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Fr Browne at the Gallery

On Saturday last Roisin Duffy gave a talk at the National Gallery prior to a screening of the film Father Browne’s First World War which she produced for RTÉ as a Nationwide special. It was based on the story of Father Frank Browne SJ, the Irish Jesuit and photographer (1880-1960) who joined the Irish Guards as chaplain in 1916 and served until 1920. Wounded five times, he was awarded the Military Cross and Bar, and the Belgian and French Croix de Guerre. He became the most decorated Catholic chaplain of the First World War. The photographs he took on the Western Front form the core of this film. Often known as ‘Father Browne of the Titanic’, as a result of the images which he later took onboard the Titanic, Father Browne is considered to be one of Ireland’s most important photographers of the twentieth century.

Below is an edited version of Roisín’s introductory words:

National Gallery, Saturday 21 February 2015: Roisín Duffy, RTE

I think it’s important to say, and I think it has been said a lot recently, that Irish soldiers who fought in the First World War have existed in a kind of historical no-man’s land for most of the last century. I suppose that was partly because of the turbulent times that followed the Great War in this country and the subsequent political need for the rhetoric of the New Republic to dominate. What is wonderful now is that any examination of this period provides us with a rich vein of information that helps our self-understanding as a nation. Also, indeed, it allows some rehabilitation of aspects of our past that have been largely suppressed.

How did I come to the subject of chaplains during the war? Well, by complete accident, in fact – over a glass of wine and a good dinner in a friend’s house one weekend. The friend, Pat Coyle, director of communications for the Jesuits, was looking for some advice, and she started to talk about Fr Frank Browne, the Jesuit priest whose photographs of the Titanic brought him international fame for a short time.

When, however, she mentioned that he had been a chaplain in the Great War – a fact that had been buried, or at best forgotten – and that he had taken many photographs, I was listening very intently. Before I knew it I was committed to exploring his life as a chaplain and the role of religion during the war. Happily, the powers-that-be in RTE agreed that it was a good story, and eventually the film was broadcast in a special RTE Nationwide slot, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the war.

This film has been quite a journey. As I researched Fr Browne’s story, I came back again and again to the same question: Why did he keep going back to the front? He didn’t have to. A chaplain only had to serve a year…

And yet he did keep going back. He was injured five times. His jaw was broken in five places. At one stage he was so badly gassed that he was rendered temporarily blind. All said, he was terrified on the front line. So why go back? My only conclusion was that he stayed because the men needed him. To be a chaplain in the war was a profound vocation.