Appeal unearths idol's Irish roots

An Irish News appeal has helped two Australian authors unearth the Irish links of Theodore Flynn, father of swashbuckling screen idol Errol. Suzanne McGonagle reports

AS a famous movie star and womaniser, Errol Flynn is known the world over.

But following an appeal in The Irish News more than seven years ago, a lesser known Flynn is finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

Readers contacted authors Tony and Vicki Harrison from Tasmania to tell them of their knowledge of Professor Theodore Thomson Flynn who lived in Northern Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s.

Their appeal and a subsequent two-week trip to the north helped contribute to the publication of a book based on the former Queen's University professor, called Theodore Thomson Flynn: not just Errol's father, with much of the work detailing his Irish links.

The couple have now turned Mr Harrison's 30-year fascination with Flynn senior into a book that they hope will give him some long overdue credit.

Speaking from the home in Tasmania, Mr Harrison said their re-search trip had revealed that the renowned biologist and embryologist had a much larger fan base in Northern Ireland than in his own native Tasmania.

They also unearthed how Prof Flynn had built a summer house overlooking Strangford Lough, with his film star son helping to finance the Tasmanian-styled residence.

The writers also discovered valuable unknown details about Errol Flynn's sister Rosemary and her time living in the north.

Prof Flynn - whose grandparents hailed from Leitrim and Co Meath - came to Belfast from Tasmania in 1931 to take the chair of zoology at Queen's and held the post until his retirement in 1948.

During the Second World War he was very active in the city's Civil Defence Organisation and received an MBE for his work.

Prof Flynn and his wife Marelle had a daughter called Rosemary, who attended school in Belfast and a son, Errol, who went on to become one of the most famous movie stars - and womanisers - in the world.

The authors knew little of Prof Flynn's life in Northern Ireland before the appeal but following a number of responses, including from Senator Maurice Hayes, were able to establish fresh details about him.

The couple were invited by Mike Jellema and his sisters to visit their home in Kilclief on the Co Down coast, which had been built as a summer house by Prof Flynn in 1944.

He had lived at the house called 'Kurrajong' for most of the war and after retirement.

"It was the first house he ever owned, as when he lived in Tasmania and in Belfast he rented," Mrs Harrison said.

"He built the house largely with the help of Errol. Although we know that Errol never visited it as he only visited Belfast twice."

Through Senator Hayes, whom the couple described as a "walking encyclopaedia of Irish society", they met former Town Clerk of Belfast Jimmy Johnson and his wife Joan, who said she had been a former classmate of Rosemary Flynn.

"Rosemary was a mystery and that we were unable to find out very much about her and as you can imagine, when we met someone who had known her, it was an enormous breakthrough for us," said Vicki.

The couple learned of how Rosemary had failed to graduate from QUB and had later gone on to marry twice before settling in america with her husband, an american air Force officer.

The couple said they gleaned a substantial amount of information from Gwyneth Gotto, who although well into her 80s, gave them a thorough introduction to Belfast.

"Her recollections of the history of the zoology department, the Marine Research facility at Portaferry and the Flynn family in Belfast were invaluable," said Mrs Harrison.

Mr Harrison also said the visit to Belfast had helped them realise the high esteem in which Prof Flynn was held.

"Flynn was always treated like an outsider in Tasmania, he was a young man who had a glamorous life and was very popular with the ladies. But in Belfast he was accepted and praised," he said.

"Our trip to Belfast was incredibly invaluable and essential and put a lot of things in perspective and gave it more depth.

"He was better known in Belfast than in Tasmania and while he was more famous for being the father of Errol but he's done a lot more than that".

* For further information or to purchase the book, please email the authors on

* RECOGNITION: Left, movie star Errol Flynn. Right, staff and students of Queen's University Belfast including Professor Theodore Flynn, back row on the far left

RIGHT PICTURE: Tasmania Library, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office