Last Wednesday night’s Nationwide special brought to us by the Irish national broadcaster, rté, showcased a series of photographs which detail the lives lived by Irishmen and women who volunteered to serve in the Great War. This is the fascinating story of a Jesuit, Father Eddie O’Donnell, who was clearing up a room in the Provincial House in Dublin, where he came across a trunk containing thousands of old negatives relating to the First World War.
Father Francis Browne, better known as the priest who documented the Titanic and also Irish life in the early years of the twentieth century, had volunteered for service as a chaplain during the War and was posted to the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards. Frank’s service took him to the Western Front, where he was wounded on five occasions and rather badly gassed. He returned from the War the most decorated Catholic chaplain of the conflict. There he was able to take advantage of his affable personality and the initially cautious deference accorded to both a chaplain and also a photographer, to document his environment and his men around him in both the trenches and out of them.
Browne later was seconded to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, where he took part in the Passchendaelle with the famous Father Willie Doyle and his lucky Dug Out. Unfortunately Doyle was to be killed during that battle, Browne being given a handwritten note informing him of the loss, with ‘BROWNE’ scratched out and ‘DOYLE’ written above it, so confusing were those heady days on the Western Front. Although in newly independent Ireland, the war services of thousands of Irishmen who had volunteered to aid ‘small-nations’ like Belgium were put to one side of the historical narrative of the new country, those whom he served with never forgot Browne’s contribution; the British awarded him the Military Cross, the Belgians the Croix de Guerre and the French their Croix de Guerre with Palm.
Father Frank Browne’s story can be read in the book expertly written by Father Eddie O’Donnell, S.J. Father Browne’s First World War or viewed on rté’s media player for the next few weeks Nationwide Photographic Programme.