WHEN Derry priest Fr. Eddie O’Donnell stumbled across over 40,000 negatives belonging to the late Fr. Frank Browne he would not have been able to envisage the significance of what he had just discovered.
Fr. Browne, a Jesuit priest, was widely recognised as a skilled photographer. He boarded the Titanic in Southampton and several days later he was ordered off the boat in Cobh, Co. Cork by his superior.
Fr. O’Donnell was born in Dublin but was reared for the first few years of his life in 106 Bogside (close to where the Little Diamond is now) after the death of his mother. He spent summers visiting aunts, uncles and cousins in Derry before joining the Jesuits.
Fr O’Donnell discovered the invaluable collection of photographs and mementoes in a Dublin basement in 1985. His book ‘Father Browne’s Titanic Album’ has been updated and re-released to mark the 100th anniversary of the boat sinking in 1912.
Fr. O’Donell’s father was from the Bogside and his mother was born in Queen Street. The 71 year-old Jesuit priest now lives in the Gonzaga College, Dublin.
Fr. Browne has been described as a master photographer and as Ireland’s answer to Cartier-Breson. He first started taking photographs in 1897 and did so until his death in 1960.
Many of the photographs in the book have been digitally re-mastered and new photographs have been added for the centenary edition of the book.
“When Father Browne’s superior ordered him off the ship it essentially saved his life because very few men travelling in first class survived the tragedy when the boat sank.
“The book was first released in 1997 but we wanted to do something special for the centenary of the sinking of the ship so we added a chapter. It’s a piece that Fr. Browne wrote the day after he disembarked the ship in April 1912. He wrote many things after the tragedy but this was the only piece that I could find that he wrote before the tragedy.
“As a result of Fr. Browne’s article I was able to ascertain that he had been all over the ship and had even had a swim in the swimming pool. This is the type of new information I was able to find out as a result of the article and I think that it gives a fresh feeling to the book.”
Perhaps the most famous story about Fr. Browne on the Titanic was when an American couple offered to pay his fare to America. Unbeknownst to Fr. Browne, when his superior requested that he return to Dublin, his life was potentially saved.
“While he was having a meal in the first class dining room he got chatting to a wealthy American couple. They liked Fr. Browne and asked him to stay on the Titanic with them until the boat reached New York. The American couple even offered to pay the rest of his fare to New York but Fr. Browne told them that his superior in Dublin would never allow it so he had to get off the ship when it stopped in Cobh.
“The American man said to Fr. Browne, ‘come on down to the Marconi room and we’ll send him [the Jesuit superior] a Marconigram (a message sent via radio) and we’ll tell him that we’ll pay your way to New York’.
“When Fr. Browne went down to the Marconi room he took a picture. It was the only picture to be taken of the room - and any films you’ve ever seen that have had the Marconi room in it based it on Fr. Browne’s photograph.”
The telegram was sent by the wealthy Americans to the Irish superior of the Jesuits but after the Titanic stopped in Queenstown in Cobh, Fr. Browne was instructed to return to Dublin.
“The water near Queenstown in Cobh wasn’t deep enough for the Titanic to dock so the only way it could be reached was by another boat called the Ireland.
“The Ireland set off towards the Titanic with bags of mail and the 123 Irish passengers who boarded the ship. Captain Tobin was in charge of the Ireland and he had a small envelope addressed to Fr. Browne. Inside was a note with five words on it - it read: ‘Get Off That Ship - Provincial’.
“Fr. Browne kept the note in his wallet for the rest of his life and said that it was the only time that holy obedience saved a man’s life,” he laughs.
Fr. Browne used what time he had to photograph the Titanic when it arrived in Cobh. One photograph shows a man climbing one of the ship’s large funnels and at the time it was regarded as a bad omen.
“The superstitious people of Cobh said when they saw it that no good could come out of the ship’s journey and that the man in the picture was not a man at all - they claimed that he was the devil.
“The picture shows a tiny black dot on the fourth of the ship’s funnels and it’s actually been confirmed that the black dot was an Irish stowaway who boarded the ship at Southampton. Apparently he climbed down the funnel into the room where the mail was being kept and his pals put him inside one of the mail bags and he was loaded on to the Ireland and managed to get home to his native Cobh.”
Fr. Browne’s photographs have been used as evidence to support man facts about the Titanic.
One of the most contentious issues which split opinion amongst Titanic experts was whether the ship divided into two after it hit the iceberg on April 15, 1912.
Dr. Robert D Ballard, the former US Navy officer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, used Fr. Browne’s photographs to confirm that the boat had in fact split in half.
“When Dr. Ballard discovered the wreck he found that the boat was in two pieces almost half a mile apart.
“Some survivors said that the ship split in two just before it sank whilst others said it went down in one piece. No one knew who to believe.
“When Robert Ballard found the boat it was solved for all time. Ballard used photographs taken by Fr. Browne to explain why the boat split in two. It was because of the grand staircase that the boat split - it was nine stories high and was the weakest part of the ship. If the Titanic was going to split anywhere it was going to be where the grand staircase was.
“The Titanic actually split down the middle of where Fr. Browne’s room was because his bedroom was in one half of the wreckage and his living room was in the other half almost half a mile away.”
Fr. Browne’s documentation of the Titanic was so concise that Oscar winning director James Cameron used his photographs as a reference when designing the ship’s bridge for his 1997 movie ‘Titanic’.
“A friend of mine is the secretary of the Titanic Historical Society and was advisor to James Cameron’s movie about the Titanic. He had all of Fr. Browne’s photographs and told Mr. Cameron that he had forgotten to consult them when designing the set. Mr. Cameron then used Fr. Browne’s photographs to redesign the bridge of the boat.”
He added: “I hope people still enjoy the book. It’s a wonderful documentation of life on the ship before it sank. It’s poignant that we have released it again to mark the 100th anniversary.”
‘Father Browne’s Titanic Album - Centenary Edition’ is available to buy from www.messenger.ie.