‘There’s no such thing as a bad boy’

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Volume 12

(Hall of History, Boys' Town)

(Hall of History, Boys’ Town)

Mary Raftery’s exposé of industrial schools in her acclaimed RTÉ documentary States of fear (1999) drew particular attention to criticism of the system by Boys’ Town’s Fr Edward Flanagan—Dáire Keogh re-examines the evidence.

In the recent debate about institutional abuse in Ireland, commentators have drawn on a cache of letters amongst the papers of Father Edward Flanagan at Omaha, Nebraska, which purport to document the stinging criticisms of industrial schools made by the founder of Boys’ Town during his visit to Ireland in the summer of 1946. A more detailed examination of this archival material, however, reveals that the Monsignor was not especially concerned with these institutions but rather with the island’s penal system, which he described as ‘a disgrace to a Christian people’, thereby provoking the wrath of the Irish political establishment, which represented his intervention as meddling, ill-informed, irresponsible and subversive.


The origin of Boys’ Town

Edward Flanagan (1886–1948), a native of Ballymoe, Co. Roscommon, followed several members of his family to the United States in 1904. Like his brother Patrick, he was ordained a priest of the archdiocese of Omaha in the American mid-West in 1912. As a young priest Flanagan worked amongst Irish immigrants, initially at O’Neill, Nebraska, and subsequently at the parish of St Patrick in the city of Omaha. Here he first came into contact with the extreme poverty that prompted him to establish a shelter for homeless, down-and-out men, many of whom he had met on his pastoral visits to the city jail. Flanagan quickly realised the limitation of this work and the difficulty of rehabilitating such men. He was even more alarmed at the numbers of homeless boys on the streets of Omaha destined to be sucked into the same miserable spiral. He was especially struck by the boys’ vulnerability, drifting into crime in a futile attempt to escape their misery. In December 1917, with $90 donated by his Jewish friend Henry Monsky, Flanagan established a home in the city for five boys, two of them despatched from the juvenile court and three of them homeless.
This was the origin of ‘Boys’ Town’, a home for boys based on an entirely new philosophy. Flanagan’s philosophy was rooted in his own observations and embedded in his Christian faith. At the heart of his thinking was the belief that ‘there is no such thing as a bad boy’; his system was based upon ‘love, care and encouragement’ rather than punishment. His only requirement of boys admitted to his home was their wanting to be there. The front door was never locked and all arrivals were made welcome, irrespective of their colour and creed, establishing a racial mix that set Boys’ Town apart and visibly demonstrated the radical nature of Flanagan’s project. From the beginning, he was emphatic that Boys’ Town was not an orphanage: it was a home and a school, and he begged the courts to send boys to him rather than committing them to institutions where they became hardened in their negative ways. Flanagan soon outgrew his original premises, and in 1921 he relocated his home outside the city to a greenfield site of 200 acres. There he established his ‘city of boys’, which was conducted on a novel system of self-government. The boys elected their own mayor, city commissioners and courts. Believing that ‘a busy boy is a better boy’, Flanagan insisted that everything was done to occupy their time. In addition to the school, the home had its own workshop and self-sufficient farm. It had an extensive athletic programme, a choir and a touring band (although endemic racism confined it reluctantly to performances north of the Mason–Dixon Line).
Boys’ Town captured the popular imagination. Its optimism, pragmatism and vitality embodied the American dream and the stuff of Hollywood; indeed, one of Flanagan’s aims was to ‘give fuller meaning to that concept of America as a land of opportunity’. In 1938 Spencer Tracy picked up an Academy Award for his portrayal of Father Flanagan in the blockbuster Boys’ Town, which co-starred Mickey Rooney as the incorrigible Whitey Marsh. The movie fanned Flanagan’s fame and numerous accolades followed, including selection as America’s greatest humanitarian by the Variety Club of America (1939).

Irish tour 1946

Fr Flanagan (extreme left) in a group photograph with de Valera when he visited Boys' Town in the course of his 1920 American tour. Note the black boy (top right-hand corner). Boys' Town's racial mix demonstrated the radical nature of Flanagan's project. (Hall of History, Boys' Town)

Fr Flanagan (extreme left) in a group photograph with de Valera when he visited Boys’ Town in the course of his 1920 American tour. Note the black boy (top right-hand corner). Boys’ Town’s racial mix demonstrated the radical nature of Flanagan’s project. (Hall of History, Boys’ Town)

In the summer of 1946 Flanagan spent a month in his native Ireland, which was still suffering the effects of the Emergency, with shortages and rationing compounded by crippling strikes. He had an ambitious programme of engagements, including school visits, addresses and meetings with civic officials.

Highest on the list was Éamon de Valera, who had visited Boys’ Town on his tour of the United States in 1920. Throughout his visit Flanagan was celebrated as a returning hero and greeted with bonfires and bunting. However, there was more to the visitor than the Irish expected. Far from simply reiterating the clichés associated with the film, Flanagan delivered an uncompromising message that stung the Irish political establishment and produced an immediate and vicious reaction.
Throughout the tour Flanagan spoke from a prepared set of notes. ‘Tall and rugged, with an easy manner’, the Irish Catholic praised his charismatic delivery, ‘and that type of charming American accent only Irish exiles achieve’. On every occasion he challenged the prevailing concepts of juvenile delinquency:

I say it again and again, there is no such thing as a bad boy. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example and bad thinking . . . Understanding and not punishment is the solution for what is commonly called ‘juvenile delinquency’. This is not just a statement. It is verified by more than a quarter of a century of work with boys of all classes.

To this he added a stern condemnation of corporal punishment and juvenile institutions, so-called ‘Reform schools which have nothing to offer in the line of reform’ but focus rather upon detention and punishment to the extent that they had not advanced since ‘the days when Charles Dickens was one of the great reformers’.
Flanagan set this message firmly within the context of his time. The war had just ended, Nazi criminals were being tried at Nuremberg, and Europe faced what to many appeared the menacing spectre of atheistic communism. Within this context Flanagan saw a particular role for Catholic Ireland, whose faith marked it out as a bulwark against the evils of Stalinism, ‘a great nation—standard bearers of citizenry for the whole world’. In this sense, he shared the Cold War sentiments of Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin, expressed so vividly with regard to the imprisonment of Archbishop Stepinic in Hungary. For these reasons care of the young was essential. Speaking at Ballymoe, Flanagan asked:

Who is going to fight this danger? Not you and I, we are getting too old for that. It is the little children that we pick out of the gutter . . . these are the people who will fight against Communism, Hitlerism and dictatorship.

These were the values he stressed repeatedly during his visit, drawing upon his prepared script.

No censure of industrial schools

Naturally, the principal focus of his visit was on youth. He visited several schools, including his alma mater, Summerhill College, where he had been a contemporary of the tenor John McCormack. In Sligo he also visited a home for boys conducted by the Sisters of the Nazarene. Recent commentators have focused more upon his reaction to the industrial schools that he visited in Belfast and Dublin. Mary Raftery, author of Suffer the little children (1999), has claimed that Fr Flanagan’s ‘unprecedented public criticism’ of the schools resulted in an ‘unpleasant shock’ for those running them. In fact he delivered no such censure while in Ireland.
The first school that he visited was St Patrick’s in Belfast, Ireland’s oldest industrial school, run by the De La Salle Brothers (not the Christian Brothers as Raftery asserts). The visit lasted three hours and involved all the pomp associated with such occasions: tours of the school, athletic displays, presentations and a performance from the school band, which played ‘Come back to Erin’. Flanagan complimented the Brothers who ‘were doing such fine work for the education, comfort and rehabilitation of the boys’. Conditions in the school were primitive (especially by American standards), and in a subsequent interview, reported in the Irish Press, Flanagan admitted that:

It was a pity that the school was so poorly equipped. The Brothers and boys deserved better accommodation to continue God’s work . . . the country should help such people who were giving all that they had with such self-sacrifice for these children. Each child that they turned out was worth millions of pounds to the state.

readingFlanagan expressed similar sentiments with regard to Artane. Speaking at the Gresham Hotel, he claimed that ‘the many institutions he visited since his arrival had been excellent’:

It had been a good fortune to visit Artane and he could not speak in too high terms of the great work being done there by the good Brothers . . . Those little fellows receive a magnificent training; they are beautiful children and they cannot go wrong because they feel they belong somewhere and that is so important.

After the Gresham address, however, the tone of his visit changed radically. On that evening he was handed a copy of I did penal servitude, published anonymously by ‘D.83222’ the previous year.
‘Ireland’s prisons are . . . a disgrace’
This was a controversial call for prison reform, an inside account of the Irish prison system written by Walter Mahon-Smith, a country bank official who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for embezzlement. The preface to the book was written by Seán Ó Faolain, who allowed Smith to use his phone number, D.83222, instead of his prison number. In the following year, following encouragement from the radical editor Peadar O’Donnell, Mahon-Smith wrote a further series of articles for The Bell entitled ‘There but for the Grace of God . . .’, in which he detailed his descent to prison.
Over their morning coffees and afternoon teas the ‘nice people’ are cheerfully discussing the present fashionable headline, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad boy’, and wise theologians, cautious scribes and dignified public men are reaching for their pens and ‘rearing to go’—as far as their writing desks.

Flanagan read the book with avid interest. He described it as ‘a horrible statement of the conditions of the prisons in Ireland’, confessing subsequently that it ‘tore the heart out’ of him. In many of his subsequent engagements he addressed the issue of penal institutions in Ireland, basing his judgement upon Mahon-Smith’s text. Speaking at the Savoy cinema in Cork, he declared that ‘from what I have seen since coming to this country . . . your institutions are not all noble, particularly your Borstals’. Speaking in Waterford, and again in Limerick, he added, ‘Ireland’s prisons are also a disgrace . . . unChristlike and wrong’.
Many of these addresses were chaired by the local bishop, and on every occasion the Monsignor’s critique of the system brought unanimous approval from his audiences. Ireland was buzzing with talk of reform; the Irish Catholic (4 July 1946) observed:

Criticism abroad viewed as unpatriotic

Irish reactions changed, however, once Flanagan repeated his criticism of Irish institutions on his return to the United States. It was one thing to criticise Ireland at home, but to broadcast it abroad was viewed as reprehensively unpatriotic. Prison reform was a sensitive issue for the Irish government in the summer of 1946. Republican prisoners in Portlaoise were on hunger strike, and one of them, Sean McCaughey, had died in horrific circumstances on 11 May. The Labour Party had taken up the plight of prisoners and conducted an enquiry into conditions at Portlaoise, the results of which were a damning indictment of government policy. In June the Seanad had rejected calls for an inquiry into prison conditions, with the minister for justice, Gerry Boland, claiming that ‘the prisoners concerned are determined to break the whole system—to run the prison themselves’.
In this political context, Flanagan’s remarks in New York produced an outraged response from the political establishment in Ireland, who suggested that he had become a gullible mouthpiece for the republican prisoners. There is little doubt that Flanagan shared their political aspirations; he was opposed to partition and had a keen interest in Irish history and the War of Independence in particular. Yet in this instance his motivation was primarily humanitarian. The Irish government went for the jugular, with Gerry Boland attacking Flanagan for his ‘intemperate and offensive language in describing the juvenile delinquency in Ireland’. The minister alleged that Flanagan was out of his depth, preaching on issues ‘regarding which he had no first-hand information’.
The government’s response put Father Flanagan on the defensive, since clearly he was at a disadvantage; he had not visited a single prison, while half the cabinet, including the ministers for justice and education (Thomas Derrig), had served time. Flanagan now entered into a long correspondence with Walter Mahon-Smith to elicit information regarding Irish borstals and reform schools. This surviving collection of twenty letters (which constitutes just a fraction of the wider exchange) inspired Mary Raftery’s criticism of the industrial schools, but the focus of this exchange was essentially information-gathering. Flanagan is adamant that his letters were strictly private, and it is immediately apparent that he was very unsure of conditions in Ireland. He is often confused about the distinctions between reformatories, industrial schools, borstals and prisons. Nevertheless, these letters provide a striking insight into the reform institutions, as Mahon-Smith relayed first-hand accounts he had received from former inmates and comments from colleagues (including Seán Ó Faolain, Roger McHugh, Noel Hartnett and Maude Gonne MacBride) on the system where ‘punishment and dreary indifference is the keynote’. Several other letters compliment Flanagan for his efforts in Ireland; others inform him of allegedly brutal conditions in Sandford Park, one of Dublin’s most prominent Protestant schools. There are also a few hate letters, one of which reminded him that:

Éamon de Valera is second to God in the hearts of the Irish, and because he doesn’t lick the boots of every egotistical yank that comes to Ireland it doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t run our country as it should be.

A harrowing collection of letters in the file documents the physical abuse of a fifteen-year-old boy at the Christian Brothers’ Industrial School at Glin. Collected by Martin McGuire, an independent councillor in Limerick, these were passed to Flanagan by James Sheil, manager of the Theatre Royal, Dublin, who had facilitated his visit to Ireland. These letters provide an appalling account not simply of the horrible beating suffered by the boy at the hands of a sadistic Brother but also of the ensuing failure of the Department of Education to respond adequately to charges of negligence that Flanagan eventually exposed in a press release, dated October 1946.

Irish political establishment aghast

Talking to children in his native Ballymoe, Co. Roscommon, during his 1946 Irish tour. (Hall of History, Boys' Town)

Talking to children in his native Ballymoe, Co. Roscommon, during his 1946 Irish tour. (Hall of History, Boys’ Town)

Flanagan’s visit and subsequent comments stimulated a lively debate in the national press on prison reform. It also sparked a debate on education, set within the context of the marathon INTO strike that lasted from March to Hallowe’en 1946. The minister for education, Thomas Derrig, described the teachers’ strike as ‘not an industrial dispute, but a challenge to the government, and therefore the people’. The debate was internationalised in early October 1946, when the American Weekly (a supplement distributed by the Hearst group of papers) published an article on Irish prison conditions. This piece was accompanied by a sketch of a muscular warder (not a cleric as Suffer the little children suggests) flogging a half-naked teenage boy with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Clearly this article was based upon Flanagan’s sources, although the priest denied giving an interview to the paper.

The Irish political establishment was aghast. An Irish Press editorial condemned the priest’s irresponsible remarks, which it claimed were based on ignorance and ‘hearsay which he could easily have discovered came from tainted sources’. The Catholic Standard published a similar editorial, entitled ‘Not guilty’, which welcomed the Department of Justice’s refutation of charges of physical punishment in penal institutions. Gradually, the editors froze debate upon reform; as Mahon-Smith observed, ‘the Iron Curtain’ fell on the subject of prisons, borstal and reform schools in Ireland. Only the Irish Catholic continued the debate, which included a long letter in November 1946 from the octogenarian Maude Gonne MacBride (who had served as secretary of the Women Prisoners’ Defence League), calling for an end to the ‘puritan prison system, so contrary to the teachings of Christ’.
Flanagan began to despair of the situation: in February 1947 he admitted to Mahon-Smith his failure to understand the psychology of the Irish and lamented their ‘failure to come out and discuss things in which the government has something to say, because of fear’. He had also become more strident in his private criticism of the Catholic hierarchy and the institutions he had visited, particularly the De La Salle industrial school in Belfast, ‘which would make your heart pain . . . with little children working in the little shoe shop on shoes in the dark’.

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 . . . We have punished the Nazis for their sins against society . . . I wonder what God’s judgement will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children?

Flanagan visited Japan and Korea at the invitation of General MacArthur, where he served as an expert consultant on child welfare programmes. (Hall of History, Boys' Town)

Flanagan visited Japan and Korea at the invitation of General MacArthur, where he served as an expert consultant on child welfare programmes. (Hall of History, Boys’ Town)

Ireland’s leaders remained oblivious to such sentiments. In January 1947 Father Flanagan called for an impartial public investigation of prison conditions, but once more his message was rejected in the establishment’s attempts to resist republican pressure and to rubbish the Labour Party’s call for reform. The issue was debated in the Dáil throughout the spring, and the minister for justice dismissed these calls for an enquiry ‘from persons whose heads are as soft as their hearts’. The most vocal critic of Flanagan was the Fine Gael deputy James Dillon:

Last year Monsignor Flanagan turned up in this country and went galumping around and read a book and got his photo taken a great many times and made a variety of speeches to tell us what a wonderful man he was, what marvels he had achieved in the United States . . . and then he went back to America and published a series of falsehoods and slanders.

Dillon dismissed his observations as no more than a ‘farrago of ill-informed nonsense’. On another occasion Dillon referred to the Monsignor’s principal source on Ireland, Walter Mahon-Smith’s book, as ‘a dirty, lying, slanderous, fraudulent publication by a mean hound’. Such was the contempt of the Irish political establishment across both main parties for Flanagan’s irresponsible mischief.
Flanagan persevered in his campaign. He announced his intention of touring Irish prisons and Mahon-Smith worked on the logistics, which were to be modelled on the Labour Party investigation of 1946. In the interim, however, Flanagan visited Japan and Korea at the invitation of General MacArthur, where he served as an expert consultant on child welfare programmes, arousing the ire of Buddhist clerics for his emphasis on Christian values. A similar enterprise took him to Berlin in May 1948, but that mission was cut short by his sudden death, thus depriving the world of one of its greatest humanitarians.
Flanagan’s passing received a muted response in the Irish press. The Irish establishment, it seemed, was happier with the priest on celluloid than the prophet in person.

Dáire Keogh lectures in history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.

Further reading
D.83222 [Walter Mahon-Smith], I did penal servitude (Dublin, 1945). 
B. Lonnberg and T.J. Lynch (eds), Father Flanagan’s legacy (Omaha, 2003).
M. Raftery and E. O’Sullivan, Suffer the little children (Dublin, 1999).


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