Roots: The Famous Flynns
By Elizabeth Reilly, Editorial Assistant
April / May 2009
Flynn, or O Floinn in Irish, is high on the list of the most popular names in Ireland. It is derived from the Gaelic personal name Flann, which, when applied to a person, connotes a ruddy complexion. The name can be traced throughout Ireland, but is more frequently found in the south around Cork and Waterford and in the north in Counties Roscommon, Leitrim and Cavan.
The Flynns from County Cork separated themselves into two main factions; one living at Ardagh Castle between Skibbereen and Baltimore while the second were once lords of Muskerrylinn, until they were forced east by the McCarthy clan.
The clan’s northern counterparts situated in Kiltullagh and Kilkeevin in County Roscommon were erenaghs, in charge of maintaining lands and collecting taxes in the Parishes of St. Dochonna near Boyle, and the Parish at Errew by Lough Conn. The Flynns also owned land in South Armagh; here they were the senior branch of the Clanna Rury of Ulidia and traced their lineage all the way back to Colla Uais, King of Ireland in the fourth century.
Flynns have always been prominent in the religious world; in 1255, Fiacha O’Flynn became Archbishop of Tuam and, in 1820, Reverend Jeremiah O’Flynn played an instrumental role in sending the first Catholic missionaries to Australia. Modern members of the clan are still active in the religious field; Harry Flynn is the Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a position he has held since 1995.
Flynn descendants are also medaled soldiers, with two members of the clan receiving Medals of Honor during the Civil War. Sergeant James E Flynn of the 6th Missouri Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sergeant Christopher Flynn of the 14th Connecticut Infantry received the award after he captured the flag of the 52nd North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg.
A soldier in a different sense, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a labor leader, activist and feminist. At the age of 16, Elizabeth gave her first political speech on “What Socialism Will Do for Women,” and though she was expelled from high school as a result, the speech set off a long career in the field of social activism. From 1907 until 1916, she became involved in the International Workers of the World, organizing campaigns for factory workers, restaurant employees and miners. Elizabeth was so passionate about her work that during this period she was arrested on ten different occasions. She was also a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and an avid supporter of the Birth Control Movement and Women’s Suffrage.
In the field of science and technology, James Robert “Jim” Flynn (born 1934 in Chicago), as a professor of political studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, researched the year-after-year rise of IQ scores in all parts of the world, giving us the term “the Flynn effect.”
Meanwhile on the sports field, another famous Flynn tore up the tracks in the 1980s. Irish mile great Ray Flynn, who ran 89 sub-4-minute miles, now owns and operates Flynn Sports Management, a firm that represents a number of top American runners.
The phrase “in like Flynn” is attributed by some to American politician and lawyer Edward J. Flynn — “Boss” Flynn (1891-1953), who was a campaign manager for the Democratic Party during FDR’s presidency. Flynn’s machine in the South Bronx in New York was so successful at winning elections that his candidates seemed to get into office automatically.
One of the more famous contemporary Flynns in politics is former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who was elected as Boston’s 52nd mayor in 1984 and served until 1993. A devout Catholic, Flynn was appointed by President Clinton as the American Ambassador to the Holy See. He held this position from 1993 until 1997 and currently is the National Chairman of Catholic Citizenship, a group he started in 2004.
Members of the Flynn family have also crossed the divide from the political world to the literary. John T. Flynn became one of the premier American political commentators during his career as a journalist in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the early 30’s Flynn was an avid supporter of FDR during his initial bid for the presidency; however, Flynn split from Roosevelt in 1936 due to differing opinions on FDR’s New Deal. He went on to become a founding member of the America First Committee, which opposed Roosevelt’s foreign policy. A more contemporary political writer is Vince Flynn, who has written six New York Times best-sellers since 1998.
One of the clan’s most flamboyant members was actor Errol Flynn, who owing to his seductive powers, is also an alternative candidate for the expression “in like Flynn.” A swashbuckler both on and off the silver screen, he was immortalized in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sun Also Rises. In 2004, Flynn was portrayed by Jude Law in the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. A more modern-day actor with a connection to the Flynn clan is Lara Flynn Boyle, the attractive actress who made a name for herself on the drama series Twin Peaks and the Emmy Award-winning show The Practice.
Flynns also made their way in the world of music. The renowned jazz pianist Frank Emilio Flynn (1921-2001) was born to Digna Maria and Francis Joseph Flynn in Havana, Cuba. In the business sphere, Irish-American William Flynn is Mutual of America’s Chairman Emeritus and the first Irish-American chairman of the NCAFP (National Committee on American Foreign Policy). Flynn received the National Committee’s first Initiative for Peace Award in 1997 for his work in promoting peace in Northern Ireland. He was this magazine’s Irish American of the Year in 1995 and was also honored as one of Irish America’s Irish of the Century.