Francis (“Frank”) Mary Hegarty Browne, Browne’s mother, died when he was young and his father when in his teens. His uncle Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne, acted as guardian to Frank and his siblings, four of whom entered religious life. When Frank completed his secondary education he decided to become a Jesuit. Immediately before entering the Order, Uncle Robert sent him on a grand tour of Europe and bought him a camera to record his trip. This visionary act was to reveal a natural aesthetic ability and fostered an interest in photography that was to reach fruition when Frank became the most outstanding Irish photographer of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
The bishop had another surprise up his sleeve, when in early 1912 he presented Frank with a first-class ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic to bring him as far as Cobh. So it was that on the morning of the 12 April 1912 he arrived at Waterloo Station in London to catch the Titanic Special. He immediately started taking photographs, first recording the train journey and then life aboard the Titanic on the initial section of the voyage. Having made friends with a wealthy American family he was offered a ticket for the remaining part of the journey and no doubt excitedly telegraphed a request for permission to go on to New York, to which he received the terse response “Get Off That Ship — Provincial!” That telegram not only saved Frank’s life but also meant that this unique record of the voyage was saved for posterity and guaranteed overnight fame for Frank Browne SJ.
It is estimated that Browne took over 42,000 photographs during his life. Twenty-three volumes of the photographs have now been published. The features editor of The Sunday Times of London called this “the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In 1985, Father Edward O’Donnell, SJ, was clearing items from the basement of the Irish Jesuit Provincial House when he came across a large metal trunk. What he found inside told a remarkable story—of the life and times of ordinary people and places as well as the first few days of what would become a most tragic journey.
The trunk contained a large collection of negative albums, photographs and, most amazingly of all, an album containing photographs of Titanic’s voyage from its departure from Southampton to its stopover in Cobh (formerly know as Queenstown).
This collection was determined to have been the work of a fellow priest who had passed away in 1960—Father Francis Browne SJ. Although Fr. Browne had enjoyed worldwide fame in 1912 when his photographs of the Titanic’s journey to Cobh were published worldwide, by the time this incredible collection of his work was discovered, 25 years after his death, he and his work had been all but forgotten. The discovery of this “lost” collection of more than 40,000 negatives, depicting the life of the emerging Republic of Ireland as well as experiences from the many countries he visited during his life, ushered in a new appreciation of whom one critic described as “a master photographer with an unerring eye”.
In 2012, An Post, Ireland’s postal service, issued a commemorative stamp celebrating the lifetime contributions of Father Francis Browne and provided the following short biography:
The Irish province of the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus), the owner of the negatives pursuant to Browne’s will, engaged photographic restoration specialists David and Edwin Davison to preserve and catalogue the fragile and unstable negatives. The Davisons made copies of every negative and began the process of transferring every usable image to a digital format for future generations. The Davisons later acquired the rights to the photographs and still own the rights as Davison & Associates. A collection of Fr. Browne’s work can be found on their site at: http://www.fatherbrowne.com/
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