Roots: The Fantastic Flanagans

Shalane Flanagan. Photo by Erik VanLeeuwen/Wikimedia Commons.

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
August / September 2012

The surname Flanagan and its variants, which include O’Flanagan, Flanigan, Flannigan, and the less common Flenigen, number among the most popular in Ireland. All derive from the surname’s original Irish form, O’Flannagain, likely stemming from the Irish word flann, meaning “reddish” or “ruddy.”

The O’Flannagain clan originated in Connacht, from the same line as the royal O’Connor family, and held hereditary claim to the post of steward to the Kings of Connacht. The O’Flannagains dwelled mainly near Elphin, Co. Roscommon, though others with the name lived in Offaly and northwest Fermanagh. Today the surname is most often found in counties Roscommon, Clare, Galway and Mayo.

The Flanagan coat of arms features an oak tree and an armor-clad hand holding a flaming sword. The oak symbolizes strength and stability, while the full green border – fairly uncommon – is a sign of honorable or military appointment. The raised arm and sword represent loyalty, readiness and honor. Appropriately, the motto is certavi et vici, “I have fought and conquered.”

Over the centuries, Flanagans have excelled in a variety of fields, in Ireland and abroad. In Ireland, early Flanagans of note included Donough O’Flanagan (d. 1308), Bishop of Elphin; James Roderick Flanagan (1814–1900), a prolific scholar of Irish life; and Theophilus O’Flanagan (1760–1818), who was active in the early Gaelic revival movement.

Among the most famous Flanagans is Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan (b. 1941), who was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame on July 4. A star of film, television and theater, Flanagan was born and raised in Dublin and studied acting at the Abbey Theatre. In 1968 she made her Broadway debut in Brian Friel’s Lovers. In film, Flanagan can be seen in such gems as Some Mother’s Son, The Others and The Guard. She is a familiar face in many American TV shows and series, including  Lost, Brotherhood, and Rich Man, Poor Man (for which she won an Emmy).

Fellow Flanagans have made a name for themselves in acting. Pauline Flanagan (1925–2003), an Irish-born actress, had a long stage career in New York and London. She won an Olivier Award in 2001 and held a recurring role on the Irish-American soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Crista Flanagan (b. 1976), a comedic actress, was a cast member of MADtv from 2005–2009. She most recently appeared in Mad Men as nice but inept secretary Lois Sadler. Tommy Flanagan (b. 1965) is a Scottish actor best known for his work as villains in a number of action flicks and TV shows including Sin City and Smokin’ Aces. He is currently a cast member on the TV series Sons of Anarchy.

Another Irish Flanagan who made a lasting impact on America is Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886–1948), the Roscommon native who established the famous Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska. Founded upon Fr. Flanagan’s belief that kindness, hard work and a supportive home environment could work wonders in a child’s life, the home eventually expanded into a much larger complex, which is today home to boys, girls and families in need of help. Fr. Flanagan was recently named a Servant of God, which sets him on the path to canonization.

Most Americans carry the legacy of Irish-American sculptor John Flanagan (1865–1952) in their wallets and pockets. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Flanagan apprenticed with a number of prominent sculptors, including Irish-born Augustus St. Gaudens. In addition to the Rotunda Clock sculpture (1896) in the Library of Congress, his most enduring legacy is the Washington U.S. Quarter, which he completed in 1932. His initials, J.F., can be found under George Washington’s profile on the obverse side of the coin.

John Flanagan (1873–1938) was a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw, who represented the U.S. at the 1900, 1904 and 1908 Olympics. Born in Limerick, he immigrated  in 1896, already holding the hammer throw world record. He joined the Irish-American Athletic Club of Celtic Park, New York, and worked with the New York City Police. At the 1908 London Olympics, Flanagan beat his own world record with a distance of 170 feet, 4.5 inches.

Irish-American distance runner Shalane Flanagan (b. 1981) is headed to the 2012 London Olympics, where she will represent Team U.S.A in the marathon. Born in Colorado and raised in Massachusetts, Flanagan attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she won consecutive national cross country titles before turning professional in 2004. She took home the bronze in the Women’s 10,000 meter race at the 2008 Olympics, and finished second in the 2010 NYC Marathon. At the 2012 U.S. Olympics Trials Marathon in Texas, Flanagan won with a time of 2:25:38, setting a new event record.

11 Responses to “Roots: The Fantastic Flanagans”

  1. Thomas Doherty says:

    The Flanagan Brothers ? Famous Irish Band from Albany NY !! and your antispam software is silly!!!

  2. madeline says:

    I have irish features which I got from my grandfather but does anyone know which Flanagan anscestor traveled to america first

  3. John Joseph Flanagan says:

    My father was named John Joseph Flanagan, and I was also named John Joseph Flanagan. I was born in 1945. My father was Irish American, second generation, and my mother was German American, also second generation. I like my last name….but for crying out loud….there are so many of us John Joseph Flanagan’s around. At one point there were 55 John Flanagan’s in the phone directory in Suffolk County, Long Island, where I grew up. Couldn’t my Irish forbears think of more diversified first names for some of us male Flanagan’s? I suppose if I were a South Korean named Kim Park, I could complain about too many Park’s in the phone book as well.

  4. Tom P Flanagan says:

    I live in Suffolk County NY also, My uncle was John J. Flanagan (Commack) , my dad was Thomas Flanagan. Grandfather was Wiliam Flanagan. Apparently first known in my family was Michael in 1839 to emigrate.

  5. Corbin Flanagan says:

    Are all Flanagan’s related?

  6. Flan the Man says:

    I am a Flanagan, like me Da before me. Me ma’s people hail from Cork in the south, far away from the Flanagan clan from Connacht in the north. Me da, after splitting with me Ma, he married a lass named O’Connor. Does this mean he married his cousin? I think it’s kinda funny as me half siblings are all a little goofy. Goofy little bastards, they are. Sláinte

  7. Nicola Flanagan says:

    I am 27 years of age of my mother Stephanie Flanagan age 40, her mother is Anne R Shaw Flannagan age 58 I still want to know where I came from, since I was adopted
    I would like to know my family history

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