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Church Militant

Jeffrey Burwell

Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War, edited by Damien Burke, Messenger Publications, 120 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1910248058

With apostolic works ranging from St Aloysius College in Clongowes Wood to St Francis Xavier Parish in Dublin, the Jesuits in Ireland have ministered to Catholics for centuries. One of their lesser-known endeavours has nevertheless recently tapped into the popular imagination. Marking the centenary since the First World War, the Jesuits released a compilation of stories and photographs in remembrance of their priests who served as chaplains in the Great War. With narratives that depict the lives of eleven Jesuits, editor Damien Burke has brilliantly assembled a diverse array of primary source materials in a coherent and readable fashion.

The initial two chapters of this short work provide an overview of the complex situation that faced Irish chaplains on the front lines. In just over ten pages, the role and mission of the Jesuits are outlined. As well, attention is given to the sorts of unexpected pastoral needs that the priests encountered once they reached the battlefield. An exceptionally tender passage from the introduction recounts:

One element in the popularity and success of Catholic chaplains was their desire, for the most part, to be close to their men. Frank Browne told his Provincial that he was ‘doing my best to get to my men’s hearts by moving among them and living with them’. When he was injured and ordered to return to England to recover, Browne tried to convince the authorities that his injuries were slight and that it would be best to remain with his men.

The initial pages, especially those from the overview, are filled with a remarkable sentiment that contextualises well the history. Whether or not the reader has a connection to Ireland, the eleven stories each provides insight into the cultural, social, and religious experience of the Irish chaplains.

A mixture of Jesuit and non-Jesuit authors contributed the eleven biographies. As one would expect, this diversity in authorship resulted in different approaches to the presentation of data. Some of the biographies were entirely chronological and linear, with almost no commentary or personal narrative. Others took on a more narrative tone and provided a more colourful read. Although the differences do not diminish its merit, some historians might find the book more a literary memorial of the Irish Jesuit chaplains than an academic resource.

Many of the narratives highlight the anxieties that Catholics faced as they fought alongside their Protestant companions. As well, they reveal the varied internal tensions that faced the British army as it struggled to accept Irish soldiers. Not glossing over these tensions in any way, the authors skilfully engage the many issues without eliciting any sentiments of sectarianism. Simply, the biographies articulate the difficult situation that the Irish priests faced under Home Rule yet in the light of ongoing anti-Catholic sentiments long present in the Union. These are not hagiographies of the chaplains but focus instead on how the different Jesuits navigated competing values and circumstances with varying degrees of success.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its heavy reliance on photographs and reprints of documents connected to the Jesuits and their work. Copies of old passports, personal letters, and other artefacts complement the text. Each of the visuals requires a close examination, and readers will find themselves returning to particular images because of their poignancy and expressiveness. What is of use to historians is that every image contains a reference number. The Jesuits in Ireland have preserved most of the materials and researchers can most certainly access them with the assistance of those working in the Irish Jesuit Archives.

For those with an Irish connection, the biography of Fr Willie Doyle is of interest. Known popularly as a holy and venerable man, a famous summary of his life and work was written by Professor Alfred O’Rahilly in 1919. Because of this legacy, a large following of Catholics in Ireland rally still for his canonisation. Nevertheless, the biography provided by the Irish Jesuits delicately offers another account. In fact, the counter claim is that:

Twenty one years after his death, in 1938, the central administration of the Society of Jesus asked the then Provincial of the Irish Province … on their perceptions of Fr. Doyle. A questionnaire was sent to fifty members of the Province including some living in Australia but who had known him during their years in Ireland … One of the less enthusiastic considered O’Rahilly’s judgment clouded by ‘hero-worship.’

As is sometimes the case with Jesuits, there remain internal disagreements. It is not certain whether Doyle himself was a man of exceptional piety or merely plagued with “peculiarities and idiosyncrasies … which would not appeal to his fellow religious”. Despite the promotion of his cause by those outside the order, the Jesuits are not pursuing the canonization of Fr Doyle in any formal way.

The primary sentiment that emerges in many of the biographies is that the Jesuits either responded to the request that they become chaplains or took up the mission voluntarily out of some deep desire connected to their own Jesuit vocation. Most of the men, as it is made clear throughout the narratives, lived unremarkable lives as teachers and preachers. All the same, when an opportunity came to move to the front lines, they invariably embraced their mission with zeal.

In going where there was a great need, the Jesuit chaplains were never without work. Indeed, as Fr John Fitzgibbon SJ wrote to a fellow priest about his life on the front lines:

In one place I heard Confessions the day before, whilst on Sunday I heard them in a more distance place, then having preached for about ten minutes on Confession I got quite a number to Confession after Mass, comprising men who had accidentally heard of my Mass, as it was impossible to get round or even discover where all the different sections are burrowed.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, encouraged his men to pray always for the courage to give and not count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; and to toil and not seek for rest. This prayer serves a foundation upon which the Society of Jesus has built its spiritual tradition. With this approach, service to their fellow Irishmen was an opportunity that thirty-two Jesuits from the Irish province just could not pass up. There was, as one extrapolates from the eleven biographies, a real desire in each man to labour for the victory of good over evil and the light over the darkness.

Because those with a personal interest in the Jesuits or the First World War, this work will be a delight to read. All the same, it is unlikely to be of great significance to those looking for either a comprehensive or highly academic overview. Although the biographies are of interest to those with some connection, the stories are rather unremarkable when contrasted to some of the more acclaimed Irishmen who served during the war. Despite its narrow focus, no fault can be found in the accuracy or presentation of data related to Irish, Catholic or Jesuit history.


Dr Jeffrey S Burwell SJ is the director of the Catholic Studies programme at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada; he is also professor of educational administration in the Faculty of Education at the same university.



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