VIENNA, Va. April 15, 2012 — In 1985 when explorer-scientist Robert Ballard was discovering the remains of Titanic deep on the ocean floor, Father Edward E. O’Donnell was making a remarkable discovery in Dublin, Ireland. Going through a trunk of papers of Fr. Frank Browne, S.J., who had died in 1960, he discovered around 40,000 negatives.
Fr. Browne was an avid photographer, and the accompanying album was filled with neatly captioned photographs from his brief time on the Titanic. It was apparently the only set of photographs taken on board the ill-fated ocean liner on that one segment of her maiden voyage.
The priest’s life started out inauspiciously. Francis Patrick Mary Browne was born in 1880 in Cork, Ireland, the youngest of eight children of James Browne and Brigid Hegarity Browne.
Browne later lost both of his parents when he was young boy and had been raised by a devoted uncle Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne, the person who bought him his first camera. While he was a theology student in Dublin, Browne received a ticket from his Uncle Robert, sending him on the first leg only of the maiden voyage.
The excited young man boarded in Southampton for his short voyage on this wonderful ship, assigned to Room A37 on the Promenade Deck. While eating in the First Class dining room, he began to talk to a wealthy couple from America.
The three apparently had an enjoyable conversation that night, even to the extent that they offered to pay the rest of his fare to New York, to complete the journey. The grateful young man explained that his superior in Dublin would never permit this, and he must get off the ship when it docked in Cobb (Queenstown.)
Working from the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” principle, they talked Brown into going down to the Marconi room and sending a letter to his Provincial superior to see if it might be allowed. Mail as well as Irish passengers were picked up in Queenstown via a tender ship, The Ireland.
Included in the mail was a letter for Brown, with a terse five-word response: “Get off that ship…Provincial.” So Brown would never again set foot on the Titanic, but during his April 10-12 stint aboard, he had taken pictures which are to be found nowhere else.
As one of eight people who had left the ship and after the news of Titanic’s sinking reached him, he realized that one day his photographs might be valuable. He negotiated with various newspapers around the world for the negatives, retaining the prints which he put into an album.
Three years later he was ordained a Jesuit priest, later serving in various parts of Europe as well as with the Army during World War I for which he received the Military Cross and Bar for his valor during combat. His photograph entitled “Watch on the Rhine” has become an iconic view of World War I.
The Titanic negatives remain in the possession of the Irish Jesuit Order, which now owns them and undertook the task of printing as well as having them restored and transferring them to digital files for succeeding generations. After O’Donnell brought them to the attention of the Editor of the Sunday Times of London, he referred to them as “the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” The total output was 41,000 pictures.
They have been published and re-published and have appeared in print around the world, being the only photographs taken on board the ill-fated ship.
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