Gerard Mannix Flynn has always been a talker. Playwright, actor, novelist, politician: the Dubliner needs no encouragement to hack his way through an hour or two of articulate provocation. He’s been at it for 62 years.
Dressed in typically natty tweed, furrows dividing a shaved head, Mannix Flynn is nominally here to discuss his excellent new documentary Land Without God. Gathering members of his wider family, the picture focuses on the institutional abuse visited on working-class Dubliners over the last 50 years. We want to talk about that. But we also want to discuss some of the controversies he’s kicked up in the 10 years since he was elected an independent Dublin city councillor.
Fret not. Before I’ve had a chance to raise any of these topics, he has voluntarily chewed them half to death. There was his recent raised eyebrow at objections to the closure of the George Bernard Shaw pub in south Dublin. I think I’d asked something about whether Dublin is a less happy place than it was when he was young.
Half of Imma is a car park. And the same bunch that jumped up and own about the Bernard Shaw didn’t say a thing about that. Here was a bunch of individuals getting in a state about a pub!
“No question. It’s profoundly unhappy. And it’s very fractured,” he says. “The classic example would be the George Bernard Shaw. A bunch of individuals decided they were going to camp in a rundown ghettoised area and put their brand on it. Then when it came to the owners trying to redevelop it there was a great hullabaloo about nothing.
“If you go to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, half of it is a car park. And the same bunch that jumped up and own about the Bernard Shaw didn’t say a thing about that. The national cultural enterprises weren’t sharing their space. But here was a bunch of individuals getting in a state about a commercial enterprise – a pub!”
His musings on the Bernard Shaw, run by the Bodytonic company, drift into consideration of the murals by the Subset group – the Horseboy in Smithfield, for example – that have recently encountered objections from planning regulators.
“It is a commercial enterprise by Bodytonic. It’s not a collective. It’s not the Mona Lisa,” he says. “There is the same issue around Subset and the wall mural… The idea they can just spray on walls is not good enough. And then you compare it with the quality of street art I’ve seen. It’s muck! But you have this ‘activism’. It’s perpetrated by people who think they’re right on. But they’re not right on.”
Okey doke. Let’s move on to the protests by Extinction Rebellion. Mannix Flynn – a left-winger who acknowledges no faction bar his own – is less than impressed by that organisation shutting down city streets to bring attention to climate change. He won’t be joining Emma Thompson in her boat on Oxford Street anytime soon.
I have come through all the horrors People Before Profit claim to represent. Poverty. Prison. Abuse. I have managed to push beyond it. But they didn’t see it because I was not subservient to them. They want me to be grateful
“Extinction Rebellion have threatened to close down the city,” he says. “Therefore they’ve threatened to damage the environment – they’ve threatened to damage the economy to get their point across. Everybody I know is doing the best to recycle and be a parent. These guys are going to sit and block traffic and have a cultural event.
“If you are not sophisticated in your challenge to capitalism you’re going to end up being just an irritant. Look at the so-called hard left. They’re not hard at all. They’re the wanker left. They now see Extinction Rebellion as their chance to go global. Meanwhile they’ve abandoned the working classes.”
Oh yes, the hard left. Following the council elections this May, he compared People Before Profit and its followers to the “Taliban or Isis”. It seems that not the tiniest slivers of love were lost when he rubbed up against that faction during the count at the RDS.
“My good friends on the left in People Before Profit behaved so badly in the last election,” he says. “I am Mannix Flynn. I am 62. I have come through all the horrors they claim to represent. Poverty. Prison. Abuse. You name it. I have managed to push beyond it. But they didn’t see it because I was not subservient to them. They want me to be grateful.”
This line of argument takes us to a new target for evisceration.
“It’s about me saying I don’t want other people to represent us. We can represent ourselves. We are sick and tired of the kind of representation I saw the other night in the Abbey Theatre at Dermot Bolger’s Last Orders at the Dockside. You felt your stomach churning because it was so patronising and because of how it misrepresented the people. It was an extraordinary cliché.”
Not having seen Bolger’s play, I am in no position to play devil’s advocate here. It seems unlikely Mannix Flynn would have his mind changed anyway. One of Dublin’s original punk creators – even if he never wore the gear – Mannix Flynn has never been backwards in coming forward. It’s all there in the terse, angry, ultimately poetic Land Without God. The film explains how, when a boy, he – and many around him – were incarcerated for the most trivial of offences and shipped from the city. The seventh child of 15, raised in two rooms in York Street, Mannix was sent to St Joseph’s Industrial College in Letterfrack at the age of just 10. He suffered truly horrific sexual and physical abuse there. Land Without God mentions those outrages, but it is more to do with the systems that allowed that to happen. It’s an intensely political project. Mannix Flynn argues that the authorities saw the poor as a menace and an embarrassment that had to be shifted away from polite eyes.
“The state saw us as surplus to needs,” he says. “The British were relatively progressive when it came to the Poor Laws and orphanages and so on. I am not saying they were magnificent. But we went the other way. We were seen as undesirable. We were surplus to need. We couldn’t possibly be intelligent. And where you had opportunity to put us away you could put us in the employ of the church.”
You supported yourself through the dole. You got a few quid and then you had a share in plays. Maybe you got 30 quid from that. Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Peter Caffrey, Olwen Fouéré: we all worked that way
I am impressed that he persuaded so many of his relations to tell their story here. It must have been a painful experience for them.
“It was very traumatic to get them engaged,” he says. “It was heart-wrenching. It was difficult to get that intimate. That was a very tough experience – for us and for the members of the family who came in.”
Somehow or other Mannix Flynn managed to become the cultural force he is today. He remembers an acting company coming to a prison where he was detained and performing a play. He was already writing and reckoned he and the inmates were “10 times” more talented than the professionals. When he got out, he started as a stage manager. A spell of acting at the Project Arts Centre with Jim and Peter Sheridan followed. His performance at The Olympis in The Liberty Suit, which he co-wrote, is still spoken of with awe.
“You supported yourself through the dole,” he says. “You got a few quid and then you had a share in plays. Maybe you got 30 quid from that. Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Peter Caffrey, Olwen Fouéré: we all worked that way.”
There seems to have been the odd falling out with the Sheridans along the way, but he doesn’t appear to be holding any grudges.
“I have huge respect for what they’ve done,” he says. “But they wouldn’t be on my mind every day and I wouldn’t be phoning them up every day.”
He will surely excuse me if I suggest that some collaborators have found him something of a handful. There was a conviction for arson. Most everybody has a colourful story about Mannix in full flow. He allows himself a bit of a shrug.
“A great way for the Irish to close somebody down is to say they are difficult,” he says. “Here’s Donald Clarke. He’s got an odd accent. Is he a Brit? Is he a spy? Is he a friend of Kevin Myers? This is the kind of prejudice that you have. I have difficulties in my life. I was an alcoholic and I behaved like an alcoholic. But so was Donal McCann. So were a lot of other actors. But they were all middle class. So it was a different ball game. It was easier to turn around and say I couldn’t write or whatever.”
There are times when you end up broken. You then have to go into that place where you get the ingredients to move forward. Estragon and Vladimir had that, even though Beckett was dark and gloomy
Mannix Flynn does enjoy a barney. Indeed, he clearly relishes annoying people who might reasonably expect to find an ally in him. “What did Apollo House do? It did nothing,” he says of that housing protest. But he’s an intensely serious man. Having kicked the booze at Talbot Grove rehab centre in Kerry, he devoted himself to a swathe of artistic projects and, ultimately, to politics. Catch him striding the streets of Dublin 8 and he’ll always spare five minutes to express a sincerely held opinion. In 2002 his play, James X, toured the world. He is an unlikely member of Aosdána – surely some indicator that you’re now on the inside – and, when queried, argues passionately for the virtues of that association of artists. For all this buzz of activity and for all the strength of his opinions, he claims that he’s found a sort of peace in recent years. The word “faith” is mentioned. Waiting for Godot seems to be a sacred text.
“There are times when you end up broken. You then have to go into that place where you get the ingredients to move forward,” he says. “Estragon and Vladimir had that, even though Beckett was dark and gloomy. ‘We will come back tomorrow because he might come tomorrow.’ What is the truth of your life? What are you going to do if you don’t wait for Godot?”
Yet the anger is never entirely dismissed. As I’m packing up my Brit materials into my spy bag, he finishes with a last word about the documentary.
“Land Without God is a manifesto from my class to my class,” he says. “We are an intelligent, articulate people from a great culture and we would like people to get their boots off our f**king necks.”
Land Without God is released on Friday, October 18th