Willie ('Bird') Flanagan

(10/04/1867 - 14/12/1925)

Today is the 98th anniversary of the death of William “The Bird” Flanagan. Willam was born on April 10, 1867, and was a notorious Dublin practical joker, celebrated playboy and a prominent figure in the city’s history. He lived in Walkinstown House (now Supervalu Walkinstown) and has associations with the naming of the Long Mlle Road.
 
Flanagan’s early years were marked by a privileged upbringing and education at Terenure College, Dublin. He was the son of Alderman Michael Flanagan and brother-in-law of W.T Cosgrave.
 
In his youth, Flanagan ventured to the United States but soon returned to Ireland after an encounter with a fellow Crumlin man, Paddy Cullen. Heeding Cullen’s advice, he sailed back across the Atlantic to Crumlin. His father, an alderman of the city and a much respected man, sent Bird to Australia twice but he flew back,. He was sent Canada, but he was a homing pigeon and returned. Living largely off his father’s wealth, Flanagan engaged in activities such as participating in local hunts and was a founding member of the South County Dublin Harriers in 1906.
 
Known for his mischievous pranks, he earned the nickname “The Bird” for his eccentric and flamboyant antics.. There are conflicting stories on the source of his nickname however, three stories attributed to it are:
 
The first story is that he ordered and paid for large bird from a butcher, hung them outside, and, when he would see a policeman coming down the road, would pretend to steal the bird and the policeman would give chase for a considerable distance before The Bird would produce the receipt.
 
The second theory was that “He went to a fancy dress ball at the Earlsfort Terrace skating rink dressed as the Holy Ghost and supported by two of the Holy Women.When he didn’t get a prize, he pretended to lay the egg in the middle of the floor the size of a rugby ball and he proceeded to throw at the judge. The management interposed; he and his supporters were expelled. He went out clucking.”
 
The lesser known theory is that he “drove the horse and dray through the streets of Dublin with the large specially built bird-cage on it, with the Bird dressed as a yellow bird inside it swinging on a swing”.
 
Flanagan gained notoriety as a practical joker, and numerous stories circulated about his elaborate pranks. Flann O’Brien wrote about Willie’s exploits in the Irish Times in 1962, stating that some of the stories around The Bird must have been exaggerated. The numerous books and stories describing The Bird’s exploits provide contradicting details of his escapades and some suggesting he often imitated antics of previous Dublin characters (Buck Whaley and Endymion) leading to further confusion of the who, what and when but enhanced the legendary reputation he had.
 
Some of the pranks he is said to have undertaken included:
 
He rode his horse through the swing-doors of the Gresham Hotel and requested a drink. “It’s after hours, sir”, replied a porter. “It’s not for me, you fool, it’s for the horse!”
 
At the 1907 International Exhibition, he stole an African baby from it’s family at the Somalian stand showcasing Somalian life and delivered it to the French pavilion in protest at France’s declining birth-rate, causing chaos as people searched for the baby.
 
He brought “a corpse into Neary’s over his shoulders.
Out of the cab and into the bar he came, pushed him against the partition and said, ‘I just thought yez would like to have a drink with him before he’s planted.’ Drinks were drunk, the repartee was as fine as a barman’s wit and the Bird, having omitted to pay for any of the drinks, picked up your man, put him back in the cab and held his hand all the way back to the City Morgue.”
 
Once he arrived in Dundrum by train, then took a horse-drawn cab to a large, remote farm beyond Ballinteer. Flanagan knocked on the door of the farmhouse and told the farmer that he was an inspector from the Department of Agriculture. He told the farmer that having inspected the cow houses, certain structural alterations would need to be carried out. Flanagan said that he would call again in three weeks’ time to make sure the work had been done. The unfortunate farmer, who had never checked Flanagan’s credentials, duly demolished some of the roofs and walls of the cow houses. A little uncertain as to what he should build to succeed them, he rang the Department of Agriculture in Dublin city centre, only to realise that he had been duped, and very expensively at that!
 
On another occasion Flanagan arrived at Dundrum station and once again engaged a horse-drawn cab, driven by the same man as in the previous episode, ‘Struggler’ Burke. This time the journey was to a remote pub in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Flanagan ordered a glass of the publican’s best whiskey, then when it arrived, poured the spirits into a bottle and pocketed it. The publican sensed trouble and told Flanagan that the whiskey had been poured by mistake from a bottle of medicine for sick animals. Flanagan then announced that he was an excise inspector but the publican settled the matter by giving Flanagan a note, a very substantial sum of money in those days, equal to a fortnight’s wages for many people. Flanagan gave the cab driver a substantial tip from the fiver while they enjoyed.
 
One of the most infamous stories about Flanagan’s mischievous nature dates back to his school days and recalled by ex-Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave of when a boy died at school, Willie took the body and placed it under a bed., caused a stir that led to his expulsion.
 
Another story states that he was leaving a banquet in Iveagh House in an open carriage. At the last moment he remembered that he had left his gloves behind. He apologized to his lady and asked her to wait. In a matter of moments he returned—by air. He had gone upstairs, opened a window and, with a mighty leap, hurled himself at the cab, landing noisily, but quite neatly, precisely beside his companion.
 
The Long Mile road is apparently named after a horse race track along the road which after a race The Bird said was “a long mile”.
 
In 1910, at the age of 43, Flanagan married Esther Stafford, a Waterford native and a nurse. They settled in Walkinstown House, a property owned by Flanagan’s father, Michael Flanagan. The couple appeared in the 1911 census as residents of Walkinstown House, where Flanagan was listed as a “farmer.”
 
Flanagan’s life at Walkinstown House was marked by his love for horseback riding, and he was seldom seen without his horse. Described as a small man just over four feet tall, he would ride through the village of Crumlin, carrying a riding stick and wearing half a hard hat.
 
William “The Bird” Flanagan passed away on December 14, 1925, at Walkinstown House, listed as a “gentleman” in occupation. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, and his legacy lives on, commemorated by the pub named after him in Rialto, where a sign depicts a police officer chasing a man with a bird. The stories of his pranks and playful eccentricities continue to captivate Dublin’s history, painting a vivid picture of a man who left an indelible mark through his unique sense of humour and audacious exploits.
 

Person Photo
Connection with area: Landowner, Market Gardener and practical joker owned land and businesses in Walkinstown and Crumlin