WHEN veteran Irish stage and film actor Fionnula Flanagan met with producers and writers of Showtime's "Brotherhood" to discuss her portrayal of the Irish-born working class matriarch of the show, Rose Caffee, one of the first questions she asked the producers was, "What does she do for sex?"
"Everybody went, 'Whoa! Rose has affairs?' " Flanagan recalled, a smile lighting up her bright blue eyes. "Just because I was the matriarch. I said, 'Get over it!' "
If the characters on "Brotherhood" traveled to her native Ireland, Flanagan said, they would have a similar reaction to modern Dublin, with its multicultural, multilingual urban life and the clamor for change in the Roman Catholic Church and the rights of women.
"Those kinds of Irish American working class families have never been to Ireland and would be really taken aback by the Ireland of today," she said. "Many of them would not have known a lot about Irish history. They had no access to the literature. You're living totally out of context."
In Flanagan's view, the fictional Caffees of Providence, R.I., are the beleaguered denizens of a working class ethnic backwater whose world is swiftly eroding as modern America leaves them behind. Cut off from their ancestral roots, their anxieties are fueled by the arrival of yuppie gentrification and the departure of their jobs offshore or to newer waves of immigrants.
"They grew up in a tiny enclave where everyone knew everyone, and everyone was Irish and they were all intermarried," she said. "Their tribe is being threatened by people leaving the neighborhood and neighborhoods disintegrating. New people come in, and you don't know them or their customs. Their world is vanishing.
"To have that taken away is very frightening and threatening."
The Caffees — charismatic gangster Michael and wily politician Tommy — parallel the real-life drama of South Boston's Bulger brothers: James "Whitey" Bulger, an Irish American gangster, is on the same FBI most-wanted list as Osama bin Laden. His brother William "Billy" Bulger, a former state Senate president, recently retired as president of the University of Massachusetts, where he once invited the head of the Provisional Irish Republican Army's political wing to speak to a graduating class.
It's an identifiably Irish American clan — but where, one wonders, are the Irish roots of these ethnic underdogs? If there is a recognizably Irish character on "Brotherhood," it is the Rose Caffee interpreted by Flanagan, who was given wide latitude to shape her character.
Flanagan is the daughter of a veteran Irish nationalist who also fought in the Spanish Civil War.
In her youth, she was a favorite to play James Joyce's Molly Bloom, creating a stir in New York when she played it lusciously bare-breasted and her character pleasured herself on stage.
After moving to the United States to work in theater in the 1960s, she met and married Garrett O'Connor, the cousin of the late actor Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker in "All in the Family." Their hillside home is a light-filled gallery: Posters of a glamorous young Fionnula Flanagan in such dramas as "Gunsmoke" and "How the West Was Won" hang alongside primitive paintings from Nicaragua and photographs of her and her husband with leftist Sandinista leaders in Managua in the 1980s.
In more recent years, Flanagan played the mother of an IRA guerrilla in Northern Ireland in the acclaimed independent film "Some Mother's Son" and starred in the Irish cult comedy "Waking Ned Devine." She is shooting "Slipstream," a "Bergmanesque" drama written and directed by Anthony Hopkins, who also stars in it, along with Christian Slater.
In "Brotherhood," Flanagan said, she decided that Rose should have a job — Irish women have typically worked for wages upon arrival in America — providing context for the theme of a vanishing world, in which working class American laborers see their jobs evaporate.
Flanagan's poignantly fierce delivery gives Rose a feisty but vulnerable edge as she tries to bluff her way out of her losing battles. "You're too stubborn, Rose," her boss tells her. "That used to be called standing up for yourself," she shoots back, with a steely but wounded gaze.
"Rose is an agitator," Flanagan said. "She spends a lot of time humiliated, but so do a lot of people, especially women, in the work force, as people are hired as temporary workers with no benefits. Older women are very abused in this way. We felt Rose could express a lot of terror and rage, since that's what a lot of people experience."
It was Flanagan who chose the hoop earrings and tight-fitting, drop-shouldered tops Rose sports, to create a saucy anti-matron. "I said, 'She's out there trying to get a man. Let's dress her that way," Flanagan said.
Like the other women in the show, Rose never lets devout Irish Catholicism stand in the way of the serious improprieties — extramarital, premarital — that they seem to take as their feminine birthright.
For the men of "Brotherhood," masculinity is wrapped up tightly in their ethnic heritage. All their emotions — grief over a son's suicide, humiliation over a perceived slight — seem to translate into the same visage of grim-faced, volcanically murderous rage, unsoftened by the kind of introspective musings Tony Soprano shares with his shrink. They seem less interested in sex than in fraternity and brawling.
When a foul-mouthed Irish American construction boss, Paddy, verbally bludgeons a black construction worker, Jamal, with an ethnic slur, it's hard to feel too sorry when Jamal finally paddywhacks him with a shovel. Alongside the Irish, it is the perennially passed-over African Americans who come off as the true ethnic underdogs, as the two ethnicities reenact the historic ethnic rivalry documented by Noel Ignatiev in "How the Irish Became White."
As "Brotherhood" careens from upper shanty Irish to lower lace-curtain Irish, Flanagan's Rose actually does peer out through a lace curtain, her face lined by the dreams and longings that are slipping through her hands.
Even when her show devolves into stage Irish minstrelism, Flanagan breathes believability into a recognizable ethnic staple — the feisty Irish wench — which, like pizza, may actually have been invented in America.
"It was the women who sent the money home to sustain old parents and to bring older people over," Flanagan said. "They've got a terrific backbone."