Fionnula Flanagan visits NUI Galway

Fionnula Flanagan (Sinn Fein via Flickr)

Fionnula Flanagan charmed those attending her talk in the John Huston School of Film and Digital Media on Monday February 13. The diminutive actress was fresh from her success at that weekend’s IFTA awards where she had been honoured with a life-time achievement award.

Acting is in her blood. Dublin-born Fionnula’s father, Terence Niall Flanagan, was a promising actor who cut his career short to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He was wrongly reported dead on BBC World Service. When he returned to Ireland alive, Fionnula said, “The family were enraged as they had spent all their money on black clothes. A cousin had a mass said thanking God for taking another communist.”

She is sparkling company, but she wasn’t always so gregarious. As a child she suffered from “chronic shyness”, being terrified to wear a watch her father gave her as a present “in case someone asked me the time.” Her family sent her to speech and drama to improve her shyness, and she found she loved acting. Stints at the Abbey and other theatres led to her role in a 1965 production of An Triail, the Mairead Ni Ghrada play about teen pregnancy. She won a Jacobs Award for her performance, and this led to a role as Gerty McDowell in a film adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. She is a lifelong fan of his work, and has adapted Molly Bloom’s soliloquy for the stage. She is delighted that the copyright restriction on Joyce’s work has been lifted. She had obtained permission to use his work by “devious methods”  and “detective work” in the past.

One of Fionnula’s most controversial roles was that of an IRA hunger striker’s mother in Some Mother’s Son. She is very passionate about the importance of addressing the hunger strikes in a historical context. “It is a watershed moment in our history that has never been properly dealt with ever since.” She has high praise for Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger: “Hunger was wonderful… Michael Fassbender was terrific.”

She felt the ire of many in the British film industry with the release of Some Mother’s Son. Its release coincided with the ending of the ceasefire with the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf in 1997. “They behaved towards me as if I was an IRA bomber come to blow them up. People were very insulting even on the red carpet.”

The veteran actor David Kelly had passed away just the evening before Fionnula’s talk. A clip of Mr Kelly in 1998’s Waking Ned Devine was shown to guffaws from the audience. “A wonderful naked actor on a motorbike,” Fionnula said with a smile. A fitting tribute to a man who brought laughter and joy to so many.

After the stunning success of The Guard, Fionnula has two projects in the pipeline- Life’s a Breeze and Coming and Going. She is delighted at the current state of the Irish film industry. “It’s wonderful to see indigenous Irish films move into the mainstream.”

This article appeared in Sin on February 27 2012. 

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