Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Why did Martin Luther join the Pope’s battalions?

Martin Luther … his namesake from Ireland joined the Pope’s battalions

Patrick Comerford

It must be difficult for ordinary people who carry the names of great figures from the past. There must be plenty of O’Connell couples who named their son Daniel, or Fitzgeralds who named their son Edward. But imagine going through life with the name Karl Marx, or John Calvin.

Well, yes, there was a Mr Luther in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in the 19th century who named his son Martin. I’m not sure where the Clonmel Luthers originally came from, but I came across them in an idle moment when I was trying to find out a little more about John Comerford from Dundalk who joined the Irish Brigade under Major Myles O’Reilly in 1860 to fight in the Papal army against Garibaldi.

John Comerford subsequently returned home to Co Louth, and when he died in 1873 he was buried with his parents, Patrick and Sarah Comerford, and two of his brothers, Joseph and Francis, in Faughart, Co Louth.

During a visit to the Vatican, as I looked at the Swiss Guards on duty, I was reminded how Stalin once mockingly asked: “How many battalions has the Pope?” I failed in my search for details of John Comerford’s time in the Pope’s battalions, but in my search came across young Martin Luther.

At first I imagined that young Martin Luther might have been a foundling child, who was named after the great Reformer by those who first took care of him. But instead, it turns out the Luther family of Clonmel – wherever they came from originally – were from prosperous merchant stock. Martin Luther was a nephew of Charles Bianconi (1786-1875), the Italian-born founder of public transport in Ireland, and who was four times Mayor of Clonmel.

A Revd Guy Luther was living in Co Tipperary in 1775, and a John Thomas Luther living in Clonmel in 1858; over the generations, it appears, this part of the Luther family had moved away from the Church of Ireland, and young Martin Luther was brought up as a Roman Catholic.

GFH Berkeley, in his account of the Irishmen who fought on the Pope’s side during the Italian War of Unification (The Irish Battalion in the Papal Army of 1860, Dublin: Talbot Press, 1949), notes that Martin Luther fought at Spoleto as a captain in the Battalion of Saint Patrick before being ordered to Perugia, where he “won the universal admiration of his men by his coolness under fire.”

According to one of Berkeley’s informants, Luther later went to North America, and was a captain during the American Civil War … although he does not say on which side.

But if Martin Luther went off to America, some of the family appeared to have stayed in the Clonmel area, for John Luther of Cappoquin, Co Waterford, still held an acre of land in Co Tipperary in 1870.

Stalin may have wondered how many battalions the Pope had. I imagine he never thought that among them was Martin Luther.