In (and Down Under) like Flynn – Frank McNally on a stereotypical Irishman
The ingredients of ‘The Errol’ cocktail revealed
According to one well-researched family history, Errol Flynn’s paternal great-grandfather, John Flynn, was a blacksmith from Mohill, who took “an assisted passage to Sydney in 1854”. Photograph: Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images
The Spectator magazine’s Christmas special is doubly festive this year, after avoiding what most of its contributors would have regarded as the apocalypse of a Corbyn government. Not untypical of its (Conservative) party mood is an entry from journalist and high-society member Petronella Wyatt revealing details, for what she says is the first time in print, of her favourite seasonal cocktail, “The Errol”, named after its inventor Errol Flynn.
Wyatt is well known for, among other things, being a former lover of the new British prime minister: hence the joking title of her column, “The Ex-Files”. She’s too young to have met the even more infamous philanderer who created the drink. But in the next best thing, she received the recipe at close second-hand “from my late friend Diana, Countess of Wilton”, who used to lunch with Flynn in the 1950s and was much charmed.
“Far from being a vulgar seducer,” Wyatt summarises the countess’s memories, “He liked to talk about Socrates and had wanted to become a writer. He was a tragic man, trapped by his own physical beauty. His eyes, the colour of Anatolian waters, had a terrible sadness. But he taught her to make a cocktail of such subtlety that it is like drinking moonbeams.”
We’ll come back to the moonbeams later. For now, the story also set me reading up on Flynn’s origins as an Australian, born in Tasmania in 1909. Tasmania was famous as a destination for involuntary Irish tourists. But it seems Flynn’s ancestors, at least, went there by choice, and had financial incentives to do so.
This may explain a misunderstanding that arose over the years about the actor’s background. As Wikipedia puts it: “Despite Flynn’s claims, the evidence indicates that he was not descended from any of the Bounty mutineers”.
The notion that he was may date back to the film that launched his career, In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), in which he played Fletcher Christian. But if this encouraged Flynn to romanticise his origins, it may have been only a white lie, like the one Hollywood film promoters told when ignoring his birthplace and promoting him as a full-blooded Irishman, a prized box-office commodity then.
According to one well-researched family history, his paternal great-grandfather, John Flynn, was a blacksmith from Mohill, who took “an assisted passage to Sydney in 1854”. It was common for landlords and others then to pay emigrants to leave. And indeed, on arrival in Australia, the Leitrim Flynn married one Anne Connaughty, “another bounty immigrant from Trim in County Meath”. So there you have it. The bounty bit was true. Only the mutiny was missing.
For reasons that may appear obvious, Errol Flynn is also widely credited as having spawned the phrase “In like Flynn”. This refers to any situation in which something is done with ease and, officially, its origins are unknown. But it seems first to have appeared in print in the mid-1940s, as something said by American troops, and a language journal of 1946 linked it to the smoothness with which the actor achieved all his ends in cinema.
The expression also has political overtones, especially in this country where a more recent generation of Flynns breathed new life into it. In that context, there is an alternative candidate for paternity via the Bronx-born Edward J Flynn: a Democrat politician who wielded great power in New York in the 1930s and 1940s.
Elsewhere, if he didn’t inspire it, Errol Flynn must for a time have been the very epitome of a now notorious entry in Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia for Children, a vestige of empire that was published periodically in Britain between 1908 and 1964.
In a section on Ireland, it describes the “three distinct types” of people to be found here. One was the “very primitive type still to me met with in the west”: squat, low of forehead, heavy jawed etc. Another was the stern, business-like northerner.
But then there was the Flynn kind: “the tall, often blue-eyed, engaging Irishman of easy address and good-humoured air, who would wile a bird from a bough with his fluent tongue, ready for adventure anywhere”. That’s most of us, obviously.
As for the cocktail with moonbeams, which is what you really want to know about it, preferably without forking out a tenner for the Spectator annual, the recipe is as follows: “1 part gin, 1 part Cointreau, and 1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add a teaspoon of white rum. Shake with ice and serve in martini glasses.”