O'Flanagan, James Roderick (1814–1900), lawyer and writer, was born at Fermoy, Co.Cork, on 1 September 1814, son of Captain John Fitch O'Flanagan of the Dunshaughlin yeomanry, a catholic gentleman farmer, protégé of Lord Fingall, and barracks master of Fermoy (1808–48), and his wife, Eliza (née Glisson). O'Flanagan believed that his father's ancestors had been rulers in south Fermanagh with a burial place at Devenish; they fought in the Irish brigade at Fontenoy. His mother's family claimed descent from Edmund Spenser (qv) and kinship with Edmund Burke (qv). O'Flanagan had a brother and three sisters, the youngest of whom became a nun.
O'Flanagan was educated in Fermoy at private schools run by Mme Le Febru and by Father James Fitzpatrick (‘on the Edgeworthstown plan’), before attending Fermoy Church of Ireland college (1824–32) for his classical education. The young O'Flanagan was ‘an ardent sportsman and an excellent horseman’. His father helped to repress the Rockites, and O'Flanagan saw the site of the Rathcormack tithe massacre while the casualties were being taken up; the Church of Ireland rector involved had previously tried to prevent a catholic priest from officiating at the funeral of O'Flanagan's grandfather in the parish churchyard.
At the age of eighteen O'Flanagan decided to study medicine, but after briefly attending Trinity Medical School he turned to law. He studied at the King's Inns, Dublin, and at Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple, London; he was called to the Irish bar in the Easter term of 1838, and joined the Munster circuit. His first book, Impressions at home and abroad, appeared in 1837. O'Flanagan's legal practice had limited success, and journalism was his principal source of income; he reported Irish chancery cases for the London Law Times and wrote for the Cork Southern Reporter.
O'Flanagan's friends included Daniel Owen Madden (qv), through whom he came to know Thomas Davis (qv) and Denny Lane (qv); they were all restless young intellectuals from the provincial towns along the Blackwater. Davis stayed with O'Flanagan during the 1843 Cork conference of the British Association, when O'Flanagan presented the paper subsequently extended and published as Historic and picturesque guide to the Blackwater in Munster (1844). The publication was assisted by William Cooke Taylor (qv), and Davis reviewed it in an essay called ‘Irish scenery’ (reprinted in his complete works). O'Flanagan, however, opposed Young Ireland; he warned that their plans for rebellion would be betrayed, and assisted in defence preparations at Fermoy barracks in 1848. O'Flanagan regarded himself as a lifelong liberal and admirer of O'Connell (qv); he was a court reporter at the Liberator's trial in 1844, visited him in prison, and joined him on an unsuccessful deputation petitioning to have the Blackwater between Cappoquin and Fermoy made navigable as a famine-relief measure. O'Flanagan subsequently wrote The bar life of O'Connell (1875). He was a devout Catholic, strongly influenced by Father Theobald Mathew (qv) and proud of his friendship with Bishop Timothy Murphy (1789–1856) and Mother Eucharia Dease of the Loreto convent, Fermoy (key figures in the post-famine ‘devotional revolution’ in Cloyne).
O'Flanagan applied unsuccessfully for a professorship at QCC on its foundation. In 1850 he left the Munster circuit for a position at the insolvency court in Dublin. ‘Though my official life was certainly not rugged – for my duties were not burthensome – the daily routine made me long for Fermoy and its surroundings.’ Besides his duties at the court, he edited the Irish Teachers’ Magazine from 1860, became chief writer for the Dublin Saturday Magazine, researched his magnum opus Lives of the lord chancellors and keepers of the great seal of Ireland (1870), and published extensively in the Dublin University Magazine. On 4 May 1859 he married Theresa Witham, from an old English catholic family. They had two sons; the elder became an engineer, the younger studied for the priesthood at Ushaw. O'Flanagan was an active member of the RIA; he contributed to its Proceedings an account of John D'Alton (qv) (with whom he co-authored a History of Dundalk in 1864). O'Flanagan indexed several books by W. J. Fitzpatrick (qv), whose life of Charles Lever (qv) suffered (in his opinion) from the author's lack of sporting experience. O'Flanagan was considered for a history professorship at the Catholic University, but yielded the place to his friend Eugene O'Curry (qv). He studied Irish for research purposes, but never wrote in it.
In 1871 O'Flanagan retired on a pension and returned to Fermoy, where he built a villa, Avondhu Grange, a miniature version of Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford, commemorating his ancestral glories. He persistently lobbied for a civil list pension, and was disappointed that Liberal governments failed to recognise his merits. (Lord Salisbury's second government gave him a grant of £150.) O'Flanagan continued to write for papers including the Cork Examiner, Cork Weekly News, Catholic Times, and Catholic Register. His books The Irish bar (1879) and The Munster circuit (1880) are primarily anecdotal but contain valuable impressions of legal contemporaries and predecessors. O'Flanagan advocated landlord paternalism supplemented by tenant-right legislation. He was horrified by the violence of the early 1880s, and visited his old acquaintance T. H. Burke (qv) shortly before the Phoenix Park murders (6 May 1882) to demand stricter law enforcement. In 1885–6 he edited the Fermoy Monthly Independent Journal (which serialised two of his novels, one unfinished, neither in book form) and antiquarian articles, including a series on Cork men of letters. O'Flanagan was now a Parnellite home-ruler, though he insisted that an Irish parliament should be firmly loyal to the empire and to Queen Victoria, whom he revered as monarch and authoress. Nostalgia for Grattan's Parliament is detectable in Annals, anecdotes, traits and traditions of the Irish parliaments, 1172–1800 (1893; 2nd ed., 1895).
O'Flanagan's autobiography, An octogenarian literary life (1896), is limited by his Pooterish self-importance and tendency to substitute name-dropping for detailed reminiscence. His recollections of distinguished acquaintances must be sifted to distinguish personal testimony from secondary material. He also wrote Through north Wales with my wife (1884) and several mediocre novels heavily influenced by Lever (The life and adventures of Bryan O'Regan (1869); Captain O'Shaughnessy's sporting career (1873)), in which characters tend to burst into humorous, topographical, and antiquarian digressions. Gentle Blood, or, The secret marriage (1861) is based on the Yelverton marriage case of the same year; Galtymore, a tale of '98 (serialised in The Shamrock and The Irishman, 1874–5), is derived from the Kingston elopement case of 1798 and employs considerable historical licence. O'Flanagan was a member of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society and contributed to its journal. He died 25 March 1900 at his Fermoy residence. His historical works are useful both in their own right and as reflecting the mindset of that important and largely ignored group, the upper-middle-class catholic whigs of Victorian Ireland.