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pages of history

Read the diary of an Irish priest in the World War I trenches

You can now read his diaries online.

THE DIARIES OF an Irish priest who went to the front line during World War I are now online to view – and make fascinating reading.

Fr Francis A Gleeson, a Tipperary native, was only 30 when he signed up to become a WWI military chaplain.

While with the second Battalio Royal Munster Fusiliers, he fastidiously kept a diary, detailing everything that happened in the trenches.

What’s remarkable about Fr Gleeson is he features in a painting called The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois, believed to have been lost during WWII:

The_Last_General_Absolution_of_the_Munsters_at_Rue_du_Bois Fortunino Matania Fortunino Matania

This painting, by Fortunino Matania depicts Fr Gleeson addressing the battalion on 8 May 1915, the day before the Battle of Aubers Ridge.

The battalion suffered many losses in this battle.

In 1915, after a year of service, Fr Gleeson left as his allotted time was up – but he returned again in 1917. In the interim, he had become a curate.

Transcribing a life

Documents belonging to Fr Gleeson came into the possession of the Dublin Diocesan Archives, which teamed up with UCD to get them digitised and put online.

Noelle Dowling and Peter Sobolewski of the Dublin Diocesan Archives worked for around nine months transcribing the 30 items belonging to Fr Gleeson.

This included not just his diaries, but the letters he wrote to the families of the men who were missing or killed in action, and their letters he received in return.

fr gleeson 1 UCD UCD

“When he died, one of the men who was another priest in the parish realised how important the diaries and the letters were. He took them into his care, and when he died they came into the care of the diocesan archives,” explained Dowling.

Transcribing the diaries was “fairly tough going”, said Dowling, as Fr Gleeson wrote mainly in pencil and in small handwriting – though, as she added, he was writing in the trenches, so it was incredible to have the documents at all.

He censored parts of the diaries, but it’s not known if he did that at the time they were written, or afterwards.  

Life on the front

The diaries describe some incredible days on the front line: nights the soldiers came under fire and thought they were going to die; the days when the rations arrived; the excitement of having Denny’s bacon to eat; the deaths of young men.

The letters from parents stand out too. One mother in Enistimon Co Clare wrote to Fr Gleeson: “your name is as familiar here as if you were one of our own priests”.

“He was so well known all over the country,” said Dowling. Fr Gleeson felt it offered families comfort to write to them.

fr gleeson 2 UCD UCD

From Templemore in Co Tipperary, he was one of 13 children. His mother didn’t want him to go to war, and did what she could to stop him from going. But still he went.

The documents give a fascinating look into live in the trenches, but also what it was like being a priest at that time, saying mass in burnt-out churches or bombed out areas. Often, Fr Gleeson was assisted by Church of England chaplains.

“It was like ‘we were all in this together’,” said Dowling. “There was no animosity even against the enemy. The people he had the issue with were the people sitting at home and writing about the war and promoting its continuing on, but never spending five minuts at the front.”

A profound faith

What struck Dowling was how simple but profound the soldiers’ faith was. “They all would have had rosary beads, or holy pictures. There were stories of a bullet hitting a holy medal.”

“He just seems to have been kind, caring, aware,” said Dowling. “It had a huge affect on his life.”

“In one of the diaries he says in 1917 that within the space of three days he had 85 letters sent in three days.”

He was observant, too: there was an entire entry about the way the French wore their hats and scarfs because it was so different to how people did so in Ireland.

fr gleeson 3 UCD UCD

After the war, Fr Gleeson returned to Ireland. In 1944, he was sent to Meath St in Dublin, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was very involved in the penny dinners and the Little Flower Guild, but also wrote plays and was interested in drama.

He died on 26 June 1959.

“They’re just magnificent,” said Dowling of the items. “Even the language they use, the style of writing. They’re not just sterile historical facts in a book-  suddenly you’re there with the person.”

The Fr Francis A Gleeson Papers can all be viewed on the UCD website here

Read: The disastrous WWI Gallipoli campaign, and the brutality of war>

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