sparring partner and sometime best friend. These changes are less life-changing and more character-building but sneakily apparent as early on as the first season.
When we first meet Assumpta Fitzgerald, she is mildly friendly and mildly snarky. She is softly spoken and gives off an eternally tired, world weary air that ages her beyond her actual years. Her hair is long and limp and left pretty much as nature created it. She wears no discernible make-up and dresses in drab, colourless clothes. She generally wears old jeans with dark tops and faded flannel shirts of blacks, greys and greens. All of this makes perfect sense if you consider that Assumpta is a young woman stuck in grief. She is grieving for her mother, grieving both for her traumatic past and truncated future. This underlying melancholy in Assumpta is best illustrated by the scene in which she watches Father Peter give the last rites to the old mountainy man. (This haunting scene obviously has further meaning and great resonance, after knowing of Assumpta’s ultimate fate). It is unclear how long it’s been since Assumpta returned to BallyK to look after the family business and nurse her dying mother. Counting back from her death at 25 to the age she would’ve been post-college, it can’t have been too long a time. Despite not even knowing this history, the audience gets the impression of a not fully formed adult who feels trapped. Trapped in her home town, trapped in her own grief, trapped by her own fate. Until the new curate moves into the church up the road.
Assumpta continues to occasionally exhibit the soft-spoken weariness of a woman hounded by sadness but, over time, the glimpses we see of her lighter side in the first episode begin to shine more brightly. Her wicked humour emerges, her irrepressible energy returns. She begins to bounce about, hair flying. Her eyes light up, her face animates. She begins to smile, wear her hair differently, wear an array of colours. The presence of Peter Clifford in Ballykissangel seems to light a fire inside Assumpta Fitzgerald, returning her to the fiery presence she probably always was. Her dampened flame springs back to life and begins to burn again. Gradually, over this and two subsequent seasons, we see her transform into the quick-witted, hot-tempered, caper-loving, floral-skirt-rocking, religion-hating, beautiful barmaid we all eventually fall in love with. She grows from a muted version of herself into the technicolour version. From a grieving, frustrated child into the spirited, sensitive woman Peter cannot help but fall for. <3
Can we talk about this moment for a second? Because this is the moment that made me fall completely in love with Assumpta Fitzgerald. Look at her - she isn’t just denying him a room because he’s a priest. She saw something different in him up in the hills with the mountainy man, and she wants so much to believe that perhaps someone is finally getting it right in the Church that she has been so deeply disillusioned to. She wants to believe in him. She wants to protect that rare, genuine purity. So she brings Jenny’s keys over to Peter’s place - and so she denies Peter a room. Because right in this moment, for a split second, she thinks he could let her down. She thinks he intends to spend the night with Jenny (in her hotel!) and therefore end up as much a hypocrite as every other priest she’s encountered. And the last thing she wants is for him to be just like every other priest. She won’t let him be.
This scene is so important. I can’t even stress it enough.
Soo, in my time of Lenten reflection and fasting I (surprise surprise) started a new show. Ballykissangel, the story of young and well-meaning English priest who gets transferred to a sleepy Irish village. Right off the bat he meets Assumpta Fitzgerald, the town barwench and resident token religious skeptic. MAYHEM ENSUES. you can guess what also ensues
I’ve watched the first five episodes now, and I feel like this show is just starting to get into its stride. The first few were a bit shaky, but the writing’s definitely improved vastly in the last two. Rando thoughts:
1.) Fr. Peter Clifford gets credit from me for being nuanced portrayal of a member of the clergy. His role in the community feels organic, not cheap, a one-dimensional “idealistic padre” used for bit laughs…maybe it’s the nature of the show, which exists in a virtual vacuum of a community where everyone has the same basic respect for his position? Plus they actually show him participating in the sacraments, which I give them massive props for. An American TV show would never make a joke about preemptive absolution of a mortal sin…or even have characters who care.
I’m young and idealistic and hip to changing social mores in 90s Ireland.
2.) Even though it’s obvious that he’s been set up as the antagonist of the show, I actually kind of find Fr. Mac hilarious. How can you not be amused by a guy who compares getting cremated to witch burning? Also every time he comes into an episode and tells Peter to do something, it’s not that unreasonable…from the perspective of a 60-year-old small town Irish parish priest. As a curmudgeonly boss character, he works for me.
what a G.
3.) Even though I know that Assumpta/Peter is the ShowTP because I massively spoiled myself and it’s not like they’re keeping it secret, I’m not sure I buy it yet. I’m intrigued, but not totally sold. I can more easily get the interest on her end than his, because he’s the only half-way articulate and decent looking, non-drunk man in her village…except, you know, PRIEST. And like, she’s hot and ‘feisty’ and all, but…well, she’s also really hard. And not in a pleasant way. Plus Peter’s really good at his job, I don’t really think she’s worth giving up his vocation for…at this point.
Okay this picture is making me ship it more. Damn.
4.) I swear I’ve met Brian Quigley before. He is real to me.
Otherwise the show’s fairly run of the mill small-town, fish out of water hijinks, with an Irish flavor. I freely admit I like it for the novelty of its Catholic backdrop, though I’d imagine a secular crowd did and would enjoy it as well (it ran for six seasons, after all.) I give it credit for actually feeling like a real town, there’s nothing glamorous about the people and they aren’t cloyingly wacky or charming like, say, Gilmore Girls’ supporting players are.