Mickey Flanagan - The boy with the broken arm

Mickey Flanagan's was one of the worst cases of abuse cited at the Child Abuse Commission's recent public hearing on Artane Industrial School. He was beaten so badly his arm was broken. Village tells his story for the first time


It was not the first time that Michael Flanagan had got into trouble. The 14-year-old from Donnycarney in north Dublin regularly mitched from class, and when he was caught once too often, he was taken from his family and sent to Artane Industrial School, not far from Donaghmede.

There, on April 14 1954, he became involved in what was later described as "some boyish altercation" with a classmate. The punishment for such crimes in the Christian Brothers institution was standard. The doors of the classroom were locked and the windows were closed. In the silent presence of his classmates, he was slapped hard on the hand with the flat side of a leather strap.

But whatever the nature of his misdemeanor that day, he was ordered to take a further, more painful punishment: to be hit on the hand with the thin edge of the strap. That was too much for Michael Flanagan, and it was then that he made his first mistake: he refused to take the beating.

The brother in charge sent for assistance, and then Michael Flanagan made his second mistake. Panicking, he ran into a corner, where he picked up a brush, and held it up for protection. A second brother opened the door and entered the classroom. Seeing Michael Flanagan cowering in the corner, he went to him, took the brush from him and then lost the run of himself.

He smashed the handle of the brush on the teenager's head and face. He hit him on the back and then on the arm, breaking it in a number of places.

"I didn't see it happening myself, but I heard about Mickey getting a beating from the other boys, and I went to see him," says Jack Flanagan, Michael's younger brother, who was in Artane at the same time, also for skipping school. "They had him out in this shed outside that was used for big gatherings. There was no heating or anything in it.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw him. He was in an awful state. He had bandages on his head and arm.

"There was blood dripping down the back of his head. He was out of it. I asked him what happened and he said, 'The B got a hold of me and beat the shit out of me'.

"His arm was loose, it was dangling down by his side. I started crying. Mickey was crying too."

The Flanagans were a large family from Dublin's north inner city. They had moved home a number of times as the family grew, eventually settling in Donnycarney.

Joseph Flanagan, the father, had gone to England for work, joining the British Army in the Second World War and then staying there after the war to work as a labourer. He sent back money every month, but was rarely home. Because of this, he was a distant figure to his young family growing up.

His wife, Kathleen, raised the 11 children largely on her own in the early years, and had a hard time keeping them under control. Jack Flanagan remembers her as "a fine woman".

She was at home one weekend in April 1954, when John Byrne, the son of a neighbour, called in. He was out for the day from Artane. He had some bad news: Mickey had been badly beaten up by the Brothers earlier in the week.

"I was in the house when he came down," says Martin Flanagan, another of Michael's brothers. "My mother cried her eyes out. She didn't know what to do, or who to turn to. So she went up to Artane School to see Mickey. She took me and one of my sisters with her.

"But the guy at the gate wouldn't let us in. I don't know why, but they wouldn't let us in to see Mickey."

Refused access to her son, Mrs Flanagan asked to see the school Superior. But in what was later put down to a "some misunderstanding", a meeting couldn't be set up. Eventually, on the following Tuesday, the Superior met her, and admitted Michael had been assaulted by one of the Brothers. But still she was not allowed to see her son.

She then went to her local TD, Peadar Cowan. He telephoned the Superior, who agreed to let Mrs Flanagan see her son, on 22 April, eight days after the beating. Cowan then raised the matter in the Dáil. The then Minister for Education, Sean Boylan, replied:

"The boy was hit and his arm was broken. I would be as much concerned as the Deputy (Peadar Cowan) if I thought it was anything other than a very isolated incident and in one sense what might be called an accident."

Boylan praised the Christian Brothers' "earnest endeavour" and their "devotion to a very high purpose". He continued:

"I cannot conceive any sadism emanating from men who were trained to a life of sacrifice and of austerity...

"The point is that accidents will happen in the best regulated families and in this family there are about 800 boys. Many of them were sent to Artane because of the difficulties of their character...

"Because of the unfortunate background of many of these boys, possibly due to evil social conditions, Deputies must realise how careful the handling of them as a group must be and how far from easy it is to ensure the working of such an institution."

Boylan said he made "personal and constant inquiry" as to what happened in the State's industrial schools. He said of the breaking of Michael Flanagan's arm, it was "an isolated incident; it can only happen again as an accident".

"I wish to express my sympathy to the parents of the child and I can assure them that nothing of the like will happen again. While giving this as a guarantee to parents and knowing the difficult conditions under which the school is run, I would point out to parents that any guarantee I give them of full protection for their children is no licence to any of the children to do what they like."

Boylan promised an inquiry into the use of the edge of a strap for slapping boys. And that was it.

'I'm not sure what happened then", says Martin Flanagan. "My mother kept everything from us. She didn't like talking about it. It wasn't really talked about. All she wanted was Mickey to be out of there. She didn't want it getting into the paper or anything."

Whatever happened between the Department of Education, the Christian Brothers and the Flanagan family, Michael was let out of Artane shortly afterwards. The brother who assaulted him was moved to another school.

Michael recovered at home, and moved to England shortly afterwards to work as a labourer. He could not read or write well.

When Jack was let out of Artane, he followed Michael over to England, and the two lived together and worked constructing railway lines.

"He became a very isolated character," says Jack Flanagan. "He was a loner. He never got married, was never really great with women, even though he was very good-looking. He went into himself after Artane.

"Before Artane he was just a normal kid, like the rest of us. He was a nice guy, happy-go-lucky. But that place left him scarred. He was still a lovely fellow, very gentle, but you got the sense there was something very wrong deep down."

Michael moved from job to job in England. He drank a lot.

"He depended very heavily on the drink," says Jack Flanagan. "Apart from working, it was nearly all he did. He'd come back from work, have a few drinks, go to bed, and get up and do it again." He also smoked heavily.

His one passion was horseracing. Despite his poor literacy skills, he could read the odds in the bookies, and was always placing bets. The only part of the newspaper he looked at was the racing pages. Over the course of the 1960s, his siblings got on with their lives. Jack got married and joined the British Army. Martin left for America. Another brother, Joseph, lived in England, but in a different part to Michael. Michael lived alone in a series of one-bedroom flats. He had few friends, and his family became his life. He rarely discussed what happened to him in Artane.

"Mickey would never talk about it," says Jack Flanagan. "I was probably the closest to him in England, but never said anything about it. If I brought it up, he'd just ignore it. He'd just clam up."

He kept in regular contact with his relatives in Ireland, and visited at least once a year. But he never set foot in the house of his youngest sister, Rita, because it was built on what were the old grounds of Artane Industrial School.

During one trip home for the funeral of another sister, while being driven to the church, he asked the driver to stop outside where the school used to be.

"He said to the man driving the car, 'stop the car here'," remembers one relative. "They stopped on the Malahide Road, outside Artane School. He says, 'that's where I went to school. Them fucking bastards', he says, and the tears were in his eyes. 'I'd love to burn that place down.' And that was completely out of character. He was a gentle guy most of the time apart from that."

As the decades wore on, Michael's drinking grew worse and his health deteriorated. He suffered from epilepsy, and was often hospitalised during severe fits. He had constant bronchitis from the smoking, which also aggravated his asthma. Towards the end of the 1960s he got a job working in Young's Brewery in London, which he held until he was discharged on medical grounds in the mid 1990s. A niece of his, Carol McCreary, moved to England and moved into Wandsworth in London, the same neighbourhood as Michael. She remembers a quiet, friendly man, who kept to himself.

"I did his shopping for him, and looked after his bills. He wasn't really able to make sense of them. He lived in a very small, one-bedroom flat. It was very basic, and he wasn't very good at looking after himself. I don't know who looked after him before I did. I used to pop by about once a week. He seemed to live on tinned vegetable soup, mostly.

"He was a loner. He was very friendly and humorous, and he knew lots of people, but he never got close to anybody.

"He never really talked about himself. I never knew anything about what happend to him [in Artane]. The only time it ever came up was when he showed me a book, Fear Of The Collar [by Patrick Touher, an account of life in Artane during the 1950s]. He just said, 'that's a good book, you should read it'. It was only after his death really that I became aware of what had happend to him in Artane."

It was Carol McCreary who found him dead, on 4 January, 1998. He hadn't been seen in his local pub, the Grovener Arms in Wandsworth, for a couple of days. The woman behind the bar rang Carol to see if he was alright.

"I went down to the flat, but I couldn't get in. I called my brother," she says. "We got in, and he was lying on the kitchen floor. The gas heater – it was one of those old fashioned ones – was on full blast. I don't know how the place didn't go on fire. I phoned the police. I knew he was dead straight away."

His death certificate recorded bronchopneumonia and chronic obstrucive airways disease as the causes of death. He was 58 years of age.

"He was so generous," says Carol McCreary. "He was so good with my little one whenever she would come round. He'd make us laugh – just over little things, anything."

There was one other secret that Michael allegedly had: "There was a rumour going around that he had two children, who maybe lived in the North of England," says Carol McCreary. "It dated from back in his early days in London. But nobody knew if they were at the funeral, because nobody knew who they were.

"He was so private. He never opened up. That's why nobody really knew anything about him when he died. It was so sad. It was such a shame."

Michael Flanagan wasn't mentioned by name at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse's public hearing on Artane on 15 September. His case was raised by counsel for the Commission Brian McGovern as "an incident of a boy whose arm was broken and who was hospitalised and it was a complaint by his mother".

Brother Michael Reynolds, representing the Christian Brothers, said the Brother responsible for the beating had been subsequently transferred out of Artane to another school.

"Do you think that was appropriate?" asked Brian McGovern.

"It wasn't appropriate," said Michael Reynolds. He continued: "I would say it wouldn't have been uncommon in various places at the time.Certainly that one is the most serious incidents we have and it was handled badly I would say from all aspects of it... It's probably indicative of the attitude (of society at the time) that somebody who did something of that nature could be transferred elsewhere."p