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World War I Irish Immortalized in Art

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  By Gerry Molumby

I am writing this to record again the gratitude and continued memory to the hundreds of Irishmen who fought and died in both World Wars.

Fr. Francis Gleeson, originally from Templemore, Co. Tipperary volunteered in 1915 to be an Army chaplain. He was posted to the Western Front as chaplain to the Munster Fusiliers and his place in history is secured by his domination in the painting by Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The painting depicts the moment he gave the Last Absolution to the battalion at the Rue du Bois on May 8, 1915, the evening before many of them were killed or wounded.

That night, Fr. Gleeson recorded the names of the 800 men who received communion. This information was later used in identifying the casualties and provided contact addresses for many of the families.

At Passchendale on Nov. 10, 1917, Fr. Gleeson again recorded the names of the soldiers and was part of the effort of writing to grieving parents telling them their sons had died. Parents would have been comforted by the fact that Fr. Gleeson had offered confession and communion to the soldiers before the conflict.

He wrote: "Spent all night trying to comfort aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretches with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs. I shall never forget that young officer with the shattered left arm nor you Barrowdale, of the Welsh, who was a great organist and played for me at Epan. Heartbreaking to see him dying there - wasting away...."

Although originally from Tipperary, Fr. Gleeson trained and served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dublin. After the war, Fr. Gleeson returned to ministry in Ireland, here it is reported that he was not always made welcome by some of his clerical leaders because of his association with the British Army. But ironically, because of his army experience he was appointed on Feb. 12,1923, as chaplain with the Dublin Army Command of the National Army in the new Irish Free State.
But as time and memory moved on, so in old age and as a gesture of solidarity he donated the purple stole he wore at Rue du Bois to the Munster Fusiliers regiment. He died as a Canon of the Archdiocese of Dublin in 1959. Some say he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetary.However it is also claimed he is buried in Castlelough in his native Co. Tipperary. 

" The Kaiser knows the Munsters, by the Shamrocks on their caps, 
And the famous Bengal Tiger, ever ready for a scrap, 
And for all his big battalions, Prussian Guards and grenadiers, 
Fear to face the flashing bayonets of the Munster Fusiliers!"
— Anonymous

 

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