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A sparrow to fall

A BBC Northern Ireland documentary, Voices 16 – Somme (BBC 1 NI on Wednesday 29th June, 9pm) explores the events of 1916 through the testimony of the people who witnessed it and their families. Documentary makers and relatives of Jesuit chaplain Willie Doyle were shown his letters, postcards and personal possessions kept here at the Irish Jesuit Archives. In the 1920s, Alfred O’Rahilly used some of these letters in his biography of Fr Willie Doyle SJ. Afterwards they were given to Willie’s brother, Charles, and were stored for safekeeping in the basement of St Francis Xavier’s church, Lower Gardiner Street, Dublin in 1949. In 2011, they were accessioned into the archives.

Fr Willie Doyle SJ was one of ten Irish Jesuits who served as chaplains at the battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916): seven with the British forces; three with the Australian. Their letters, diaries and photographs witness their presence to the horror of war.

Fr Joseph Wrafter SJ, 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers (06 July 1916):

It is a very terrible thing where a show is on & no one I know wants any more of it than he has seen if he has been in it at all. But of course all have to see it through & the men are really splendid…Between killed & wounded we lost in that period quite a fourth of our Battalions & the Leinsters nearly as many. But they did good work & the enemy got a good deal more than they gave. It is dreadful to see the way the poor fellows are broken & mangled sometimes out of all recognition.

Fr Daniel Roche SJ, 97th (C. P.) Field Ambulance (06 July 1916):

I have been in a dug out up at the front line for the last fortnight, during the bombardment and four days of the battle… I have seen some sights for the last few days which I shall not readily forget. It has been a very very hard time which I would not have missed…I am in splendid form, or will be when I have had some sleep. Unfortunately I have been unable to say Mass during that time.

Fr Henry Gill SJ, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles (11 July 1916):

Just a line to say I am still alive. We are of course, as always, “in it”…I have been in, and I feel I know more than I want about shells of all sizes and conditions. It is a horrible and squalid business. Trenches full of mud with bodies of dead Germans and British lying unburied all along. Please God it will end soon, and that we may be able to forgot it all as quickly as possible.

Gill was tasked with writing to relatives of soldiers who had been killed. These letters followed a pattern, where the following were mentioned, even if false: a quick death, little suffering and recent reception to the sacraments.

He only lived a few minutes after he was shot and can have suffered but little pain, He always went to Confession and Holy Communion before an attack, now you may therefore be at ease about him.

The letter was written by Gill to Maggie Duffy of Belfast in September 1916. Her husband, John Duffy was killed at the battle of the Somme in July 1916.

Your Husband lived a good life and died a Hero’s death, that will not make your sorrow less, but it will help you to bear it in resignation to God’s will, Who, does not even a allow a sparrow to fall without his Providence.

Further information:

Inspiring Ireland blog: Trenches…Hell…Biscuits: From the Rising to the battlefields of France in 1916 

Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War, ed. Damien Burke, Messenger Publications, 2014.

Photograph: Form for burial of soldier which was to be completed by chaplain during World War I