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William Devine (1887–1959)

by Michael McKernan

This article was published:

William Devine (1887-1959), Catholic priest and military chaplain, was born on 5 October 1887 at Castlederg, County Tyrone, Ireland, son of George Devine, draper, and his wife Catherine, née McGlinchey. He was educated at Drumnabey National School, St Columb's College, Derry, and St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and was ordained priest for the diocese of Derry in 1912. As a student at Maynooth he was strongly influenced by the president, Daniel Mannix, and followed him to Melbourne in 1913 where he was appointed to the South Yarra parish and then to Coburg in 1914.

Devine enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 1 July 1915 as a chaplain 4th class (captain) and joined the 48th Battalion when it was formed at Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt, in March 1916. After it was transferred to France in June, he saw much of the fighting around Pozières, Mouquet Farm, Flers, Gueudecourt and Ypres. Uninjured, he succumbed to the harsh winter of 1916-17 and was invalided to Ireland, resuming duty late in February. He served with the battalion throughout 1917, returning to Melbourne briefly in 1918 as a transport chaplain, but was back at the front in May, remaining with the A.I.F. until 8 September 1919.

It was rare for a chaplain to remain for so long on continuous service and rarer still to spend such a long time with one battalion. Such devotion to his men at least partially accounts for Devine's popularity. On 1 May 1917 he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for 'conspicuous services', and next year he won the Military Cross for 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' east of Hamel on 8 August; following the advance closely, he remained with the troops under heavy artillery fire and assisting the wounded. The battalion was 'overjoyed at the news' of the honour, according to the compiler of the war diary.

In The Story of a Battalion (Melbourne, 1919) Devine gave an excellent portrait of the 48th; unlike most unit historians he refrains from providing a catalogue of names and exploits, but seeks instead to depict the spirit the battalion as a whole, almost as if it had life of its own. From his book it would seem that Devine succeeded as a chaplain and enjoyed his work; it demonstrates love for his men, sympathy and concern for their welfare, ability to share their life and acceptance of their ways. He was also critical of the overall conduct of the war and the apparent carelessness of the higher command for the lives of common soldiers.

Returning to Melbourne in 1919, he was stationed at Lancefield as a curate and, still devoted to Mannix, now archbishop of Melbourne, he brought together thirteen Victoria Cross winners to act as his guard of honour in the 1920 St Patrick's Day procession. This was a considerable coup, demonstrating graphically the extent of Australian Catholic loyalty and heroism, qualities under challenge from the Protestant majority in the heightened sectarian turmoil of the time.

Devine returned to Ireland and the diocese of Derry before joining the Maynooth Mission to China (the Columban Fathers) in 1927 and lecturing in history at the Tientsin University in Hankow. In 1930 he returned to Derry as curate of Dungiven and Sion Mills. During World War II he served as a chaplain with the Royal Navy, first on an unofficial basis at Derry, whence he often sailed with convoys in the North Atlantic, and then officially at Taranto, Italy. In 1944 the Vatican sent him on a mission to Yugoslavia which he believed compromised his position as a chaplain.

Devine returned to Derry in 1946 and was appointed parish priest of Clonmany in County Donegal in 1947; he worked there continuously for ten years, except for a brief visit to Melbourne in the 1950s. He died in a Dublin hospital on 19 October 1959.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • London Gazette, 1 May 1917, 7 Nov 1918
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1913, 28 Feb 1914, 3 July 1915, 17 June 1916, 12, 19 May 1917, 6 Apr 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Mar 1920
  • war diary, 48th Battalion, AIF (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael McKernan, 'Devine, William (1887–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 October, 1887
Castlederg, Tyrone, Ireland


19 October, 1959 (aged 72)
Dublin, Ireland

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