Father Flanagan and Ballymoe

Celebrating Ballymoe’s link with Boys Town, USA
Father Edward J. Flanagan, a native of Ballymoe, Co. Roscommon, set up Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska on December 12th, 1917. During the 1930's, Fr. Flanagan became an acknowledged expert in the field of childcare and toured the United States discussing his views on juvenile delinquency. Mairead O’Shea, Deputy Editor of the Roscommon Herald, examines Fr. Flanagan’s legacy and reports on the campaign underway by a Ballymoe group to establish the first Irish Boys Town.

Ballymoe man John Griffin is the first Irishman to be named Honourary President of the internationally acclaimed Girls and Boys Town National Alumni Association, a title previously held by Nancy Regan and J Edgar Hoover.

John is the first Irishman to receive the honour since the world-famous child care organisation's Alumni Association was founded in 1952. He will serve three years in his new capacity. Girls and Boys Town was founded by Ballymoe native Fr. Edward J. Flanagan in 1917. Girls and Boys Town is a leader in the treatment and care of abused, abandoned and neglected children. In the USA, Girls and Boys Town provides, through youth care and health care programmes, direct care and treatment to more than 43,000 children at 19 sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia and extends outreach and training services to nearly 1 million children, families and professionals. Additionally, more than 500,000 children and parents were directly assisted through the Girls and Boys Town Hotline.
John, who is currently the chairman of the Ballymoe Boys Town Association, helped lead the official "twinning" of Boys Town and Ballymoe in 2002. He continues to work tirelessly in the background to bring Fr. Flanagan's mission home to needy children in Ireland and has helped bring the first Irish youth into the Girls and Boys Town Programme in America.

"The future is ours to make as we unite in the name of God ... to support Girls and Boys Town and its leaders to its maximum potential ... and to deepen the ties between Girls and Boys Town and Ireland," he told Girls and Boys Town alumni at their recent convention.

He has a master's degree in Pastoral Leadership and Theology and is a psychiatric nurse who specialises in alcohol and drug addictions and he works in the Roscommon and Castlerea areas.
He is president of Ballymoe-Boys Town Association, and a founder of the Boys Town Drama Club, which works actively with young people by encouraging them to read and study the arts. He and his wife Bernadette have a son and daughter. He is also one of the founders and supporters of the Cause for Canonisation of Fr. Flanagan in Ireland.

John Griffin became involved in the Boys Town campaign when he discovered more about the inspirational and pioneering efforts of Ballymoe native Fr. Flanagan. He is determined to highlight public awareness of Fr. Flanagan's legacy and indeed continue to keep his spirit alive in today's Irish society.

Fr. Flanagan was critical of childcare in Irish society and indeed one of the chapters of Mary Raftery's book 'States of Fear' tells the story of Fr. Flanagan as one of the forces who challenged the Irish State.

"Fr. Flanagan said that the Irish childcare orphanages and centres were not fit for human habitation and were a disgrace to the nation. The then Minister for Justice Gerry Boland and the Irish government castigated Fr. Flanagan in the Dail and in public and basically told him to mind his own affairs, but he was not afraid to speak out. He was in private correspondence with a family who had taken an interest in a boy who had run away from the orphanage in the Glen area of County Kerry and he knew from his experience that everything was not right with the Irish system. He had planned to come to Ireland in 1948 but he was sent by Truman to set up the orphanages in post war Germany and actually died there. I found myself drawn to his story and I suppose what strikes me most is what might have happened if he had come to Ireland because things might have been very different," explained John.

John was appointed Honourary President of Boys Town Alumni Association, at a special ceremony held in Nebraska, USA, in recognition of his efforts to keep the spirit of Fr. Flanagan alive and his efforts to maintain links between Fr. Flanagan's home place of Ballymoe and Boys Town in the USA.
The Ballymoe Boys Town Association was established in 2001 and Boys Town and Ballymoe were officially twinned in 2003.

"I received the title of Honourary President in recognition of the contribution that I have made and which Ballymoe has made. Boys Town are very interested in maintaining the link with Fr. Flanagan and his legacy and they are keen on staying connected to his Irish roots. We are interested in keeping the spirit of Fr. Flanagan alive rather than something to remember or commemorate," explained John.

Fr. Flanagan is certainly remembered in Ballymoe where the Fr. Flanagan Memorial Centre takes pride of place along with the Fr. Flanagan Museum. Indeed, plans are also afoot to extend the centre to provide childcare facilities as well as a playground area behind the existing statue. Is is also hoped to develop the museum to allow third graduate Masters or Doctorate students carry out vital research work on Fr. Flanagan's life. Other links established with Boys Town include the first placement of an Irish Social Studies student from Athlone Institute of Technology, Tina Ward who worked in Boys Town last year. Local Ballymoe historian John Joe Brady is also about to publish a book entitled 'The history of Ballymoe' which further explores Fr. Flanagan's work and his connections with the Ballymoe area.

Teenage boy first Irish child for Boys Town

A teenage boy from the Western region is the first Irish child to have been in Boys Town, Omaha, USA and the feedback from the organisation is very positive and promising.

In conjunction with he County Roscommon Childcare team and the Ballymoe Boys Town Association the first ever Irish child was placed in Boystown.

The child, who cannot be named for legal and privacy reasons, had displayed severe behavioural difficulties and it was established in the High Court that the Health Service Executive in Ireland could not cater for his needs in the State. With a budget from the Western Service Executive and an order from the High Court, the child was placed in Boys Town eighteen months ago and already the feedback on his progress is very positive.

The child's family had also been involved in the treatment programme and travelled to Boys Town in the USA.

"Behaviour modification is their forte in Boys Town and through research and best practise a consistent programme was developed. The premise in Boys Town is that you can't expect a child to behave any differently unless they are taught how to behave differently," explained John Griffin.

Boys Town operates an open campus system and John described it as somewhat like what the Vatican is to Rome. It is somewhat like a town in its own right in the state of Omaha with its own Mayor. While it is officially called Boys Town, it caters for both boys and girls and the children live in family homes with married couples who are specifically trained in the Boys Town programme.

"It is a hub of family homes where children are placed there by courts and cared for in a family type setting. Two adults, a married couple and another worker lead the programme of behavioural change and each home would have a group of eight children. The children's psychological and educational needs are catered for on the campus and there is also a strong spiritual emphasis. There needs to be a spiritual dimension of some sort," explained John.

The parents are supported in their role by fully trained carers, counsellors, teachers and psychologists. There are also a range of outreach centres in cities throughout the USA and it is the ambition of Boys Town to have a programme established in all of the States.

John Griffin believes that the success of the Boys Town programme is due to its simplicity, as he explained. "It is successful due to its simplicity and its absolute consistency and it is underpinned by values of respect and dignity of each child and also placing faith as part of the human development. Adults are respected in Boys Town, not because they ought to be but because they have earned that respect. It is an open campus with no locks or high walls and children can and do sometimes, although rarely, run away," explained John.

Ballymoe group leading campaign for Boys Town in Ireland

The Ballymoe Boys Town Association is leading the campaign to have Boys Town established in Ireland as they believe that there is a struggle to find suitable placements for teenagers with behavioural difficulties in this country and Boys Town could help to bridge some of the gaps in our current system.

John Griffin is Chairman of the Ballymoe Boys Town Association and he is joined by President, Finbar McNamara; Treasurer, Assumpta Ward; Secretary, Fidelma Croghan, Bridie Morgan, Martin Collins, Tommy Egan, Peggy Kennedy, Mickey Shiel and Tom Flynn. The late Joe O'Shaughnessy was also a key member of the Ballymoe Boys Town Association.

John was keen to point out that the establishment of a Boys Town centre in Ireland would not be the answer to all ills but he was confident that Boys Town could help bridge some of the gaps in the current childcare system.

"The Irish childcare system is only twelve years old. The childcare legislation was enacted in the State in 1922 and previous to that we worked from a 1908 Act. Boys Town is in existence since 1917 and they have had an opportunity to build on their experience and they are years ahead of us in terms of research and development," he pointed out.

Talks about the establishment of a Boys Town centre in Ireland are still at a very early stage but John stressed that Boys Town still had a very strong affinity with Ireland and Fr. Flanagan's roots and he hoped the current director Fr. Steven Boes would consider the proposal favourably.

The current director of Boys Town Fr Boes is due to visit Ireland next year at which stage he will visit Ballymoe. It is also planned that he meet with the relevant Government Ministers in relation to discussions around a potential Boys Town centre for Ireland.

"I want to raise public awareness about Boys Town and Fr Flanagan and I want people to know what a good news story this is. Fr Flanagan was one of the most successful Roscommon men in history. When I addressed the 600 delegates at the recent Alumni I quoted a piece from Seamus Heaney's poem 'Double Take' by saying that I hoped that hope and history would rhyme which would make for Boys Town in Ireland and the need for our continued links was even greater and that we should grasp the opportunity," explained John.

John pointed out that there was a constant struggle with behavioural difficulties in Ireland. "In the words of Fr Flanagan every year lost in a child's life is a year you cannot get back again. The State is trying to do its best to deal with the problems and Boys Town would complement that and would definitely meet the needs of some children, I am convinced of that," said John.

Dan Daly, Executive director of homecare campus in Boys Town, whose ancestors came for County Cork, met with childcare managers on his last visit to County Roscommon. During the exchanges it was agreed that there was need for Boys Town and that Boys Town could contribute to the gaps in the existing Irish childcare system.

Prayer groups connected to the Ballymoe Boys Town Association and prayer groups in Sligo and Omaha are leading the idea of Fr Flanagan being canonised.

"Boys Town would not be the panacea for all ills and shortcomings but we could draw on their best practice for behaviourally disturbed adolescents and it could be a very fine alternative to prison. Even if one or two children were treated successfully then it would still be good value. It might be an old fashioned term but Fr Flanagan was concerned with the production of good citizens and that is still apt today," concluded John.

Fr. Flanagan legacy lives on

Father Edward J. Flanagan came to Omaha, Nebraska in 1913 when a drought that year filled the streets with unemployed farm labourers. When he saw the many homeless young boys and girls outside his Workingmen's Hotel for impoverished men, Father Flanagan began to formulate his philosophy that assisting a boy when he was young might prevent him from turning into a homeless man.

On December 12th, 1917, Father Flanagan borrowed $90 dollars from an anonymous friend, believed to be Henry Monsky, a prominent Jewish attorney active in the Boy Scouts and Juvenile Court, and opened the first Father Flanagan's Boys' Home. It was an old run-down Victorian mansion near downtown Omaha. Five boys were the first to benefit from Father Flanagan's vision, and those first residents barely had time to get settled before a steady stream of additional boys began to arrive. They were sent by the court, referred by sympathetic citizens, and often, simply wandered in on their own. The front door was never locked, and any boy who came was allowed to enter. There was hardly enough money to feed them, but these boys received stronger nourishment than food - love, care, patience and understanding in rich quantities.

Father Flanagan also know the boys needed more to become successful adults. He began to focus on their education. A horse and wagon carried the boys to and from school, music was always a part of the home's life and recreation in the form of supervised sports took place on the back lot. Tending to the boys' needs was no small task, but Father Flanagan's enthusiasm quickly attracted helpers. Neighbourhood men and women volunteered their evenings and weekends, and the diocese sent nuns to help with the daily work.

By January's end there were about 50 boys living at Fr Flanagan's, and he was forced to pick and choose boys on the basis of whose situation was most desperate. Unwilling to accept the limits the size his facility imposed, in the spring of 1918, he found a larger home for rent, some ten-times the size of his run-down facility. He moved the boys to the German-American Home. In no time, the population soared to more than 100.

Besides donations, he also knew that land would be a vital element to the home's success. It was important to have a farming operation so that at least part of the home's food could be grown. His thoughts turned to a particular piece of land some ten miles west of Omaha. The place was called Overlook Farm, and it was 160 acres of promise, complete with a house, barns, chicken coops and a small garage. Fr Flanagan purchased it through a land-swap deal.

On the grounds, he built a school, dormitories, a chapel, trade school, dining room and his own residence. They also built a baseball diamond and running track, and soon added a full-sized field for baseball and football. But the plans did not include building fences. Fr Flanagan said there would be no fences and no locks on the doors. He said: "I am not building a prison. This is a home. You do not wall in members of your own family."

As the home developed, the boys became more like citizens of a town than residents of a "home." They elected their own government - mayor, council and commissioners. They even had their own post office. In 1936, Boys Town became an official village of the states of Nebraska.

Soon, Hollywood became interested in the success surrounding Boys Town, two motion pictures were filmed, the first in 1938. The Oscar-winning movie "Boys Town" starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, dramatised the efforts being made to recover "lost" boys under Fr Flanagan's guidance. Tracy won an Oscar for his role as Fr Flanagan. He donated the statute to Boys Town, where it remains on display today. The second movie "Men of Boys Town" garnered much less box office success.
Over the years, Father Flanagan continued to direct all aspects of the programme and remained the "father" to all the boys, but he also had other roles outside those in Boys Town. He became internationally recognised as the world's most foremost expert on boy's training and youth care.

Governments and private groups in the United States and abroad asked him to consult on the problems and care of castoff boys of every description and nationality. After World War II, at the request of US officials, he travelled to Japan and Asia to explain what he had done and how he had done it. A trail of new homes fashioned after Boys Town followed his appearances.

In 1948, he went to Europe on a round of conferences, lectures, interviews and discussions. The schedule led him to Berlin on May 14th, and after a heavy day, he returned early. He awoke about midnight to the pain of a heart attack, and called for a priest and a doctor. Both came, but shortly after midnight, Fr Flanagan died. His body was taken home to his beloved boys and entombed in the Dowd Memorial Chapel.

Monsignor Nicholas Wegner was appointed director of the home shortly after Fr Flanagan's death. Under his direction, the growth and development that had been delayed by World War II was continued. Boys Town expanded both physically at its campus near Omaha, and in its extension of youth services nationally and internationally. It was under Msgr. Wegner's guidance that most of the building on campus were built. He is also credited with helping to build Boys Town's solid financial base.

Father Robert Hupp succeeded Msgr. Wegner in 1973, and during his twelve years of leadership, pioneered many new programmes to meet the complicated needs of today's youth. Father Hupp created the successful family-based system of child care used today at Boys Town and in 1979, Boys Town opened its traditionally all-male campus to girls. Four years later, five girls were the first to graduate from Boys Town. Today, girls from all over the US live in the village of Boys Town and make up nearly half of its population.

On June 15th, 1985, a new era began as Father Val Peter, a native Omahan, assumed the role of Executive Director. As only the fourth leader of Boys Town, Father Peter helped Boys Town grow once again. He helped develop Boys Town USA, which brings the help and hope of Boys Town to 19 sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia, through homes and services. In 2000, the children of Boys Town voted to expand the organisation's name to include all members of its diverse population. They changed the name to Girls and Boys Town.

Today, the community of Girls and Boys Town spans 900 acres of land, 400 of which is cultivated farm fields. The rest serves as the campus. There are more than 95 buildings, among them 71 homes in 60 buildings for Girls and Boys Town residents and their family teachers. The highly trained married couples guide each youth during his or her stay.

On July 1st, 2005, Fr Steven Boes, vowed to continue the legacy first started by Fr Flanagan. Father Boes said: "Father Flanagan's legacy - 'The work will continue you see, because it is God's work, not mine' - is what I will attempt to live up to. God's work has pointed me in his direction, and I must keep focused on saving these children in desperate need."

For further information on Boys Town log onto www.girlsandboytown.org or www,nebraskastudies.org. The Ballymoe Heritage Office can also be contacted at 049 9655102 or you can write to the Ballymoe Boys Town Association, Fr Flanagan Memorial Centre, Ballymoe, Co. Galway.

New director making Fr Flanagan's dream 'a reality'

The fifth director in the 88-year history of Girls and Boys Town, Fr Steven Boes was appointed last July, following in the footsteps of the famed Fr Edward J Flanagan.

The 46-year old Catholic priest succeeds Father Val J. Peter, who retired as the director of the national nonprofit, nonsectarian childcare organisation, which cares for more than 43,000 children in 19 sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Boes assumed the post in a ceremony in which he was presented with the Village of Boys Town flag, Fr Flanagan's Bible and a stone from Fr Flanagan's original home in Ballymoe.

"In 1938, Father Flanagan set the goal of having a Girls and Boys Town in every state in the Union," Father Boes said in his inaugural address. "We will continue to move forward until we make his dream a reality in all 50 states. Our kids have a miracle locked up inside of them and our staff and programmes make that miracle happen every day, whether it is in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or San Antonio," he continued.

Father Boes' selection was part of a national search. Before taking the Girls and Boys Town post, Father Boes worked with Native American children at St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Neb. In this position he learned to work with children of all faiths, especially Native American children and their unique culture and spirituality.

In 2004, a record number of children - 43,654 - received help, healing and hope from Girls and Boys Town's direct care programmes at 19 sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia. More than 50,000 children and families were helped through the Girls and Boys National Hotline, and nearly one million more were served through outreach and professional training programmes last year.

Famous sayings from Fr Flanagan

Father Edward Flanagan for many years conducted a public dialogue dealing with his revolutionary views on childcare issues through speaking engagements, radio broadcasts, newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and personal correspondence. The following "Famous Sayings" are a small portion of Father Flanagan's writings.

"There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking."

"When parents fail to do their job, when they allow their children to run the streets and keep bad company, when they fail to provide them with good examples in the home, then the parents and not the children are delinquent."

"The poor, innocent, unfortunate little children belong to us, and it is our problem to give them every chance to develop into good men and good women."

"Without God at the beginning, there is only confusion at the end."

"A true religious training for children is most essential if we are to expect to develop them into good men and good women - worthy citizens of our great country."

"No race that does not take care of its young can hope to survive - or deserves to survive."

"Our country needs good men and good women who have learned to love God above all things, and their fellow man for the love of God."

"There is nothing the matter with our growing boys that love, proper training and guidance will not remedy."

"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."

"It costs so little to teach a child to love, and so much to teach him to hate."
"I have yet to find a single boys who wants to be bad."

"Rehabilitation needs greater emphasis, punishment less."

"I know when the idea of a boys' home grew in my mind, I never thought of anything remarkable about taking in all of the races and all of the creeds. To me, they are all God's children. They are my brothers. They are children of God. I must protect them to the best of my ability."

Fr Flanagan - expert in the field of childcare

Father Edward J Flanagan, founder of Father Flanagan's Boys' Home at Boys Town, Nebraska, was born on July 13th 1886 in Leabeg, County Roscommon. He was one of eleven children to parents John and Nora Flanagan, people of modest means and deep faith. He attended primary school in Drimatample and entered Summerhill College, Sligo, in Autumn of 1900 for his secondary education. In 1904, Flanagan graduated from Summerhill with honours and sailed for the United States where he hoped to enter a seminary and begin life as a priest.

Once in the United States, he enrolled in Mount Saint Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Maryland, graduating in June 1906, and left in the Spring of 1907 due to poor health. Following a period of recuperation, he left to study at the Georgian University, Rome, Italy. After studying for one year, poor health once again forced him to abandon his studies. In the Autumn of 1909, he entered the Royal Imperial Leopold Francis University, Innsbruck, Austria. He earned a masters degree from Mount Saint Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Maryland in June 1911.

Following his ordination in 1912, he returned to the United States. He was assigned the Diocese of Omaha and celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at Holy Angels Church, August 1912. His first parish assignment was Saint Patrick's, O'Neill, Nebraska, after which he was appointed Assistant Pastor to Saint Patrick Catholic Church, Omaha, in March 1913.

Because of a drought during the summer of 1913, the streets of Omaha were filled with unemployed farm labourers. Seeing their need for assistance, he opened the Workingmen's Hotel in November 1913. There, men could find a bed for the night and he helped in obtaining employment. Homeless young boys began to arrive at his Workingmen's Hotel, and he began to formulate his philosophy that assisting a boy when he was young might prevent him from turning into a homeless man.

On December 12th, 1917, Father Flanagan opened Father Flanagan's Boys' Home in a rented boarding house in Omaha. By March 1918, the population of the home reached the point where Fr Flanagan was forced to rent a larger home located on 13the Street in Omaha. During the three years the Home was located at this site, the population continued to grow. In 1919, he became a citizen of the Unites States. In 1921, he became a member of the Omaha Welfare Board, and the Boys' Home moved to Overlook Farm, its present location near 139th and West Dodge Road.

With the premier of the motion picture "Boys Town" in 1938, Father Flanagan and Boys Town became internationally known. The film 'Boys Town' won two Academy Awards. Dore Schary and Elanore Griffin were honoured for writing the Best Original Screenplay and Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Fr Flanagan. Truly in the spirit of Fr Flanagan, Tracy graciously accepted the Oscar only to give it to Boys Town where it remains today.

During the 1930s, Fr Flanagan became an acknowledged expert in the field of childcare and toured the United States discussing his views on juvenile delinquency. He began a weekly radio broadcast carried throughout the United States and wrote numerous articles for publication.

He was appointed to a national panel for study of the problems of juvenile delinquency by U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark in February of 1946. He was appointed a member of the Naval Committee by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal on April 7th, 1947. In 1947, he made a trip to Japan and Korea to study child welfare problems at the invitation of General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. War /Department. He presented his completed report to President Harry S. Truman in 1947. Impressed by Fr Flanagan's work, President Truman requested that he conduct a similar tour of Austria and Germany. Fr Flanagan left for Europe in the Spring of 1948. During this tour, he fell ill and died of a heart attack in Berlin, Germany on May 15th, 1948. Funeral services for Father Flanagan were held in the Dowd Memorial Catholic Chapel, located at the heart of his beloved Boys Town, which is also his final resting place.

Sincere thanks to Mairead O’Shea and the Roscommon Herald for permission to reprint this article.