Historian Dr Donal Corcoran describes his lifelong fascination with the Irishmen who served the Pope in defending the Papal States during the war of Italian unification in the 19th Century, which had lead him to do extended research on the subject for his newly published book.
As a child I was fascinated with two war medals that my grandfather Patrick Kennedy received for fighting for Pope Pius IX in 1860. As I grew older I thought about the Irish brigade which went to Italy. Who were they? Why did they go? What happened when the got there? How did they come back and what happened to them afterwards?
Over the years I gathered information, compiled a list of those who went, and visited the battlefields and other places connected with the 1860 war. This is an outline of their story.
To begin, some historical background. Nationalism was the most potent force for political change in the years before 1860. In Ireland Daniel O’Connell had agitated for self-government. But after the Famine the political priority changed to land reform. The French ousted the restored monarchy, elected Louis Napoleon as Prince President, who declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.
The Italian Risorgimento (Resurrection of Italy) generated new nationalist and republican thinking. Giuseppe Mazzini had huge influence outside his native country. New nation states like Greece and Belgium emerged. Germany was still fragmented into many independent states.
The movement to unite Italy faced a major obstacle. The Papal States stretched across the middle of Italy separating north and south. Under threat the Pope called for help. An Irish brigade was recruited by priests. It went to Italy to defend the Pope from his enemy the anti-clerical republican Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of British and Irish Protestants, who believed the downfall of the Pope would lead to the conversion of Italy to Protestantism.
After Catholic Emancipation, Irish Catholics were organised into a deeply religious and conservative church under Archbishop Paul Cullen.
In 1859 the Piedmontese initiated the unification of Italy under their King Victor Emmanuel II. Italy was divided between Piedmont and Austrian Venetia in the north, Tuscany, Parma, Modena in the centre, the Papal States, and the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. After the central states were peacefully annexed by Piedmont, Pope Pius IX called on Catholics to defend him.
Irish people followed events in Italy. Newspapers were cheaper and more numerous after the 1850s. Telegraphs facilitated faster news transmission while the new railways enabled wider distribution. Events in Italy generated a savage media war. Catholic bishops and priests called for prayers and funds were raised (equivalent to €8 million today).
Garibaldi invaded Sicily and the Italian mainland. Irish born Austrian army officers started recruitment along with bishops and Alexander M. Sullivan, editor of the Nation newspaper (and later creator of The Irish Catholic). Recruitment committees and priests selected recruits. Most were artisans, farmers, clerks, teachers, students, former British soldiers and policemen.
Few had military experience. Religious impulses, thirst for adventure, escape from dead-end jobs, and opportunity to travel impelled them towards Italy. Some were simply up for a fight.
Getting to Italy was easy. They travelled by rail and cross-channel steamers to Britain, Belgium and France and onwards by rail/boat to Italy. The cost was a little over £13. The journey was a great experience, as many had never ventured far from their own localities.
The Papal army rapidly expanded under French General Cristoforo Lamoricière. Recruits from Austria, France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland doubled its size to over 20,000. The Irish added 1,300 becoming known as the Irish brigade at home and St Patrick’s Battalion of the papal army in Italy.
However, the Pope’s army was poorly organised. French professional soldiers formed its high command. Officers and NCOs were lacking and Italian papal soldiers unreliable. Harsh military discipline and training separated out the unfit to serve, sick and disillusioned. Around 300 soon returned to Ireland.
By September the race for Rome was on. Garibaldi demanded an Italian republic. Piedmont’s chief minister, Camillo Cavour, checkmated him. Garibaldi took Naples, Cavour invaded the Papal States with his formidable army. Lamoricière placed a line of garrisons across Italy to repel them.
At Perugia 145 Irish fought bravely alongside Austrians and Swiss-Germans against overwhelming force before surrendering. At Spoleto Irish brigade leader Major Myles O’Reilly commanded a multinational force of Irish (345), Austrian, Franco-Belgians, Swiss-Germans and Italians. Outnumbered and outgunned they held out for a day. Italian military historians praised O’Reilly’s stout defence.
The papal field army was routed at Castelfidardo when Lamoricière was cut off en route to Ancona. The 105 Irish were mentioned favourably by the Piedmontese.
Piedmont’s soldiers surrounded Ancona and its navy bombarded it. After a week’s siege Lamoricière capitulated. Over 400 Irish fought there along with other foreign and Italian soldiers. After the conflict the brigade was imprisoned in Genoa.
Foreign papal prisoners were repatriated by their governments, but the British refused to help the Irish. They offered transport to Malta hoping the men would enlist to fight in the Opium War in China. Eventually the brigade returned via Marseilles, Paris and Le Havre, landing at Monkstown near Cork. They received a heroes’ welcome.
Piedmont annexed the Papal States except Rome and its environs, which remained protected by Napoleon III’s French garrison. Garibaldi ceded Naples and Sicily to Victor Emmanuel II sacrificing his republican principles in the interest of Italian unity. Victor Emmanuel II was crowned king of Italy. Pius IX held out in Rome for another decade before being isolated in the Vatican.
The Irish brigade’s exploits were headline news at the time, but were soon forgotten. Casualties were few. Events in a far-away country had no lasting impact at home. The American Civil War soon involved far more Irishmen notably brigade members Myles Keogh (killed with General Custer at Little Big Horn) and John Coppinger from Midleton, County Cork.
In 1860 Irish Catholics stood by Pope Pius IX in his hour of need. They offered prayers, contributed money, and put their lives on the line. After the war Patrick Kennedy married, raised a family and joined the Fenians. And so anther struggle began.
Donal Corcoran holds a PhD in history from UCC. and is the author of Freedom to Achieve Freedom: The Irish Free State, 1922–1932. His new book The Irish Brigade in the Pope’s Army 1860 is published by Four Courts Press at €50.