A tall open-faced young man is hiking the last three miles into Ballykissangel carrying his belongings in a large backpack. When he left the bus a few miles back, the sun was shining. Before long the famous Irish showers poured down on him. A blue-green Renault van slows as it passes the hiker; the driver rolls down her window and offers him a ride into the village of Ballykissangel. Assumpta Fitzgerald, publican, meet Peter Clifford, priest.
I just recently watched the first three series of this engaging BBC Ireland comedy of life in the fictional village Ballykissangel. And, like one of the fan video producers for the series, I can't get the characters out of my head. Especially Peter and Assumpta. So, reader warning: this will be a very long post that may overestimate your interest in the everyday joys, comedy and heartaches of the inhabitants of this small Irish village. Read as much as you have time and, if you've watched the series, I'd love to hear what you think of it, especially the Assumpta-Peter connection.
In that short ride down the mountain in the rain you can begin to see the contrasts between Assumpta Fitzgerald and Peter Clifford. Peter is friendly, enthusiastic, and excited about his assignment as the priest at St. Joseph's in Ballykissangel. Things are "beautiful" to him--Assumpta's unusual name, his new church. Assumpta is complicated. She is a keen observer of people, their behavior and motivations. More importantly, for this relationship, she is the resident cynic about organized religion, especially the Catholic Church. In their short conversation in the van she needles Peter about how much they "need" an English priest. She calls him a hippie priest for his sunny outlook. And when Peter thanks her for the lift, she says that the people are used to "carrying the clergy." And then there's her stock response of "uh-huh", accompanied by a sly glance. Peter does not rise to her bait, though. He's gentle with her but doesn't let her digs go unchallenged.
Peter and Assumpta are friend/adversaries from the time he arrives in the village. He doesn't have suitable living quarters for a priest. The resident wheeler dealer, Brian Quigley, has rented the house he was supposed to have to some vacationing young women. He has no reliable transportation, only an motor bike that usually won't start. His initial meeting with Father MacAnally, the parish priest, didn't go well. Father Mac ruled as priest/politician and was not impressed that his new priest was more concerned with getting to know the people and figuring out how to minister to their needs than suitable housing and transportation. He ordered Father Clifford to sort both problems out immediately. Before that happens though Peter gets a middle of the night call to administer last rites to a mountain parishioner. As usual, his bike would not start. He races to Assumpta for help. . .
On that second ride up the mountain, Assumpta sees Peter in a different light. She sees how he tends the dying and bereaved. She sees that he cares. What he does matters, especially to those who are left. He would give her the last rites, even if he couldn't understand her--just as he did with the mountain man. He thanked her for coming out with him, especially when she didn't believe. She said he left her speechless. . .
As time went on Father Clifford made a place for himself in Ballykissangel. The village people liked having him as their priest. He married them after getting them through some pre-wedding jitters, he baptized their babies and even babysat for Kieran, the child of Niamah and Ambrose Egan. He involved himself in the parochial church school and community activities. He fought teen pregnancy through sex education with the local Dr. Ryan. And, he joined the regulars at Assumpta Fitgerald's pub for a pint. And, par for the course, Assumpta observed from behind the bar, handing out challenges and advice to Father Clifford. In time, there was no denying that they were more than friends. The pub regulars saw it and so did Father Mac. Even though they never crossed the line, the love between them was there--"even the dogs in the street could see it." Finally, Father Mac sent Peter on retreat, ordering him to "scrub this woman from his mind forever."
Peter left Ballykissangel for awhile, but when he returned Assumpta was still in his heart. . .
This evening the two of them were thrown together by accident, both agreeing to babysit little Kieran so Niamah and Ambrose could have an evening out. The yearning and despair is palpable in that kitchen as Peter busies himself preparing his oriential dish for the community fund drive. They try to make conversation, but there is too much between them that can't be said. He tries to explain his feelings, admitting that, like the baby polar bear, he is confused. He desperately wants to do the right thing, but cannot deny her. He asks, "Why am I always thinking about you?"
That evening was a turning point in Assumpta and Peter's relationship. They make plans. They burn bridges. And then the lights go out one more time in the pub when everyone is gathered for the oriental supper. Assumpta goes to the basement one more time to fix the problem. . . I won't reveal any more of the plot in case you'd like to see the series. Instead, here's the most recent video montage of Ballykissangel--by someone who, like me, can't stop thinking of Assumpta and Peter.