Ireland and Italy: Pope’s Irish Battalion

Contributions made by the Irish to countries in Europe and beyond are incalculable. Chronicled by military and other historians, the valiant service of Irish brigades and battalions are extensively documented in ancient and modern literature. Irishmen or their descendants became influential figures with distinguished military and prestigious careers that have left an indelible mark in the annals of world history.
Ireland and Italy
In Italy a unification movement (Risorgimento) took hold in the 1850s and included among its leaders Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Key to their aims was the annexation of the Papal States, a 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.
Formed in 1860, the year 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the Pope’s Battalion of Saint Patrick. Irish volunteers came from all walks of life with labourers, farmers, lawyers and doctors who enlisted in a multinational army of Pope Pius IX at a time when Italy was not a united sovereign nation but a patchwork of small independent states, each influenced to varying degrees by neighbouring powers such as France or Austria.
Religion was not the sole motivating factor, however. Anti-British feeling was another, spurred on by vocal anti-papal elements within the British establishment. In response to the success of the Catholic Church’s recruitment campaign in Ireland, the British authorities passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, which prohibited British subjects from joining a foreign army. 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 for me’.
Pope’s Irish Battalion
By March 1860, papal emissaries had arrived in Dublin to negotiate the sending of an Irish battalion to Italy. At the forefront of this recruitment drive was an alliance between Count Charles McDonnell of Vienna, a ‘chamberlain’ to the pope, and Alexander Martin Sullivan, editor of The Nation. Within a matter of weeks, the recruitment committee had organised rallies in support of the pope’s plight throughout the country and over £80,000 was collected, most of it channelled to the Vatican through the Irish Pontifical College in Rome. The call to arms that emanated from St. Peter’s Square was echoed in sermons from pulpits the length and breadth of the country.
The opposition of the governing British authorities necessitated shrewd manoeuvring by the estimated l,400 Irishmen who journeyed to Italy. Many resorted to travelling in groups of 20-40 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 other nationalities. To make matters more difficult, English was not among the three 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 (1825-80). In overall command of the papal army was General Louis Christophe Leon Jucuault de Lamoricière, a Frenchman, considered to be one of the finest soldiers in Europe and recently returned from active service in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.
Despite the quality of their commanders, the recently arrived Irish found the military organisation 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 serving in the papal army. They were issued with surplus Austrian uniforms, leftovers from previous wars, and weaponry that consisted of obsolete smooth-bore muskets. The green uniforms, promised months before in Ireland, never arrived. This was a source of particular disappointment to the men, as they had no external sign of their nationality.
Furthermore, the pope’s Irish battalion never served together as a unit but was split into companies, assigned to defend papal land in separate key locations. While a few hundred disgruntled individuals decided to return to Dublin, the Irish fighting spirit came to the fore amongst the thousand or so who remained committed to the cause. General Lamoricière, who was not slow to criticise slack units in his cobbled-together army, always spoke highly of his Irish recruits.
Battalion’s Legacy
Some of the men of the pope’s Irish battalion went on to have distinguished military careers, particularly in the Union ranks during the American Civil War. Probably the best known of the pope’s Irishmen was Myles Walter Keogh (Ancona). His impressive service in the Union ranks gained him a post-war captain’s commission in the famed 7th Cavalry. Keogh was killed along with General Custer and 200 other troopers fighting Sioux and Cheyenne warriors at the iconic Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Born in Co.Carlow (1840-67), Keogh came from a comfortable family, was well educated, and strongly opposed British rule in Ireland. He was awarded two papal medals, Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great (for Distinguished Service) and the Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede (awarded to all officers and men who served) in the Pope’s Battalion of Saint Patrick.
Ita Marguet, December 2011
Note: Acknowledgement is given to information used in this text. It is gleaned from several sources recounting in great detail the full military aspects of the short-lived war and its historical outcome including loss of lives of many Irishmen who fought in the Pope’s Battalion of Saint Patrick. It follows a number of texts about Ireland’s historical influence and connections to the wider world, by Ita Marguet.