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From Dublin to the Somme: How the Death of an Irish Priest Exposes the Tragedy of Brexit

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Photo by q phia | CC BY 2.0

It was quite by chance that I glanced towards the little public library of a small Irish town this week and saw in the window a copy of a handwritten British military message, brown with age, ungrammatical and obviously scribbled in haste and perhaps fear. “Father DOYLE killed by shell on Friday night his body has not yet come down possibly buried on spot,” it said, signed by “M.O.Connell 16th (Irish) Division 20/8/17”. Beside the telegram was a photograph of a man in the uniform of the British Army with sloping, kindly, tired eyes, a strong nose and a good head of dark hair. Father “Willie” Doyle was 44 years old when he was literally blown to pieces while trying to help a wounded soldier at Passchendaele. His body was never found.

“How come we never knew he was from Dalkey?” a lady asked in the library when I turned up a day later – in this over-pretty town outside Dublin – to listen to a spirited talk by the Irish archivist Damien Burne. How come, indeed? Well, Father Doyle, whose courage in stumbling cross the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres under fire, often without his helmet and gas mask, ministering to wounded and dying soldiers – Protestant as well as Catholic – and burying the dead as steel splinters flew around him, was an Irishman.

This meant that after Ireland – minus the six counties of the north – gained its bloody independence in 1922, the Irish regiments of the British army who fought in the Great War of 1914-18 were disbanded, the battle honours of Irish cavalry and 80 infantry divisions stored away in London, the survivors and the 49,000 dead a forgotten army to the Brits and an embarrassment to the new Irish state.

The Protestants of the 36th (Ulster) Division maintained that their sacrifice had earned them a continuing place in the United Kingdom. Their surviving Catholic opposite numbers – Father Doyle was an Irish nationalist but regarded the 1916 Rising, like many Irish soldiers at the front, as an affront to the suffering of his men – slunk home, only to discover that their Home Rule sentiments had been swamped by a far more powerful republican spirit, a harsh border now dividing them from the Belfast soldiers who had fought alongside them in France and Belgium.

It wasn’t just the ghostly symmetry of Damien Byrne’s lecture in that small Irish town, now a suburb of Dublin, that struck me last week – he spoke within a few chilling hours of the exact 100th anniversary of Father Doyle’s immolation at Frezenberg – but the squalid Brexit tragedy which is now overwhelming the country in whose uniform he fought and the smaller and brave nation which would have been his birthright had he lived.

Doyle died in Belgium, the nation which hosts the capital of the EU which Britain now wishes to abandon. He blessed and comforted the wounded German survivors of the mining of Messines Ridge, the explosive detonation of which was not only heard in London but almost threw Doyle off his feet “for not only did the ground quiver and shake, but actually rocked backwards and forwards”, he wrote home to his father Charles. The image of an Irish Catholic going to the aid of a (Protestant?) German in little Catholic Belgium, wearing the battledress of a British soldier, is surely the finest image of what the EU was supposed to embrace and redress: that there should never again be a European war.

Not only is the channel across which Doyle sailed to France to become a bitter frontier between the country he served and the nations he ultimately struggled for, but – thanks to the lies and scandalous exaggerations of the Brexit leaders, (and despite their recent fantasy paper on the subject) – a new and colder border is now to separate the Irish people he died for. Being a Catholic of a 100 years ago, of course, Doyle believed he would die for Christ – his Last Rites were given to soldiers who truly believed that without them they might languish in purgatory – but the Belfast Telegraph would later call him “a chaplain whom Ulstermen loved”. Protestant padres were forbidden to live in the trenches. Catholic priests were allowed to die with their men. Before the Great War, Doyle was schooled in Ireland, trained in England, preached in Aberdeen, and visited the great Catholic institutions of soon-to-be invaded Belgium. He worshipped in France. He was a European man.

But he was also a soldier, and his letters to his father from the Western Front should be quoted at length to understand the frightful world he lived and died in, and which the EU was created to end forever.

Stumbling across the old battlefield of Loos in April 1916, he wrote that “almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body … One poor fellow had been buried, surely, before breath had left his body, for there was every sign of a last struggle and one arm was thrust out from its shroud of clay. A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German, judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen – friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together.” Father Doyle found a shovel and “was able to cover the bodies decently”.

 

Five months later, Doyle found himself on the Somme battlefield. “I was standing about one hundred yards away watching a party of my men crossing the valley, when I saw the earth under their feet open and the twenty men disappear in a cloud of smoke…A big German shell had by the merest chance landed in the middle of the party. I rushed down the slope… I gave them a general absolution, scraped the clay from the faces of a couple of buried men…and then annointed as many of the poor lads I could reach. Two of them had no faces to anoint and others were ten feet under the clay.”

Ravaged by fleas in the trench dug-outs (“most attentive friends”), assaulted by flesh-eating rats who slept on his chest and under his pillow and who made a home inside his Christmas plum pudding – rats bit my own father Bill, who was also a Great War soldier and spent days in the ruins of a cathedral as doctors peeled off his infected skin – Doyle never ceased thanking God for his kindness in exposing him to this Hell on earth, openly speaking of his desire for “martyrdom”. Priests, I have always thought, must have a streak of madness to maintain their souls, soldiers too, I suppose, for who could cheerfully write of the decaying bodies buried in the wall of his own dugout, whose stench “did not help one’s appetite” at mealtime.

“Back again to the aid-post for stretchers and help to carry in the wounded, while all the time the shells are coming down like hail,” Doyle writes on 7 August 1917, nine days before his own death. “Good God! How can any human being live in this? As I hurry back I hear that two men have been hit twenty yards away. I am with them in a moment, splashing through mud and water … A flash from a gun shows me that the poor boy in my arms is my own servant…” On 14 August, he writes to his father that after all his escapes he is confident that “my old armchair up in heaven is not ready yet. Leave will be possible very shortly, I think, so I shall only say ‘au revoir’ in view of an early meeting. Heaps of love to every dear one. As ever, dearest father, your loving son, Willie.” Doyle was blown to bits three days later.

And on that same day, three of his Dublin schoolfriends were killed and a Catholic from Trinity College, Dublin. Tipperary-born General William Hickie, an Irish nationalist and commander of the 16th Division on the Western Front, described Doyle as “the most wonderful character I have ever known”. His friend Father Francis Browne – whose photographs aboard the Titanic on the first stage of its maiden voyage between Cherbourg and Kingstown (Cobh) are now world famous – was with him before his death, telling his fellow officers that Doyle was “overworking himself” and should return to Dalkey. But would such a man go home when a soldier with his face smashed by a shell met him with the words: “Is that the priest? I’m all right now.”

Doyle’s trench sheet and puttees are in the Irish military museum at Collins Barracks in Dublin, his blood-stained chasuble preserved, his letters and notebooks – despite his wish that they should be destroyed – carefully archived by his fellow Jesuits. So there was an Irishman who fought in France, comforted the Germans, and died, in British uniform, in Belgium. Theresa May, hang your head in shame.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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