Mairéad O’Brien recalls the brave priest from Roscommon who survived World War II only to become a casualty of another brutal war in Korea


D-Day, June 6th, 1944, marked the largest amphibious invasion in history, with approximately 156,000 American, Canadian, British and other Allied troops participating in a combined land, sea and air assault on five beaches in Normandy, France. The objective was to gain a foothold across the French coast to liberate northwest Europe from Nazi control and bring an end to World War II.
The 80th anniversary of these events is an occasion to reflect and pay tribute. Not all involved were soldiers, and not all soldiers were combatants. One such group was that of Army Chaplains, and one such Army Chaplain was Fr. Jack O’Brien SSC.

John Patrick, or Jack, was born on December 1st, 1918, in Donamon, Co Roscommon, the eldest of the four children of Thomas Joseph O’Brien and Mary Elizabeth Hegarty. His father was a station master with the Midland Great Western Railway, and the family moved from place to place in line with his promotions. Jack attended primary schools in Killala and Ballinrobe in Co. Mayo and secondary school at St. Nathy’s College in Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon.

In 1936, he joined The Society of St Columban, also known as The Maynooth Mission to China and was ordained to the priesthood in December 1942 at the height of World War II.
However, due to travel restrictions during the war, he was unable to take up a missionary post in the Far East. Some Columbans, in a similar situation, went to parishes in England to replace priests who had become Army Chaplains, while others became chaplains themselves.
Fr. Jack was one of the latter.

In October 1943, he applied to become an Army Chaplain or Padre in the British Army. In May 1944, having completed rigorous training at Marlborough Barracks in Wiltshire, he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles, which was attached to the 9th British Infantry Brigade. This Brigade was a part of the British Third Division, under the command of Major General Bernard Law Montgomery, affectionately known as ‘Monty’.

Within days, Fr. Jack was on board a transport ship at Portsmouth on the south coast of England, waiting to cross the English Channel. D-Day, scheduled for June 5th, was postponed for twenty-four hours when Maureen Flavin Sweeney’s weather report from Blacksod Point in Co. Mayo reached the meteorologists in England; the barometer had dropped and stormy weather was imminent.
The delay was unwelcome as the troops had already spent several days on board ship in cramped and uncomfortable conditions with little to occupy them. For many, it was their first experience of war and the prolonged waiting increased their anxiety. More than a few of them turned to religion for comfort. Fr. Jack spent long hours hearing Confessions, talking and listening to frightened men and generally trying to boost morale.
On the morning of June 6th, hours after an airborne assault, the first of the Allied ships arrived in Normandy.

Fr. Jack landed with the 2nd Battalion on the beach codenamed Sword, the easternmost beach of the five landing areas. A heavy swell rose as they struggled to wade ashore, weighed down by heavy uniforms and kit bags, with some carrying folding bicycles. Enemy shells and mortars rained down relentlessly on them.

Once on land, they advanced slowly to the densely forested village of Cambes, which they liberated under intense fire and with heavy casualties.
After five more weeks of bloody fighting and an even heavier death toll, they regained control of the strategically located city of Caen. During a lull in the fighting, Fr. Jack conducted a Solemn Requiem Mass for the Catholic dead, while the Presbyterian and Church of England chaplains held memorial services for their fallen men.
No training could have prepared Fr. Jack for the horrors of day-to-day life in war-torn Northern France – deafening artillery fire, blood and guts, decaying bodies, terror in men’s eyes, endless burials and the constant state of anxiety.

As a non-combatant, he did not carry a gun, and his clerical collar offered no protection against shells and mortar. His role was to provide spiritual support, pastoral care and moral guidance.
As a chaplain, he provided leadership but did not command. He read and wrote letters and dealt with official documentation for soldiers with poor literacy skills. On the eve of battle, he heard confessions, distributed Communion, and offered blessings and encouragement. He sometimes read aloud passages from the Bible. Whenever possible, chaplains of all faiths held Sunday services.

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