Book review of “Worshipper and Worshipped”

Worshipper and Worshipped

It would not be unfair to say that, from the middle of the last century until quite recently, the once famous Fr Willie Doyle has seemingly been shrouded in a certain reserved silence. At one stage his name and deeds were renowned not just in Ireland, but around the globe. The fact that there are 6,426 recorded favours, from literally every part of the world, allegedly granted through his intercession in the first 14 years after his death, is ample testimony to the worldwide appeal he once had. But in recent years, it appeared that Fr Doyle was no longer of interest to modern Catholics, and that devotion to him was something of the past.

Yet, such an analysis would be entirely superficial. Devotion to Fr Doyle has always survived. In the first place, that devotion was maintained by those whose fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers knew, or were helped by, Fr Doyle in the war. For example, I have personally received numerous emails from people who have preserved a devotion to Fr Doyle in their families precisely because of what he is reported to have done for their ancestors during the Great War. The second category of those who have preserved devotion to Fr Doyle are those who have stumbled across Alfred O’Rahilly’s classic biography, first published 94 years ago this month. I belong to this second category, as do countless others around the globe who have found O’Rahilly’s biography to be a source of amazement and spiritual wonder. It is because of this growing number of those who have recently discovered Fr Doyle that we can say that interest in Fr Doyle is growing once again, and this new substantial biography of Fr Doyle by Carole Hope is the very greatest testimony to this fact.

The first lines of the Foreword to Worshipper and Worshipped by Carole Hope present sentiments that will be familiar to many people who have unexpectedly encountered Fr Doyle, and they absolutely ring true to my own personal experience:

Fr Willie Doyle’s life has been told before. I started writing this new biography for reasons I don’t entirely understand myself; only that Willie Doyle has ‘got under my skin’.

What is all the more remarkable is that, on reading O’Rahilly’s biography, Fr Doyle’s life and character reached across the decades and touched a lady living in England who had never heard of him before, had never written a book before, and is not even a Catholic. Fr Doyle’s spirit and example touched people of all backgrounds during life, and it still does so after death.

Worshipper and Worshipped is primarily concerned with Fr Doyle’s military service and is not a spiritual biography like O’Rahilly’s biography. The first 9 chapters – about 160 pages – deal with Fr Doyle’s early life and background, including his childhood, spiritual formation and life as a mission priest. The next 22 chapters – almost 450 pages – deal with the last two years of Fr Doyle’s life, and cover his service as a military chaplain in fascinating detail.

One might legitimately wonder if Worshipper and Worshipped can add anything to our knowledge of Fr Doyle beyond what we learn from Alfred O’Rahilly. Despite having access to all of Fr Doyle’s letters and diaries, O’Rahilly didn’t use them all, and what he did use, he did not necessarily present in an entirely chronological order. Using archival material preserved by Fr Doyle’s extended family, Carole Hope presents Fr Doyle’s life in chronological order, and fills in many details and provides anecdotes that were hitherto unknown to the wider public. She tells the story of Fr Doyle’s war adventures using his own words – she reproduces practically the full text of all his letters and diaries that he sent to his father during the war, and a staggering total of 89,000 words come directly from Fr Doyle’s own pen. This is the definitive history of Fr Doyle’s military service.

In addition to providing very useful background commentary on the war and the conditions encountered by the soldiers (topics that O’Rahilly did not discuss in much detail), Worshipper and Worshipped reveals how Fr Doyle provided spiritual support to a soldier who was executed for desertion, staying with him right to the end, and writing to his family for him. Presumably O’Rahilly did not deal with this incident because the man’s family was still alive when he published his book. Also of great interest will be the revelation of the identities of the officers and soldiers Fr Doyle was with when he died, including those he went into No Man’s Land to rescue when they were wounded.

Of particular interest to many readers will be the last 4 chapters which look at the aftermath of Fr Doyle’s death, including a fascinating chapter which examines the Fr Doyle’s recommendation for the Victoria Cross, which O’Rahilly claimed was not awarded because Fr Doyle was a Catholic priest. The author does an excellent job of analysing this question, examining archives for cases where similar awards were made. Her conclusions on this matter are of great interest.

Also of interest in the book are some of the photographs, including previously unpublished photographs of the entire Doyle family and a particularly heart breaking one (for me, at least!) of Fr Doyle home on leave from the war – the weight loss and strain caused by life in the trenches can be seen, but the joyful serenity is still there in Fr Doyle’s eyes.

One of the greatest things about this book, and perhaps its greatest contribution, is the way in which it humanises Fr Doyle. When O’Rahilly wrote his book, he told the story of Fr Doyle’s life and revealed much of his character. But he also overlaid all of this with a lot of spiritual and theological commentary. For many, this overlay of commentary is fascinating and enlightening. But it can sometimes get in the way. By showing how brilliant and heroic Fr Doyle was, O’Rahilly sometimes unwittingly obscured his humanity. In Worshipper and Worshipped, we see a more rounded portrait of Fr Doyle. His humour and gentleness, always evident in the original biography, are on full display here. The complete text of his letters to his father reveal the many touching expressions of love and veneration he sent to Hugh Doyle. Little family jokes, naturally omitted back in the 1920’s by O’Rahilly, are reproduced here, and show us a very human, accessible and lovable side to Fr Doyle’s character. There are passages in his letters that actually made me laugh out loud.

Having said all of this, there are naturally some very small aspects of the book with which I disagree slightly, including the very brief handling of Fr Doyle’s penances – the author suggests in passing that they reflect an “inner turmoil”, whereas my own interpretation is that they reflect both the spirituality of the time as well as Fr Doyle’s own pursuit of moral and spiritual perfection, based on his own discernment and the guidance of his confessor.

But such references are fleeting, are merely matters of emphasis and interpretation, and they do not at all detract from the work. It is clear that Carole Hope has a great affection for Fr Doyle, and we have all gained by her painstaking act of love in retelling Fr Doyle’s story in a form that is accessible for readers of today.

Worshipper and Worshipped is a big book (700+ pages). But it is a fast, accessible and enjoyable read. Those who already know Fr Doyle well, or those who are merely curious about him, will read this with great profit.

Worshipper and Worshipped can be bought in local bookshops or from Amazon here. 

Amazon seems to be out of paperback copies, but you can still find a link there to purchase the book in hardback. In any event, Amazon will order new stock, particularly if you place an order for the book. Alternatively readers may contact me via the email address on the right hand side of the webpage and I will direct them to Carole Hope who will be happy to help them.

EDIT: Carole Hope left the following comment on this post; I thought it would be more useful to place it here to give it more visibility.

Thank you for the review. I would just like to add for everyone’s information that the workings of Amazon are a mystery to me and I have no control on how they present the selling information on their website. It seems to me that the pricing of some of the supposed hardback copies of Worshipper and Worshipped on offer may very well be paperback. They indicate that paperbacks are out of stock at present and I don’t really know why that is. If anyone wishes to buy a copy direct from me then I can arrange that, but for people outside of the UK the cost of postage makes it very expensive. However, if you go into any bookshop you can order the book via the ISBN numbers 978-1-908336-92-7 for hardback or 978-1-908336-86-6 for paperback.