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A champion at the front

Friday 3 March marked the birthday anniversary of Willie Doyle, who was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, Flanders, 100 years ago this year. He was one of thirty-two Irish Jesuit chaplains in the First World War. His life and the lives of his fellow-chaplains will be commemorated later this year, closer to the centenary date of his death on 16 or 17 August (we don’t know for sure), at a number of events around Dublin.

To us today the First World War can only be seen as an indescribable waste of life, a cause which served no purpose other than the decimation of an entire generation. Willie Doyle served and died in the Great War; he willingly put himself forward again and again to help those with him, and in the end it cost him his life.

Willie Doyle was born in Dalkey, just outside of Dublin, in 1873, the youngest of seven children. His education took place both in Ireland and at Ratcliffe College, in Leicester. At eighteen he joined the noviciate for the Society of Jesus, a decision he reached after reading Instructions and Consideration on the Religious State by St Alphonsus. In 1907 he was ordained as a priest, and spent several years following as a missionary, travelling from parish to parish all across the British Isles.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Doyle volunteered, knowing that many would be in need of guidance and assistance in the time to come. He landed in France in 1915 with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, serving as chaplain. He went to the front, serving in many major battles, including the Battle of the Somme. Out on the battlefield Doyle risked his life countless times, seeking out men where they fell dying in the mud to be with them in their last moment and to offer absolution; those who served with him described him as fearless. His selflessness was not just given to those who shared his faith; Doyle was a champion too among the Protestant Ulstermen in his battalion.

In August 1917 he was killed by a German shell while out helping fallen soldiers in no man’s land. Three other Irish Jesuits were killed in the war along with two who died from illness. Doyle was awarded the Military Cross, and he was put forward for the Victoria Cross posthumously but did not receive it.

The commemoration this year by the Irish Province will take the form of an exhibition on Fr Doyle, to be launched at Dalkey library, and the National Museum of Ireland intends to exhibit some of his chaplain effects from the front. Bernard McGuckian SJ tells his story as part of a collection of essays in the book Irish Jesuit chaplains in the First World War.

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