She has been the toast of Broadway and the American television and film world, picking up a coveted Emmy Award along the way, but she regularly returns to her home in Ireland and proudly espouses things Irish including her native language. Fionnula Flanagan has been part of international and national stage and screen for more than fifty years, writes David Flynn.
Dublin-born actress Fionnula Flanagan has recently finished a six-week run in A Christmas Carol at the Gate Theatre, where she played the Ghost of Christmas Past. Fionnula has history with the Gate, dating back from when she was a little girl growing up in the city, and the daughter of parents who were interested in the arts and the Irish language.
“My father was only able to say ‘Tá’, and couldn’t manage anything else,” she said laughing. “My mother had a certain fluency – she worked in the Civil Service, and you had to have Irish to be there. She believed that we should all have Irish. It’s our language, and I also believe it’s no burden to carry it when you learn it when very young. My mother was a member of a musical comedy society when she was young and my father was a wonderful storyteller, and they both read voraciously.”
I met Fionnula a few days before Christmas at the Gate Theatre where she did nine shows per week of the adapted play from the novel by Charles Dickens. She walked from the wings of the stage leading her constant companion, Betty, a nine years old rescue dog, to do our interview.
Betty is a loving, mild-mannered dog who’s used to being around people and she sat on the floor beside her owner in the front row of the Christmas Carol stage.
In her childhood in the 1950s, Fionnula used to attend plays with her mother in the Gate Theatre.
“I used to come in here and sit in a seat in the back row for one shilling and sixpence,” she said. “It was a European theatre and you could see plays by Ibsen and Brecht and other wonderful plays.”
Fionnula started acting in a series of Irish language plays at the1966 Dublin Theatre Festival.
In 1967, Fionnula first treaded the boards at the Gate, when she played Kate Doogan in Hilton Edwards and Michael Mac Liammoir’s production of the Brian Friel play, Philadelphia Here I Come. Later that year in the Gate, Fionnula originated the female lead role, Margaret Mary in Friel’s Lovers, and travelled with the production to Broadway in 1968.
“Going to the US at the time was very much an eye-opener for me, because the Vietnam War was on, flower power was on the streets of San Francisco, and I was there later on throughout Watergate,” said Fionnula.
“I was there when the body bags started to come home from Vietnam, and change was happening at a rate there that nobody could have anticipated. Eisenhower’s America was gone, and it was a different kind of America with riots and demonstrations on campuses.”