No doubts at stance of Fr Flanagan

 

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?"

mraftery@irish-times.ie