Father Frank Darragh

(creator: Thomas Keneally)

Thomas Keneally
Father Frank Darragh had been “a pale, lean faced young man of quieter disposition than the other curates" and now, in the summer of 1941-2, had become an ordained Australian priest and “still an enthusiastic confessor". He was based at St Margaret's Church in Strathfield in New South Wales. As Monsignor Carolan, his immediate senior, tells a colleague, he is “a happy soul. If anything innocent as a lamb. See, an only child, elderly and protective parents. The father is dead. For young Frank knows nothing of the world. He also knows nothing about the 11th Commandment, the sacrament without which nothing gets done. Thou shalt raise plenteous finance. I don't think he'll ever be good at that one. Parishioners tell me he visits them and asks them not to give him money."
But he lives in troublous times with a Japanese invasion seeming imminent, and he gets involved in a murder mystery, to which he finds the solution, not, it must be admitted, by any detective work but because the murderer confesses all to him under the seal of secrecy.
I have included him here, as it is a particularly well-written and interesting story - and Darragh does at least try to get the murderer to hand himself in, and is prepared to risk all to confront him.

Thomas Keneally (1935 - ) was born in Sydney and entered St Patrick's Seminary, Manly, to train as a Catholic priest but left just before his ordination. He worked as a teacher and university lecturer before finding success as an award-winning novelist. He has published some 30 novels of which the best-known is Schindler's Ark, which won the Booker prize in 1982 and was subsequently made into the film Schindler's List. He has also written several works of non-fiction, and has acted in a few films. He is married with two daughters and lives in Sydney. Also see my review of his later book, Crimes of the Father.

The Office of Innocence (2002)
The Office of Innocence is set in Sydney in 1942, the year of the fall of Singapore and the surprise attack on Sydney Harbour by Japanese midget submarines. It seems that Australia is doomed to be invaded. The impressionable young priest, Father Frank Darragh, offers his congregation what support he can. In the confessional, he happily deals with the usual range of problems ranging from boys' self abuse to the temptations of wives whose husbands are posted overseas, and less happily with the case of a monk who admitted to sexually assaulting a child: "You need to speak to your superior and also to a more senior priest, a spiritual adviser," he tells him. “I can advise you only to pray to the Virgin Mary who is the mother of you and this boy both, and I must ask you to pledge before God that you will never do this obscene thing again." But “Mercy was slipping from Darragh. Abhorrence and severity reigned in his heart."

Amongst his parishioners is the attractive wife of an Australian prisoner of war, and he finds himself becoming increasingly concerned about his feeling for her. He gets involved too with the problems of an American military policeman, and then the lady he admires gets strangled and he himself becomes an early suspect and is sent on an involuntary retreat. He eventually discovers the murderer - but only because he is told all under the seal of the confessional.

There is a vivid description of life at the time and it is all made to seem very real, as when a depot ship is torpedoed in Sydney harbour, or school children practise their air raid drill by taking shelter beneath the steel-braced sacred vault of the high altar in the church, each of them being given "two tennis-ball halves to place over the ears, a wooden wedge to put between the teeth, a whistle to blow beneath the rubble, a tin container of burn salve and a safety-pinned roll of lint bandage."

Sister Felicitas had “told Darragh one afternoon that she knew God would not let the high altar be destroyed," but the increasingly disturbed Darragh remembered pictures of bombed churches and "thought God's will was more mysterious." He “had started to consider whether sometimes God showed his presence in the midst of horror by pretending not to be there."

The characters are described in a way that is down to earth and convincing, as when Darragh is invited to visit a dying lady who happily shares her house with both her passive husband and her aggressive Marxist live-in lover. “You know why I married Bert," she tells him. “He didn't make a fuss of me. I was impressed. We worked for this store in Cobar, and Bert was a warehouseman, and I sold frocks. The boss was always grabbing for me. But Bert didn't make a fuss. It turned out he couldn't make a fuss of anything, poor old dear." As for her "sins of the flesh", she explains, “They're not so bad. There are just silly little things … Look at what the Japs did in Hong Kong … And the Black and Tans in Ireland… They were sins!"

Father Darragh ends up as "co-hero" when the murderer is captured, but it has all been too much for him and he laicises himself by signing up for the army where he becomes a medical orderly. But he cannot so easily abandon the priesthood. It makes a memorable story.

There is a Wikipedia article about the author, and an interview with him about his later books on the January magazine site. For more detailed information, download the (free) pdf file Thomas Keneally: a Celebration by Peter Pierce.

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The Office of Innocence
The cover is not very informative, and hints at things hoped for rather than achieved by Father Frank. But he emerges as a very real person.
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