Sacred Irish first World War memento found in car-boot sale in England

Print of famous painting inscribed by chaplain, Fr Gleeson

 

A print of the famous first World War painting The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois, inscribed by the chaplain who is depicted in the picture, has come to light unexpectedly and will be auctioned next month at Whyte’s in Dublin.

The original painting, by the artist Fortunino Matania, now believed to be lost, depicts soldiers of the Royal Munster Fusiliers regiment on the eve of battle – 100 years ago in May 1915 in Northern France. The men – many who would die the following day – are receiving “general absolution” from their Catholic chaplain, Tipperary-born Fr Francis Gleeson, depicted in the painting on horseback.

Stuart Purcell, of Whyte’s auctioneers in Dublin’s Molesworth Street, said the print, inscribed with compliments to an unknown recipient, by Fr Gleeson after the war, and dated April 7th, 1919, will go under the hammer in an auction of historical memorabilia with an estimate of €3,000-€5,000.

It has been consigned by an English couple who bought it for just £25 (€34) at a car-boot sale in Lincolnshire, in the East of England, seven years ago. They did not realise the Irish significance of the image until they read a report about the painting in The Irish Times.

The image was first published by The Sphere magazine, a London illustrated weekly newspaper, in November 1916 and prints of it were very popular. There are copies in various museums and in private ownership in Ireland and Britain but no other copy with Fr Gleeson’s signature is known.

Fr Gleeson, from Templemore, Co Tipperary, was ordained a Catholic priest in Maynooth in 1910, and volunteered as a Catholic chaplain in the army at the outbreak of the first World War. He was assigned to the Royal Munster Fusiliers and served with distinction. After the war he returned to Ireland and served as a priest in Dublin until his death in 1959.

The painting depicts one of the most poignant events in the history of Irish involvement in the first World War. Soldiers from the Second Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, commanded by Lieut-Col Victor Rickard (also depicted on horseback in the painting), stopped at a wayside shrine near the village of Rue du Bois in northwest France on Saturday evening, May 8th, 1915. Fr Gleeson performed the ritual “general absolution” – granted under Catholic canon law when there is a risk of imminent death and no time for individual confessions. The following day hundreds of the men – including Rickard – died on the battlefield.

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