Flanagan, Seán (1922–93), GAA footballer and politician, was born 26 January 1922 in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, second eldest child among four sons and two daughters of Stanislaus Flanagan, national school teacher, and Ann Flanagan (née Spelman). He was educated at St Jarlath's College, Tuam, and entered UCD (1940), where he graduated with a first-class honours degree in philosophy and logic. After a brief period studying at the seminary at Clonliffe College, Dublin, Flanagan returned to UCD, where he studied law, qualifying as a solicitor (1946), and in 1949 opened a solicitor's practice at Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon. At UCD Flanagan had been politically active with Fianna Fáil, a prominent debater, and a member of Sean MacDermott's and UCD Gaelic clubs. He had played minor football for Mayo in 1940 but was barred from playing in the All-Ireland final against Louth that year, due to his clerical studies at Clonliffe. Regarded as a key figure in pulling Mayo out of the football wilderness – they had failed to win a national title at any level during 1942–8 – Flanagan was one of the signatories of a famous letter sent to the GAA's Mayo county board (1947), which castigated the prevailing non-intellectual approach to training and blamed their ‘total indifference’ for Mayo's lack of success, insisting that ‘the time has come when something must be done before football disappears completely in Mayo, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung’. In 1949 he won a national league football medal with Mayo. Regarded as the outstanding left full-back of his generation, he went on to captain Mayo to All-Ireland championships (1950, 1951), and in 1952 captained the All-Ireland team that played against the combined universities. In 1954 he won another national league medal, and in 1955 his fourth senior Connacht title medal. After retirement from football (1957), Flanagan managed an All-Ireland winning Mayo minor side. An outspoken critic of the GAA ban on foreign games, he stunned county board members by proposing a vote of sympathy with the relatives of the Manchester United soccer players killed in the Munich air crash (1958).
A prominent Fianna Fáil politician, Flanagan made his first political speech in the 1944 general election when he helped to elect fellow Mayoman Paddy Burke. The following year he failed to secure selection as a candidate in Mayo South. He was elected a TD for that constituency in 1951, and although rarely a poll-topper – in every election he contested, except that of 1954, he was the second Fianna Fáil TD elected – he held the seat until 1969, when he moved to Mayo East, representing that constituency until his defeat in the general election of 1977. Regarded as opinionated and direct in his dealings, he served as a government minister twice: as minister for lands (1969–73), when he suggested that the department was irrelevant and outdated, and should be abolished; and as minister for health (1966–9), when his minimalist view of the state's role in providing health services was made clear – he announced his opposition to large extensions of the health services, ‘not because we are afraid to raise the money, but because we see no justification for such an extension’. He prepared the way for the health act of 1970, which involved extending eligibility for treatment and establishing regional health boards, as well as replacing the dispensary system with a choice-of-doctor scheme. In 1979 he was elected an MEP for the Connacht–Ulster constituency; he retained this seat until his retirement (1989). In Brussels he served as a member of the committees on research and energy and political affairs. Prone to exaggeration, he was criticised in the 1984 European election campaign for promising a £500 million scheme to revitalise the west of Ireland, though once the idea was floated he became conveniently mute on its implementation. However, it was in the sporting rather than the political domain that Flanagan was celebrated. After his death at the Mater hospital in Dublin (5 February 1993), a Mayo sports journalist commented: ‘Above all, we'll miss that noble link with an era when, as children, Seán Flanagan was our second God’. He married (1950) Mary Patricia Doherty; they had two sons and five daughters, including Dermot, who also played All-Ireland senior football for Mayo.