Champion Chaplain – An Irishman’s Diary about a remarkable Westmeath priest who served in two world wars

Fr John Coghlan: served as a chaplain in two world wars

Fr John Coghlan: served as a chaplain in two world wars

 

In a controversial passage of his memoir Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves praised the courage of Roman Catholic chaplains who had served alongside him in the Great War and made unflattering comparisons with their Anglican counterparts.

The latter were under orders not to get near the fighting, he said, and few disobeyed.  

Consequently, they commanded “little respect” from troops. The Catholic priests, by contrast, “were not only permitted to visit posts of danger, but definitely enjoyed to be where the fighting was, so that they could give extreme unction to the dying”.

Thus, despite a general absence of religious feeling among his regiment (Graves suggested that barely “one soldier in a hundred” was devout), the RC chaplains were highly regarded: “We never heard of one who failed to do all that was expected of him and more.”

Another English officer, Guy Norman, put it in blunter terms. He wrote: “The Church of Rome sent a man into action mentally and spiritually cleaned. The Church of England could only offer you a cigarette. The Church of Rome, experienced in propaganda, sent its priests into the line. The Church of England forbade theirs forward of Brigade Headquarters. ”

Norman went on to acknowledge, in fairness, that many Anglican chaplains did defy orders. And Graves’s criticisms too have been challenged in the years since by accounts of individual bravery.

But the stereotype of the fearless Catholic priest who found his element in war may be reinforced by an event in Co Westmeath next week, when one such chaplain is belatedly honoured in his home town.

His name was John Coghlan, and he was born 130 years ago this summer in Castlepollard.  

During any other era, he might have had a quiet life.  

Instead, he was ordained a priest in the turbulent year of 1913. And after serving a brief apprenticeship in Meath, he volunteered to become a chaplain in the British army in 1915, a decision that would define his life.

Attached to the Royal Inniskillings, he was soon in the midst of fierce fighting in Flanders where he was himself wounded in 1917. But he survived that and the European conflict in general, earning mention in dispatches, before spending 1918-19 in the middle east.  

In the process, he had found (or refound) his vocation; there would be no returning to civilian life.

Still an army man between the wars, he served in 1920s Germany, and later in China and Malta, rising through the chaplaincy ranks.  

By the mid-1930s, he was back in England. And when war descended again, he was once more headed for the front – this time as the British Expeditionary Force’s chief RC chaplain and assistant deputy of the general chaplaincy service.

Just as he had gone forward with his men, he retreated with them too. In the famous rearguard action at Dunkirk, under heavy fire, he ministered to wounded Allied and German troops alike, and was one of the last off the beach. Back in England in one piece, he was awarded a CBE and appointed the army’s vicar general.

This was the most senior position in the Catholic chaplaincy and put him in charge of his own mini-army, of 700 priests. If he hadn’t seen the world before then, he saw it now, spending the rest of the war organising his charges in all the theatres of conflict, including North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, India, Ceylon, and Burma.

On VE Day, he resumed the day job, albeit by celebrating a special Mass in Rome before 7,000 people. An audience with the pope followed. And returning to Britain, he ended his military career with the rank of colonel and a knighthood.

After that, he was posted back to where it all began, or nearly, as parish priest of Multyfarnham, although there was one more major honour heading his way, this time the French croix de guerre, first class, in 1948.  

A few years later, he retired from PP duties for health reasons and moved to Dublin where he died in 1963, to rest in (unaccustomed) peace at Glasnevin.

There was a time when his service to those dual empires, British and Roman, might have sat uneasily in an Irish Republic. But in these more relaxed days, Castlepollard is at last able to pay formal tribute to an extraordinary son. So on Tuesday next at 12.30pm, he will be commemorated by a Mass at St Michael’s Catholic Church. And after Mass, there will by music and poetry in his honour, followed by the unveiling of a plaque on the church lawn.