The Aussie war hero from Roscrea – An Irishman’s Diary about Fr Michael Bergin SJ

Fr Michael Bergin SJ was the very picture of an Australian war hero. In a portrait from his days as army chaplain, he wears that country’s archetypal slouch hat, with emu feather. When he died in action, 100 years ago this month, it was said he had been “deeply admired by thousands of Australian soldiers”. And at the opening of a centenary exhibition in his memory last night, it was an Australian diplomat who did the honours.

But Fr Bergin had an unusual distinction for an Aussie hero. He never saw, or set foot in, that country. He was in fact Irish, and although he had travelled much in his short life, it appears to have been exclusively north of the equator. That he died so much identified with a nation he hadn’t visited was nevertheless in keeping with one of the tributes paid to him in death: that he had been “a man made great through the complete subordination of self”.

The exhibition opened yesterday by Australia's deputy head of mission in Ireland, Simon Mamouney, is in Roscrea Library. It was near that north Tipperary town Bergin was born in 1879. But in another territorial confusion, deepened in the century-and-a-bit since by the GAA, he was technically an Offaly man, being from a place called Fancroft, just north of the county and provincial borders.

Like the "Phoenix" in Phoenix Park, Fancroft is an anglicisation of a name meaning "white water", or more specifically, in this case, "white weir". The weir was important in Bergin's life because it drove a mill his father owned. It may also have helped propel the young man to an education in the Jesuit-run Mungret College, Limerick, from which he himself joined the Society of Jesus in 1897.


He was soon thereafter dispatched to a mission in Syria – partly as a warm-weather cure for his fragile health – taught English in Beirut for a time, and then began formal theological studies with the exiled French Jesuits in England, before returning to Syria in time for the Great War.

Interned and then expelled by the Turks, he moved to Egypt, where he first became friendly with members of the Australian Imperial Forces, training in Cairo. When he applied to join them as chaplain, however, the church authorities in Australia were understandably unsure about this unknown Irishman. So he enlisted anyway, as a trooper and stretcher bearer in the Gallipoli campaign, until formally appointed to the chaplaincy in mid-1915.

Unlike thousands from Ireland and Australia, Bergin outlived the Gallipoli disaster, albeit having to be evacuated with illness that summer.

After recovering in London, he was back on the eastern front by Christmas, and spent the rest of his war on the western one, where he also survived the battles of Poziéres, with its 23,000 Australian casualties, and Mouquet Farm.

But at Passchendaele on October 10th, 1917, his luck ran out. Fatally injured by a German shell, he died next day. Among the tributes, a Colonel Reilly said of him that he had been "loved by every man and officer in the Brigade" and added: "He was the only saint I have ever met."

Buried locally in Belgium, Fr Bergin was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.

The Roscrea exhibition runs until the end of October. And if you’re attending it, you might also make a side trip – as Simon Mamouney did yesterday – to Tipperary’s northern front, and the aforementioned Fancroft Mill.

There has been a mill on that site for centuries, apparently, long before the Bergins owned it. Even the modern, stone version dates from about 1780, when it was built by a Quaker named Pim. But that was long derelict until a major conservation project begun under the present owners, Marcus and Irene Sweeney, in 2006.

Now it and the extensive gardens, mostly developed by a previous owner, are open to visitors, two days weekly or by appointment (see The gardens do not feature emus, but as you’d expect beside a water mill, they do have a thriving population of indigenous birds, including dippers, kingfishers, and grey wagtails. Ireland’s smallest mammal, the Pygmy shrew, lives locally too, as do five species of bat.

The late Fr Bergin might also have been pleased to learn of an important German contribution to Fancroft’s modern revival. A chance encounter in 2009 led to two milling engineers from Weimar taking an interest in the project. Thanks to theirs and other German expertise, the old mill wheel was restored to working order. It’s now generating not just tourism, but electricity as well.