November 29, 1999
Volume 52, No. 13
Jim Flannery's own luck of the Irish flowers at Emory
"Your problem," said Jean Kennedy Smith one evening not too long ago to Emory's James Flannery, "is that you don't know whether you're Irish or American!"
Flannery was taken aback. He calls it "the only disagreement I ever had" with his friend, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and sister of two American icons, Jack and Bobby Kennedy. The conversation took place in Smith's 18th century Dublin residence, among scattered images of the most famous Irish-American family in history and where Smith wanted to hold an event for guests from Ireland, north and south, as a gesture of peace. Flannery, an American, was in Ireland, land of his ancestors, to help plan a Thanksgiving dinner, most definitely a U.S. tradition, for a dining room full of "ordinary" people who happened to be Irish.
"I had to admit," Flannery said with a sigh and a nod of his head, "she had a point."
His "identify crisis" will no doubt continue at 8 p.m. Saturday night, Dec. 4, when Georgia Public Television airs "Ireland, Mother Ireland," a concert of traditional Irish folk songs sung by Flannery, professor of performing arts and director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation. Emory pianist-in-residence William Ransom also appears on the program, as does Irish harper Cormac DeBarra.
The concert was held in Smith's house in Dublin, a residence accustomed to high-profile tenants. Built in 1776 as the home of the British secretary, it has also accommodated the Duke of Wellington, as well as a young Winston Churchill. In the 1920s, Ireland deeded the house to the United States for 99 years at a rate of one cent per year--a bargain even in those days--and the estate became the traditional home of the American ambassador.
Jean Kennedy Smith served as U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1993 to 1998; Flannery first met her in 1993, before her appointment, and the experience was memorable.
"There is a mythic quality to that family, but I was confronted with a wonderfully warm and gracious human being," Flannery said. "America changed when JFK became president because he opened the door for someone who came from outside the doors of the historical American establishment."
Flannery can personally identify, having grown up as an Irish kid from the other side of the tracks in Hartford, Conn., and Emory's "renaissance man" of the arts has kicked open a few doors of his own. Flannery is a singer, scholar, stage director, "cultural activist" and, above all, a teacher.
"The Old Irish term for professor, ollamh [pronounced "olave"], connotes everything one thinks of with the work 'professor,' but beyond that is the additional meaning of 'bard'-artist and witness bearer. His role was not just to pass on knowledge as a teacher, but also as a performer."
Flannery has certainly served as an Emory ollamh for many years. As founder of the Emory theater program in 1982, he directed some of Theater Emory's earliest productions, and his students quickly become accustomed to his suddenly breaking into song or quoting Yeats to illustrate a point. Flannery recorded and released a CD/book in 1997, Dear Harp of My Country: The Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore.
The release is partly a tribute to the man whom, along with W.B. Yeats, Flannery considers his intellectual and artistic mentors. Moore, an exile in England who performed sometimes for the English nobility, was reviled in his time by many of his fellow Irishmen, but Flannery pointed out that Moore acted in the bardic tradition, using his songs and poems to educate people, even his oppressors, about the struggles of his native land.
"Obviously, the idea [of a concert] is to entertain; if you don't transport the audience to another world, you fail," Flannery said. "But following Moore and Yeats, I would be irresponsible if I didn't try to leave the audience with some significant ideas that they can carry with them.
"One could look at the song 'The Minstrel Boy' and say, 'It's a war song.' It is that, but it's something more. It's a celebration of what Yeats called that 'little, infinite, faltering flame that one calls oneself'-the soul."
Flannery's flame is anything but faltering right now. In addition to the Dec. 4 airing of "Ireland, Mother Ireland," the Yeats Foundation's annual Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert will be held in Glenn Auditorium Dec. 16 and 17. One of the concert's traditions is Flannery performing a candlelit rendition of the Appalachian carol "I Wonder as I Wander" to the accompaniment of harper Kelly Stewart, fiddler Moira Nelligan and tin whistle player John Maschinot of the Buddy O'Reilly Band. That piece will climax GPTV's special, "Georgia Celebrates the Arts," airing Dec. 13 at 9 p.m. and again Dec. 19 at 12:30 p.m.
Celebrating the arts, in fact, is what brought Flannery to Emory. He was hired, he said, to help establish the arts on what historically had not been a strong performing-arts campus. Nowadays, with the success of Theater Emory, the growing dance program, handsome new facilities and renowned professors in the music department, and the new Performing Arts Center scheduled to break ground next year, those days are buried deep in Emory's past.
And Flannery has an idea to bury them deeper. He has a plan to establish a coordinating office for the arts that would make performing arts even more central to University life.
"It may seem radical to argue that the arts can be central to the purposes of higher education; to some, given the historical antipathy toward the arts at Emory, it was radical enough to establish arts programs in the first place," Flannery said. "Bold as the experiment was of the past dozen years, the still bolder--and, ultimately, far more rewarding and responsible--choice is to empower the arts to change and regenerate the intellectual and spiritual life of our campus community in ways we can scarcely imagine."