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Who Was The Real Father Brown?

(This is an article rather than a blog post, for a change!)

Who Was The Real Father Brown?

Millions of viewers across the world like to watch the new BBC series, “Father Brown,” based on G.K. Chesterton’s novels.  The wise, unassuming clerical detective remains popular. People in Birmingham in the UK even complained that the series was not shown at prime time! Several viewers also purchased the fictional stories because of the series.

Although there have been several priest and nun detectives since Father Brown, Chesterton is credited as being the first to invent this type of character.  It is amazing that he was not even a Roman Catholic when he began the famous tales. How did he think of such an unusual idea?

Father John O’Connor, an Irish priest and a good friend of the philosophical and intellectual Chesterton inspired the character of Father Brown. Father O’Connor’s intelligence and knowledge of the dark side of life learned in the Confessional showed him that ‘innocent’ priests were aware of the many different aspects of human nature.  He wrote that ‘… a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil’. Indeed, the great writer was often frightened by the priest’s vivid tales of hell. This contrast spurred the idea of the seemingly unworldly Father Brown with his awareness of wickedness. When Chesterton overheard two Cambridge undergraduates complaining about the naïve nature of the clergy, he almost burst into ‘loud, harsh laughter’ in the drawing room because he understood that the two students knew about as much of real evil as babies.

Born in Clommel in Ireland, Father O’Connor came from the upper-middle class and received an excellent education in Europe.  He was ordained in Rome when he was only 24.  Although he led the relatively simple life of a parish priest in Bradford in Yorkshire, he must have had great charisma.   Frances Steinthal, a Jewish friend of Chesterton, even described him as ‘dazzling’. Father O’Connor knew many artists and writers, including Hilaire Belloc, David Jones and Eric Gill, and Chesterton converted to Catholicism because of the priest’s influence.

Father Brown differed from Father O’Connor in some crucial ways because Chesterton wanted to make him into an Englishman.  The writer made him untidy, clumsy and unassuming with a pudding-face, although the real man was neat, tidy and fastidious. He also gave him remarkable powers of observation and great logical deduction skills.

The fictional priest’s influence has also been great.  For example, he played a large part in actor Alec Guinness’s conversion.  The movie about Father Brown was being shot in a French village. As the actor walked home from the studio where he was acting the leading role, a French child calling him ‘Abbé’ trustingly took his hand because he was dressed as a priest. Guiness thought that: ‘a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out’.  Guinness continued to think about this experience, and began going to Mass.

Father O’Connor would, no doubt, be pleased that the priest he inspired became such a well-loved and magnetic character.


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