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Boystown Founder 'Did not Condemn Reform Schools'

Irish Independent, April 28 2004 by David Quinn Religious Affairs Correspondent

A CLAIM that the priest who founded the world-famous 'Boystown' homes condemned Church-run industrial schools when on a visit to Ireland in 1946 has been firmly rebutted by a leading academic.

Writing in the current edition of 'History Ireland', Dr Daire Keogh, of St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin, attacks Mary Raftery, producer of the programme States of Fear. The claim is that Boystown founder Fr Edward Flanagan condemned industrial and reform schools in Ireland in an "unprecedented" manner.

Dr Keogh writes: "Father Edward Flanagan delivered no such censure while in Ireland". He writes that during his trip to Ireland, Fr Flanagan visited two industrial schools, St Patrick's in Belfast and Artane in Dublin. He praised both institutions.

Fr Flanagan praised the De La Salle Brothers who ran St Patrick's for "doing such fine work for the education, comfort and rehabilitation of the boys". He said the boys at Artane were receiving "magnificent training" from the Christian Brothers. However, he did complain that conditions at the institutions were primitive by American standards and that they should have been better funded by the Government.

Fr Flanagan instead reserved his criticism for the Irish prison system. He repeated this criticism in America, much to the anger of the Irish political establishment.

Dr Keogh is currently working on a history of the Christian Brothers. He told the Irish Independent that he accepts abuses did actually take place in some Church-run institutions for children in Ireland. However, he called for proper, accurate and rigorous use of historical materials.

The first Boystown was founded by Fr Flanagan, in Omaha, Nebraska, US, in 1917. The aim of the institution was to rehabilitate rather than punish the juvenile delinquents. The Irish-born priest then established a network of the homes around the US. Fr Flanagan's motto was 'there is no such thing as a bad boy'.

Fr Flanagan was immortalised by the actor Spencer Tracey in the 1938 film, Boystown.


'Boys' Town' founder concerned mainly about penal system

Irish Times, 6 September, 2004

Rite and Reason:  The claim that Fr Flanagan condemned the industrial schools as 'Ireland's concentration camps' is unsupported, writes Daire Keogh .

The mistaken notion that, as early as 1946, Boys' Town founder Father Edward Flanagan blew the whistle on Ireland's industrial schools has gained currency in the current debate on institutional child abuse.

Most recently an expert witness at the Ryan Commission repeated the unsupported claim that Flanagan condemned the institutions as "Ireland's concentration camps".

However, a detailed examination of the records of the priest's visit to Ireland reveals that he made no such condemnation of the industrial schools. His concern was essentially the island's penal system, which he repeatedly described as a "disgrace to a Christian nation".

Flanagan visited two industrial schools, both of which he described in glowing terms in subsequent speeches.

Of Artane, he could "not speak in too high terms of the great work being done there by the good Brothers" and of "the magnificent training" they provided.

Of St Patrick's in Belfast, he praised the De La Salle Brothers and their "fine work for the education, comfort and rehabilitation of . . . boys".

Flanagan's remarks on the Belfast school, however, were not without qualification and he delivered a scathing attack on the state for its failure to adequately fund the institution - "the school was so poorly equipped. The Brothers and the boys deserved better".

Mid-way through the tour, however, Flanagan's criticism of the State became more specific, following the presentation to him of a controversial call for prison reform, I Did Penal Servitude'(1945), written by Walter Mahon-Smith, a bank official who had served three years for embezzlement. Flanagan read the book with avid interest; he described it as a "horrible statement" of prison conditions which "tore the heart out of him".

At subsequent engagements in Cork, Waterford and Limerick, the priest abandoned his prepared texts and received a rapturous applause when he denounced Ireland's Dickensian prison conditions as "a disgrace . . . unChristlike and wrong".

Prison reform was a sensitive issue for the Government in the summer of 1946. Republican prisoners were on hunger strike at Portlaoise, where volunteer Seán McCaughey had died in horrific circumstances on May 11th.

The Labour Party had conducted a rudimentary survey of conditions at the prison and published a damning report of Government policy.

In the Seanad, there were calls for an inquiry into prison conditions while the Minister for Justice, Gerry Boland, claimed that "the prisoners concerned \ determined to break the whole system - to run the prisons themselves".

Added to this, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation was engaged in a marathon seven-month strike, which the Minister for Education believed was "not an industrial dispute but a challenge to the Government".

Within this context, the establishment rounded upon Flanagan's intervention as irresponsible and subversive, suggesting that he had become a gullible mouthpiece for the republican prisoners.

Gerry Boland mounted a campaign of character assassination in which he was ably assisted by Fine Gael deputy James Dillon, who denounced the priest's criticism as "a farrago of ill-informed nonsense" and dismissed Mahon-Smith's book as "a dirty, lying, slanderous, fraudulent publication by a mean hound".

Significantly, too, Boland introduced the Christian Brothers into the debate with his assertion that Flanagan's criticism was an assault upon their good name, in what was a calculated attempt to draw down ecclesiastical censure on the priest.

Ireland was buzzing with talk of prison reform and newspaper columns were filled with a wide range of contributions, varying from those who recommended old-fashioned 'stick-ology', to a distinguished group, including Maude Gonne MacBride, Seán O'Faoláin and Roger McHugh, who supported the cleric's call.

It is significant that none of this debate addressed the issue of the industrial schools; prison reform remained the focus.

Gradually, however, the establishment view prevailed and debate was guillotined; an Irish Press editorial rejected the priest's comments as "hearsay . . . from tainted sources" and only the Irish Catholic continued the debate.

Flanagan was conscious of his disadvantage - he had not visited a single jail in Ireland, yet half of the cabinet had served time.

Conscious of this and of his ignorance of the penal system, he began a correspondence with Mahon-Smith. In this exchange, which forms the core of the Irish material in the Boys' Town archive, Flanagan attempts to tease out the complex distinctions between reformatories, industrial schools, borstals and prisons. He was anxious, too, to ascertain the role of the Church in these institutions.

Mahon-Smith readily supplied this information, along with detailed reports of the horrific physical abuse of a youth at Glin, Co Limerick, the death of a boy in St Joseph's Home for the Blind in Drumcondra, Dublin, and brutality at Sandford Park, one of Dublin's most prominent Protestant schools.

Throughout this confidential and often confused correspondence Flanagan refined his thoughts.

His anger at the Irish political establishment is palpable, particularly his condemnation of Gerry Boland's unjustifiable "stewardship and activities", the arrogance of a government in power for 15 years and the ineptitude of a weak opposition.

Similarly, his critique of the Belfast institution hardened as he recalled "conditions there that would make your heart pain".

Flanagan held out little hope for Ireland's ability to address the cruelty of its penal system, but this he attributed not to the establishment exclusively, but to the "smugness and satisfaction" of a Christian people who allowed those guilty of cruelty go unpunished; "when will the people learn their tremendous responsibility towards children and that we are Godly appointed to be their guardians and protectors?"

It was in this context that Flanagan referred to the contemporary punishment of the Nazis for their sins against society and wondered "what God's judgment will be . . . \ those who hold . . . the faith and fail in their God-given stewardship of little children?

"May the suffering Christ hasten the day when the beloved country of my birth will beget a consciousness that will resurrect it from the levels of despair."

Dr Daire Keogh  lectures in the Department of History, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin. He is currently researching a history of the Irish Christian Brothers

No Doubts at Stance of Fr Flanagan

Mary Raftery

Irish Times, 9 September, 2004

Father Edward Flanagan - or at least his alter ego Spencer Tracy in the Oscar-winning film Boys Town - will be fondly remembered by everyone who grew up in Ireland during the 1960s.

That film, together with the likes of The Song of Bernadette, was one of the staples of black-and-white RTÉ, which delighted in movies about heroic Catholics.

Father Flanagan was a renowned children's rights campaigner, and was certainly a hero when it came to bucking the trend of corporal punishment. These days, however, attempts are underway to rewrite the small corner of history occupied by his visit here in 1946.

Originally from Ballymoe on the Galway/Roscommon border, Father Flanagan spent all of his adult life in the US, where he founded the famous Boys Town children's home in Nebraska.

His philosophy that "there is no such thing as a bad boy" - not even a delinquent Mickey Rooney - underpinned the respect with which that institution treated its young residents.

Aeons ahead of his time, he campaigned far and wide against the beating of children, and in 1946 he took that campaign to Ireland. His views condemning the treatment of children in Irish institutions caused considerable controversy.

However, Dr Daire Keogh, history lecturer at St Patrick's, Drumcondra, would have us believe that Father Flanagan was interested only in prisons for adults. Writing both in this newspaper last Monday, and in a recent edition of History Ireland, he argues that it is a "mistaken notion" to think that Father Flanagan condemned the treatment of children in industrial schools.

Tom Lynch, Boys Town archivist and an expert on the life of Father Flanagan, considers Dr Keogh's view of the priest's concerns to be bizarre. "There are any number of statements from Father Flanagan, both public and private, condemning the way Irish children were treated in the institutions," Mr Lynch told me this week. "It was very well known that he was shocked by what he discovered in Ireland.

"He talked about the Irish institutions as being like concentration camps for children."

It is difficult to understand Dr Keogh's version of Father Flanagan's views on children's institutions in Ireland. What emerges most powerfully from the priest's statements and writings, both during and after his visit here, is a profound sense of outrage at how children were treated within these institutions.

There is not even a hint of ambiguity about this. His own words, written in 1947, best sum up his "main objectives, i.e. - unjust incarceration, unequal distribution of physical punishment both inside and outside the prisons and jails, and the institutionalisation of little children, housed in great big factory-like places, where individuality has been, and is being, snuffed out with no development of the personality of the individual, and where little children become a great army of child slavery in the workshops, making money for the institutions which give to them a little food, a little clothing, very little recreation and a doubtful education."

It was this view of the institutions that had prompted Father Flanagan to describe them publicly as "a disgrace to the nation", which received widespread press coverage.

Dr Keogh also makes a number of factual errors in his writings about Father Flanagan. His main thesis appears to be that the priest had a high opinion of industrial schools until halfway through his Irish visit, when he was given a copy of the book I Did Penal Servitude by Walter Mahon-Smith.

However, a closer reading of Father Flanagan's papers indicates that the priest had read this book before his arrival in Ireland. Consequently, the argument that it provided a turning point simply doesn't hold water.

Dr Keogh is further in error when he states that it was this same Walter Mahon-Smith who provided Father Flanagan with documentation confirming the savage flogging of a child by Christian Brothers at the industrial school in Glin, Co Limerick. This material was in fact sent by local representative Martin McGuire, who at the time demanded a public inquiry into the treatment of children in industrial schools.

Dr Keogh refers to Maud Gonne's involvement in the debate on prison reform at the time. However, he neglects to mention her 1946 statement about industrial schools that "the 'Father of Boys Town' warns us that some of these institutions ... need to be changed".

Finally, it is worth noting a further quote, this time from Father Flanagan. In private correspondence in 1947, he wrote that "we have no Christian Brotherhood here at Boys Town. We did have them for five years, but they left after they found out that they could not punish the children and kick them around We have punished the Nazis for their sins against society. We have punished the Fascists for the same reason. I wonder what God's judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children?"

Fr Flanagan and Irish institutions

Irish Times, Sep 22, 2004

Madam, - My recent article on Father Flanagan's views on the Irish penal system, as revealed in his visit here in the summer of 1946 (Rite and Reason, September 6th), elicited a reply from Mary Raftery (Opinion, September 9th) in which she accuses me of a number of factual errors.

1. She writes that Father Flanagan had read Walter Mahon Smith's book I Did Penal Servitude before he arrived in Ireland and that consequently my claim that he read it after his arrival here and my argument that his reading of it caused a turning-point in his attitude towards the Irish penal system "simply doesn't hold water".

I have inspected Father Flanagan's papers in the Boys' Town archives in Omaha, Nebraska. On July 25th, 1946, Father Flanagan wrote to Mahon Smith thanking him for "your fine book" which "I received at the Gresham Hotel" and expressing how the narrative "tore the heart out" of him. In this letter, Father Flanagan states explicitly that he had no copy of this book and that he was awaiting its arrival from Ireland. In his speeches before he received this book, Father Flanagan had only high praise for Irish institutions and for those who staffed them; after he read the book the tone of his speeches was condemnatory. In the light of this, Ms Raftery might care to retract her alleged correction.

2. Ms Raftery claims that I am "further in error" in stating that Mahon Smith provided Father Flanagan with documentation concerning the savage flogging of a child by Christian Brothers at St Joseph's Industrial School, Glin, Co Limerick. It was, she writes, Martin Maguire, a local representative, who sent him the material. In fact, in my History Ireland article on this matter (available at, to which Ms Raftery refers, I state categorically that the material on Glin was "collected by Martin Maguire" and was passed on to Father Flanagan by James Shiel, who had facilitated the priest's visit to Ireland. However, Mahon-Smith was indisputably an additional source in this matter: in a series of letters to Father Flanagan in November 1946, he refers to his attempts to expose abuse at the school.

3. Ms Raftery concludes her reply with a quotation from Father Flanagan in which he writes that "we have no Christian Brotherhood here at Boys' Town", stating that they left after five years once they realised that they could not "punish the children and kick them around". Immediately after this sentence, Ms Raftery inserts, in the same quotation, remarks made by Father Flanagan concerning the punishment of Nazis and fascists "for their sins against society".

Two points need to be made here. First, Ms Raftery fails to make it clear that it is not the Irish Christian Brothers who stand accused here, but rather an entirely different American order. Second, and more serious to a historian trained in the careful handling of evidence, Ms Raftery conflates two paragraphs far apart in Father Flanagan's text, as well as inverting the textual order of the paragraphs, thereby seamlessly associating "Christian Brotherhood" with Nazis and fascists. Such a practice is reprehensible in a historian, and I presume, in a journalist too.

Ms Raftery is fully entitled to disagree with my thesis. However, it is unacceptable to be accused of a series of errors by someone who has not inspected Father Flanagan's archive, and whose grasp of the rules of evidence appears to be altogether tenuous. - Yours, etc.,

History Department,
St Patrick's College,
Drumcondra, Dublin 9.

Mary Raftery writes:  Boys' Town USA informs me that Dr Keogh's examination of Father Flanagan's papers about his Irish visit is incomplete. He may not have seen Father Flanagan's own notes, which state: "Before my visit to Ireland, I had read the autobiography of a man who served penal servitude. The title of the book is I Did Penal Servitude."

I am happy that Dr Keogh implicitly accepts my point as to the source of the Glin material sent to Father Flanagan. Further, I neither stated nor implied in my column that the "Christian Brotherhood" referred to by Father Flanagan was the Irish Christian Brothers, although Father Flanagan's writings show that he also took a somewhat dim view of that congregation.

Finally, contrary to Dr Keogh's inference, my source has always been the Father Flanagan archive at Boys' Town Hall of History in Nebraska. In response to my requests, its archivists have kindly sent me a large volume of documentation over the past six years.

Fr Flanagan and Irish institutions

Irish Times, 4th October, 2004

I was surprised that Dáire Keogh (Opinion, September 6th), after his limited review of the Girls and Boys Town archives, could have come to the assumption that Father Edward J. Flanagan never denounced Irish industrial schools while in Ireland during his 1946 tour.

His argument is a rationalisation of semantics rather than a factual portrayal of Father Flanagan's feelings. Father Flanagan did comment in public on the Irish Industrial Schools during his tour.

In 1946 Father Flanagan toured Ireland to discuss his childcare philosophy, and to learn more about the Irish industrial schools system. Prior to his tour he had been in correspondence with former residents of the industrial schools, concerned citizens of Ireland, and members of the Irish government.

Through personal visits to Irish prisons and industrial schools Father Flanagan discovered a juvenile care system he declared to be "a disgrace to the nation". He stated publicly his concern for the child inmates of the industrial schools during his tour.

The Girls and Boys Town Hall of History Archives contain an extensive collection of primary documentation dealing with Father Flanagan's 1946 tour of Ireland. A newspaper clipping describes his presentation at the Savoy Cinema in Cork. Father Flanagan encouraged the audience to keep their children, and the children in their communities, away from the industrial schools. In private conversations he questioned the administrators of the industrial schools about the conditions in their schools.

In a December 1946 letter to Irish Envoy Robert Brennan, Father Flanagan wrote: "During my visit to Ireland, I was outspoken in my views regarding the treatment of prisoners, particularly those of tender age, and on no occasion were my statements challenged by anyone in a position of authority."

Father Flanagan wrote that he discovered people in Ireland unwilling to discuss or investigate the conditions in their industrial schools.

He felt they feared some form of reprisal if they were to speak or report openly about the Irish juvenile care system.

Father Flanagan was not done with his campaign to reform the Irish system. In 1948 he planned to conduct a full-scale, State-wide investigation into Irish juvenile care.

His untimely death on May 15th, 1948 ended his work to aid the children of Ireland. - Yours, etc.,

Father VAL J. PETER, 
Executive Director, 
Girls and Boys Town, 

Fr Edward Flanagan's visit to Ireland

Irish Times, 1st November, 2004

Madam, -
It was with amusement that I read the letter from Father Val Peter, executive director of Girls' and Boys' Town, in which he referred to my "limited review" of the Boys' Town archive (Oct 4th).

In the summer of 2003 I travelled to Omaha with the sole and clearly articulated intention of seeing all of the material relating to Father Edward Flanagan's 1946 Irish visit. The archivist, Mr Tom Lynch, showed me a number of files; I examined these, and photocopied their contents. On January 26th, 2004, Mr Lynch wrote informing me that he had "come across several more files containing Father's Irish correspondence from the 1940s". Two days later he wrote, "the files I came across contain background information on Father Flanagan's trip to Ireland in 1946, and include the meeting he had with de Valera. I will make copies of the material and drop it in the mail. The material appears not to contain anything earth-shatteringly different from the documents you have already reviewed."

This material, promised nine months ago, has never been made available to me. Since the publication of my article on Father Flanagan in History Ireland, in March, my e-mails to the archivist have gone unanswered and specific requests for information refused. More recently, I have written directly to Father Val Peter seeking his assistance; my request was simply forwarded to the archivist. My last correspondence with Father Peter was in response to his letter to The Irish Times. I asked again for the promised material and offered to return to the Boys' Town archive during the Christmas break. To this request I received an emphatic response from the archivist that "no further access will be provided" to me.

The behaviour of the Boys' Town authorities in this matter is indefensible.

Historians rely upon the professionalism of archivists; without this trust, research becomes impossible. It is inexcusable for an archivist to withhold material and then to enter into public debate in order to undermine a researcher who has depended upon their good faith.

Father Val Peter may dismiss my argument as "a rationalisation of semantics rather than a factual portrayal of Father Flanagan's feelings" (Oct 4th), but his decision to close the archive is a crude act of censorship, which serves only to undermine his argument.

Fortunately, the newspapers for the period are beyond Father Val Peter's censorious reach and are freely available in libraries throughout Ireland. I would invite interested readers to examine the press coverage of Father Flanagan's Irish tour of 1946. What is immediately apparent is the huge contradiction between what Father Flanagan said publicly about industrial schools during his visit and the subsequent criticism contained in his private correspondence. Rather than blowing the whistle on the industrial schools, Flanagan's visit to Artane and his subsequent praise of the school perpetuated the notion that Artane was "Ireland's Boys' Town". How else could readers interpret his references to "the great work being done there by the good brothers" and to the "magnificent training" the boys received there (Irish Independent, 24 June, 1946)?

I am not sure that if I were a poor boy in Artane in the summer of 1946 I would have drawn any hope from the priest's visit. - Yours, etc.,

History Department,
St Patrick's College,
Drumcondra, Dublin 9.