How Irish priests brought comfort to the battlefield
These fearless men never shirked duty.
Many Irish priests served courageously in the trenches of the First World War, as noted by Robert Graves in his classic text 'Goodbye to All That'. "We never heard of one who failed to do all that was expected of him, and more," he wrote. "Jovial Father Gleeson of the Munsters, when all the officers were killed or wounded at the first battle of Ypres, had stripped off black badges, and taking command of the survivors, held the line."
Father Francis Gleeson, of the 2nd Munster Fusiliers, was something of a legend, one war correspondent noted: "If you meet a man of the 2nd Munsters, just mention the name of Father Gleeson and see how his face lights up." Gleeson was fearless as a padre, and would walk right into No Man's Land to tend to a wounded soldier and to give comfort to the dying.
Other Irish priests listed in contemporary reports included Father John Gwynn, from Youghal – who continued administering the sacraments even when he was dying himself; Father James Stack, mentioned for courage in Field Marshal Lord French's valedictory dispatch; Father Fahey of Tipperary, who served "with distinction" at Gallipoli; young Father Donal O'Sullivan from Killarney, "a fine character, cheerful and energetic", killed by a shell at the Somme.
Perhaps best-known of all was Father Willie Doyle, SJ, who was awarded the MC for his bravery on the battlefields of Flanders.
Willie Doyle was born in Dalkey in 1873, the son of a middle-class family. He was fervently spiritual even as a schoolboy, and felt a strong calling to serve the poor.
Though ascetic, he also excelled at sport, and was something of a prankster. As a young man, he had been on pilgrimage in Belgium, and so, when he volunteered as an army chaplain in 1915, he was destined for a terrain familiar to him.
Willie Doyle served first with the 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the neighbourhood of Loos, where he travelled around on horseback and by bicycle, often under fire, performing his duties as a chaplain – saying Mass, hearing confessions, administering the Last Rites and conducting burials. In wartime, there is often a hunger for spiritual comfort and his services were frequently packed – on one occasion, the anti-clerical schoolmaster of a local French town put the school buildings at his disposal for French and Irish troops.
Subsequently, Doyle was chaplain to the 49th Brigade, to the Irish Fusiliers, the 8th Dublins, and the 48th Brigade at Wytschaete. He witnessed the terrible suffering of the trenches – but also much bravery.
He wrote home copiously of the great valour of "the Irish lads" on the battlefield, and, when he knelt down with soldiers mortally wounded, how grateful they were not to die alone.
He also ministered to wounded German soldiers if he came across them, and indeed gave comfort to Orangemen on the Somme, who did not reject his compassion.
Willie Doyle was killed by a shell in August 1917, near Ypres, while ministering to the wounded. The celebrated journalist Sir Philip Gibbs reported that Fr Doyle "went forward and back over the battlefields with bullets whining about him ... [disdaining safety] ... seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them."
Willie Doyle was recommended for a posthumous DSO and VC by his Commanding Officer, but it was reported that the "triple disqualification" of "being an Irishman, a Catholic and a Jesuit, proved insuperable". It wouldn't have mattered to Fr Doyle, whose life was dedicated to a higher purpose than military medals.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
Irish Independent Supplement