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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The Irish Brigade In Italy

Rome and Irish Patriotism – Part 2
Dr Clive Gillis

WE ARE about to rejoin the Irish papal brigade as it converges on the Papal States in June 1860. But first let us eavesdrop on a Vatican conversation being held at this very time on the topic of patriotism.

Odo Russell, the Foreign Office’s unofficial papal diplomat, was shocked to discover, in that same flaming June of 1860, that Pius IX always consulted Cardinal Wiseman as his “best authority on English politics”. Worse, “his Eminence [Wiseman] ... assured His Holiness sooner or later there would be a great war between England and France which would prove beneficial to the interests of the Church whatever way it ended.  If England were victorious the pope would get rid of the Emperor Napoleon [Napoleon III, who was now threatening the Papal States] ... on the other hand if France were victorious ... a Roman Catholic administration ... and relief from the thraldom of her Protestant statesmen,” would soon see Britain “rapidly return to the bosom of the Mother Church”. Little wonder Pius considered that such a war would be “a great blessing”.

Russell immediately confronted Wiseman over his “monstrous ... views”. Wiseman said: “The Church had ways of knowing things to which diplomacy could not have access”. But Russell insisted “Our Roman Catholics were Englishmen before they were anything else and would resist foreign invasion like true Britons,” since, “the civil and religious position of our Roman Catholics in England [is] considerably better in every respect than that of the very subjects of the Pope.”  Patriotism then as now determined balances of power.

Scenes in Austria

In that same June 1860 Archbishop Cullen was “pessimistic”, sure that a shameful debacle was now inevitable.  A preliminary report from Rome read, “We must only hope that the Irish who come here will not bring down any disgrace on our country ... there are some shocking fellows amongst the soldiers ... They get drunk and beat one another and some of the Italians into the bargain”.  But at least these men had reached Italy.  Austro‑Irish Count Charles McDonnell, who had illegally recruited many Irishmen, marched them to Vienna to become good Catholic Hapsburgs!  A spy deepened Cullen’s gloom.  “McDonnell ... has kept all our young men capable of being any use, acting in Vienna and elsewhere as clerks ‑ writing orders, telegraphic despatches etc.”  Rome confirmed that, “There was quite a scene in Vienna when one of the batches was passing through. An Irishman got drunk, the Austrian police, seven in number went to arrest him, he made opposition, they drew their swords but with the shillelah (cudgel) that never missed fire he knocked down three of them and the others ran for their lives”.

Bored and disgruntled

The Irish recruits were sent to the Adriatic around Ancona, many in the garrison town of nearby Macerata where Pius IX could be taken if Rome fell.  The Irish were bored and disgruntled that their priests had lured them out with exaggerated promises of position, pay and excitement.  Cullen was informed of their displaying “nothing but discontent and fighting and wishing for this and that ... The Kerry men were the worst they wanted green uniform and Irish republican caps,” and some, “threw off the Roman cap and jumped on it”. By way of explanation to a priest, one Kerryman said; “till we meet Garibaldi we must have a spree amongst ourselves ... we are Paddies evermore all the way from the Kingdom of Kerry”. Cullen was livid.

Golden promises of priests

Russell’s letter of 23rd June 1860 to the FO is graphic. “The greatest dissatisfaction prevails amongst the Irish recruits of the Pope, the Irish priests ... sent to pacify them, instead of reaching submission have taken the part of their countrymen and declare they have been unfairly treated by the papal military authorities ... [yet] as far as I can ascertain they are treated in exactly the same manner as all the other foreigners who enlist in the Pope’s army. No difference is made, I believe, but these poor deluded men, relying on the golden promises of their priests at home, have found their hopes and expectations deceived ... they say they were promised two shillings a day, instead of which they receive 5 bajocchis (about four pence).  2ndly, they expected to be commanded by Irish officers.  3rd, they expected to form a legion and wear a special uniform and 4th, they complain of their beds, food, barracks ... men who enlisted as officers have been reduced to the ranks on reaching Macerata ... they ... set fire to their barracks ... [and] declared they would murder any foreign officers who attempted to command them ... the authorities at Macerata declared they preferred even a Spanish garrison to an Irish one”.  Russell reminded the FO where the blame lay, “the true cause of their present disappointment must be attributed in great measure to the exaggerated promises and expectations held out to them by their priests in Ireland”.

Priestly spy

An anonymous leaflet circulated in Rome, Suggestions on the Addition to the Pontifical Army of Irish volunteers who offer their Serv­ices to the Holy See. The British Consul in Rome obtained and translated a copy for the FO and correctly guessed it was the work of a Roman priest. The priestly spy not wishing     to misdirect this harvest of patriotic fervour, still recommended, “to govern Irish           soldiers by [RC] religious motives ... making use as far as possible of the priestly influence of the chap­lain,” when all the evidence pointed to this being the worst possible course. Unruly Irish recruits were sent from the Adriatic back to Rome in the hope that, “priestly influ­ence,” might be stronger there. But in Rome the British Consul noted        no improvement in their behaviour.  The men remained “mutinous ...(with) much drunkenness and quar­relling ... amongst them”.

Egg on his face

By July, Cullen really had egg on his face.  Disillusioned recruits started calling at the British Consulate in Rome complaining about priestly deception and demanding to be sent home to Ireland. Russell was soon confirming to the FO that a good many of the Irish troops had called at the British Consulate, “to be sent home to Ireland at the expense of Her Majesty’s Government”.  Since the original ploy to beat British law was to send the men out as workers there seems every reason to believe Russell’s report that some of the less bright really believed they had come to labour on the railway and were shocked to find they were expected to become soldiers.

‘Horrid carnage’

Cullen in reality cared little for these men.  His great fear was that this scandal should “become public knowledge”. What he feared above all was of Protestants holding him in derision.  We know this from a remark several months later when Garibaldi had triumphed in the south where, according to John P Stockton head of the American Legation to The Holy Seat, amidst “horrid ... carnage” priests used their power to incite even the weak so that “infants, women, Nuns fought in despair against the troops”. Cullen’s reaction was simply, “What can you say now to Protestants when they point out the conduct of pious practical Catholics, and tell you that the Romish system produces such fruits”.  Naturally before long The Times had the Irish Papal Brigade story and all Cullen could do was to issue denials.

Monsignor de Merode

If the conduct of the Irish priesthood had been crass, so was that of the Papal Minister of War, the Belgian, Jesuit educated Monsignor de Merode, who was regarded by many even inside the Vatican as of “impetious temperament”.  He was appointed in April 1860 as much for being able to speak Italian and for having tried to sort out the pope’s disgusting prisons, as for military experience in Algeria before becoming a priest.  As War Minister he promoted a state of emergency by terrorising the inhabitants of the Papal States. The Papal Post Offices were encouraged to open mail liberally and the Papal Secret police ‑ the Sbirri ‑ to raid houses on the slightest pretext, any whiff of treason being dealt with by imprisonment without trial. De Merode was the power behind the papal throne and pushed the war agenda drumming up the worldwide conscription programme that had so exposed Cullen to ridicule. De Merode happily dragged the motley ‑ and some talented mercenaries ‑ from as far as Russia and Canada.  But once in Rome he felt they should all be one in the Lord’s army and he was most certainly not prepared to hear of any national interest issues, least of all from the Irish.

The Orange press

De Merode sought to deal with the unruly Irish brigade by a policy of dispersal and imposition of his own commanders. The Irish wished neither, and their priests fomented their distress by taking their side and encouraging them to demand more pay. By this time a trickle of men had returned to Ireland. So incensed were these returnees to have discovered the true depths of Rome’s treachery that, to Cullen’s dismay, they went straight to the Orange press to get their story out uncensored by the Archbishop’s denials. Back on the Adriatic, battle commenced in early September. Some men fought bravely enough but were decisively beaten, some were unnecessarily killed, and others disgraced themselves surrendering prematurely, all because Rome’s care of them had been so inept. The Times declared that the men’s moral fibre was “softened under the tuition of their priests ... So ends the Pope’s Irish Brigade ... It is a disgrace” [These Irish Recruits in future] will serve as a warning ... against temptations by recruiting priests”.

‘Devils in hell let loose’

Archbishop Cullen naturally saw the debacle differently. “Nothing can be more afflicting. God appears to have abandoned his people to a spirit of vertigo and the devils in hell seem to have been let loose”.  By way of recompense to bereaved wives and families he promised personally to sing a requiem mass in honour of the dead. But sadly for him the matter did not rest here.  Pius IX struck a silver medal to reward his surviving troops.  Only 30 of well over a thousand Irishmen were still in Rome to receive it. The majority had already been taken to Genoa in the north as unwanted POW’s and were only repatriated by means of an extensive Roman Catholic church door collection back home.

De Merode wished to send the medals via an Irish republican MP who happened to be an enemy of Cullen, who naturally became obstructive.  De Merode responded by ordering the brigade to be reconstituted and sent at Irish expense back to Rome to receive their medals – clearly an impossibility.  Apparently some medals did eventually reach Ireland.  But Cullen’s secret report records his angst.  De Merode, “recently sent medals … but the persons entrusted are so little respected that in their hands the medals loose their value”.  Such was RC Archbishop Cullen’s disastrous failure to harness patriotism for Rome in Ireland.

In the final article in this series we shall see, DV, how another priest succeeded spectacularly, where he failed.

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