Flanagan, Edward Joseph (1886–1948), catholic priest and founder of Boys Town, was born 13 July 1886 at Ballymoe, Co. Roscommon, son of John Flanagan, herdsman, and Nora Flanagan (née Larkin). One of eleven children, he was first educated at a local school, Drimatample, and tutored by the pastor of Ballymoe in French, Latin, and Greek, and subsequently at Summer Hill College, Sligo, where he graduated with honours (1902). In 1904 he followed his brother Patrick, a priest, to New York, and enrolled at Mount St Mary's, Emmitsburg, near Baltimore, Maryland. There he was conferred with a BA (June 1906), the youngest graduate in his class. He then entered St Joseph's seminary, Dunwoodie, but ill-health, including pneumonia, forced him to leave. In October 1907 he enrolled at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, but was forced early the following year to leave – again due to illness – and returned to Omaha, Nebraska, where his parents had settled. After recovering his health, he worked for a year as an accountant for a meat-packing factory in Omaha, and enrolled (1909) as a seminarian in the department of theology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. He was ordained a priest (July 1912) and returned to Omaha, where as a curate at St Patrick's church he soon became immersed in tackling homelessness, establishing hostels and a ‘workingman's hotel’ which became known as a welfare centre for the whole city.
It was as a back-room witness in the juvenile court in Omaha that Flanagan became interested in the plight of homeless children who had run foul of the law. He began to collect data on the children and their treatment, and was influenced by the views of the criminologist Fr Eligius Weir, who believed that the first basic cause of crime was lack of religious instruction. Flanagan began successfully to seek the court's permission to parole boys into his care, and in December 1917, with the sanction of Archbishop Jeremiah Harty and a $90 donation from his Jewish friend Henry Monsky, established a home for homeless boys with room for five boys on Dodge St., Omaha. By the following year it was necessary to find a bigger home, and increasing numbers of boys came under his care. Passionately opposed to reform schools, Flanagan insisted that he did not run an orphanage, but a home and a school, and begged the courts to send boys to him rather than to institutions where they often became hardened criminals. He tried to implement practical Christian principles in running the home. The home was nonsectarian and non-proselytising, and all arrivals were made welcome, without distinction of colour or creed: Flanagan's only requirement of boys admitted to his home was that they were there voluntarily. He believed that bringing ‘tenderness and solitude and understanding and motherly interest to the affairs of desolate children’ rather than punitive treatment would help dysfunctional children, epitomised in his catchphrase: ‘there is no such thing as a bad boy’.
Despite the initial scepticism of many law enforcers, Flanagan's methods had considerable success and he proved highly astute in garnering support and funding. Having outgrown his home in downtown Omaha, in 1921 he acquired the 160-acre Overlook Farm, ten miles west of Omaha. He also managed to raise $200,000 to erect a huge house on the land, which included a school, gym, and dormitories. Flanagan named the complex ‘Boys Town’. Maintaining that he was building a home rather than a prison, he insisted that there should be no fences around it, or locks on the doors. By September 1921 there were 1,251 boys under his care. To encourage the boys to develop independence and responsibility, boy officials were democratically elected: Boys Town had its own mayor, a commissioner for each apartment, and its own courts. In December 1934 the post office at Boys Town was registered, and in 1936 the complex became an official village of the state of Nebraska. Strongly believing that ‘a busy boy is a better boy’, Flanagan did his best to ensure that his charges had every opportunity to receive a good education and learn a trade. In addition to a school, Boys Town had its own workshop and a self-sufficient farm, and there was ample time for sport and recreation. The home had its own sports teams, choir, and band which built a reputation for excellence during the 1930s and 1940s (although their racial mix prevented them from playing and performing in the south).
The optimism, pragmatism, and success of Boys Town captured the imagination of the American public. Recognition of Flanagan's work was further enhanced by the success of the film Boys Town (USA, 1938), which won Spencer Tracy the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Flanagan. Flanagan became a celebrity and received many accolades: in 1939 he was voted America's greatest humanitarian by the Variety Club of America. During the second world war over 1,000 of Flanagan's boys served with the American armed forces. Becoming one of America's foremost experts on the care and education of troubled children, Flanagan wrote numerous articles on child welfare and served on many committees and boards. His initiatives received international attention and after the war he travelled abroad to advise on welfare projects for orphaned and displaced children.
In summer 1946 he visited Ireland for a month of school visits, addresses to official bodies and meetings with civic officials and politicians, including Éamon de Valera (qv), who had visited Flanagan's home in Omaha in 1920. Welcomed as a returning hero, he was greeted with bonfires and bunting wherever he went. In his speeches he constantly reiterated that understanding rather than punishment was the solution to juvenile delinquency and condemned the use of corporal punishment in reform schools. He claimed that it was young children, properly educated in Christian principles, who would prove to be the safest bulwark against communism and totalitarianism. After visiting St Patrick's industrial school in Belfast and Artane industrial school in Dublin, he praised the work of both institutions. However, after reading a copy of I did penal servitude (1945), a vivid condemnation of Ireland's penal system by Walter Mahon-Smith, a bank official who had served three years' imprisonment for embezzlement, Flanagan's speeches became increasingly critical of Ireland's prisons and borstals. Such criticisms were generally well received among domestic audiences who recognised the need for penal reform in Ireland, but when Flanagan repeated them on his return to America, he was attacked by the minister for justice, Gerald Boland (qv), for commenting on subjects of which he knew nothing. (Penal reform was a particularly sensitive issue as republican prisoners were then on hunger strike in Portlaoise.) To inform himself on the Irish penal system, Flanagan began a correspondence with Mahon-Smith in which he criticised the indifference of the catholic hierarchy and the poor conditions in some of the industrial schools he had seen in Ireland. In January 1947 Flanagan called for a public investigation of prison conditions and was attacked by both government and opposition: James Dillon (qv) condemned him as a publicity seeker who had ‘published a series of falsehoods and slanders’ (Keogh, 32) on the Irish penal system.
Undaunted, Flanagan announced his intention of touring Irish prisons, but in the meantime he was invited by General Douglas MacArthur to advise on child welfare programmes in Japan and Korea. He went to Berlin in a similar capacity in May 1948 and died there suddenly of a heart attack on 15 May 1948. His requiem funeral mass was celebrated by Cardinal Konrad, bishop of Berlin. He was buried in the Dowd chapel at Boys Town. By the time of his death, more than 6,000 boys had passed through his care. In 1986 he was commemorated by a US postal stamp. Boys Town began to admit girls in the 1970s and became a major centre for troubled youth of both sexes.