Flanagan, Oliver Joseph (1920–87), politician and catholic lay activist, was born 22 May 1920 in Mountmellick, Co. Laois, eldest of three sons of Charles Flanagan, stonemason, and Mary Flanagan (née Kelly); of his brothers, Ted became a carpenter and Charles a missionary priest. Flanagan was educated at Mountmellick national school, and then became what he later described as ‘an organiser’, organising workers' groups; he also had an unsuccessful stint as an apprentice carpenter in Portlaoise. Despite his parents' dislike of politics, he was elected to Laois county council (1942) and the following year to the dáil as a member of the short-lived Monetary Reform Party, whose programme for economic self-sufficiency was underscored by anti-semitism and ‘Jewish conspiracy’ theories. From the beginning of his parliamentary career Flanagan was a powerful speaker, media manipulator, and controversialist. During the second world war he proclaimed in the dáil that there was a need to ‘rout the Jews out of this country’, an intervention left unchallenged by his dáil colleagues. He was later to attribute such outbursts to a naive embracing of contemporary international propaganda. Although he had initially supported the minority government of Éamon de Valera (qv), in November 1947 he accused de Valera, Seán Lemass (qv), and de Valera's son Vivion (qv) of proposing the sale of Locke's distillery in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, to foreigners, in alleged contravention of the law. These charges led to a tribunal of inquiry which – as well as accusing him of lying – found ‘not a scintilla of evidence’ to support his claims, which were made ‘with a degree of recklessness amounting to complete irresponsibility’. None the less, he stood as an independent candidate in the 1948 general election, secured the highest number of first preferences in the country, and sent a gloating telegram to de Valera proclaiming that ‘Leix–Offaly's answer to Locke tribunal leaves no doubt as to belief in existence of corruption’. He was reelected in 1951. His friendship with James Dillon (qv) influenced his decision to join Fine Gael (1952); he won a seat for that party in the 1954 general election and subsequently successfully contested all general elections for the party till 1987, topping the poll on all but two occasions. An astute constituency operator, he argued passionately for the less well-off, was masterful at public relations, and built up a flourishing auctioneering business based in Mountmellick. He served (1954–7) as parliamentary secretary to the minister for agriculture. Known for his strongly held views on sexual morality, he confessed that he was ‘a conservative in and on all things’ and that ‘on moral issues I answer only to God’, and notoriously declared on RTÉ in 1967 that ‘there was no sex in Ireland before television’. He campaigned against Ireland's membership of the EEC, believing it would herald the onslaught of the ‘permissive society’, and voted against Fianna Fáil's offences against the state bill (1972). As a member of the 1973–7 coalition government he served first as parliamentary secretary to the minister for local government (1975–6), then as defence minister (1976–7) following Patrick Donegan's (qv) removal from this ministry for a public attack on President Cearbhall O'Dalaigh (qv). As a member of the Knights of Columbanus, he reflected the views of that organisation at government level, voting against the contraception bill in 1974, and in 1976 spoke out about the need to keep education in the hands of the catholic church to prevent the creation of ‘Godless schools’. He declared himself satisfied with the coalition government and pleased that ‘the party of Arthur Griffith (qv) stood united with the party of James Connolly (qv)’, but was disillusioned after Fianna Fáil's victory in the 1977 general election. He was not the type of politician that the new liberal wing of Fine Gael, led by Garret FitzGerald (qv), wanted as the public face of the party, which may explain his appointment to the Council of Europe. Flanagan consistently attacked the media, journalists, and his own party leadership for their pursuit of the ‘liberal agenda’; his rhetoric became littered with increasingly farcical warnings of military coups if political parties did not ‘mend their ways’. He was made a Knight of the Grand Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul I (1978), and his son (who considered him a liberal parent) maintained that the catholic church was using him as an influential public figure on whom they could rely to defend traditional catholic teaching on sexual morality, family values, and marriage. Flanagan did not disappoint, playing a prominent part in the pro-life campaign of 1983, attacking the stance of the taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, and at one stage referring to him as ‘Herod’. He died 26 April 1987 in Laois. He married (1952) May McWey; they had three daughters and a son, Charles, who retained Flanagan's seat in the subsequent general election.
Evelyn Bolster, The Knights of Saint Columbanus (1979); Fergal Tobin, The best of decades: Ireland in the 1960s (1984); Joe Lee, Ireland 1912–85: politics and society (1989); Ir. Times, 22 Apr. 1987; McRedmond; Stephen Collins, The Cosgrave legacy (1996); information from Charles Flanagan (son)