Fr Flanagan and industrial schools

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Letters, Volume 12



70_small_1247575845—In his article on Fr Edward Flanagan’s visit to Ireland in 1946 (HI 12.1, Spring 2004) Dr Dáire Keogh purported to re-examine the evidence relating to criticisms of children’s institutions made by the founder of Boys’ Town, USA. Dr Keogh’s key contention was that Fr Flanagan did not censure industrial schools, directly contradicting the evidence put forward in our book on Irish industrial schools, Suffer the little children.
Given the remarkable wealth of surviving source documentation, from contemporary reportage to Fr Flanagan’s own writings on his clear condemnation of industrial schools, we believe that Dr Keogh’s thesis is unsupported and lacks balance. This is reinforced by his peculiarly personalised attack on one of the authors of Suffer the little children, Mary Raftery.
While taking her to task, Dr Keogh claims that Fr Flanagan visited St Patrick’s in Belfast, ‘Ireland’s oldest industrial school, run by the De La Salle Brothers (not the Christian Brothers as Raftery asserts)’. In fact, St Patrick’s was not Ireland’s oldest industrial school; rather St Mary’s industrial school in Dublin has that distinction. In addition, nowhere in Suffer the little children do the authors claim that St Patrick’s was run by the Christian Brothers.
While relatively critical of the physical conditions within St Patrick’s, Fr Flanagan’s overall published comments in relation to that school and, subsequently, the Artane industrial school were relatively benign. In the light of his own writings, this is best interpreted as indicating a degree of politeness on the part of Fr Flanagan, the visitor to Ireland. As he repeatedly stated, the priest had a deep-rooted abhorrence of the institutionalisation of children. His unique legacy was that Boys’ Town and the various projects that he initiated were to divert children away from punitive carceral institutions, which he believed damaged children, to self-regulating, empowering, open communities for young people of all creeds and races.
Indeed, in a letter to a fellow priest in the US written some months before his arrival in Ireland, Fr Flanagan clearly identified his priorities for the visit:
‘I am particularly interested in the juvenile problem. I would like to get their [Irish welfare department] reaction as to whether these so-called training schools conducted by the Christian Brothers are a success or a failure. My memory—and it is not very clear—is that they have not been very successful in developing individuality, Christian character, and manliness, because they are too much institutionalised. This, as you know, helps the good Brothers and makes it easier for them.’
It should be remembered that both St Patrick’s in Belfast (with a capacity for 150 children) and more significantly Artane (with its enormous population of 830 boys at the time) were the epitome of child institutionalisation. In the context of Fr Flanagan’s frequently stated beliefs, it seems hardly credible that such practices would not attract stern criticism from him.
And indeed his comments at a public lecture in Cork’s Savoy Cinema clearly reflected his attitude to what he had seen of Irish institutions for children: ‘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, first by keeping your children away from these institutions’, he stated to rapturous applause.
In a public statement following the controversy caused by his description of Ireland’s carceral institutions as ‘a disgrace to the nation’, Fr Flanagan stated that
‘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 . . . If in trying to help the forgotten boys in reform schools and prisons, whether it be in Ireland or in the United States, is intemperate and offensive, I’m afraid I’ll have to plead guilty.’
It is certainly true that Fr Flanagan was more forthright in his private correspondence with Walter Mahon-Smith. His letters give a much better sense of his fundamental beliefs than his guarded comments regarding individual institutions. Referring to this correspondence, however, Dr Keogh states that a ‘surviving collection of twenty letters (which constitutes just a fraction of the wider exchange) inspired Mary Raftery’s criticism of the industrial schools’. This is both erroneous and offensive. It is a matter of verifiable fact that Ms Raftery’s ‘criticism of industrial schools’ has been based upon the examination of many thousands of documents, of which the Boys’ Town papers, examined by both authors of Suffer the little children, number in the hundreds.
Dr Keogh states that the tone of Fr Flanagan’s comments regarding institutions for children changed during his visit, attributable to having received a copy of Mahon-Smith’s account of his time in various Irish prisons following his conviction for embezzlement. However, in the files relating to his visit to Ireland, Fr Flanagan unambiguously states that he had read the book prior to his visit to Ireland.
It is evident from the Fr Flanagan files that, as Dr Keogh notes, the priest was unclear as to the distinctions between industrial schools, reformatories and borstals. Such confusion is not restricted to the 1940s or to Fr Flanagan. Regularly even today news items identify the Christian Brothers as having operated reformatory schools (they never did), and industrial schools are inaccurately described as orphanages. Despite this terminological confusion, it is nonetheless clear that Fr Flanagan and undoubtedly others, while not always aware of the legal distinctions between the institutions, are describing the dense interlocking system that institutionalised thousands of children in Ireland.
It is clear to us that Dr Keogh’s claim that Fr Flanagan did not criticise Ireland’s industrial schools is a distortion of the available evidence concerning the character and beliefs of Fr Flanagan and an elision of the quite specific comments he made about the effects of institutionalising children. Rather than describing an interesting attempt at reform of Ireland’s carceral institutions for both children and adults, Dr Keogh has instead decided (for reasons best known to himself) to launch a somewhat personalised attack not so much on either the documentary States of fear or on the book Suffer the little children, but rather on one of this book’s authors.

—Yours etc.,
Department of Social Studies
Trinity College

Producer/director/writer, States of fear
Dublin 7


Author’s reply

70_small_1247575895In the first instance I apologise unreservedly to Ms Raftery for the personal offence she took at my article in History Ireland concerning Fr Flanagan’s condemnation of Ireland’s penal system. My argument was never a personalised attack; I was simply responding to Suffer the little children, the most significant publication on the subject. As such, I concede that it was an oversight on my part not to refer to Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan throughout. My intent, like theirs, is to get to the bottom of this complex question.
My interest in this field relates to my current research into the history of the Irish Christian Brothers, and my visit to the Boys’ Town archive was prompted by Raftery and O’Sullivan’s suggestion in Suffer the Little Children that the Christian Brothers had served in that school but were expelled by Fr Flanagan on account of their brutality (p. 194). My visit to the archive very quickly established that the Irish Christian Brothers had never been in Boys’ Town and that the allegations refer to an entirely different American order.
The visit to Omaha prompted me to look at the contemporary reportage of Flanagan’s 1946 tour of Ireland. Suffer the little children states emphatically that Fr Flanagan ‘published long articles in the Irish papers in the mid 1940s, condemning the highly abusive and punitive culture within Irish industrial schools’ (p. 15). The authors also claim that ‘in 1946, those running industrial schools in Ireland were to receive a most unpleasant shock. They were subjected to unprecedented public criticism from one of their own—a priest’ (p. 189). My research suggests otherwise and my thesis has been quite simple; there is no basis for these extravagant claims. With the exception of a reference to the case of Gerard Forarty at Glin, made in a long press release (October 1946), Father Flanagan made no explicit public condemnation of the industrial schools. On the contrary, he praised the schools. At St Patrick’s, Belfast, celebrated by the Irish Press as ‘Ireland’s oldest industrial school’, he lauded the De La Salle Brothers, ‘who were giving all that they had with such self-sacrifice for the children’ (Irish Press, 18 June 1946). Again, after his visit to Artane, Fr Flanagan declared that ‘he could not speak in too high terms of the great work being done there . . . boys such as those who had left the Christian Brothers schools had learned the science of life as Christ taught it’ (Irish Independent, 24 June 1946). It is also on record that the priest praised the industrial school at Artane when he addressed the Commission for Youth Unemployment during his visit.
Such comments cannot be considered ‘relatively benign’, nor can they be ‘interpreted as indicating a degree of politeness on the part of Father Flanagan’. They represent a very public endorsement of the industrial schools from the greatest humanitarian of the age. This is the crux of the matter; such praise cannot be squared with the notion that Fr Flanagan blew the whistle on Ireland’s industrial schools—politeness and prophecy do not go hand in hand. Rather than exposing the realities of the system, Flanagan’s visit to Artane and his subsequent praise for the school reinforced the notion that Artane was Ireland’s Boys’ Town. I invite readers to consult the newspapers for 1946 and see if it is possible to argue otherwise. The issue is not what Father Flanagan should have said or what he said about other institutions—reformatories, borstals and prisons—but what he said publicly about industrial schools.
I am pleased that Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan now concede that Fr Flanagan was ‘unclear as to the distinctions between industrial schools, reformatories and borstals’, yet while they recognise the priest’s ‘confusion’, they continue to argue that his references to ‘institutions’ included industrial schools. Their quotation from the Savoy Cinema, Cork, speech is a case in point. It clearly reflects Flanagan’s disgust at the incarceration of children, but his criticism was in a context in which he claimed ‘your institutions in this country are not all noble, particularly your borstals which are a disgrace . . . your prisons are also a disgrace’ (Irish Catholic, 11 July 1946). Given his very public praise of the industrial schools, why would his audience have assumed that he meant these institutions also? Certainly the governors at Clonmel borstal thought that his criticism was directed towards them and published a report two years later, addressing the condemnation from an ‘un-named American visitor’ (Government Publications, 1948). Significantly, too, in a press release issued by Fr Flanagan in December 1946, the priest stated categorically that ‘the only criticism I have made was of prison conditions’. On a point of information, too, while Flanagan intended to make a tour of inspection of Irish institutions, his correspondence on the matter was with the minister for justice, not with the minister for education, who had responsibility for industrial schools.
In my original article I stressed the stinging criticism of the industrial schools contained in the twenty letters which make up the private correspondence between Fr Flanagan and Walter Mahon-Smith, and which inspired a chapter of Suffer the little children. The Irish public had no inkling of this criticism, nor had they access to this confidential correspondence. Readers of History Ireland might be interested to know that since the publication of my article in this journal I have been denied further access to the Boys’ Town archive, nor have I been shown recently discovered files which were promised to me last January. This represents a crude act of censorship that, far from protecting Fr Flanagan’s reputation, can only serve to undermine it. Rather than being both heroic and prophetic, in this instance Flanagan, in spite of his underlying humanitarianism, was in the ranks of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people who were content to turn a blind eye.
St Patrick’s College


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