Death of Castleisland Nurse Jean Browne in India 50 Years Ago Today

Jean Browne (second from right) celebrating her 21st birthday on July 3rd 1968 with family members and beside her mom Joan. Included are: Junior, Milly, Clare, Joan, Jean and Norma Browne. In the background are: Declan (partly hidden) Billy and Ted.
Friends and colleagues in the Irish Concern Team created this memorial card for Jean Helena Browne – a cherished team member who made a lasting impression in spite of the short time allowed to her and her work in the refugee camp in India.

It’s 50 years ago today that the tragic news of the sudden death of a 24 year old Castleisland nurse in India reached home to her family, friends and the wider community.

Jean Browne was looking forward to spending Christmas 1971 in Castleisland with her family but a call from a refugee camp near Calcutta changed her plans and she responded to that call and to her calling. She was less than a month there when she was taken suddenly ill and she died.

Kind Older Sister

After a family ceremony in Castleisland at the weekend, led by Fr. Mossie Brick, Jean’s sister Clare remembered her as the generous, kind older sister who was full of fun with a most caring nature.

She remembers a telegram arriving and then Bishop Eamon Casey and lots of people crowding the house at 96 Main Street as the awful news of Jean’s death was brought home to them.

“We didn’t know what hit us, I remember not being able to take it all in for a long time,” said Clare.

Bad News Came Home

“We were just getting used to the fact that she was gone before Christmas and, like everyone else, we didn’t even know she was taken sick over there.

Then, all this news came home to us together – I don’t think my mother ever got over it,” said Clare.

Jean’s move to India had been followed by The Kerryman chief reporter and later editor, Seamus McConville at the time. Her story and her sudden passing was covered in a front page article in the paper on January 22nd 1972.

The following is the headline and the contents of the late Mr. McConville’s report as they hit the page at the time:

Death of a Young Woman’s Dream

“Jean Browne left her home in Castleisland for India just four weeks ago to do, as she said herself, something really worthwhile in life.

She took up duty in a make-shift hospital at a camp of 250,000 Pakistani refugees outside Calcutta three days after Christmas.

Early on Tuesday morning the 24 year old nurse, who had turned her back on a life of fun and sun on board a holiday cruiser to help the starving and sick victims of the Pakistan war collapsed and died.

A letter which reached me only twelve hours before she died of a haemorrhage, described her work in the refugee camp as “a wonderful if disturbing experience.”

Jean said in the many and informative letters she sent to her mother, Mrs. Joan Browne, to her brothers, and sisters, and her many relations and friends that she felt “privileged” to work among the Hindu people. She spoke of the great lesson of humility which this meant for her but she was “very happy and glad” that she had gone to India.

The only note of regret that was contained in any of her letters home was that somebody had snatched her vanity case in London on the first stage of her plane-hopping journey to Calcutta.

Jean, full of the vitality and good humour that were hallmarks of her personality, arrived in Calcutta on Christmas Eve, after volunteering to give up the pleasure of spending the festive season with her family at home.

She told me on the eve of her departure: “I had not expected to be going until after Christmas. But then Fr. O’Kennedy of African Concern called and asked me if I’d go straight away. There was just a moment of indecision as I thought of Christmas at home with the family. But then I thought of the need for nursing and medical help in India and my mind was made up.

“I have had a good life. I have travelled the world. For the first time I have the opportunity to do something worthwhile. That’s why I’m going.”

Jean was still wearing the deep tan that she acquired during a six week holiday in Greece. Prior to that she had spent twelve months or more cruising around the world, helping rich passengers to soothe their sunburn or ease their simple aches and pains.

Life at Salt Lake Refugee Camp ten miles outside Calcutta, was a different proposition. There were 250,000 refugees there. Jean worked fifteen hours a day in the bamboo and plastic building which was their hospital. Her letter to me this week said that conditions should be seen to be believed.

It added: “ The children suffer mostly from malnutrition and generally they are a very pathetic sight. No child has more than one garment and it’s really cold at night. The old feel the cold so much and the minority are lucky to have sandals.

“ At the moment we are without light or running water. Today a sackful of children’s clothes was bought with donations from Ireland. There are young couples with children in the hospital. They queue up in the morning for a spoonful of glucose, which means so much to them.

“There are a quarter of a million people in the camp and only for the help of the Indian Government and organisations like Caritas these people would have starved of frozen to death.

These words were the last written by Jean Browne. They clearly indicate that what she had undertaken by volunteering for service among the refugees was making good her ambition – to do something really worthwhile.

Those who mourn her death are her mother, her sister Clare, and five brothers, Junior, Billy, John, Ted who is doing hotel management in Germany, and Declan.

Jean was educated at Castleisland Presentation and at Holy Faith Convent, Greystones. She trained for a nursing career at St. John and Elizabeth Hospital, in London.

Immediately after qualifying she took on a job as housekeeper to a community of monks in the St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland. Then she began her world travels as a nursing sister with the Greek Chandris Lines.

Her body is to be flown back to Ireland for burial in Castleisland.

The remains will leave Shannon at 3.30pm today (Friday) and will arrive in Castleisland at approximately 6pm.

The funeral will be held on Saturday after 12 noon Mass to the new cemetery, Castleisland.”

Castleisland Notes 29-1-1972

In the Castleisland notes in The Kerryman on the following week of 29-1-1972, Willie Lyons wrote of the ‘incredible news’ of the death of Ms. Browne thus:

“Just a few days before Christmas Nurse Jean Browne,, in true missionary spirit left home, family and friends to labour among the destitutes of Pakistan.

A few letters home and to friends described the horror of prevailing conditions there and the privilege of being one of the too few medical and religious missionaries serving there.

On Tuesday morning of last week the incredible news of her death after a very short illness came as a terrible shock to her family and the entire community.

Her remains were flown into Shannon on Friday and were accompanied to the parish church by a huge cortege. His Lordship Bishop Eamonn Casey officiated at the obsequies and the con-celebrated Mass at noon on Saturday after which the funeral of very large dimensions took place to the new cemetery. Rev Fr. Kennedy of Africa Concern and two companion nurses travelled the long journey with the remains.

To her mother, sister and brothers, the sympathy of the community is extended.”

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