It happened, incredibly, when he followed his superior’s order to get off the Titanic.
When Derry priest Fr. Eddie O’Donnell stumbled across over 40,000 negatives belonging to the late Fr. Frank Browne he would not have been able to envisage the significance of what he had just discovered.
Fr. Browne, a Jesuit priest, was widely recognised as a skilled photographer. He boarded the Titanic in Southampton and several days later he was ordered off the boat in Cobh, Co. Cork by his superior.
Fr. O’Donnell was born in Dublin but was reared for the first few years of his life in 106 Bogside (close to where the Little Diamond is now) after the death of his mother. He spent summers visiting aunts, uncles and cousins in Derry before joining the Jesuits.
Fr O’Donnell discovered the invaluable collection of photographs and mementoes in a Dublin basement in 1985. His book ‘Father Browne’s Titanic Album’ has been updated and re-released to mark the 100th anniversary of the boat sinking in 1912…
…Perhaps the most famous story about Fr. Browne on the Titanic was when an American couple offered to pay his fare to America. Unbeknownst to Fr. Browne, when his superior requested that he return to Dublin, his life was potentially saved.
“While he was having a meal in the first class dining room he got chatting to a wealthy American couple. They liked Fr. Browne and asked him to stay on the Titanic with them until the boat reached New York. The American couple even offered to pay the rest of his fare to New York but Fr. Browne told them that his superior in Dublin would never allow it so he had to get off the ship when it stopped in Cobh.“The American man said to Fr. Browne, ‘come on down to the Marconi room and we’ll send him [the Jesuit superior] a Marconigram (a message sent via radio) and we’ll tell him that we’ll pay your way to New York’.
“When Fr. Browne went down to the Marconi room he took a picture. It was the only picture to be taken of the room – and any films you’ve ever seen that have had the Marconi room in it based it on Fr. Browne’s photograph.”
The telegram was sent by the wealthy Americans to the Irish superior of the Jesuits but after the Titanic stopped in Queenstown in Cobh, Fr. Browne was instructed to return to Dublin.
“The water near Queenstown in Cobh wasn’t deep enough for the Titanic to dock so the only way it could be reached was by another boat called the Ireland.
“The Ireland set off towards the Titanic with bags of mail and the 123 Irish passengers who boarded the ship. Captain Tobin was in charge of the Ireland and he had a small envelope addressed to Fr. Browne. Inside was a note with five words on it – it read: ‘Get Off That Ship – Provincial’.
“Fr. Browne kept the note in his wallet for the rest of his life and said that it was the only time that holy obedience saved a man’s life,” he laughs.