When Fionnula Flanagan was a girl in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was an understated affair. “It always rained,” the 77-year-old actress says. “You’d go watch the parade. The army would have some tanks out, the Irish Air Force would bring its one airplane on its truck, and there’d be a lot of floats. All the pubs were closed, and that put everyone in a bad humor. That, and the rain!”
Flanagan has spent most of the last five decades living in California, making many a TV movie and guest appearances in no fewer than three “Star Trek” spinoffs. Through April, you can see her on stage in Broadway’s “The Ferryman,” about a family in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles during the 1970s. Jez Butterworth’s drama features a live baby, a real goose and a rabbit — as well as a performance by Flanagan that critics have called “sublime.”
Here’s what she told us of being an Irishwoman at home and in New York, a city she’s come to love.
What brought you here, and when?
I first came in 1968 with a play I’d done in Dublin, Brian Friel’s “Lovers.” I believed, from reading the Saturday Evening Post, that New York was all yellow taxicabs, so I wasn’t used to the noise — the sirens, the cars!
I had an apartment in the Camelot, on the corner of Eighth and 45th Street. At the time, most all of the women living there were call girls, and they dressed fabulously. They had high, high white boots long before anyone else did, and were always dressed to the nines. I’d meet them in the elevator, looking like a country mouse, on my way to the Music Box Theatre. Someone would say, “Where are you off to, honey?” “I’m going to work.” “Well, we are, too.”
They were ladies of the night.
What do you think of our St. Patrick’s Day parade?
I’ve only ever seen the Fifth Avenue one on television. But 20 years ago, I got a note from Brendan Fay, who said he and his LGBT friends weren’t allowed to walk in the Fifth Avenue parade, so he was going to start a St. Pat’s For All parade in Sunnyside, Queens. It takes place every year, and this year, he invited me to be the grand marshal.
I went there Sunday [March 3]. They made me a sash with my name embroidered on it, and I marched. I think every politician in New York was there! We all stood on a dais and said a few words, and I thought, “Any minute now, this dais is going to collapse.” But it didn’t.
People tout St. Patrick as the person who saved Ireland, but that’s not true. The pig saved Ireland. During famine times, and there were many, if you could keep a pig, you could sell it or its little ones and pay your rent. That was a huge thing that hung over people’s heads: “How would I pay my rent?”
My late husband used to say we should start a movement to make the pig the symbol of Ireland, not the shamrock.
Do you still have a place in Ireland?
I have a house in County Wicklow, about an hour south of Dublin. My house is on the edge of a town so small, it’s not even on the map. I’ve been living in California since 1972, but I go as often as I can. Actually, they’re having summer-like weather in Ireland now, the mildest winter ever on record. There, if it hits 70 degrees, people say, “Oh my God, the heat’s awful!” Years ago, there was a headline, “Temperature soars to 70, thousands succumb” — but that’s because they were sitting on the beach wearing their overcoats. That’s very Samuel Beckett-like: People wearing overcoats and fainting because of the heat.
I’m planning to come back to New York. I’d like to do more theater, and this is where theater is. This is such a fascinating city — there’s so much to do and see. I’ve got to walk across that Brooklyn Bridge one day. Another thing I’d like to do is go up to the top of the Empire State Building late at night. You pay $36 and you can see the entire city. I intend to do that before I leave the show in April.
I’ve got a poodle-terrier mix who’s 9. Betty, who’s named for Betty Ford, has been everywhere with me. She comes to Ireland and travels in a bag under my seat. She even comes to the theater on matinee days, provided she doesn’t go down in the basement, because that’s where the geese and the rabbits are. Each animal in the show has an understudy. We thought the second goose was male. Then it laid an egg.
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