The Pope's Irish Battalion
Part 1 of 3: A Call to Arms
In 1860, 1,400
Irishmen travelled to Italy, responding to Pope Pius
IX's call for help thwarting Italian efforts to seize Papal lands.
Robert Doyle relates the saga in this 3-part series.
By Robert Doyle
Up to the
Italy was a patchwork of small independent states, each influenced to a
degree by neighboring superpowers such as France and Austria. A
unification movement (Risorgimento) took hold in the 1850s, however,
and included among its leaders, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe
Mazzini. Key to their aims was the annexation of the Papal States, a
vast territory situated like a wide belt across the middle of the
Italian peninsula. With no viable military force to protect his lands,
an increasingly worried Pope Pius IX issued a call to Catholics
throughout Europe for men and arms to raise an army in his defence.
Pope Pius IX (1792 - 1878)
By March 1860, Papal emissaries had arrived in
recruit an Irish battalion to serve the Pope. At the forefront of this
effort was an alliance between Count Charles McDonnell of Vienna, a
"chamberlain" to the Pope, and Alexander Martin Sullivan, the editor of
The Nation newspaper. Within a matter of weeks, the resultant
recruitment committee had organized rallies in support of the Pope
throughout the country, and more than £80,000 was collected (equivalent
to $9 million today),
most of it channelled to the Vatican through the Irish Pontifical
College in Rome. Sermons from the pulpits of parish churches also acted
as conduits for the call to arms that emanated from St. Peter's Square.
Despite this, religion was not the sole motivation for the Irish. Their
enthusiastic response was reinforced by the vocal anti-Papal elements
with the British establishment. In a concerted effort to destabilize
French and Austrian influence among the Italian states, Lord
Palmerston's government openly supported the reunification movement,
aiding Garibaldi's invasion of southern Italy with Britain's navy.
Further, in response to the success of the Catholic Church's
recruitment campaign in Ireland, the British authorities introduced
legislation, The Foreign Enlistment Act, which prohibited British
citizens from joining a foreign army. Not that this acted as a
deterrent. Whatever Britain opposed, Irish nationalists were prone to
support, as another common rallying cry of the day demonstrated
"Mallacht Dé ar an mbanrion [God curse the Queen], It'll be the Pope
|"Mallacht Dé ar an
mbanrion [God curse the Queen], It'll be the Pope for me."
These Papal volunteers came from all walks of life peasants, farmers,
lawyers and doctors. Mr. J.A. Parker and Mr. Denis McSweeney from Cork,
responsible for recruiting volunteers from the south of Ireland, wrote
to Rome praising the 20 members of the Cork police force who resigned
their posts and gave up good salaries to join the cause.
|From "Myles Keogh: The Life
and Legend of an 'Irish Dragoon' in the Seventh Cavalry"
Company of St. Patrick,
Pontifical Army, circa 1861.
The opposition of the governing British
authorities necessitated shrewd
maneuvering by the estimated 1,400 Irishmen that journeyed to Italy.
Many resorted to traveling in groups of 20 to 40, accompanied by
priests and calling themselves pilgrims, emigrants or workmen.
By late June 1860, the majority of the Irish
battalion had gathered in
Italy to begin a rushed form of training in the company of volunteers
from nine further nationalities. To make matters worse, English was not
among the three different languages adopted by the Papal army. In
command of the Irish unit, newly christened the Battalion of Saint
Patrick, was County Louth native Major Myles O'Reilly.
In overall command of the entire Papal Army was
General Louis Christophe Leon Juchault de Lamoricière, a Frenchman,
considered one of the finest soldiers in Europe and recently returned
from active service in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.
|1860 CDV of Christophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamoricière
(1806 - 1865), Commander of the multi-national Papal Army.
Despite the quality of their commanders, the
Irish found the military organization of this hastily convened army to
be shambolic. With no military source for arms and uniforms, the Irish
were poorly clothed, worse than any other nationality in the Papal
army. They were issued with surplus Austrian uniforms leftovers from
previous wars and obsolete smooth-bore muskets. The green uniforms,
promised months before in Ireland, never arrived, and this caused the
most disappointment to the men as they had no badge identifying
themselves as Irish. Furthermore, the Irishmen never served together
and were split into companies, assigned to defend Papal land in
separate key locations. While a few hundred disgruntled individuals
returned to Dublin, the Irish fighting spirit came to the fore among
the 1,000 or so who remained. General Lamoricière, who was quick to
upbraid the slack units in his hodgepodge of an army, typically had
praise for his Irish recruits.
of 3: Engaging the Enemy
- Berkeley, George
Fitz-Hardinge: "The Irish Battalion in the Papal Army of 1860," (1929),
- Coulombe, Charles
Pope's Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the
Vatican," (2008), Palgrave Macmillan.
- Kenneally, Ian: "Courage
& Conflict – Forgotten Stories of the Irish at War,"
(2009), Collins Press.
- Murphy, David: "The
Irish Brigades, 1685-2006; A Gazetteer of Irish Military Service, Past
and Present," (2007), Four Courts Press.
- Bartlett, Thomas and
Jeffery, Keith, Eds.: " A Military History of
Ireland," Cambridge University Press, 1996
- Bredin, A.E.C.: "A
History of the Irish Soldier," Century Books, 1987
- Hayes, Richard:
"Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France," M.H. Gill and Son,
- Hennessy, Maurice: "The
Wild Geese: The Irish Soldier in Exile," The Devilin-Adair Co., 1973
- The Irish
Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland
More on The Wild Geese
in Europe's Wars
This feature was edited by Gerry
and produced by Joe Gannon.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Doyle
Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed
without prior permission from the author.
Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
us for more information
about The Wild Geese Today