11 September 2017

A reminder on 9/11 of
the battle that inspired
poetry, the Red Cross and
the Geneva Conventions

Solferino Lodge, Belrave Road, Rathmines … a reminder of the battle that inspired the Red Cross on the Geneva Convention (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Dublin for a church committee meeting today [11 September 2017] and as I walked from the Beechwood Luas station to Church of Ireland offices in Rathmines, I walked along Belgrave Road, where I had worked at No 3 for four years.

But as I walked along Belgrave Road, I was also struck by the name of one of the elegant Victorian villas on this suburban street between Ranelagh and Rathmines.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11, and I wondered whether the name of Solferino Lodge on Belgrave Road, close to the Beechwood Luas station, had been inspired – directly or indirectly – by the Battle of Solferino in 1859.

The battle was such an important land battle that it changed the rules of engagement in land battles, contributed eventually to Italian unification, marked the beginning of the end of the Habsburg Empire, inspired a memorable poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and inspired both the foundation of the International Red Cross and the drafting of the Geneva Conventions – four treaties, and three protocols – that codify the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war.

The Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859 resulted in the victory of the allied French army under Napoleon III and Sardinian army under Victor Emmanuel II against the Austrian army under Emperor Franz Joseph I.

I was a decisive battle in the Italian War of Independence and the largest battle since the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. An estimated 300,000 soldiers fought on the battlefield, including about 130,000 Austrian troops and a combined total of 140,000 French and Piedmontese troops.

It is said that this was the last major battle where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs: Napoleon III of France, Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, future King of Italy, and the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph II, who was an inexperienced 29-year-old. After his defeat, no Austrian Emperor ever again took direct command of the army.

After the battle, the Swiss writer Jean-Henri Dunant toured the battlefield and was deeply moved by what he saw.

Durant was horrified and published his eyewitness account of the aftermath of the battle in his book, A Memory of Solferino.

Durant’s response to the suffering of wounded soldiers left behind on the battlefield, inspired a series of events that led to the Geneva Conventions and to setting up the International Red Cross.

Until the Italian War of Independence, Italy, was divided between France, Austria, Spain and the Papal states, and into many independent Italian states, some of which were miniscule statelets.

The battle took place near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.

The battle lasted for more than nine hours, 2,386 Austrian troops were killed, 10,807 were wounded and 8,638 were missing or captured; 2,492 allied troops were killed, 12,512 wounded and 2,922 captured or missing.

The Austrians retreated to the four fortresses of the Austrian Quadrilateral – Peschiera, Mantua, Legnago and Verona – which had provided the Hapsburgs with the means of keeping control of northern Italy since 1815 and the campaign essentially ended.

Napoleon III was so moved by the losses that he decided to put an end to the war with the Armistice of Villafranca on 11 July 1859. The Piedmontese won Lombardy but not Venetia, and the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, ‘The Forced Recruit: Solferino 1859,’ commemorates the battle.

She had moved from Florence to Siena and had become engrossed in Italian politics. When she published a small volume of political poems, Poems before Congress (1860) expressing her sympathy with the Italian cause, they stirred a furore in England. She died on 29 June 1861 and was buried in the Protestant English Cemetery in Florence.

The Revd Samuel Huntington’s numbering of his four principles for Anglican unity was inspired, he said, by the four fortress cities in the Veneto and Lombardy that shaped the Austrian Quadrilateral. These four principles were modified and adapted and are now known as the Chicago-Lambeth or Anglican Quadrilateral.

On the 150th anniversary of the battle in 2009, the Presidency of the European Union adopted a declaration: ‘This battle was also the grounds on which the international community of States has developed and adopted instruments of International Humanitarian Law, the international law rules relevant in times of armed conflict, in particular the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.’

The 60th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions was be celebrated the same year.

The Forced Recruit: Solferino 1859, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:


In the ranks of the Austrian you found him,
He died with his face to you all;
Yet bury him here where around him
You honour your bravest that fall.


Venetian, fair-featured and slender,
He lies shot to death in his youth,
With a smile on his lips over-tender
For any mere soldier’s dead mouth.


No stranger, and yet not a traitor,
Though alien the cloth on his breast,
Underneath it how seldom a greater
Young heart, has a shot sent to rest!


By your enemy tortured and goaded
To march with them, stand in their file,
His musket (see) never was loaded,
He facing your guns with that smile!


As orphans yearn on to their mothers,
He yearned to your patriot bands; —
‘Let me die for our Italy, brothers,
If not in your ranks, by your hands!


‘Aim straightly, fire steadily! spare me
A ball in the body which may
Deliver my heart here, and tear me
This badge of the Austrian away!’


So thought he, so died he this morning.
What then? many others have died.
Ay, but easy for men to die scorning
The death-stroke, who fought side by side —


One tricolour floating above them;
Struck down ’mid triumphant acclaims
Of an Italy rescued to love them
And blazon the brass with their names.


But he, — without witness or honour,
Mixed, shamed in his country’s regard,
With the tyrants who march in upon her,
Died faithful and passive: ’twas hard.


’Twas sublime. In a cruel restriction
Cut off from the guerdon of sons,
With most filial obedience, conviction,
His soul kissed the lips of her guns.


That moves you? Nay, grudge not to show it,
While digging a grave for him here:
The others who died, says your poet,
Have glory, — let him have a tear.

No 3 Belgrave Road, Rathmines, where i worked from 2002 to 2006 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The castle in Newcastle West that has
survived wars, fires and name changes

Desmond Castle and Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West dates back to the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The Limerick Leader reported at the weekend that Newcastle West councillors have found themselves bogged down in a debate about name changes and potential name changes.

In her report, Norma Prendiville points out that Desmond Hall in Newcastle West is now to be called the Desmond Castle. But the question of what to call the castle in the middle of the town is creating confusion. Last year, the Office of Public Works started calling the castle complex the Newcastle West Medieval Complex and Desmond Hall.

But the Desmond Hall is just one of a number of buildings on the site, and it is now going to be known as Desmond Castle, Newcastle West – although new signs erected earlier this year point to ‘Desmond Hall.’

The castles and banqueting halls in Askeaton and Newcastle West are among the many great castles and medieval halls that are preserved in this group of parishes and throughout West Limerick.

During a recent working day in Newcastle West, I visited Desmond Hall, or Desmond Castle, which is the principal historical and archaeological feature in Newcastle West. It dominates the southern end of the main square in the town, and includes the site of the former Church of Ireland parish church.

The Desmond Banqueting Hall is an imposing two-storey building once used by the Earls of Desmond for banqueting and entertainment. The Hall, vaulted lower chamber and adjoining tower were all built in the 15th century, with the hall and chamber built on an earlier 13th century building of a similar size.

The Great Hall at the Desmond Castle complex in Newcastle West (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Local folklore claims that at one time the castle was a seat of the Knights Templar, who also had a house in Askeaton. This is doubted by many historians, but castles of both timber and stone have stood on this site by the banks of the River Arra since the 13th century.

By the 1298, this strong castle included curtain walls with defensive towers that surrounded the main buildings, with thatched houses, cattle byres and fishponds within the castle complex.

This is Desmond Hall that was created from a 13th century chapel, and used for banquets and entertainment. It comprises a lower vaulted chamber and an upper hall. It underwent further rebuilding in the 15th century.

Inside the Banqueting Hall at Newcastle West (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The present castle dates from the 15th century. At the end of the following century, the castle was confiscated at the height of the Desmond Rebellions, and was granted in 1591 to Sir William Courtenay, on condition that 80 English colonists were settled in the immediate area.

It was recaptured by the ‘Sugan’ Earl of Desmond in 1598, but was taken back once again in 1599.

The castle was surrendered in 1643 after a four-month siege by the Confederate Catholics, and burnt. The defending soldiers were executed and their bodies were strapped to stakes and left standing to rot.

The castle buildings were attacked again by Cromwell’s forces in 1645, and suffered further damage during the Williamite wars at the end of the 17th century.

The castle was occupied by David Mahony and his son Pierce Mahony in the mid-18th century, while the Earls of Devon lived in a large house in the castle grounds known as Courtenay Castle. But much of what had survived of the Desmond castle through the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries was demolished in the 18th century to make room for Courtenay mansion. Stones from the curtain walls were used to build estate offices and sheds.

A view of Newcastle West from the top of the banqueting hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The banqueting hall was restored in early 19th century, when the ruined battlements were taken down and a new pitch pine roof was put on the building. The original hooded stone fireplace had collapsed and it was replaced by a 17th century replacement from a house in Kilmallock.

By the late 19th century, Charles Curling, the agent of the Devon estate, lived in Courtenay Castle. Later, the complex was bought by the Curling family in 1910. The complex was burned during the Civil War on 8 August 1922, but the castle remained the property of the Curling family until the 1940s.

At one time, the Banqueting Hall was used by a local masonic lodge and more recently it has been used as a general purpose hall by the local community, while the Great Hall was converted into a cinema and eventually burned down in a fire.

A fireplace dated 1638 came from a house in Kilmallock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The site was taken into State care in 1989, and work on renovation began in 1990. The whole complex has been partly restored in recent years. The restored mediaeval features include an oak musicians’ gallery and a limestone hooded fireplace.

Desmond Hall, or Desmond Castle as it is to be known from now on, is conserved and managed by the Heritage Services of the Office of Public Works. Guided tours are available from May to September.

The complex today includes the Tower, the Banqueting Hall, the vaulted Chamber and the Hálla Mór or Great Hall.

The area in front of the banqueting hall became the site of the Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Thomas’ Church. The church, which stood between the banqueting hall and the Main Square, was built in 1777 at the sole expense of William, 2nd Viscount Courtenay.

However, the church fell into disrepair, and was demolished over half a century ago in 1962. Today, the site of the church is now marked out by low-level walls. Here too is a bronze figure representing Gerald FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond.

The site of the former Saint Thomas Church, built in 1777, is marked out by low-level wall between the castle and the square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)