Fr Dowling describes Christmas Day 1914 with soldiers of Royal Dublin Fusiliers
Fr Ned Dowling, who served as a Catholic chaplain with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers throughout the first World War.
Just a few months after leaving a prestigious job as a professor in St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, 28-year-old Fr Ned Dowling slept on a bed of straw on Christmas Eve, 1914, in an abandoned farmhouse a short distance from German enemy lines.
His diary records waking up on Christmas morning after “dreaming of home and other Xmases”, but he had “no time to call up memories of other awakenings, of large fires lit downstairs, heaps of presents, and bulging stockings” of his Irish childhood.
“The morning was clear and dark, with many stars, and very cold” and the volunteer military chaplain had to say Mass for his flock – soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – some of whom had spent Christmas Eve in the trenches.
Fr Dowling also recorded how he and his “servant” – Pte Bernard Leavy from Co Longford – had to then travel to another group of Irish soldiers stationed on a nearby farm where “the mass took place in the large piggery, to the accompaniment of many grunts and in a dense atmosphere of smoke”.
After being up and working for six hours, he finally broke his fast when he accepted a request from a group of soldiers to “drink their health in some of their Xmas rum” and to taste some of their plum pudding which he did, despite grave reservations, and observed: “Rum and plum pudding after a six-hour fast. The thought of it would have killed me, and my doctor six months ago. Perhaps I am destined to die a less happy death.”
After the meal, he enjoyed “a good smoke”.
The afternoon on Christmas Day “passed quietly reading such Xmas numbers [newspapers and periodicals] as we had and cussing at the fire which persisted in behaving in an unXmas-like manner”.
After a Christmas dinner of army rations, there was a “flow of stories and good cheer” and “the men had their beer, only French beer, potent only in name, but still something”.
But the officers, including Fr Dowling, managed to find champagne “somewhere” and then, he writes: “After the port went round we lit our pipes.”