Flanagan and Ballymoe
Ballymoes 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 OShea,
Deputy Editor of the Roscommon Herald, examines Fr. Flanagans
legacy and reports on the campaign underway by a Ballymoe
group to establish the first Irish Boys Town.
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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
"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."
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
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 OShea
and the Roscommon Herald for permission to reprint this