An Irishman’s Diary on Patrice Flynn, a Franco-Irish Catholic bishop who never forgot his roots

In the first World War, Flynn was one of over 25,000 priests and seminarians who were conscripted into the French army

In the first World War, Flynn was one of over 25,000 priests and seminarians who were conscripted into the French army

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The story of the historic bonds between Ireland and France is often told using broad brushstrokes. As such, it can become depersonalised and separated into various distinct categories such as the Wild Geese and emigration, or trade, military, culture, religion, and so on.

But Patrice Flynn personifies the Franco-Irish connection and bridges the divide between the different categories.

Born in Paris in 1874 to Irish-born parents, Patrice Flynn never lost touch with the land of his forebears, not least when he was ordained bishop of a French diocese.

His father, who was born in Cork, studied at Douai in northern France and later became a maths teacher in Paris. His mother was a Curran from Portaferry, Co Down.

Patrice and his elder brother, Henri, who were frequent visitors to Ireland over the years, both entered the priesthood in Paris.

After serving for several years in various teaching and administrative roles, Patrice was appointed as curate in Neuilly and then as parish priest in Suresnes in the western suburbs of Paris.

Conscripted

In the first World War, Flynn was one of over 25,000 priests and seminarians who were conscripted into the French army. Initially, he spent two years as a hospital attendant before volunteering as chaplain to the 33rd Infantry Division that was fighting at the front. He served at a number of the places whose name has entered the collective memory and is intimately associated with the worst of the war – Verdun, Arras, Vimy Ridge and Ypres. He attained the rank of captain before being demobilised in March 1919.

During the war, there was genuine fear in France that German propaganda was winning hearts and minds in Ireland and elsewhere. Eager to counteract this, the French government arranged a propaganda mission to be sent to Ireland in October 1916. Similar missions were sent to America, Canada and Spain around this time.

The delegation was composed of two bishops and two priests. Their task was to remind the Irish people of the gravity of the war and to encourage Irishmen to enlist.

Flynn acted as interpreter for the two bishops as they made speeches to seminarians and priests in Maynooth College and addressed a meeting of the Catholic Truth Society in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin. It was one of his most important visits to Ireland.

Back in France, he was posted to the Madeleine church in central Paris, where he was popular with expatriates as he frequently preached sermons in English. The city’s American community particularly appreciated it when he gave sermons in English on Thanksgiving Day.

The next significant visit to Ireland came in June 1932. He visited Dublin to act as interpreter for Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris, who was attending the Eucharistic Congress.

Aside from the official ceremonies in the Pro-Cathedral and the Phoenix Park, the two Frenchmen visited Rutland Street, Corporation Street and Granby Lane in the north inner city. They wanted to see where Matt Talbot, the Dublin labourer who gave up a life of drink and became an ascetic, had lived and worked.

They also preached in University Church on St Stephen’s Green to a group of French people who were resident in Ireland and to over 150 French pilgrims who had travelled especially for the Congress.

When he was elevated to Bishop of Nevers in October 1932, the Irish press reported enthusiastically on the ceremony, which was held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and attended by Count O’Kelly, the Irish envoy to France. Also present at the consecration were many Irish people who lived in the city, as well as priests from the Irish College.

The Irish expatriate community gathered funds to buy vestments for the new bishop, to which two shamrocks were added to represent his Irish heritage.

When installed as bishop, Flynn continued to draw on the extensive network of Franco-Irish friends he had built up over the years. In a move that echoed Columbanus’s mission to France over 1,300 years before, he managed to get Irish priests to go to parts of his diocese where priests were badly needed. He put out a call promising “work without comfort, in a spirit and state of poverty, bearable indeed but pretty hard”.

During his episcopate, which lasted for over 30 years, links with Ireland were further reinforced.

In 1940, with the help of Cork-born Veronica O’Brien, he introduced the Catholic voluntary association, the Legion of Mary, to France. When Irish pilgrims were making their way overland from Ireland to Lourdes or Rome in the 1950s and 1960s, they frequently stopped at the shrine of St Bernadette in Nevers. They were always delighted to meet the Franco-Irish bishop and renew ties between the two countries.

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