The Brownes of Grangemockler
By Frank O’Shea
As soon as you say that a particular family is unusual, someone is bound to say, ‘But what about the Greens of Poolmore? Or the Greys of Lough Brin? Or the Whites of Eagle Hall?’ Keeping to this polychromatic taxonomy, let us look at a family that truly deserves the word ‘extraordinary’: the Brownes of Grangemockler in Co Tipperary in the early years of the last century. The parents were both teachers, the mother a one-time novice in the Loreto order in Gibraltar.
We will introduce the children by age. The first was a girl named Margaret Brigid who died in infancy. She was followed by three boys. The oldest, David, born in 1887, joined the Dominican Order, where he was given the name Michael. He went on to be their Superior General, a position from which he retired in 1962 after being made a Cardinal. During the Vatican Council of the early ‘60s he was known as rigidly conservative and a close friend of Marcel Levebvre who would later be excommunicated. Levebvre, not Browne.
The second son Patrick was the most distinguished of the family. Like his brothers, he attended Rockwell College where his mathematics teacher was Eamon de Valera. I mention mathematics in particular, because he went on to earn a doctorate in the subject from the Sorbonne in Paris. This was followed by postdoctoral work in Gottingen; at that time, under Hilbert, it was the world’s leading mathematics university bar none. Somewhere along the way, he too was ordained a priest. We will return to him later.
The third boy was named Maurice after his father. He too joined the priesthood and was parish priest of Ballymore Eustace in Co Kildare. He is best known as the author of The Big
Sycamore, a fictionalised account of the family and their growing up, written under the pseudonym Joseph Brady. One of the characters in the book is the fourth and youngest boy John who died at the age of 25 as a result of complications following an injury in a football match.
Between Maurice and John was the only surviving girl, named Margaret as the oldest child had been. And no, she did not follow her brothers into religious life. She married Sean McEntee, a survivor of the War of Independence, a long-time member of the Fianna Fail party and a minister for Finance among other positions in the Irish government between 1932 and 1966. One of their three children was Maire Mac an tSaoi the poet and scholar. Which brings us back to Paddy as promised.
He had to return to Ireland from Germany before the start of WWI. He was appointed professor of mathematics at Maynooth, hardly a prestigious post, but one he retained until appointed as a very hands-on President of University College Galway in 1945. In the meantime, he was directing his energies to translations of the classics from Greek, Latin, French and Italian, mainly into Irish, where most of them still remain. He was also writing poetry; many people who were in the Irish second level system in the middle years of the century will have his Tháinig long ó Valparaiso, / Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuan. He took the anti-Treaty side in the civil war and was briefly interned in early 1923 for possession of documents.
He said himself that Irish was not spoken at home and that he did not study it at Rockwell, but both of those statements are doubtful. He built a house in Dun Chaoin at the edge of the Dingle Peninsula and this was his retreat and his working place for the rest of his life. Maire Mac an tSaoi says that she loved visiting him there as did many of the intellectuals and scholars of his day. Among his regular visitors were John Betjeman and his wife Penelope during their posting to Dublin in the early 40s. John and the priest would have lively discussions on religion, each politely but firmly holding their expected positions. It is suggested that Penelope’s conversion to Catholicism a few years after the couple’s return to England was due to her earlier contacts with Browne.
The word polymath is used to describe someone with wide erudition in a number of disciplines which do not have to include the one that seems to be implied in the word itself. In Browne’s case, it did include mathematics and he was the first chairman of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies where he struck up an easy friendship with Erwin Schrödinger.
Padraig de Brun, Paddy Browne, was the first of the surviving family to die in 1960 at the age of 71; his brother Michael died in 1971, his sister Margaret in 1976 and his younger brother Maurice in 1979.