07 March 2011

Celebrating Italian unification on Saint Patrick’s Day

Patrick Comerford in Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican

Patrick Comerford

While most of us are celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day on 17 March, Italians around the world this year are marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the modern Italian state.

As I think of classical Rome, Dante’s Florence, the Bay of Naples, La Scala in Milan, the canals and Carnival of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet in Verona, I find it hard to accept that Italy is a new European state, consolidated in the ferment of 19th century nation-state idealism. But modern Italy, as we know it, came into existence on 17 March 1861, after the defeat of forces fighting for Pope Pius IX and defending the Papal States.

The Coliseum ... ancient Rome is the capital of the modern Italian state (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two centuries ago or more, the Italian peninsula was a raggle-taggle collection of statelets, principalities and the remnants of empires. They included: the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, embracing Naples and Sicily; the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, with Florence as its capital; the Duchies of Parma and Modena; the Serene Republic of Venice; Lombardy, centred on Milan; the Papal States; the Kingdom of Savoy; and the Kingdom of Sardinia, including Genoa and Turin but separated from the island of Sardinia by Napoleon’s native Corsica.

The process of Italian unification began after the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when various European powers, especially Austria and France, carved up Italy between themselves and divers local despots and rulers, including the Pope.

Fair Juliet’s balcony in Verona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Cultural coalescing

The peninsula was divided linguistically, with no consensus on the elements of standard written or spoken Italian. But the writings of Manzoni and the operas of Verdi helped to inspire the search for national identity. The unification movement brought together radicals such as Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and conservatives seeking a constitutional monarchy, including Count Camillo di Cavour and Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, who would become the first King of Italy. But unification was opposed externally by the Austrian Empire and internally by the Papacy.

The tricolour of green, white and red was first raised in 1823 during a revolt in Piedmont. As the movement gathered momentum, petty monarchs fled their palaces, and even Pope Pius IX was forced to flee Rome in 1848. At a rally in the Apollo Theatre, a young Roman priest, the Abbé Arduini, declared the temporal power of the Popes was an “historical lie, a political imposture, and a religious immorality.”

Verdi in Verona ... the operas of Verdi helped to inspire the search for national identity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1858, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany united with the Duchies of Modena and Parma to form the United Provinces of Central Italy. After their defeat at the bloody Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, the Austrians withdrew behind the “Quadrilateral” of four northern fortresses – Peschiera, Mantua, Legnano and Verona – and the Sardinian forces now dominated northern Italy, with the Central Provinces requesting annexation.

Peschiera, one of the four fortresses that formed the defensive “Quadrilateral” for the Austrians in northern Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies collapsed in 1861 in the face of an expedition led by Garibaldi. He wanted to fight on until Rome was captured as the capital of a unified Italy, but the new Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in Turin on 17 March 1861. Although, Rome was named as the capital ten days later, the Papal States were still clinging on to independence and the government moved from Turin to Florence in 1865.

Venice and the surrounding area were incorporated into Italy in 1866 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Venice and the surrounding area were incorporated in 1866, Rome fell in 1870, the Pope was confined to the Vatican, and Rome became the new capital in July 1871. By then, however, Nice and Savoy had fallen to France, and the last parts of modern Italy were not incorporated into the state until after World War I.

Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Gondolas waiting for tourists in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Irish connection

Swiss Guards on duty in the Vatican ... Stalin once asked: ‘How many battalions has the Pope?’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Once on 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?” But as the final process of Italian unification reached its climax in a conflict with the Papal States in 1859-1860, Irish volunteers enlisted in large numbers in the Pope’s battalions.

Irish attitudes towards Garibaldi during the Risorgimento reflected the religious divisions of the day – Protestants tended to support him, Roman Catholics were generally negative, and the denigration of Garibaldi eventually became a badge of Irish nationalism.

Although £80,000 was raised in Ireland for the defence of the Papal States, Pope Pius IX and his advisers initially doubted the wisdom of enlisting Irish soldiers, believing cheap Italian wine would be fatal for the Irish. But in January 1860, Pius IX sent his Private Chamberlain, Count Charles MacDonnell, an Austrian from Tinakilly, Co Wicklow, back to Ireland to recruit volunteers.

In an expedition dubbed “The Last Crusade,” over 1,000 Irish volunteers travelled to Rome in May and June 1860 and enrolled in the Battalion of Saint Patrick. Most were farm labourers or from the working class, but they also included doctors, graduates, a bishop’s nephew, a future colonial judge and 20 policemen from Cork who resigned to enlist in the Pope’s private army.

Saint John Lateran is the Pope’s cathedral ... over 1,000 Irish volunteers travelled to Rome in 1860 to fight for the Pope (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Recruiting British subjects for foreign forces was illegal, but loopholes were found to allow the volunteers to embark. A few signed letters in the name of the Grand Prior of the Order of Malta, Field- Marshal Nugent; others enrolled as papal policemen or gendarmes; most called themselves pilgrims or emigrants and travelled with priests by secret routes through Belgium and France to Austria, where officers of Irish ancestry provided rudimentary military training.

Saint Mary Major in Rome ... one writer describes the “eggs and spinach” coloured uniforms worn by the Irish soldiers in Rome in 1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although one writer describes the “eggs and spinach” coloured uniforms of the Irish in Rome that year, only a few officers had time or money to buy tailor-made uniforms before going into battle. The Irish soldiers were promised a daily pay of 2½d (less than one cent), but were left without basic necessities such as belts, haversacks, shirts, underclothes and shoes, and without promised muskets or uniforms.

The Irish battalion fought in four battles that year: at Ancona and Castelfidardo in the Marches, and at Spoleto and Perugia in Umbria. Two nights before Spoleto was attacked, their commander, Major Myles O’Reilly, wrote: “The night was spent by the Irishmen chiefly in dancing and singing. No authority could get them to go to bed, they were so excited at the prospect of fighting.” When they were defeated at Spoleto, most of the Irish volunteers began to drift home.

After the battles

Modern Italy was created after the defeat of the Papal States (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Major O’Reilly (1825-1880), from Balbriggan, Co Dublin, had studied at London University and in Rome before returning to Ireland during the Famine. He fought in every engagement until the surrender of Spoleto in 1860. On his return to Ireland, he was elected MP for Co Longford (1862-1876).

Many of the volunteers came from Co Tipperary, including one named Martin Luther from Clonmel. The Luther family of Clonmel were prosperous merchants, and this Martin Luther was a nephew of Charles Bianconi (1786-1875), the Italian-born founder of public transport in Ireland and four times Mayor of Clonmel.

In his account of the Irishmen who fought for the Pope, GFH Berkeley notes that Martin Luther was a captain at Spoleto and then fought in Perugia, where he “won the universal admiration of his men by his coolness under fire.” Luther later went to North America, and was a captain during the American Civil War … although Berkeley does not say on which side.

Stalin may have wondered how many battalions the Pope had. He could hardly have imagined that among them was one Martin Luther ... from Ireland.

The Irish in Rome

The steps below San Pietro where Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell were buried after their exile from Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The fourth century San Stefano Rotondo has a marble, Latin tablet commemorating Brian Boru’s son, King Donnchadh of Munster, who went to Rome on a pilgrimage in his late 70s and died there in 1064. San Pietro on the Janiculum Hill, not far from the Villa Spada, the Irish Embassy to the Vatican, is the burial place of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, whose exile from Ireland in the early 17th century became known as the “Flight of the Earls.”

San Isidoro, the Franciscan church on Via degli Artisti, was founded in 1625 by Luke Wadding from Waterford, and he founded the Irish College three years later. Saint Patrick’s Day was placed on the Church Calendar mainly due to his influences. San Isidoro has monuments to the Irish artist Amelia Curran (1775-1847), and to Octavia Catherine Bryan, who died on her wedding day in 1846 at the age of 18. Cardinal Newman’s sermon at her funeral was his first as a Roman Catholic.

San Patrizio on Via Boncompagni is the church of the Irish Augustinians, who have had a church in Rome since 1656. Traditionally this is the titular church of an Irish cardinal.

The view of the Coliseum from the Irish Dominican church at San Clemente (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Clemente, between the Coliseum and Saint John Lateran, has been associated with the Irish Dominicans since 1677. In 1857, the Irish prior, Father Joseph Mullooly excavated the basilica and found a fourth century church, a temple of Mithras and a Roman house. During the war of unification and the formation of Saint Patrick’s Brigade, he acted as a mediator between the Austro-Irish officers and the papal administration.

The Anglican connection

14, All Saints’ Church, one of the two Anglican churches in Rome, has many associations with the struggle for Italian unification and many Irish connections (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Few guides point Irish tourists to All Saints’ Church on Via del Babuino, one of the two Anglican churches in Rome. But it too has many associations with the struggle for Italian unification and many Irish connections.

The church was designed by George Edmund Street, who also redesigned Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the electric lighting was a gift in 1909 from Alfred Chenevix Trench, son of Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin. The Stations of the Cross commemorate the Revd Peter Marchant from Dublin, who was chaplain there from 1991 to 1995.

A plaque commemorates “Lt-Col Baron J.W. Keen, and … his brave comrades in arms … who fought with Garibaldi in Italy’s struggle for freedom ...” The plaque was unveiled in 1920 by Garibaldi’s daughter-in-law, and some of the few surviving “Redshirts” were present in their uniforms. Born Constance Hopcraft, she was present when the foundation stone of All Saints’ was laid in 1882. When her daughters died in 1958 and 1962, they were given Anglican funerals; their deaths marked the end of the long connection between Garibaldi and the church.

Other monuments recall Hugh Cairns, Earl Cairns, a leading politician from Cultra, Co Down, and Sir John Conroy, an Irish baronet who died in Rome in 1900 – his grandfather, Sir John Conroy from Co Roscommon, who has been labelled “Queen Victoria’s nemesis,” was alleged to have had an affair with Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent; the English author AN Wilson even suggests he may have been Queen Victoria’s actual father.

Today, about 2,500 Irish people live in Rome. They celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day each year – and this year they have something extra to celebrate on 17 March.

Tourists believe throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain guarantees a return visit to Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the March editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)

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