What Are You Like? Fionnula Flanagan

Fionnula Flanagan and her dog, Betty.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
August / September 2012

A star of both the screen and the stage, Fionnula Flanagan was born in Dublin in 1941. She was raised speaking both English and Irish, and studied acting at the renowned Abbey Theatre. In 1968 she made her Broadway debut playing Maggie in Brian Friel’s Lovers. During the U.S. tour of Lovers she met her husband, Dublin-born psychiatrist Dr. Garrett O’Connor, and the couple made their home in Los Angeles. In film, Fionnula has triumphed in an abundance of scene-stealing roles in such gems as Some Mother’s Son, The Others, Waking Ned Devine, and The Guard. A familiar face in many American television shows including Star Trek, Lost, Brotherhood, and Rich Man, Poor Man (for which she won an Emmy), Flanagan has also established herself as one of the eminent portrayers of James Joyce’s female characters. She first played Gerty MacDowell in the 1967 film of Ulysses, and went on to play Molly Bloom in the 1973 Broadway production of Ulysses in Nighttown and again in James Joyce’s Women, Flanagan’s one woman show which she also adapted for the screen. For the past 20 years she has performed Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Bloomsday, June 16th.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
Staying in bed on a wet day – sleeping.

Your greatest extravagance?
My Lexus two-seater sports car.

To what do you attribute your long and successful marriage to Garrett?
The fact that I’m away on location a lot.

Your favorite place in Ireland?
Connemara. Anywhere in the West – Donegal and Mayo – there is something magical and sacred about Croagh Patrick. I think there is a reason, probably pre-Christian, why it became
a sacred place.

Are you Irish or American?
I’m Irish and always will be, but America has taught me so much. Maybe it’s here in the U.S. that we find a healing, for in the broader melting pot we get to look at some of these self-destructive attributes that we bring to bear upon our own quarrels and begin to solve them in ways other than just splitting apart.

What trait do you deplore in yourself?
I have a short fuse.

What trait do you deplore in others?

What event most changed you?
Sobriety. That was 27 years ago. I don’t think I ever showed up drunk or stoned on the set, but I would show up angry and resentful, frightened and addled in interviews. Until I got clean I couldn’t take control of my life in a way that was either spiritually meaningful or healthy. I talk about it only because I think there are many women out there who are suffering similarly, ashamed to seek help. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Favorite quote?  
My mother used to say, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam,” which translates as “A country without a language is a nation without a soul.”

Secret love?
The Irish language. I spent six weeks in the West of  Ireland during the filming of an Irish TV series called Paddywhackery and it was so joyful to hear it spoken all around me.

Favorite project of the moment?
I serve on the board of the Galway Picture Palace, an art house film venue, sorely needed, which we are building in the center of Galway, a project conceived and driven by Lelia Doolan, former Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre and first Chair of the Irish Film Board. Lelia is an amazing leader – knowledgeable, visionary, courageous, and, fortunately for the Galway Picture Palace, an unstoppable force of nature.

Favorite author?  
James Joyce. Nobody can touch him. When I was growing up I thought Joyce was a good friend of my parents, because they were always saying, “Joyce said this, Joyce said that.” When I was finally old enough to read Joyce for myself, the characters were like old friends.

What’s your take on Irish women?
I think Irish women are strong as horses, incredibly loyal and for the most part, funny, witty, bright and optimistic in the face of devastating reality.

What don’t people get about the Irish?
People think we are such great talkers, but there is so much silence in Ireland about certain issues.

What don’t people get about you?
That I’m a political junky. I find myself glued to the set as the upcoming American election rolls around.

Favorite gripe?
People who describe as “unskilled labor” the poor Irish immigrants who came here and helped build America. These were people who, far from being unskilled, knew how to build roads and stone walls that still endure, thatch a roof, harvest turf for heating, make baskets, card wool and make clothes and raise their families on tiny acreage under the most adverse and punitive conditions. They had immeasurable skills which were not required or were held in contempt in the urban jungles of the New World.

Anything you would do over?
I wish I had done more at the time of the Hunger Strike. When I saw the film [Some Mother’s Son] completed, the thing that came to me so strongly was that while I had contributed a few dollars whenever I was asked and I signed petitions, I should have dropped everything and gone and stood outside the prison gate and made my voice heard, because this event in our history was so appalling and people are still feeling the fallout from it in the North.

Some would label you a republican.
I have been labeled many things, good and bad – a disgraceful divorcée (before it was legal in Ireland), an atheist, a communist, an anarchist, a pain in the ass and a national treasure.

Where do you go to think?
I like looking out the window, especially a window on a train or a bus.

Movie you will watch again and again?
The Third Man.

Favorite line from a movie?
“We’ll always have Paris,” from Casablanca, because we all have our own Paris.

Favorite movie score?
Bill Whelan’s marvelous score for Some Mother’s Son. It’s haunting and I think it is used beautifully.

Your favorite sound?  

Favorite meal?
Anything Catalonian. Though bacon and cabbage with potatoes and butter are a hot second.

What are you working on?  
I just finished an Irish/Catalonian movie  – a romantic comedy filmed in Catalonia and Ireland.

What’s next?
I’m dong the narration, in Irish and in English, for a documentary called Lon sa Speir (Lunch in the Sky) on the famous 1932 photograph of New York construction workers, several of whom were Irish, having lunch on a crossbeam during the building of Rockefeller Center. And I’m in a new TV series called Defiance for the Sci-Fi channel.

Actor you would like to work with?
Stephen Rae – again.

Best advice anyone ever gave you?
Eat your cabbage and get plenty of sleep.

Biggest fear?
Going blind and never falling in love again.

Favorite thing you own?
My dog, Betty.

Favorite leisure activity?  
Walking my dog, Betty.

How would you like to be remembered?
The words on my tombstone would read: “She was a prince.”

5 Responses to “What Are You Like? Fionnula Flanagan”

  1. ellen diamond says:

    Dear Ms. Flanagan,
    I just heard a rebroadcast today of your reading of “The Rocking Horse Winner” on Public Radio and I doubt that anyone will ever do it as well, certainly not better. I first read that story when I was in my teens in the 1950’s and consider it among the very best short stories ever written. It’s wonderful to have your voice and interpretation there “forever” to listen to and wondered if you might do some more such NPR readings for “Selected Shorts!” Of course I know your work a little – especially from “The Others” where I think your performance is the standout! But a reading such as this brings your talent right into my home in such a wonderful way Thank you for this wonderful reading. The combination of wonderful readings and wonderful literature is one of the great joys of my life and I’m sure that of many other people.

    • Kathy Corbett says:

      Hello Ms. Flanagan. I’m not sure that you will see this reply, but thought I would make a good effort in trying to communicate with you.

      My great-grandfather emigrated to the US from Ireland in the 1880’s (I think) and I made my first trip to Ireland just a couple of weeks ago. I was on a tour of the Atlantic Coast, so I didn’t even get close to County Cavan where my great-grandfather was from, but I took advantage of the tour just to get to Ireland. I thought it might be my only chance. While in Galway, I met a wonderful man there and we continue to communicate and have committed to a romantic relationship even though I live in Houston. He told me about a project you had done called the Irish gathering. If you remember, you arranged for Jennifer Mee Arthur to meet her cousin Danny Geraghty and they arranged a gathering of the entire extended family. How beautiful it was to watch that episode. And more interesting, the man I met is Danny Geraghty’s son David. I’ve never met a man with such heart and sensitivity. I just want to tell you that I was so moved by your project. And Ireland touched my heart so fully, I am already planning a trip back there as soon as I can. I have never been in a place where there were so many people just like me. Never felt a belonging as strongly as I do in Ireland. My heart is longing to return there and I applaud the work that you have done to unite the Irish heart around the globe. Many well wishes to you.

  2. Jason says:

    I have a post card written and signed by Fionnula, Dated 2/11/2001 while in Spain. Anyone interested please email me.

  3. Sean Curtain says:

    Tá áthas ormsa go bhfuil go leor Gaeilge ag Fionnúla. Go mmbeannai Dia an bhean usal seo.

  4. Sheila Barrett says:

    Hi Fionnula – I live in Chester, Nova Scotia, originally from New Jersey and
    descended from Sligo/Cork Ireland. I’ve visited Ireland many times but the
    last time I was in Midleton, Co. Cork, in a shop where the shopkeeper asked if I was you. She was shocked that I wasn’t. Anyway I’ve been reading about you since. I see you are in the play “The Ferryman”. I so wish I could make it down to see it. But it’s a bit expensive to fly to NYC.
    If you are ever in Nova Scotia, give a holler. BTW, from what I’ve read about you, we have a lot in common – politically, wittily, and doggily. Sheila

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