This is how Mannix Flynn became an actor. A few months after he was released from Mountjoy prison, he was walking down Dame Street in Dublin and saw Peter Sheridan, a theatre director and Jim’s brother.
“Are you Peter Sheridan?” the 18-year-old demanded in a thick Dublin accent, blocking the director’s path. “I met an actor in Mountjoy who knew you.”
Flynn explained that he wanted to be an actor, so Sheridan invited him to an audition for Mobile Homes, a play he and Jim were finalising. They were looking to fill the part of a man who had no lines but who had to look really threatening.
“I want you to go over and intimidate him,” Sheridan told Flynn, pointing to Tom Irwin, an actor of the old school who was wearing a dickie bow and sports jacket and was to take the lead in the play. Flynn walked across the stage of the Project theatre to Irwin, whispered something in his ear, and then threw a pretend head-butt.
“Irwin had to be helped to his feet,” Sheridan recalls. “I said, ‘Mannix, you have the part’.”
That was the spring of 1976. Exactly 27 years later, Flynn has finally arrived. Last week he was elected a member of Aosdana, the elitist club created as a sort of artistic honours system by Charles Haughey. It was a brilliant public relations coup for the stuffy organisation — electing someone of whom ordinary people have actually heard. But it’s an unlikely career move for the former hell-raiser and convicted arsonist. “Welcome to the middle class, Mannix,” scoffed one of his friends in a congratulatory telephone call last week.
It was far from Aosdana that he was reared. Born in poverty in May 1957, Flynn was the seventh child of a family of 15, who grew up in a two-room tenement in York Street, Dublin. “There was six girls and then a boy, but he died at a year, and there was me. It was mad, we were an army,” he once said. The second eldest, Anne Marie, married Tony Felloni, a notorious criminal. He was convicted of assaulting her three times. She, with 45 criminal convictions, bit off his finger and stabbed him in the chest.
Their father was a street sweeper with Dublin Corporation. Their mother ran a fruit and vegetable stall on Camden Street. The parents fought bitterly, and his father left home for a time. By the age of eight, Flynn was in trouble with the law, appearing in a juvenile court for stealing a box of chocolates.
At 10, he was convicted of playing truant and stealing a bike. He was sent to St Joseph’s industrial college in Letterfrack, a correctional institute for children. On his first day he was sexually abused by a Christian brother. A few weeks later another brother beat him with a leather strap for smoking. He was abused again in the toilets. “It was like something out of Schindler’s List,” he said recently. “Hundreds of children were raped and murdered. It’s a holocaust we’re dealing with.” He spent just over a year there, but the Letterfrack experience remains at the centre of everything he does artistically. It is the theme of his two best-known plays and his 1983 novel, Nothing to Say.
He spent a few months in Marlborough House, another correctional hell-hole. But they thought he was mad and, at 15, Mannix was sent to the central mental hospital in Dundrum, which classified him as insane. He only found this out recently when he got his full file from the government under the Freedom of Information Act. Two months later he was reclassified as sane, but apparently only so that the authorities could send him to prison instead.
He still disputes his conviction for arson. “I was walking home,” a semi-fictional self once said. “There was nothing on my mind except sleep. Fire. And I’m in that street, the wrong street at the wrong time. Do you remember, God, do you remember? Five years in that dirty, filthy prison, for nothing.”
He started writing in Mountjoy, but rejects the idea that his art is therapy. “I’m not Jimmy Boyle. I’m not an ex-con on a mission.”
Within a year of his release, he had co-written and starred in The Liberty Suit, an acclaimed prison play. “The opening night was in the Olympia,” Sheridan says. “We had gambled our entire grant for the year on this one play, with the most notorious arsonist in Ireland as the headlining actor.
On the third-last line, he faltered. People in the audience shouted up to him ‘go on, go on’. He did. At the final curtain the place exploded. He was amazing, he was the real thing. Just 18 years of age and exuding energy. He had even written three of the songs for the play.”
At the age of 20, Mannix went for a drink and he didn’t come back for 20 years. He became a notorious hell-raiser, picking fights, doing drugs, having to be bailed out of police stations by theatrical friends. “I hold the record in Dublin for previous convictions and for the number of pubs I’ve been barred from,” he says. “I’m barred from pubs I didn’t even go into.”
At the height of his fame, he walked off the stage during a performance of Waiting for Godot. He felt the middle-class theatrical crews were looking down on him, but he couldn’t go back, and sought solace in drink. “He went into the arts as a place of refuge,” said one theatre director. “We were all so mad he was able to blend in. We always knew Letterfrack had a bad thing on him but we didn’t realise how bad it was, and he couldn’t articulate it.”
There were family problems too. His brother reputedly fell through a skylight while engaged in a burglary and landed, dead, in an undertaker’s premises. There was some film parts, in Excalibur and Cal, but by the age of 30 Flynn was “broken, finished, my guts all over the streets of Dublin”. In pre-celebrity Ireland his name conjured up the image of a wild-eyed drunken brawler, talented but terminally erratic.
The lowest point may have been in 1993 when a theatrical production of Talking to the Wall was scheduled as a one-man show in the Project. “He rehearsed it, we got a good producer, put loads of ads in the papers, and posters on the walls,” said one source involved in the production. “One Saturday morning he went out for a coffee and never came back. The show had to be cancelled. It was embarrassing and hurtful for everyone involved, but they all forgave him. Mannix has a lot of charm.”
In 1996, he spent six weeks in therapy at the Rutland Centre. Finally he confronted his demons. The following year he and his partner, Susan Bergin, sorted out the play. He did it for three nights at the Da Club in Dublin, and then brought it to the Edinburgh festival. It won the Fringe First award and Mannix has never looked back. He did a three-night run of Talking to the Wall in Temple Bar, and on the last night touts were selling tickets outside.
His work is strongly autobiographical; only the thinnest veneer of fiction is applied at times. But it is only in recent years that his theme has resonated fully. When he described his incarceration in Letterfrack in his 1983 novel, “people objected to what I wrote about the treatment of children in it. They said it wasn’t so. Nobody in Ireland abused children”. Now we know better. Ironically, much of Nothing to Say was written in churches in Dublin and London, because Mannix liked their quiet ambience.
His latest play, Jimmy X, is a further development of this autobiographical theme. Jimmy X is in his mid-40s, like Mannix, and is suing the church and state for damages for the mental and physical injury he suffered in their care. While he waits for the case to be heard, he reviews his life. Mannix wrote most of Jimmy X in Letterfrack, living for 18 months in the now-deserted monastery where he was abused. “It was just something I needed to do — working there helped me to come to terms with what I had been through.”
He now lives in Killorglin, Co Kerry, where he has been drawing the dole. He borrowed to help pay the ¤50,000 it cost to put on Jimmy X. Membership of Aosdana will bring the welcome financial support of the Cnuas — an annual stipend of ¤11,000 a year. “He thoroughly deserves it,” was a typical reaction from the arts world last week. “Were he never to write another word in his life, I’m glad he’s got it.”
His election to the arts academy was widely supported and not, as might have been expected, blocked by snobs. “I told Mannix afterwards how warmly his election was received,” says Theo Dorgan, the poet. “It struck me that this was the first time an institution of the state had opened to him. Mannix pointed out to me that it was an institution of citizens supported by the state. But through Aosdana the state has finally said to Mannix Flynn: ‘Welcome home’.”