Father Edward Flanagan, founder of “Boys Town” made famous by the Spencer Tracy movie, was a lone voice in condemning Ireland’s industrial schools back in the 1940s – and he was viciously castigated by church and government for doing so.
Fr. Flanagan, from Co. Roscommon, left Ireland in 1904 and was ordained a priest eight years later. In 1917 he was living and working in Omaha, Nebraska, when he hit upon the idea of a "boys town," which offered education and a home for the poor and wayward boys of Omaha.
However, demand for the service was so great that he soon had to find bigger premises. Boys Town, built on a farm 10 miles from Omaha, was the result.
The center was open to all. There were no fences to stop the boys from leaving. Fr. Flanagan said he was “not building a prison."
"This is a home," he said. "You do not wall in members of your own family.”
Boys Town eventually became so well-known - and so well-respected - that Hollywood and the U.S. President came calling. Spencer Tracey and Mickey Rooney starred in the 1938 movie "Boys Town," and it made a national hero out of Fr. Flanagan. He was internationally renowned as “the world’s most foremost expert on boys’ training and youth care.”
When World War II ended in 1945, President Harry S. Truman asked Fr. Flanagan to tour Asia and Europe, to see what could be done for the homeless and neglected children in those regions.
Fr. Flanagan decided to return to the land of his birth in 1946 to visit his family, and also to visit the “so-called training schools" run by the Christian Brothers to see if they were "a success or failure.”
The success of the film "Boys Town," meant Fr. Flanagan was treated like a celebrity on his arrival. His visit was noted by the The Irish Independent, which said that Fr. Flanagan had succeeded “against overwhelming odds,” spurred on by the “simple slogan that 'There is no such thing as a bad boy.'”
But Fr. Flanagan was unhappy with what he found in Ireland. He was dismayed at the state of Ireland's reform schools and blasted them as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” And he said the Christian Brothers, founded by Edmund Rice, had lost its way.
Speaking to a large audience at a public lecture in Cork’s Savoy Cinema he said, "You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it." He called Ireland’s penal institutions "a disgrace to the nation," and later said "I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character."
However, his words fell on stony ground. He wasn't simply ignored. He was taken to pieces by the Irish establishment. The then-Minister for Justice Gerald Boland said in the Dáil that he was “not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country, because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”
Fr. Flanagan was a devout Catholic, a man who Catholics and non-Catholics world-wide had deemed a hero. He was the Mother Theresa of his day.
Despite that, the Irish Church and the Irish authorities felt comfortable ignoring Fr. Flanagan, ignoring the fact that he was considered to be an expert in the matter of providing for the education and upbringing of boys who were otherwise considered to be “lost causes.”
When he arrived back in America Fr. Flanagan said: "What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places . . . 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."
Again, his efforts fell on stony ground.
What was it about the Irish Church and the Irish authorities that made them so insular that they felt comfortable dismissing someone of Fr. Flanagan's stature? Despite the fact that Fr. Flanagan was a popular hero to many Irish people, his words had no sway with those in authority, whether in the government or the Church.
And, once those who endorsed the industrial school model survived Fr. Flanagan's broadsides, they must have known that no one would challenge them again. They were right, for 50 years anyway.
Not since the penal times has the Catholic Church been so threatened in Ireland. Only this time the damage is all self-inflicted and not imposed by an outside force. Unless strong Catholic characters arise from the wreckage we have now, the Church in Ireland is doomed.