There are few more moving and evocative images of the First World War than Fortunino Matania’s painting of The Absolution of the Munsters which first appeared in The Sphere magazine in November 1916.
Commissioned by the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Rickard who was killed in the battle, it depicts Father Francis Gleeson sitting on his horse giving the absolution a few hours before going into battle. Much has been written elsewhere about the work of Francis Gleeson, and his full story, based on the diaries he kept and other contemporary accounts, is told in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War.
However during the course of my research I came across a letter in the Cork Examiner on 9 June 1915, written to a Mrs Barry concerning the death of her son, Christy, during the battle. It moved me and I wanted to share it on here:-
HEROIC CORK BOY – PRIVATE CHRISTY BARRY’S DEATH – LETTER FROM FR. GLEESON – TOUCHING TRIBUTE TO BRAVE DEED
Rev. Father Francis A. Gleeson, chaplain to the Munsters at the front, writes as follows to Mrs. Barry, 89 Douglas Street, Cork, mother of Private Christy Barry, 2nd Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, who was killed in action on May 9th
‘2nd June, 1915 – Dear Mrs. Barry – By this time you will have heard of the death of your heroic boy in the attack of Sunday, 9th May, 1915. The greatest consolation I can offer you is to tell you that your son was well prepared for death, as the battalion received Holy Communion the Sunday before the battle and were given absolution a few hours before the terrible ordeal. You need have no worry regarding your son’s soul, for he was careful and zealous about it, and was one of the best boys in the battalion. I knew him quite well, and to know him was to love him, for he was one of the most cheerful and good-natured young fellows I have met. I buried his body in a little cemetery beside the trenches, and several comrades lie beside him. A little cross marks his grave. He has made an immortal name for the gallantry and unselfishness with which he rescued the body of Captain Hawkes. He had not the faintest idea of what fear was. There could not be greater heroism displayed than that shown by your son.
You may well feel proud of being the mother of such a son. He has, by his thrilling acts of bravery, imprinted his name on all our hearts, and no honour, no matter how high, could be at all adequate to mark the greatness of his action. Out of a battalion of cheerful and daring heroes, Barry stands out supreme and admired of all, and his glorious death has inspired it. He was shot three times during his rescue of Captain Hawkes – still, in spite of loss of blood and a tornado of bullets and shells, he held on to his task till he got the captain in safety over the parapets. Having done this, he fell down exhausted and mortally wounded, into the British lines, where he died a saintly and easy death a few hours afterwards.
You will not grudge the good God such a good boy, and will be compensated for his death by the greatness and glory which marked it. On his pure and saintly soul may Jesus have mercy.
Yours sincerely, Francis A. Gleeson, Chaplain, Munsters
Francis Gleeson is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, one of the best historical sites I have ever visited.
The story of Francis Gleeson is one of twenty-three featured in my critically acclaimed book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War The book can be purchased from various online retailers, or direct from me, signed and personally dedicated.
A companion book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War is also available.