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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of Francis Browne, Irish Jesuit & Photographer

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Francis Patrick Mary Browne, distinguished Irish Jesuit and a prolific photographer, dies in Dublin on July 7, 1960. His best known photographs are those of the RMS Titanic and its passengers and crew taken shortly before its sinking in 1912. He is decorated as a military chaplain during World War I.

Browne is born to a wealthy family in 1880 at Buxton House, Cork, County Cork, the youngest of the eight children of James and Brigid (née Hegarty) Browne. His mother is the niece of William Hegarty, Lord Mayor of Cork, and a cousin of Sir Daniel Hegarty, the first Lord Mayor of Cork. She dies of puerperal fever eight days after his birth. After the death of his father in a swimming accident at Crosshaven on September 2, 1889, he is raised and supported by his uncle, Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne, who buys him his first camera shortly before the younger man embarks on a tour of Europe in 1897.

Browne spends his formative years at Bower Convent, Athlone (1888–91), Belvedere College (1891–92), Christian Brothers College, Cork (1892–1893), St. Vincent’s Castleknock College (1893–97), graduating in 1897. He goes on the aforementioned tour of Europe, where he begins taking photographs.

Upon his return to Ireland, Browne joins the Jesuits and spends two years in the novitiate at St. Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly. He attends the Royal University of Ireland, Dublin, where he is a classmate of James Joyce, who features him as Mr. Browne the Jesuit in Finnegans Wake. In 1909, he visits Rome with his uncle and brother, a bishop and priest respectively, during which they have a private audience with Pope Pius X with the Pope allowing Browne to take his photograph. He studies theology at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin from 1911 to 1916.

In April 1912 Browne receives a present from his uncle: a ticket for the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic from Southampton, England, to Queenstown, Ireland, via Cherbourg, France. He travels to Southampton via Liverpool and London, boarding the RMS Titanic on the afternoon of April 10, 1912. He is booked in cabin A-37 on the Promenade Deck. He takes dozens of photographs of life aboard RMS Titanic on that day and the next morning. He captures the last known images of many crew and passengers, including captain Edward J. Smith, gymnasium manager T. W. McCawley, engineer William Parr, Major Archibald Butt, writer Jacques Futrelle and numerous third-class passengers whose names are unknown.

During his voyage on the RMS Titanic, Browne is befriended by an American millionaire couple who are seated at his table in the liner’s first-class dining saloon. They offer to pay his way to New York and back in return for him spending the voyage to New York in their company. He telegraphs his superior, requesting permission, but the reply is an unambiguous “GET OFF THAT SHIP – PROVINCIAL.”

Browne leaves the RMS Titanic when she docks in Queenstown and returns to Dublin to continue his theological studies. When the news of the ship’s sinking reaches him, he realises that his photos would be of great interest, and he negotiates their sale to various newspapers and news cartels. They appear in publications around the world. The Eastman Kodak Company subsequently gives him free film for life and he often contributes to The Kodak Magazine. It is unknown what type of camera he used to shoot the famous photos aboard RMS Titanic.

After his ordination on July 31, 1915, Browne completes his theological studies. In 1916, he is sent to Europe to join the Irish Guards as a chaplain. He serves with the Guards until the spring of 1920, including service at the Battle of the Somme and at Locre, Wytschaete, Messines Ridge, Paschendaele, Ypres, Amiens and Arras in Flanders.

Browne is wounded five times during the war, once severely in a gas attack. He is awarded the Military Cross (MC) on June 4, 1917 “for distinguished service in the field”. He is awarded a bar to his MC on February 18, 1918. He is also awarded the Croix de Guerre by France.

Browne takes many photographs during his time in Europe. One, which he calls “Watch on the Rhine,” is considered a classic image of World War I. He assembles a collection of his war photographs in an album named after his most famous photograph and distributes copies to his colleagues in the Guards.

After the war, Browne returns to Dublin, where, in 1922, he is appointed superior of Gardiner Street Church in Dublin. Ill health dogs him, however, and in 1924 it is thought that he would recover more quickly in warmer climes. He is sent on an extended visit to Australia. He takes his camera along, photographing life aboard ship and in Cape Town, South Africa, where he breaks his voyage.

On his way back to Ireland, Browne visits Ceylon, Aden, Suez, Saloniki, Naples, Toulon, Gibraltar, Algeciras, and Lisbon, taking photographs of local life and events at every stop. It is estimated that he takes more than 42,000 photographs during his life.

Browne resumes office as the Superior of Saint Francis Xavier Church, Dublin, upon his return. In 1929 he is appointed to the Retreats and Mission staff of the Irish Jesuits. His work entails preaching at missions and religious retreats all over Ireland. As most of this work is necessarily performed on evenings and Sundays, he has considerable time to indulge in his hobby during the daytime. He takes photographs of many parishes and towns in Ireland, and also photographs in London and East Anglia during his ecclesiastical travels to England.

Browne dies in Dublin on July 7, 1960, and is buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. His negatives lay forgotten for 25 years after his death. They are found by chance in 1985 when Father Edward E. O’Donnell discovers them in a large metal trunk, once belonging to Browne, in the Irish Jesuit archives. “When the trunk was opened in 1985, people compared him to the greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, but his work predated theirs by decades,” archivist David Davison later recalls.

O’Donnell brings the negatives to the attention of several publishers. The RMS Titanic photographs are published in 1997 as Father Browne’s Titanic Album with text by E. E. O’Donnell (Fr. Eddie O’Donnell). In all, at least 25 volumes of Browne’s photographs have now been published. The features editor of The Sunday Times of London calls this “the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Many of these books have become best-sellers, the latest being the Centenary Edition of Father Browne’s Titanic Album in 2012 by Messenger Publications, Dublin.

The Irish province of the Jesuits, the owner of the negatives pursuant to Browne’s will, engage photographic restoration specialists David and Edwin Davison to preserve and catalogue the fragile and unstable negatives. The Davisons make copies of every negative and are in the process of transferring every usable image to a digital format for future generations. The Davisons later acquire the rights to the photographs and still own the rights as Davison & Associates.

Author: Jim Doyle

As a descendant of Joshua Doyle (b. 1775, Dublin, Ireland), I have a strong interest in Irish culture and history, which is the primary focus of this site. I am a Network Engineer at The Computer Hut, LLC, which is my salaried job. I am a member of the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (2010-Present, President 2011-2017). I have also served on the City of Little Rock Arts+Culture Commission (2015-2020, Chairman 2017-2018) and the Walnut Valley Property Owners Association board (2015-2020, Secretary 2017-2020).

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