Engaging the Enemy Part 2 of 3 of '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

Courtesy of Professor George N. Rhyne, History Department, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa.
The red state represents the Papal States prior to the 1860 Papal War

Forces from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia crossed into the Papal States on September 11, 1860, but the resistance put up by Lamoricière to the invaders was largely nominal. 

There was, however, sharp fighting against the Italians in a number of areas where the Irish companies were posted. 

Beginning September 13 in Perugia, one company, under the command of Captain James Blackney, went into action. This was little more than running street skirmishes followed by the quick capitulation of the Papal force's Austrian commander.

In fact, the only resistance put up to the Italians was from a small group of Irish, led by Patrick Clooney of Waterford. Fighting tenaciously among the narrow streets and refusing to surrender, Clooney's small band was finally forced to make a stand in an abandoned house. After inflicting serious casualties on the Piedmontese, the weight of numbers and the arrival of artillery eventually compelled the Irish to lay down their arms. As was to become a pattern in this conflict, some nationalities in the Pope's army were more likely to accept early terms of surrender. This charge would not be laid against O'Reilly's men.

Source and artist unknown
Illustration of the Piedmontese attack at Spoleto.

The engagement at Spoleto four days later was an entirely different and bloodier affair. Two companies (more than 300 Irish volunteers) under their battalion commander, Major Myles O'Reilly, again fought tenaciously against 2,500 veteran Piedmontese, including Victor Emmanuel's fearsome Bersaglieri.

Given the task of protecting the North Wall and the vital Gate House of the majestic Castle Albornozian, the Irish performed with distinction, holding their ground and the gate for 14 hours despite heavy hand-to-hand fighting and under constant bombardment from General Brigonne's field artillery. After withstanding repeated attacks, Major O'Reilly eventually negotiated a favorable surrender when reinforcements had become unlikely.

The largest engagement in this short war took place September 18 at Castelfidardo. As General Lamoricière moved the bulk of his multinational Papal army towards the fortifications in the port town of Ancona, his path was blocked by General Cialdini's Fourth Corps d'Armee or, as Garibaldi called them, "The Italian Army of the North." 

Lamoricière was forced to do battle, as were the 105 Irishmen who were in the field with him under the command of Roscommon-born Captain Martin Kirwan. They were prominent in the defense of an area near two farms when the Austrian soldiers who were manning the artillery became casualties or had retreated. The Irish reportedly rushed to save the abandoned guns, hauling them out of reach of the enemy. One Papal soldier in Ancona wrote home of the Castelfidardo encounter, acknowledging the Irish spirit on the day:

It took only a few shells exploding to turn intractable peasants into sober soldiers.

"The natives and Swiss refused to charge through cowardice. Franco-Belge and Irish got then the order and did it like lions. One company of the Irish smashed three companies of the enemy in pieces"

Captain Kirwan later recorded "losing 32 men between killed, prisoners and missing." Unfortunately, the Irish gallantry did little to prevent the rout of Lamoricière and his poorly trained recruits.

The Siege of Ancona

With the majority of his command now either casualties or prisoners of war, Lamoricière barely escaped the battlefield, fleeing to Ancona with just 40 German cavalry as his escort. His final hope was that a prolonged blockade of this port, vital to shipping in the Adriatic Sea, might just entice other nations to become embroiled in the conflict.

With Ancona less than eight miles from Castelfidardo, the victorious Piedmontese army pursued Lamoricière and commenced the siege almost the same day, bombarding the harbor city intensely from land and sea. With less than 149 assorted pieces of artillery, the Papal gunners responded as defiantly as they could. 

Posted in Ancona since July 5, four companies of Irish had drilled with around 4,200 soldiers of varying nationalities and were garrisoned in the Lazzareto barracks on the city's edge. Father John McDevitt, a chaplain to the Irish in Ancona, told of how the men withstood the siege:

Contemporary paintings by Gustavo Strafforello.
The Battle of Ancona.

"Our poor fellows are in great heart, cheering, etc. I am really fatigued hearing their confessions and preparing them to die happily." 

In command of the Irish in Ancona was Captain Frank Russell from County Louth, later honored with the title of Count by the Pope. Russell wrote of his men's disposition during the initial stages of the attack:

"Strange thing! It took only a few shells exploding to turn intractable peasants into sober soldiers, patient, warlike, capable of any sacrifice." The Governor of Ancona, Quatrebarbes, also recorded his admiration of the zeal and, at times, the eccentric conduct of the small body of Irish defending the city. When under fire, the Governor wrote, they would sing ballads and their officers would have great difficulty in restraining them from standing on the battlements hurling defiance at the enemy or applauding the work of the Papal artillery.

Although termed a siege, it was far from passive as the Piedmontese and Sardinian troops stormed the outer works several times, with both sides showing great courage. Due to their enthusiasm and tenacity, the Irish companies were constantly moved to blunt the threat of a breach.

Part 3 of 3: A Brief Conflict


Orders of Battle, Battalion of St. Patrick, September 1860

Perugia - September 13
One company (143 soldiers & 2 officers) under the command of Captain James Blackney (County Kildare).

Spoleto - September 17 
Three companies of the Battalion of St. Patrick (312 soldiers & 15 officers) under the Battalion Commander, Major Myles O'Reilly (County Louth). Major O'Reilly commanded 645 men in total at Spoleto including 150 Italians, 160 Swiss, and 24 Franco-Belgians.

Battle of Castelfidardo - September 18 
One company (102 soldiers and 3 officers, including 16-year-old 2nd Lt. James D'Arcy, from Dundalk, County Louth) under the command of Captain Martin Kirwan (County Roscommon).

Siege of Ancona - September 18-28
Four companies of St. Patrick's Battalion (440 soldiers and 16 officers).

Company Commanders

  • Captain Timothy O'Mahony, County Cork, formerly of the Austrian Army.
  • Captain Frank Russell, County Louth.
  • Baron Guttenberg, Austria.
  • Captain Patrick O'Carroll, County Kildare, formerly of the
    18th Royal Irish Regt.

Further Reading:

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