Cork nostalgia: Fr O’Flynn brought his passion to stagecraft

Jimmy, as he was called by his parents, was fourth in a family of seven.
Cork nostalgia: Fr O’Flynn brought his passion to stagecraft

‘King Lear’ Teddy Healy, ‘Goneril’ Clare Hickey and ‘Kent’ Mick MacCarthy in the Loft’s 1930 production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the readings and rehearsals of which were directed by Fr O’Flynn. Images courtesy: Pat Gunn, Cork Shakespearean Company.

On Monday morning, December 12 1881 a heavy frost sparkled all over the city of Cork; on Mallow Lane (today’s Shandon St), with its steep hilly incline, people could be seen slipping and sliding - it was a hard day for horses. At number 12, as Shandon bells chimed eight o’clock, a baby boy was born to Cornelius O’Flynn, who was employed in the Butter Market, and his wife, Catherine Uppington, who was of Protestant stock; three days later he was baptised and christened James Cristopher O’Flynn in the North Chapel.

Jimmy, as he was called by his parents, was fourth in a family of seven. His earliest education was in Blackpool National School and afterwards at the North Monastery with other boys and girls who lived in the many overcrowded lanes, lanes narrow enough to shake hands across and where poverty was rampant.

Young Jimmy was an observer and loved to mimic people, and the bustling atmosphere in the streets and lanes around him provided the perfect opportunity to hone his craft.

After leaving school he was very restless about his future, however, his mother got him a position as a clerk in a warehouse but after two years he told her he wanted to become a priest. In September 1899, he became a student at the junior seminary of Farranferris, and proceeded to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, on the completion of his studies. 

Fr O’Flynn. 
Fr O’Flynn. 

On June 20, 1909, he was ordained and shortly afterwards appointed elocution teacher at Farranferris. While there he became a member of Cuallacht Cholm Cille and developed an interest in Shakespeare to help his students speak correctly. This earned him a reputation as a great actor, however, his passion for theatre quickly blossomed when he put planks of timber on barrels and covered them with old carpet and each year produced a full-length Shakespeare play.

The turning-point in his life came in 1910 when he visited an Irish-speaking district in Ballingeary, West Cork and for the first time he came in contact with the old Gaelic tradition. 

“There, rummaging among the ruins of the nation” he said in Richard O’Donoghue’s wonderful book: Like A Tree Planted, “I discovered the remnants of a supremely beautiful culture of emotion in language, story, song and dance still living in the hearts of those people that completely captivated me.” 

Up to this time, he had no intimate knowledge of “the Irish thing”, the language, folklore, songs and dances. From that time onwards he spent his summer vacations in Irish-speaking districts in West Cork and on the Blasket Islands and Ballinskelligs and became an ardent member of the Gaelic League.

In 1920 he became one of the curates in the Cathedral and four years later founded An Críoch Scoil Chorcaí, an acting school in the choir room which soon became known as the Cork Shakespearean Company.

Gus Healy, Fr O’Flynn and Peadar Houlihan. 
Gus Healy, Fr O’Flynn and Peadar Houlihan. 

 This school of drama gained such popularity that he had to seek alternative accommodation, renting a room over a cobber’s shop in nearby Clarence St; and moving again later to a larger room over a sweet factory on John Redmond Street in 1926. This room became known as the Loft in which Fr O’Flynn devoted his time teaching Shakespeare, music, dance and song.

Fr O’Flynn had a magical way with children which was most evident when he would celebrate 10.30am mass in the Cathedral. These masses were a theatrical experience in themselves as he possessed a very rich voice and would sing and talk his way through the ceremonies with an involved congregation of hundreds of young people.

Whenever Fr O’Flynn visited schools in the parish, word would go around like wildfire. Such a visit meant tools down and the boys would be treated to a feast of Shakespeare, music and song. In 1927, the Loft produced six Shakespeare plays in the Cork Opera House to great acclaim. The school’s motto was ‘Áilleacht in Uachtar’ (‘Beauty uppermost’). Over the years, the Loft became an institution of theatre in Cork and the most celebrated of people ascended its well-worn stairs.

In 1946 Fr O’Flynn was appointed parish priest of Passage West, Co Cork and continued his great work. In the Passage West Mercy Convent, he trained a girls’ choir in traditional Irish songs which made a number of records and were broadcast on Radio Éireann.

James Buchan, the producer of the 1961 BBC film documentary: ‘It Happened To Me’, said: ‘I have met many great humanitarians in the course of doing documentary programmes for television, but Father O’Flynn was the greatest of them all. What impressed us all about him was his tremendous love of his fellow-man as well as for God. To us he epitomised the Christian.'
James Buchan, the producer of the 1961 BBC film documentary: ‘It Happened To Me’, said: ‘I have met many great humanitarians in the course of doing documentary programmes for television, but Father O’Flynn was the greatest of them all. What impressed us all about him was his tremendous love of his fellow-man as well as for God. To us he epitomised the Christian.'

Such was his reputation for curing speech impediments in the Loft that the BBC producer James Buchan made a half-hour documentary based on his life titled: It Happened To Me, broadcast in June 1961. As a result, Fr O’Flynn received hundreds of letters from all over Ireland and abroad from people seeking his advice and assistance.

The programme won the highest award at the International Catholic Festival at Monte Carlo in March 1962.

Then an old man with his health in decline, Fr O’Flynn returned home to his North Parish and on Thursday, January 18 1962 he passed away in the North Infirmary Hospital, opposite his beloved Loft under the Shandon bells. He’s buried in St Mary’s church grounds, Passage West.

Today the Cork Shakespearean Company continues its great work in the Blarney Street Community Centre, Cork and will be celebrating its centenary in 2024.

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