October 1, 2022

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Some American football supporters have arrived in Ireland earlier than expected ahead the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers game against the Northwestern University Wildcats at the Aviva stadium in Dublin next Saturday.

Nebraska fans were included among the 20 or so people in the delegation from Boys Town at Omaha in that US state who attended the opening of a new visitor centre in Ballymoe Co Galway on Sunday to honour local man and Boys Town founder Fr Edward Flanagan. The event followed a Mass concelebrated on Sunday morning by Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran and Fr Steven Boes, current executive director of Boys Town, in St Croan’s Church nearby.

Fr Flanagan, who was the seventh of 11 children, came from nearby Leabeg in Co Roscommon where he was born in 1886. He attended Summerhill College in Sligo town, junior seminary of Elphin diocese, before he emigrated to the US in 1904.

Ordained in 1912, he founded Boys Town in 1917 based on his philosophy that “there are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” He also did not believe “that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”

By the 1930s hundreds of boys were living at Boys Town, which then included a school, dormitories and administration buildings. The boys elected their own government, including a mayor, council and commissioners. In 1936, the community became an official village in the state of Nebraska and Fr Flanagan’s fame began to spread, as did his methods of dealing with children.

His life story was made famous in 1938 through the film `Boys Town’ starring Spencer Tracey and Mickey Rooney. Spencer Tracey won an Oscar for portraying the priest which he later gave to Fr Flanagan at Boys Town, where it remains.

Controversially, Fr Flanagan visited Ireland in 1946 and, despite being treated as a celebrity, he did not hold back in his criticisms of how children were being treated in institutions here at the time. In a Cork address he said that “from what I have seen since coming to this country . . . your institutions are not all noble, particularly your Borstals.” Speaking in Waterford and Limerick he said “Ireland’s prisons are also a disgrace . . . unChristlike and wrong”.

On his return to the US, he said of what he had seen in Ireland, “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? “

Then Minister for Justice, and TD for Roscommon, Gerry Boland criticised Fr Flanagan for his “intemperate and offensive language in describing the juvenile delinquency in Ireland.”

Fr Flanagan undertook several foreign missions on behalf of the US Government to highlight the plight of displaced and abandoned children in Japan and Europe after World War II and it was on one such foreign trip he died in Germany in 1948. He is buried at Boys Town which today helps approximately two million vulnerable children every year in the US.

The cause of for his canonisation was opened in 2015 by the Fr Flanagan League in Omaha.

As Fidelma Croghan, spokesperson for the Father Flanagan Group in Ballymoe, explained “the presbytery here has been vacant for 10 years and, with the permission of Bishop Doran, it has been renovated and converted into the Fr Flanagan Visitor Centre at a cost of approximately €70,000.”

The money came from donations, Elphin diocese, and the Fr Flanagan League in Omaha. A life size statue of the priest, designed by the American sculptor Fred Hoppe, stands at Ballymoe Community Centre, while the Fr Flanagan Memorial Garden, built in 2016, is at the rear of the new Visitor Centre and beside St Croan’s Church. The garden contains storyboards detailing Fr Flanagan’s life and writings, as well as a specially commissioned wooden sculpture.

Recently, Fr Flanagan has been included in the primary school religious education programme ‘Grow in Love’, as a Christian Hero under the social justice lesson for sixth class. Others previously included were saints Mother Teresa and Oscar Romero, as well as Mahatma Gandhi.

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