Captains two. Patrick O’Carroll and James Blackney in the Papal Army
In 1860 when Pope Pius IX issued an appeal to all Catholic countries to come to his assistance 1,400 Irishmen answered the call. Among them were at least two Kildaremen, Patrick O’Carroll and James Blackney. At only three or four weeks’ notice, without any preliminary training, young Irish men and boys, from all walks of life, left Ireland for Vienna where they were to be trained before proceeding to Italy. The British Government supported the cause of Italian nationalism and issued a proclamation reminding all persons concerned that, according to the Foreign Enlistment Act, any man entering a foreign service was guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by fine and imprisonment, as was anyone helping him to do so, and that any master of a ship conveying such persons was liable to a fine of £50. Towards the end of May and the beginning of June, various detachments found their way to Italy from ports in Ireland to England and then northern Europe. From there they travelled by rail to Vienna, Trieste and Rome. The minimum height requirement was five feet seven inches. Each recruit was given £3.15s. on leaving to cover his travel expenses. No kit was issued on departure, each man having to travel in his own clothing.
The Papal States were conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796 and restored to the Pope by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In 1848-9 there were abortive revolutions in Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples and Savoy, while in the south attempts were made to unite the country under one banner. After the Franco-Austrian war of 1859 the states of Parma, Modena and Tuscany joined the Union of Piedmont under the rule of Victor Emmanuel of the House of Savoy. Efforts were made during the early part of 1860 to induce Pius IX to surrender his claims to the Northern Provinces of Romagna, Umbria and the Marches, but without avail. When the province of Romagna voted itself into the newly formed State of Northern Italy, the Pope excommunicated all concerned, including Victor Emmanuel. Fearing an impending invasion of the papal frontiers the Pope appealed to the Catholics of Europe to come to his assistance. This appeal received support from the Irish hierarchy and resulted in the formation of ‘The Irish Battalion of St. Patrick’ for service in Italy.
The Irish volunteers had been promised they would serve together as one unit, but in reality the shambolic organization of the Papal Army prevented this. They had also been told they would be compensated for making the financial sacrifice to travel to Italy. In Ancona matters came to a head and angry volunteers confronted their officers and expressed their anger at these false promises. In a brief melee two officers, Major Fitzgerald and Lieutenant Patrick O’Carroll, were slightly hurt. As a result, Maj. Fitzgerald, a veteran officer in the Austrian army, resigned his commission, while Lieut. O’Carroll was promoted to captain (Gazetted 7 August 1860). Patrick O’Carroll, was a native of Co. Kildare and had served in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, of the British army. Maj. Fitzgerald and Lt. O’Carroll were probably not recognized as it was late when they arrived and were wearing civilian clothes. They were soon fit for duty again.
The Irish recruits also caused some problems when they arrived in Macereta Barracks in northern Italy. There were six other nationalities represented there and on pay day fighting, due to the availability of cheap wine, broke out between the Irish and Belgians. The civil authorities petitioned for the removal of the unruly elements and 600 Irish troops were marched across the Apennine Mountains from Macereta to Rome. As they were not giving adequate water, rations or camp equipment the troops had to fend for themselves en route, for which they received more bad publicity. It was only with the arrival of their own commanding officer, Major Myles O’Reilly, of Louth, that living conditions for the men began to gradually improve due to his strenuous efforts and representations on their behalf. It was his intention to form a battalion of eight companies to be known as the ‘Irish Papal Brigade.’ Maj. O’Reilly began to train his recruits into a professional force, but because he was starting from scratch the Irish Battalion never really became a fully equipped, or adequately armed force. The commanding officer had to commission officers, to tell off companies, and to appoint NCOs. Although he did his best to extract written promises of commissions, it was not until August that they actually gazetted as officers. Eight company commanders were appointed in June – four at Ancona and four at Spoleto. Lt. James Blackney was appointed officer commanding No. 1 Company at Spoleto, though he was not gazetted captain until 31 August.
James Blackney was the son of James Blackney, Esq, of Kilmullen. He was a former officer in the county militia and a grandson of Walter Blackney, MP for Co. Carlow (1831-2). G. F. H. Berkeley in The Irish Battalion in the Papal Army of 1860, (published in Dublin in 1929) gave Blackney’s address as Co. Kildare, while his fellow officer Michael T. Crean said he was from Co. Carlow. Kilmullen is in Lea, Co. Laois, which at the time would have been Queen’s County, but is near to Monasterevan, Co. Kildare.
One veteran, Lt. Michael Theobald Crean, said that in the month of August under the able leadership of Maj. O’Reilly, the Irish got down to training in earnest:
Discipline increased and improved beyond measure. The Company Commanders, Kirwan, Coppinger, Boschan and Blackney, got down to it and it was drill – morning, noon, and night – with a will as they knew time was short.
At the end of August the men were requested to take the Oath of Fidelity to the Holy Father and sign on for four years. About 200 refused and left to return to Ireland. They had become disillusioned by the poor pay, bad food and living conditions they had to endure. Equipment and uniforms for the remainder was of poor quality.
On 29 August 1860 Capt. Blackney’s company of 145 men was moved from Spoleto to Perugia. Capt. Kirwan’s company also left with General de la Moricière, the head of the Papal Army, leaving only two under-equipped Irish companies in the fortress. The war began on 11 September when Piedmontese troops entered the Papal States. Two days later they attacked Perugia and entered the city through a gate opened by residents who were in opposition to the Papal Army. Capt. Blackney’s company was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the day and lost three men killed and over a dozen wounded. Among the wounded was Capt. Blackney. The Irish volunteers were captured when most of the garrison simply downed arms and refused to fight. Gen. de la Moricière, a Breton, lamented: ‘The Irish company and the majority of the 2nd Line Battalion [Italian] alone showed themselves determined to do their duty.’
With Perugia captured, the Piedmontese marched towards the port city of Ancona, on the Adiatric coast. Within days they had marched a force of 17,000 as far south as Spoleto, where Maj. Myles O’Reilly and 1,000 men – of whom 300 were Irish – awaited them. The Irish troops had been in Ancona since 5 July and had trained vigourously for two months, greatly assisted by the presence of experienced officers like Capt. Patrick O’Carroll, a veteran of the British army, Corkman Francis O’Mahony, a veteran of the Austrian army, and the French-born Count Francis Russell, an officer in the Papal army. The Irish volunteers were divided into four companies, one of which was commanded by Kildareman Patrick O’Carroll. He was described as an efficient officer by Gen. de la Moriciere.
Spoleto, an old Umbrian walled city of 8,000 inhabitants, was attacked on the morning of 17 September by a superior force of veteran Piedmontese troops, and surrendered the next day after the loss of five Irish killed and twenty wounded and the rest taken prisoner. The attackers suffered sixteen dead and forty-eight wounded. The capture of Spoleto cut off Ancona from Rome. The remaining companies of the Irish Battalion were engaged at Castelfedaro – where over 100 were captured, along with twenty other casualties – and at the siege of Ancona, where they suffered a dozen casualties, with the remaining men also being captured. With the capture of Ancona the Piedmontese forces had gained total control of the Papal States, except for Rome and its environs. This effectively meant the end of the Papal Army and the Irish Battalion. The Ancona garrison was marched northwards for 200 miles to Genoa. On arrival in Genoa the officers were separated from their men, but were granted parole d’honour to visit the nearby town if they wished. The officers and men remained in Genoa for several weeks as POWs, where they were visited by British agents who offered free passage to Malta to any who would enlist in the British army.
The papal treasury was depleted by the cost of the war, and the Pope was not in a position to maintain a standing army any longer. Most of his provinces were seceding to the new Italian state leaving the environs of Rome as the only territory under his control. The Irish Battalion was granted an honourable discharge from their commitments to the papacy, who, acknowledging the heroism which the Irish had discharged in their duty, also promised assistance with repatriation. In Ireland a national collection was organised to charter a vessel for the stranded exiles. On 20 October 1860 the Papal screw steamer Byzantine commenced transporting Irish survivors from Genoa to Marseilles. From there the 934 Irish veterans went to Paris and then to La Havre, from where the majority sailed to Ireland on 1 November.
The first veterans arrived in Queenstown on 3 November to a tremendous welcome. After disembarking they were issued with food and clothing, and they marched to the railway station at Cork through cheering crowds. Special trains brought them to Dublin, where about 300 arrived at Kingsbridge Terminus at midnight, the greater number being dropped off at stations along the line. At Kingsbridge the men were greeted by a crowd of 10,000. The Irish Times referred to them as ‘the forlorn remnants of the Pope’s Brigade’ and reported that they were met by a ‘considerable mob of persons, composed of the lower orders’. The Times reported that the men ‘were dressed in every imaginable costume, some of them being attired in a mixture of Zouave and French coats, trousers and hats, and many of them in the ordinary dress of the laboring class. They presented altogether anything but a military appearance’. Cars were provided for the men who were brought to lodgings in the city. A further 100 arrived in Dublin at 7 a.m. The bulk of the men attended Mass in Marlborough Street chapel on Sunday morning, where Dr. Cullen presided. The Times reporting that they were followed by a mob of ‘the lower orders’. The idea of Irish Catholic soldiers fighting together in a cause of their choosing was not something the newspapers and the political classes were willing to accept, so every opportunity was used to castigate the Irish Battalion. The London Times even referred to them as ‘wretched creatures who were kidnapped by the recruiting agents of the Roman Pontiff’. In December twenty-seven wounded survivors reached Dublin and were cared for in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Irish casualties for the entire campaign were around seventy men.
Despite the propaganda from the Italian and British press the performance of the Irish Battalion in battle was commendable, especially for men who had little military training. In due course sixty-four officers, NCOs and men of the Irish Papal Brigade were decorated for bravery. Ultimately, neither the Irish battalion nor the Papal army did anything to change the outcome of the war. By 1861 Italy was united and in 1870 Rome was declared the capital.
The Papal government was lavish with decorations and the Battalion of St. Patrick did well, receiving more than any other Papal battalion. Capt. Blackney was awarded the Cavaliere (Knight) of the Ordine-Piano (Order of Pius). According to Michael T. Crean, who was wounded at Spoleto and was awarded the Knighthood of Pius IX, James Blackney on his return to Ireland ‘settled down to the life of a county gentleman’. Major O’Reilly returned to his home, Knock, Abbey, Co. Louth, and to his patriotic work. In 1862 he was elected MP for Longford. Another veteran, Carlow man Myles Keogh, emigrated to the United States, served in the Union army during the American Civil war and died fighting alongside George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.