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The life and lens of Father Browne

Author: EE O’Donnell SJ
Publisher: Messenger Publications

This is the story of the extraordinary Father Frank Browne SJ, Irish Jesuit and photographer.

Favourably compared with the great Cartier-Bresson, Father Browne is generally considered to be Ireland’s most important photographer of the twentieth century.

Often known as ‘Father Browne of the Titanic’, it was his obedience to his Provincial’s order to “get off that ship” that prevented Father Browne from travelling on the final part of the voyage, and possibly saved him from a watery grave. Disembarking at Cobh ensured international fame when, following the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic, his photographs were published on front pages all around the world. His images of the Titanic remain uniquely important to this day.

Father Browne continued his training as a Jesuit until 1916, when he joined the British Army as a chaplain and served until 1919, mainly with the Irish Guards. He was wounded several times, gassed, and became the most decorated Catholic chaplain of the First World War.

The remainder of Father Browne’s life was spent working as a Jesuit priest, and he continued to take photographs until his death in 1960. His thousands of photographs of Ireland and Irish life provide a superb record of the way we lived during the first half of the twentieth Century. As well as photographs arising from his travels — to Australia, parts of Asia and the continent — he undertook commissions for many public and private bodies.

Father Browne died in 1960 in relative obscurity, and was forgotten until 1986 when fellow Jesuit, Eddie O’Donnell SJ, discovered a tin trunk with the legend, “Father Browne’s photos” inscribed on the lid. An unbelievable 42,000 negatives were in the trunk.