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'He became very engrossed in it' - The story behind Dermot Morgan's unfinished football film

Remembering his work on ‘Miracle of the Magyars’ and other soccer-related projects.

Updated Jan 25th 2022, 8:36 AM

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IT WILL come as little surprise to fans of ‘Father Ted’ that its late star, Dermot Morgan, had a significant interest in both football and religion.

The iconic Irish TV series is essentially a send-up of the Catholic Church, while there are references to the former Dutch international Ruud Gullit ‘sitting on a shed’ among countless other sporting allusions in the much-loved show.

What is less well known is that at the time of his death, Morgan was working on a project in which the two subjects were intertwined more directly than in Ted.

‘Miracle of the Magyars’ had been mentioned by Morgan in a 1996 interview on The Late Late Show. A script had been written and Morgan’s Scrap Saturday co-creator Gerry Stembridge had read a draft of the screenplay.

It was one of several projects that the late comedian and actor was working on at the time of his death at the age of 45 on 28 February 1998.

And the proposed film was based on a real-life incident. On October 10, 1955, the Football Association of Ireland along with an estimated 22,000 fans defied the wishes of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, as a match between the national team and Yugoslavia took place at Dalymount Park.

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McQuaid was one of the most powerful figures in the country at the time and a symbol of how religion dominated the Ireland of the 1950s.

Per HistoryIreland.com, McQuaid had actually succeeded in getting a 1952 match between Ireland and Yugoslavia scheduled to take place at Dalymount Park cancelled. 

On that occasion, McQuaid had been consulted by the association, who acceded to his demands, but three years later, no such courtesy was afforded to the Archbishop, and it was only shortly before the fixture was due to take place that he learned about it.

The reason for McQuaid’s objections was Yugoslavia’s communist government and in particular, the treatment of Croatian Archbishop Aloys Stepinac, who was placed under house arrest by Josip Broz Tito, the country’s president, owing to his opposition to the Yugoslav state.

Stepinac had been a supporter of Ante Pavelić, the Croatian politician who led the fascist Ustaše organisation during the Second World War and was in office between 1941 and 1945.

Backed by Stepinac, Pavelić instigated a campaign of forced conversions to Catholicism in the country, while those who refused to comply faced persecution.

As History Ireland notes: “Pavelitch and the Ustase are estimated to have murdered up to 30,000 Jews, 29,000 Gypsies and between 300,000 and 600,000 Serbs. In May 1945 Pavelitch fled to Austria; after a few months he moved on to Rome, where he was hidden by members of the Catholic Church. Six months later Vatican operatives smuggled him into Argentina, where he revived the Ustase movement.

“Archbishop Stepinac was placed under house arrest by Tito, both for his opposition to the state of Yugoslavia and for his support for the forced conversions and the excesses carried out by Pavelitch. This house arrest was used by McQuaid to garner support in Ireland for Stepinac, whose support for Pavelitch was ignored. [The Irish essayist] Hubert Butler, who wrote of his own experiences and what he witnessed in the Yugoslavia of that time, was vilified and attacked for his views. Butler tried to alert people to the genocide that was taking place under Pavelitch with Stepinac’s approval, but to no avail. After all, Butler’s voice was that of a Protestant in a Catholic state.”

soccer-football-league-division-one-arsenal-v-newcastle-united-highbury Liam Tuohy made his debut in the infamous Ireland-Yugoslavia game. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The fact that the 1955 match went ahead was somewhat of a scandal at the time.

On 15 October, McQuaid urged the Irish public to boycott the fixture. President Sean T O’Kelly declined an invitation to attend. Philip Greene, the respected RTÉ broadcaster and practising Catholic, refused to commentate on the game on moral grounds. Schoolboys were warned that going to the match would constitute a mortal sin.

Amid increasing pressure, four days before the match was due to take place, the FAI held an emergency meeting to discuss a potential cancellation. 

A vote was held and the association ultimately doubled down. Their reasoning was the classic argument that sport and politics should be kept separate and that the football team should not be held accountable for its government’s policies.

With a 40,000 capacity at the time, the stadium in Dublin was just over half full as Ireland were ultimately beaten 4-1 by their opponents in a game that saw the debut of future national team manager Liam Tuohy.

While the FAI won the battle on this occasion, the controversy did not necessarily end there.

As The Sun’s Neil O’Riordan notes: “When Ireland played Spain the following month, the FAI initially insisted that Greene could not be the commentator but later relented.

“A proposed return match in Belgrade within two years never happened.

“Some have pointed to subsequent matches against Eastern European sides as a sign that McQuaid’s influence had waned.

“But it was not until a 1979 visit to Prague that Ireland played a Communist country other than Poland in a friendly.

“Earlier matches against Czechoslovakia, the USSR and Bulgaria were qualifiers and, so, the FAI had no say in the opposition.

“Poland, however, were played 13 times — all friendlies — in the 20 years from 1958.

“The fact that restrictions on the country’s Catholic Church had been eased in 1956 made Poland an easier sell than most.”

It’s easy to see why the story appealed to Morgan. While he was just three years of age when the match in question took place, the Catholic Church’s influence on Irish society remained strong as he was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s.

Morgan often incurred the wrath of religious representatives as a youngster.

In a 2018 piece for The Irish Times, his son Donnchadh Morgan wrote: “He was punished for being different. The Christian Brothers beat him six ways from Sunday. One story that didn’t surprise me was one particular sadist saying to him: “Morgan, you’ll never make anything of yourself.” “You just f**king watch me,” he replied.”

u2father-ted Dermot Morgan with members of U2. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Consequently, a story in which two subjects of deep fascination to him — sport and religion — came into conflict, was always going to arouse interest. 

“I think it was from the early ’90s that he had become aware of it,” Donnchadh Morgan tells The42.

“It certainly came into my orbit when I was talking with him about his interests, as you do as a kid — he was very forthcoming with what he was up to.

“Around the time you had things like Eamonn Casey getting caught with his pants down, Michael Cleary and all that stuff in the early ’90s, like a lot of people of his generation, I think he got very exercised about what they had gone through as kids.

“So this is a story that would have immediately been attractive to them. It had the repressive elements of the Dublin archdiocese under the leadership of John Charles McQuaid attempting to shut down a football match against a communist country and also the fact that it was football, which was a no-brainer. His first and abiding passion was football. So during the course of the ’90s, any chance you got to speak to people who had some awareness of it, he did.

“I remember, for instance, after a UCD match in the mid-90s, we would have ended up going to the Montrose Hotel as it was and there would have been the group around Tony O’Neill, who was the UCD supremo at the time. Theo Dunne was coaching the team at the time. I remember him telling us about the match because he had attended it.

“The way I remember it is it became slightly more like detective work.

“After my father died, I spoke to a guy who went to a match.

“He was a former president of the ASTI, a guy called Pierce Purcell, who cycled to Dublin with his dad, who was a guard.

“There was the description that as they were going to Dalymount, the fans were flanked on either side of the footpath by people saying the rosary for their souls.

“So in the early ’90s, he became very engrossed in it. It was the whole period where there was that greyness in the ’50s, that repressive reflex of the Catholic Church, trying to ban stuff that wouldn’t have been banned in normal countries.

“My reading of it was what would have been appealing to him was a rare act of defiance by regular folk.

“As it was, association football was vilified in the free state and the Republic since independence.

“You see that still, certainly on social media where there was a lot of negative stuff around the minimal levels of violence around the [2021] FAI Cup final.

“More so than rugby, association football is itself [perceived as] somehow suspect. And that would have also appealed to him. The ‘fuck you,’ 22,000 people turned up.

“And at the same time, and I think [the legendary sportswriter] Con Houlihan might have told him about crowds outside the newspaper offices waiting for the results of the League of Ireland matches. So it all came around at a time when the League of Ireland wasn’t what we knew.

“Certainly, I knew it as a child going to UCD matches in Belfield, which was three men and a dog, and the club chairman calling over to my dad asking how he wants his tea. [Whereas back then] there were crowds there. Football was the thing. It was a real passion.”

tributes-left-on-dermot-morgan-memorial-throne-in-merrion-square-in-dublin Tributes left on Dermot Morgan memorial throne in Merrion Square, Dublin. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Morgan had a number of unrealised projects at the time of his death.

Speaking to TheJournal in 2018, former collaborator Barry Devlin recalled: “He loved to put things together very fast — he’d get bored if stuff was in his head for more than a couple of hours, he wanted the next thing.”

Yet ’Miracle of the Magyars’ was far more than a mere vague idea. In fact, it seemed close to fruition.

“He did a draft and it was in a really advanced stage of production/development by the time he died,” Donnchadh remembers. “I’m not sure what else happened with it. When he died, it was the one thing I was really keen that it wouldn’t get lost. And obviously, I was only 19 at the time and I had my own things to do, so it got lost.

“Barry Devlin might have it. John Fischer, my dad’s agent, might have it. But it’s definitely somewhere there.

“I might have it, I don’t know what’s up in the attic, to be honest. But it definitely exists. It was quite close to his heart.”

And while based on the Ireland-Yugoslavia controversy, Morgan used some poetic licence in the screenplay, changing the opposition team to Hungary.

“I suppose people will have more of a connection with [Ferenc] Puskas turning up to Dublin than whoever was playing for Yugoslavia,” Donnchadh says. 

“I think it also allowed him to explore things he wanted to explore rather than being a strict historical film. If you look at something else that was filmed on the northside, ‘Michael Collins’ is riddled with historical inaccuracies. So making a fictionalised account, based on those events, would have allowed him a certain amount of artistic licence to explore things like personal relationships in Ireland at the time or the relationship between Joe Public and the church.

“The fact that there would have been acts of defiance against the church. It was repressive, but that the FAI of all bodies told the church where to go probably gives you a good indication of the limits of the church’s power at the time as well.

“I don’t know if it was necessarily a funny film, my recollection is it was ostensibly a drama but a drama where you could have seasoned comic legends who could play it straight. Dave Allen was obviously a fantastic comic actor. I think that would be something he would have been very good at. Or John Cleese, who was underrated as a straight actor. Those sorts of people would have been quite interesting and Dave was obviously from Dublin so he might have had a better understanding of the specifics of the power dynamics between the church and regular people.

“It was an era that he was fascinated with and if he could corner somebody to talk about it who had experienced these things, he was very excited to do that.”

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mel-smith-the-uk-premiere-of-red-held-at-the-royal-festival-hall-arrivals-london-england-19-10-10 The comedian Mel Smith was in talks to star in Morgan's football sitcom. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

What made the project so enticing to his father, Donnchadh adds, was to do with how personal the subject matter felt.

“My recollection of his working life was a lot of time where I would have seen him sitting at a typewriter looking bored. But it was the one time where he was genuinely enthused and I saw him getting really excited because of a thing that he was interested in. You know when you do stuff at work and it’s about your narrow area of interest?

“When we were speaking to Theo, I remember he was really into it and wanted to hear more about it because he only knew that there had been this match and it had been [almost cancelled]. I don’t think there was much written about it in the mid-90s. 

“Certainly, in the digital age, we have a lot more people like yourselves exploring deeper stories that aren’t day-to-day stories.

“He would have told me stories about the headmaster ringing up friends of his saying ‘your son has to stop playing football, we just don’t know who these people are who he’s associated with’. And the mother replying: ‘I don’t know who he’s carousing with when it comes to rugby, so I’d rather he played soccer thanks very much’.

“So that was a time where that kind of stuff was really policed as well.”

‘Miracle of the Magyars’ was one of three football-related projects Morgan was working on at the time of his death.

Another was ‘Re-united,’ a sitcom about two retired footballers, who bore a resemblance to Eamon Dunphy and John Giles, sharing a flat in London.

Morgan would play the Dunphy-esque character, while comedian Mel Smith was in talks to play his former teammate.

“Dermot was going to play an Eamon Dunphy-type who had gone on to do journalism after soccer, but who had ended up living with an old football pal,” John Fischer told the Evening Herald in 2013.

Donnchadh says it was in an “advanced stage of production” and adds: “Then there was a draft novel he did, ‘The Kaiser Conspiracy,’ which was about Franz Beckenbauer getting kidnapped. I think he just wanted to do a Frederick Forsyth pastiche.” 

And does he believe ‘Miracle of the Magyars’ or any of the other projects will ever see the light of day?

“Never say never. To tell you the truth, the last couple of days I’ve thought more and more about stuff like that. I’ve been thinking about his legacy a lot in the last year or so. I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility, but someone has to have the energy, drive and inclination to do it.

“And once he died, my awareness of it or connection with showbiz sort of ended — people aren’t necessarily interested in a teenager with an Arts degree. But it also wasn’t my inclination. I went and did more regular work. But definitely, it’s something that I could see getting off the ground if someone had the inclination or the interest to do it. There are plenty of talented people who would be able to pull it off.”

oliver-callan-launch-of-samsung-3d-tv-at-the-grand-canal-theatre-dublin-ireland-24-05-10 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Whatever happens, Morgan will always be remembered as an integral force behind an iconic sitcom, though his son feels his work outside of ‘Father Ted’ has ultimately gone underappreciated.

“I notice Oliver Callan wrote an article about the [Charles] Haughey book and influence of my dad in terms of how Haughey is remembered. I thought that was interesting because no one has really ever acknowledged that, certainly in any kind of serious books about politics or that kind of stuff.

“But he was influential and I don’t think that’s been appreciated. There’s a multi-million euro comedy industry that didn’t exist when he started. But it was certainly in full swing by the time he died.

“And you can’t say that had nothing to do with it because he was the only one playing these shitty clubs and the backs of discos in the ’80s or getting run out of small towns in the midlands. So he did the state some service and he also introduced, in a very real way, a measure of disrespect that couldn’t be avoided.

“In terms of people and public life that they needed, there was Pictorial Weekly and there was some very good comedy before he arrived. It’s not to say that there was nothing, then he turned up. But he fused a lot of stuff that was there and created something brand new. But I don’t think that’s been fully appreciated, just how much of an influence it had on Irish life.

“In fairness to Oliver, and I don’t know the guy at all, but I do know he has been very clear about the fact that he was an influence on him.

“And I would love to see a lot of the projects brought to fruition. I remember saying that to [the late English comedy producer, writer and performer] Geoffrey Perkins just after the funeral — we were in the pub across the road from the church. I said ‘it would be a shame if this stuff got lost’. But I was not really in much of a mental state to deal with anything like that at the time.

“The people that did try to do that stuff, they did their best but there’s only so far you can bring it. But if someone wanted to do it, they’re more than welcome

“But the way I see it is he’s very fondly remembered and that’s wonderful. Arthur [Mathews] and Graham [Linehan] created something that was truly magical.

“We talk about immortals in our house a lot and he is immortal. He’s still with us. Every time I turn on the TV he’s there and the kids get to see their grandad. That wouldn’t have happened if he died just after Scrap. We’d have some tapes and that’s fine and all, but I do think there’s a debt of gratitude that Ireland owes him and I think his body of work beyond Ted is worth remembering. But are you going to stick it on the Leaving Cert? You can’t do that.

“But he was a very fine writer and a fine mind, and I think in his own lifetime he was underestimated and underappreciated. After he died, he was very much appreciated by the people and by some people in public life. But I also get the sense, and I may be wrong, that there’s a sort of palpable relief that he’s not around anymore to stir up the shit.

“I’d love to see him going to UCD on a Friday night, freezing his arse off and being frustrated with that. But he gets his arse under a heated seat in a giant Merc, which wasn’t the case in life.”

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