One of the most interestingly titled pubs in the capital is ‘The Bird Flanagan’ in Rialto, and its signage of a police officer in pursuit of a man certainly grabs your attention.
The pub is named in honour of Willie Flanagan, who could only be described as a bit of a character in the history of Dublin. Flanagan was a practical joker of great renown in Dublin, and was the brother-in-law of Taoiseach W.T Consgrave. The son of Alderman Michael Flanagan, ‘The Bird Flanagan’ was said to live off the wealth and name of his father, but created a name for himself through his fun and games in the city, in particular two stunts in 1907. Alderman Flanagan and his family lived at Walkinstown House, a beautiful home which stood on what is now the location of the Walkinstown Superquinn.
I first came across ‘The Bird’ in the pages of Walter Starkie’s autobiography, Scholars and Gypsies. In it, he recalls seeing ‘The Bird’ in Jammets restaurant, a favourite haunt of writers at the time. Starkie described him as “Dublin’s celebrated playboy”, and in it he discussed the rumored origins of the nickname ‘The Bird’. It was said that on one occasion Willie Flanagan “went to a fancy dress ball at the roller skating rink in Earlsfort Terrace wearing wings and a tail and laid a huge egg on the dancing floor, to the scandal of all present. Ever afterwards he’s been called The Bird.” In his entertaining biography of Oliver St. John Gogarty, Ulick O’Connor argues that this stunt may have been the work of a “rival jester” circa 1909, noting that “this was the picaresque flavour of Dublin” at the time.
In the newspaper archives, I found that Flann O’Brien wrote about the exploits of The Bird in the pages of The Irish Times in 1962, writing that while some of the stories around The Bird must have been exagerated, “it must be accepted that the Bird Flanagan’s genuine exploits provided the nucleus of other peoples affectionate or amusing invention.”
O’Brien wrote of one particularly legendary instance where The Bird was said to approach King Edward at the Curragh during an important racing event, who was strolling with “Castle worthies to drop the flag at starting point.” It was said that Flanagan succeeded in getting a loan of a fiver from the King of England, which was no small achievement.
A near legendary tale connects Flanagan to the Gresham Hotel, when he was said to ride a pony into the hotel, a story Ulick O’Connor tells in his history of the hotel, noting that “In 1907, a pony appeared in the Foyer of the Gresham. There was a man in the saddle. It was the famous ‘Bird’ Flanagan, a son of Alderman Flanagan, a prosperous County Dublin farmer” Flanagan requested a drink for the pony, and the exchange led to the naming of the Bird Flanagan Bar in the Hotel.
Also in 1907, there was fun to be had for The Bird at the International Exhibition at Herbert Park. One of the features of this exhibition was a “Zulu village transplanted to Dublin”, and this exhibition included living people. It was said that Flanagan removed a child from this exhibition and “returned it to the French pavilion, as a gesture against the decline in the French birth-rate.” Flann O’Brien told a different version of the story, writing that “The Bird stole the baby of the wild man of Borneo from the latters straw house or tent and smuggled it into the snug of a pub in Ballsbridge.”
An interesting letter to The Irish Times in 1965 may go some way towards explaining the pub signage in Rialto:
Also in the archives of The Irish Times was this brief notice on the death of the practical joker in December 1925, which makes no reference to his exploits but focuses on other aspects of his life:
He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery today. When looking for information on The Bird, and seperating fact from fiction, I stumbled upon the fantastic family history website of Mark Humphrys. Much of what I managed to uncover in the newspaper archives and searching books digitally is there, but also other fantastic tales such as “Once during a performance at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, during WWI, he stood up in the middle of the show and took off his overcoat, revealing himself to be dressed as the Kaiser.”
Quite the character.