William Joseph Gabriel Doyle was born at Melrose, Dalkey, Co. Dublin, on 3rd March, 1873. His father is Mr. Hugh Doyle, an official of the High Court of Justice in Ireland, who died on the 24th of March 1924 in his 92nd year; his mother was Christina Mary Doyle, nee Byrne. Willie was the youngest of seven children, four boys and three girls. The eldest and youngest of the girls married; the second became a Sister of Mercy. The eldest boy after a short stay in the Jesuit Novitiate entered Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, whence he passed to the College of the Propaganda, Rome. Ten days before his ordination he caught fever and died in 1887 in the twenty-eighth year of his age. The second son entered the legal profession and became the Recorder of Galway. Willie’s third brother, a few years older than himself, and the inseparable companion of his boyhood, became a Jesuit.
Willie was a frail and delicate child, though like most highly strung children, he had great reserves of energy. All through life, indeed, ill-health was one of his great trials, and for some years before his death he suffered acutely from an internal complaint. But, curiously enough, his nearest approach to death was due, not to sickness, but to an accident. When he was quite a little fellow, his nurse one night placed a lighted candle on his little cot, probably to enable herself to read or sew. The nurse fell asleep, and the candle overturned and set the bed clothes on fire. Fortunately his father, who was sleeping in the next room, was awakened by the smoke and rushed into the nursery. He found the cot on fire, and little Willie fast asleep with his legs curled up, as though he felt the fire creeping towards him. In an instant the child was lifted out of bed, and the mattress and bed clothes thrown out through the window. As a military chaplain Father Willie once laughingly alluded to this escape as his first experience under fire.
For all his future holiness, Willie was by no means a stilted or unnatural child. He played games and he played pranks; and though he cannot be said to have been naughty, he was also far from being irritatingly or obtrusively pious. It is consoling to find that, like most of us, he played at being a soldier. He was seven years old when it was decided that he should emerge from the stage of velvet suit and long curls. On his return from the fateful visit to the hairdresser’s, his mother seemed sad on seeing Willie with his shorn locks. But the little fellow himself was delighted, and sturdily insisted that soldiers did not wear curls, at least not nowadays. His mother had to make a soldier’s suit for him, with red stripes down the sides; and when he won a great battle, a couple of stripes had to be added to one sleeve! This is how his old nurse describes his youthful exploits:
“His love to be a soldier even from his babyhood was wonderful— to fight for Ireland. He would arrange his soldiers and have them all ready for battle. The nursery was turned upside down, to have plenty of room for fighting, building castles, putting up tents, all for his soldiers. Poor nurse looked on, but was too fond of him to say anything. He and a brother with some other little boys were havinga great battle one day. He was fighting for Ireland; his brother was fighting for England, as he said his grandmother was English. There was a flag put up to see who was able to get it; the battle went on for some time, then in a moment, Master Willie dashed in and had the flag in his hand, though they were all guarding it. They could not tell how he got it; he was the youngest and smallest of the lot.”
How curiously and prophetically appropriate is this characteristic of him, who was to be enrolled in the Company of Jesus and to die on the battlefield as a soldier of Christ!
There are many indications that Willie’s youthful militarism was prompted by something deeper than a primitive instinct of pugnacity. Just as in after years he loved to aim at the Ignatian ideal of “distinguishing oneself in the service of one’s Eternal King,” so, even as a youngster, he felt the call to be foremost in energy and service. Long before he read of the saint of Manresa, he had a natural affinity with the soldier of Pamplona. And it was not always the mimic battle of the nursery; even at this early age he started real warfare, he began a life-long struggle against himself. At the beginning of Lent, when he was quite a little boy, an old Aunt, chancing to go into his Mother’s bedroom, found him gesticulating and talking in front of the mirror. “You villain, you wretch,” he kept saying to his reflection, “I’ll starve you, I’ll murder you! Not a sweet will you get, not a bit of cake will you get!”
This is one of the few glimpses we obtain of Willie’s interior life during his boyhood. Even of his maturer soul-struggles we should know little or nothing were it not for the chance preservation of his notes and diaries. There is a danger lest these revelations of penance and mortification should mislead a reader, who was not personally acquainted with Fr. Doyle, into fancying that he was exteriorly repellent or gloomily ascetic. Throughout his life he retained a fund of humour and kindliness; no one would suspect his slow struggle for self-mastery and perfection. That even in boyhood he sought self-conquest and recollection, and experienced the working of God’s grace, we can have no doubt. There is no record, however, save in the archives of Him who seeth in secret, where even the sparrow’s fall is registered and the hairs of our heads are numbered. But neither in youth nor in after life was his virtue fugitive and cloistered; his light so shone before men that they saw his good works, his thoughtful kindness and self-sacrificing charity.
No man, it is said, is a hero to his valet; at any rate, domestic servants are apt to be severe critics. Willie, however, was deservedly a favourite. He always tried to shield the maids when anything went astray or was neglected. He was ever on the look out for an opportunity of some act of thoughtfulness. Thus sometimes after a big dinner at Melrose, the cook would come down next morning and find the fire lighting and the dinner things washed. Willie had been playing the fairy! Again, whenever a maid was looking ill, he used to volunteer privately to do her work. A servant of the family, who gave many years of faithful service, still remembers her first arrival at Dalkey. As she was timorously proceeding to Melrose, she met the two brothers walking on stilts along the road. “How are you, Anne?” said Willie, divining that this was the new maid. He alighted and insisted on taking whatever she was carrying. Before she had her things off, he had tea ready for her.
“I know I was really awkward after leaving the rough country,” writes Anne. “I had got orders to have the boots cleaned that evening. But the good saint took them out to the coach-house and brought them in shining. No one knew only Kate (the parlourmaid) he did it so quietly. To put it off he made the remark, ‘I dare say you have no such thing in the country as blacking.’ Not understanding the coal fire, and while I was learning, he would run down stairs and have the fire lighting and the kettle on by the time I would arrive. Then when breakfast was ready, he would come to the kitchen and ask how did I get on with the fire that morning?”
When we hear of these acts of charity and zeal exercised at an age which is often associated with selfish thoughtlessness, we may be inclined to imagine that Willie Doyle was a prim, stilted, ‘goody-goody’ sort of boy. Nothing of the kind. He had a wonderful freshness and spontaneity. One never could feel that his kindness was artificially produced or that his goodness was forced. His virtue, like his laugh, had the genuine ring in it. One of his most endearing characteristics throughout life was his sense of humour. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he once said to a rather lugubrious would-be-saint; “a sense of humour is one of the greatest aids to sanctity.” As a boy he was full of humour, even when he was doing good. He once brought to one of his poor people a carefully wrapped parcel which was joyfully acclaimed as a pound of butter; but when extricated it proved to be a stone! Next day, however, the real article, with much more besides, was brought to console the good woman.