The Real Father Brown: Rediscovering John O’Connor

Some time ago, seated at ease upon a summer evening and taking a serene review of an indefensibly fortunate and happy life, I calculated that I must have committed at least fifty-three murders, and been concerned with hiding about half a hundred corpses for the purpose of the concealment of crimes; hanging one corpse on a hat-peg, bundling another into a postman’s bag, decapitating a third and providing it with somebody else’s head, and so on through quite a large number of innocent artifices of the kind.

So wrote G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) in his Autobiography, published shortly after his death in 1936. The great English journalist and man of letters was referring, of course, to the many detective stories he had written.

G.K. Chesterton by Howard Coster, toned semi-matt print, 1926, NPG P713, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The most famous of Chesterton’s detective stories are those that featured his character Father Brown. A Catholic priest who appears eccentric on the surface, Father Brown has an extremely astute grasp of human nature which helps him to solve crimes which baffle the police. The character of Father Brown has been played by Alec Guinness and, more recently, by Mark Williams of Fast Show fame in a very successful BBC TV version, which recently been renewed for a tenth season.

Despite its popularity, however, few people realize that the character was based on an Irish Catholic priest: Fr. John O’Connor, who was born in Waterford but spent in his entire priestly career in Yorkshire. Recently, while doing some research on Fr. O’Connor, I was delighted to discover that UCD Library’s copy of his book, Poems: Original and Derived contains annotations by the author. Comparison with handwritten documents of Fr. O’Connor’s, that I found in digital images online, confirmed that it was indeed his writing.

John O’Connor was born in Kilmacomma, County Waterford, in 1870. He studied for the priesthood in Belgium and Rome and was ordained in the Lateran Basilica, Rome in 1895. From 1909 to 1919 he was parish priest at Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, and at St. Cuthbert’s in Bradford (where he opened a new church) from 1919 until his death. He was given the honorific titles of Monsignor in 1937, and of Privy Chamberlain to the Pope in 1938. As well as being the inspiration for Fr. Brown, Fr. O’Connor was the priest who received G.K. Chesterton into the Catholic Church in 1922.

In Chesterton’s autogiography, he describes his first meeting with Fr. O’Connor, and the genesis of Fr. Brown:

I had gone to give a lecture at Keighley on the high moors of the West Riding, and stayed the night with a leading citizen of that little industrial town; who had assembled a group of local friends…including the curate of the Roman Catholic Church; a small man with a smooth face and a demure but elfish expression.

Chesterton goes on to describe how, during a walk on the moors at that first meeting, Fr. O’Connor shocked him with the knowledge of human evil and depravity that he had gained in his work as a priest. On returning to the house where they were staying, Chesterton was amused to hear two of the other guests agreeing (out of earshot of Fr. O’Connor) that the priest was a fine fellow, but that it was a shame to live such a sheltered life, with no knowledge of the world’s evils.

Fr. O’Connor was not just a literary inspiration, but an author in his own right. Among his books is a biography of Savonarola, the Dominican preacher who became ruler of Renaissance Florence for a brief period, and who performed the original “bonfire of the vanities”, when he persuaded the Florentines to burn various items which might tempt them to sin. Another of his books is a memoir with the amusing title Father Brown on Chesterton. He also wrote and translated poetry, although it is not particularly distinguished, tending towards the melodramatic and flowery. Appropriately enough for a priest, its themes are entirely spiritual.

Typical of his style is this verse in honour of Coventry Patmore, another Catholic poet:

Oh! Voice more delicate than my own soul singing

Simple as even the Muse

Austerely sweet as a blackbird’s, early winging,

Over untrodden dews!

No better shall I hear till every yearning

Sinks on the high God’s breast

Lull’d with faint reeds of sorrow unreturning

That die adown the West.

The annotations in Poems: Original and Derived afford no particular insight into the man or the poet, as they mostly have to do with the circumstances of composition and the existence of other versions of the poems. Fr. O’Connor’s spiky handwriting is also often difficult to decipher. But for Chesterton enthusiasts (of whom I am one) just being able to read the handwritten notes of the original Fr. Brown is quite a thrill.

This post was written by Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh, Library Assistant, Client Services, UCD Library.

Further reading: G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography, 1936.

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