“Mallacht Dé ar an mbanrion, beidh sé a bheith an Pápa dom,”
“God curse the queen, it’ll be the Pope for me.”
In 1860 the Papal States of the Roman Catholic Church were being threatened on all sides by the growing threat of the Italian “Risorgimento” and Pope Pius IX sent out the call to Catholics everywhere to come to his aid. Prior to 1860 Pius IX and his counsellors had had several doubts concerning the enlistment of Irish soldiers. One was the cheapness of wine in Italy which, they thought, might prove fatal to the Irish. The other was the laws of England, especially the Foreign Enlistment Act, which forbade the recruitment of British subjects to fight for foreign heads of state. But by January 1860 Pius IX had changed his mind owing to the seriousness of the situation in central Italy and his emissary, Count Charles MacDonnell, an Austrian officer of Irish descent, secretary to Field Marshal Prince Nugent and a papal chamberlain, set out for Ireland to commence the organization of the volunteer movement. A Dublin Committee was formed to stimulate monetary subscriptions and coordinate the volunteers on the Irish end. After Count MacDonnell’s visit a spate of patriotic poems and articles appeared and there was no turning back the tide of enthusiastic volunteers. Spirits were also ignited by the sermons and speeches pronounced at meetings held all over Ireland in the early months of 1860. Fighting for the Pope meant a chance to fight as Irishmen, and not as British subjects, just as the “Wild Geese” had done for monarchs in Spain, Russia, Naples, France and Austria since the 17th century. Besides farmers and working class men there were doctors, graduates of military academies, a bishop’s nephew, twenty members of the Cork police who resigned their posts and one Michael Augustine O’Connell.
Travel to Italy was tricky due to the Foreign Enlistment Act, but many loopholes were found allowing the volunteers to embark.
The Dover Chronicle says:–“Within these last few weeks nearly 120 men have embarked at Dover, en route to join General Lamoriciere’s Papal army at Rome.”
They could also legally enter the papal service as policemen or gendarme. A few signed letters in Belgium in the name of the Grand Prior of the Order of Malta who was Field Marshal Nugent. Most of the men were accompanied by priests and called themselves pilgrims, emigrants or workmen. By secret routes they travelled through Belgium, France and then Austria where officers of Irish background met them and they received a first military training.
There was quite a scene in Vienna when one of the batches was passing through. An Irishman got drunk, the Austrian police, seven in number went to arrest him, he made opposition, they drew their swords, but with the shillelah (cudgel), that never missed fire, he knocked down three of them and the others ran for their lives.
Of about 1500, only 40 were rejected on presenting themselves for enrolment. Some navvies from Youghal modestly asked £14 bounty, and 2s. a day. Of course, they were spurned. Some 20 men from Limerick seemed to have come out in the same mercenary scheme. These, in all about 30, were the only mercenaries that reached that country from Ireland.
A letter from Trieste of the 28th ultimo, in the Presse of Vienna, says:–
Forty Irish, who had formed part of a detachment which left this place last week for Anacona, refused at the last moment to accompany their companions, although their places on board the steamer had been paid for. They, however, subsequently consented to go by the steamer which left two days back; but at the last moment they again refused to embark! The volunteers who left two days for Ancona were 166 in number, 6 of them Irish.
One of the Dublin papers gave the following account of the Pope’s Irish recruits who it seems have returned to the old land much sadder, if not wiser men than when they embarked in their precious wild goose chase after fame in the service of a hard-taskmaster:–
At half-past 11 o’clock yesterday forenoon 69 young men, who a few weeks since, filled with martial fervour, left this country for the purpose of uniting with other foreign mercenaries to protect the Roman shepherd against his sheep, were landed at the North-wall, having been conveyed from Liverpool by one of the city of Dublin Company’s steamers. They immediately, by common consent, preceeded in a body to Lower Abbey street and took up their station opposite the Morning News.
Their number and toil worn aspect, their cadaverous faces and general appearance of wretchedness attracted public attention, and in a few minutes they were surrounded by an inquiring and sympathising crowd. The great majority of them maintained a sullen silence; some only noticed questions put to them by shrugging their shoulders; some were disposed to be communicative, and spoke without reserve and with indignation. These were soon the centre of groups of people, whom they informed that they had been misled and deceived – that all had been ill treated, and that many of them almost starved. The greater part had reached the Eternal City, the remainder turned back on the way; all were rejoiced to reach their native land, even in the destitute condition in which they were. They had come to Abbey street, they said, in the hope of seeing ‘the agent’, and were grievously disappointed on finding that the house was locked up, and that ‘the agent’ was not to be seen. They had no money to take them back to the places from whence they came. 1150 other ‘emigrants,’ they said, were about the docks at Liverpool in the same unfortunate plight as themselves. The foot and carriage ways were by this time quite obstructed and it required the intervention of three constables to clear them.
The crowd and the great body of the returned emigrants soon ‘moved on’, but for some hours afterwards several of them might be seen walking up and down the street, and casting anxious glances at the windows opposite, in the vain hope of catching the eye of ‘the agent’, and of being furnished by him with the necessary means of reaching their distant homes.
An Austrian Archduke had five hundred greatcoats made and delivered as a gift to the Irish and a thousand muskets were given at nominal price but when drilling began, some tall Tipperary farm lads had to try and stuff themselves into temporary, second-hand uniforms designed for much smaller soldiers. Just thirteen days before the outbreak of war the Irish still lacked necessities such as belts, haversacks, shirts, underclothes and shoes not to mention 200 muskets and the green uniforms they had been promised.
Other groups went by sea from Marseilles and landed in Civita Vecchia. Gregorovius described the “eggs and spinach” coloured uniforms of the Irish he saw in Rome in the spring of 1860 but in reality only a few officers had the time (and money) to have these tailor made for themselves before the war was declared in September.
In Italy, English spies were doing all they could to discredit the Irish Brigade and there was sabotage by Italian employees who sympathised with the unification forces. Spies accosted the Irish in Rome and in Spoleto with passports, money and positions on English ships as inducements to desert.
By September 11th the Irish Brigade was still divided and two nights before the attack on the Rocca of Spoleto, Major 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”.
During training, General Lamoriciere, insisted on his ideology that all men were to receive the same drilling and training before any commissions or officer appointments were made. According to a report titled - Causes, Incidents and Results of a Jolly Row in the Eternal City - in the New York Times newspaper, June 27th 1860, this may have caused unrest among some of the higher social class volunteers within the Irish.
The Natio gave details of an affray, which took place in the Eternal City on the 27th June, between the Papal troops and a portion of the Irish Brigade, enlisted for the purpose of maintaining the Pope’s authority against his enemies. It seems that a young man, named Laffan, disgusted with the position of “full private” and wishing to be an officer, doffed his uniform, and appeared in plain clothes. He was ordered to be arrested, and an attempt was made by his comrades to rescue him.
Though he and his abetters gave themselves up afterwards, considerable commotion was occasioned in the city. The Irish crowded in groups, excitedly discussing the affair, the crowd being swelled by Swiss and French idlers, all waiting to see the upshot of affairs; and at the cross roads, as well as at the Palazzo Albobrandini, there were crowds of Romans looking on in amazement at what all the noise was about. By this time several officers of the battalion began to arrive on the spot from various parts of the city, and they instantly ordered the men back to their barracks. The men obeyed grumblingly, as the curiosity of all was greatly excited and they wanted to learn the result of the affair.
By a singular and most fortunate chance, that very evening, by the train from Civita Vecchia, who should arrive but the Major of the Irish battalion, Mr. Miles W. O’Reilly, of Knockabbey Castle. He barely reached the hotel from the terminus when he heard of what was going on, and off he hurried to the barracks. He came up at the moment while the Irish were all gathered together outside the barracks, about to enter it. He instantly ordered the men to fall in, and put them through their drill, and made them a brief but beautiful address. You never saw any change so sudden and complete. The men became as docile and contented as possible, and everything wore a most cheering appearance, when a deplorable incident changed the aspect of affairs.
At the end of the file, next the barrack entrance, there was a stout athletic Irishman. I forgot to tell you that there is one division of Belgians and Romans in the same barracks as our men. The Belgian officer in command had at the very first outbreak of the row, drawn up his men under arms, in front of the barracks. This gave great offence to the Irish, who felt indignant at being, as they thought, guarded over by Belgians, and the man I have alluded to kept saying, with bitter excitement to his comrades, “Look at these fellows; they would sell the Pope and join Garibaldi in the morning, and look at them with their bayonets like sentries to terrify us.” The thing seemed to sting bitterly, and the moment Major O’Reilly gave the order to right-about-face, this private passionately dashed at the nearest of the Belgians or Romans, and with one blow of his fist between the eyes, laid the poor fellow sprawling and kicking in the dust, to the utter amazement and horror of every one.
The Belgian officer, with a sad lack of discretion, instantly gave the words “Prime and load – make ready – present – fire.” O’Reilly rushed forward, and putting himself between the muzzles of the guns and the position of the Irish, in a voice of thunder countermanded the rash and terrible order. It was a moment of painful excitement. At O’Reilly’s voice of thunder – though having so recently arrived he was personally unknown – the Belgians held their levelled guns, but pulled no trigger. Then O’Reilly ordered his men once more into the line; but by this time out poured every Irishman in the barracks, and a strange scene ensued. Though utterly unarmed, they rushed at the armed Belgians, and a regular hand-to-hand, conflict ensued – the Irish, however, merely desiring to disarm the others – wresting away the guns, twisting the bayonets off like twigs, and tossing them in the air by dozens.The Belgian officer drew his sword and made a stroke at an Irishman, which, however, wounded him but very slightly. This was the first actual blow struck. On this another Irishman flung a stone at the officer, which missed him, but hit one of his men. These, notwithstanding the serious nature of the whole affair, proved to be the only blows given throughout.
O’Reilly’s tact, energy, and presence of mind were above all praise. He soon, assisted by his officers, succeeded in bringing the men to their obedience, and in a few minutes had order once more restored, and by 9 o’clock everything was as orderly as if nothing had occured.
A letter from Rome of June 30, in the Paris Union, says:–
Most of the Irish who have come here to take service under the Pope are fine men, and a certain number of them have already been in the army. The passion of the Irish for strong drink is unfortunately too well known and three days ago it was the cause of a painful accident. Some of the Volunteers, when in a state of intoxication, attempted to force open the door of a monastery, in order to take vengeance on a monk of whom they fancied they had reason to complain; but, a patrol being sent against them, they were arrested. General de Lamoriciere, who is determined that strict discipline shall be maintained among the troops under his command, has determined that these Irish shall be brought to a court-martial.
We read an account in a letter from Rome of an energetic declaration drawn up by Mr. James M---, late of the Dublin metropolitan police, who recently threw up his situation in Ireland and went to Rome, with his young wife at his own expense, in full expectation of receiving an officers commission, as he had been led to hope by the recruiting agent in Dublin. The following is the declaration:–
The Irish Brigade.
A few words of admonition from an Irishman to his countrymen relative to the organization of the Irish Brigade in Italy:–
Fellow countrymen, I have spent the last two months in Italy, watching all the stages of the progress of the brigade from Anacona and Macerata to Rome. Believe me I have had ample opportunity of seeing how my countrymen who have torn themselves away from all that was near and dear to them in the world, have been treated. Now, all I have to say is this: the poor Irish are treated after a most disrespectful, cruel, and treacherous manner by the Roman authorities. They are trampled on by the Government and bated and detested by the people of Italy; and my solemn advice (to all whom it may concern) is, stay at home and mind your own business, and don’t attempt to bear a part in trying to force the poor devoted children of Italy to submit to a slavish rule, for which they have no wish or sympathy whatsoever.
– J. F. M., an Irishman.
The following account by Captain ‘Count’ Russell was first published in Revue du Monde Catholique and subsequently republished in translation in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, December, 1869:-
It was worthy of Catholic Ireland, that noble daughter of the church, which has preserved intact the faith of St. Patrick in the midst of struggles, trials, and persecutions of every kind, to send to the pope a legion of her sons to fight beside the generous volunteers whom every vessel brought from France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. As my thoughts revert, after an interval of eight years, to this noble band, whose organization I superintended temporarily, I love to recall the great natural qualities which redeemed their defects, and, despite their disorders and uproar, and their incessant quarrels, won for the Irish the admiration of Lamoriciére, and merited the approval of the Pope, who, after the crisis, desired to form around him a guard of these valiant soldiers, these indomitable heroes, these Catholics, faithful to death.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the fatigues and excitement of this period, amid marches and countermarches, orders and countermands, it was impossible for me to keep a journal of the thousand and one strange incidents, daily events, interesting or amusing, of which I was a witness; indeed, they would furnish Alexander Dumas abundant matter for dramas and endless tales. I must limit myself to those scenes which have left the deepest impression on my memory.
I arrived at Macerata on June 1st. I immediately received a visit from the almoner of the volunteers, whose appearance deserves particular description. He was an Irish Franciscan father, and by his lofty stature and sonorous eloquence reminded me of the portrait of the great O’Connell, which in my childhood I had seen traced by enthusiastic admirers of his oratory. When Father Bonaventure appeared in the midst of the recruits, the men made way for him respectfully. One of them had been guilty of some breach of discipline. The priest spoke sweetly to him, and a few words of tender severity brought tears to the eyes of the offender. Indeed, this monk, with his lofty brow and stately gait, his coarse habit falling in ample folds from his massive shoulders, was well calculated to impress these children of nature, at once simple but keen, enthusiastic but fickle, good in heart but hasty in character, on whom the priest alone has fitted the yoke of authority.
I immediately saw the necessity of establishing the best possible relations with this influential man. The preliminaries of our conversation being ended, he said,
“My dear captain, will you…”
“Pardon me, reverend father, but you give me a title to which I have no right. I am only a lieutenant.”
“Why, captain dear, this will never do. I have announced to the recruits the arrival of their captain; they are prepared to receive you, and all the prestige of your authority will be lost if they find that you are only a lieutenant. No, permit me without offence to attribute to you the rank to which you won’t be long coming, if all that I have heard of you be true.”
“You flatter me infinitely, and I am much obliged for your high opinion; but as we have many things to do, let us save our compliments for some future occasion, and look at the men, whom I must inspect without delay.”
“Immediately, mon cher commandant…”
“Still another thing, Monsieur l’Aumonier…”
“They are in the barracks, and I will present you to them. Come with me; these good fellows await you with impatience, and I hope you will be pleased with them. Remember, you are captain.”
I found the recruits, about a hundred and fifty in number, ranged in two lines along the vast corridor, and I must confess that my first impression was not favourable. They were for the most part ragged, evidently fatigued by the long voyage. A long bench stood before them.
“We must remove the bench,” said I to the priest. “It will be in the way during my inspection.”
“Not a bit of it, captain dear,” he answered; “On the contrary, it will assist wonderfully for the ceremony of your presentation. You are shorter than I, and my height destroys the effect that you ought to produce,”
(he was fully six feet in stature.)
”Get up on that bench, and you will appear as tall as I, and your prestige will increase proportionally.”
“All right, reverend father; here goes for the bench. You are a decided master of scenic art.”
I acted on his advice, and mounted my platform, while the chaplain prepared his countenance and attitude for the grand discourse that was to follow. He waited for silence, and when he saw all eyes directed toward me and all ears open to him;
“Boys,” he said, swinging with majestic movement the loose sleeves of his habit, “Welcome this happy day, the object of your ardent desires, on which you will enjoy the honour of enrolling yourselves in the army of the sovereign pontiff, and on which your names, children of St. Patrick, will be inscribed on the great list of the defenders of the papacy. You see before you, at this moment, the representative of that august sovereign for whom your Irish and Catholic hearts beat with filial love. Welcome with acclamations, him whom God has sent us, the illustrious Captain Russell”, here he laid his heavy hand on my head as if he wished to flatten it, “the noble descendant of your ancient kings, the worthy nephew of the gallant Marshal McMahon, the hero of Perugia, into whose hands I gladly resign the authority which I have hitherto exercised. Now, boys, from the bottom of your throats, hurrah for Captain Russell.”
“Hurrah for the captain!” shouted the hundred and fifty.
“And, you, captain,” here he turned his great, benevolent eyes toward me. “whom the pope has invested with the powers of commander until the arrival of their regular chief, consider in the goodness of your heart the devotion of these true sons of Ireland, who abandoning their homes and families, came through fatigues, dangers, and privations, over mountains and seas, to place at your disposal their lives, their strength, and their heart’s blood.”
I answered this harangue as well as I could, giving with all my might a hurrah for the Pope, which was repeated along the line; then, descending from my pedestal, I shook warmly the hand of the reverend chaplain, to testify publicly my trust in him, and, after the inspection, occupied myself immediately in forming the companies. Alas! the first act of my administration was unlucky, and showed that my brains were not equal to the organization of an Irish regiment.
Having learned from the chaplain that the recruits of different provinces mutually entertained profound jealousy, I thought I would succeed well in putting all the Dublin men in one company and all the Kerry men in another. This disposition having been made, I assigned to each of the companies one or more apartments of the barracks, and ordered them to take immediate possession of their quarters.
This order, simple in appearance, was the occasion of a prodigious storm; and you would be long divining its cause. While the Dublin men executed my order without delay and betook themselves quietly to their quarters on the upper story, the Kerry men, on the contrary, gathered in several noisy groups under the conduct of as many leaders, as if they did not understand the orders, and finally declared point blank that they would not obey them.
“Peste, Monsieur l’Aumonier,” said I to the chaplain, who observed with a certain anxiety the disturbance which was brewing, “if things begin thus, they do not augur well for the future.”
“Wait a bit, Captain, before dealing harshly with the culpable. Let me find out the motives of their resistance.”
“All right, father. I await your rendering an account of them.”
The monk stepped firmly up to the mutineers and endeavoured to speak with them.
“We want the upper floor! We’ll have the top floor!” was the only answer he received.
“But, boys, the upper floor is no better than the lower.”
“We want the upper! The Kerry lads are not made to be stowed away on the ground floor.”
“For mercy’s sake, listen to reason, or else the captain…”
“Down wid Dublin! Kerry for ever!”
The monk returned, pale as death, to explain the cause of the tumult. The volunteers from county Kerry, whose blood is proverbially warm, were indignant because I had quartered them on the ground floor, while the Dublin lads occupied the upper story; wherefore they were determined not to budge until this insult was repaired and Kerry vindicated.
“But, reverend father, the order is given, and cannot be revoked without compromising my dignity. Try to point out to me the leaders; I will have them arrested. As to the others…”
“Ah! captain, remember their inexperience of discipline.”
“That is the very reason why I wish to be severe with the leaders.”
I had the leaders of the disturbance arrested, and, on seeing this, the remainder quietly dispersed and occupied without further difficulty their allotted barracks.
“Boys,” said I, going among them, “the leaders who have brought you astray are scoundrels, whom I am going to punish. They have trifled wickedly with that proud sentiment of rivalry which does honour to the different provinces of Ireland. Keep this sentiment of noble jealousy, of just emulation, keep it for the field of battle, where you can make better use of it than here.”
“Hurrah for the Pope! Hurrah for the chaplain! Hurrah for the captain!“
A few days later, on a beautiful afternoon in June, the detachment of volunteers from Limerick arrived. They numbered about two hundred, conducted like the others by their chaplain, a man at once indefatigable and full of courage, whose almost juvenile ardour was irresistibly communicated to his companions.
I thought that these brave men, fatigued by a long journey and numerous privations, deserved to be well treated by that Pope to whom they came thus to offer their arms and blood. Hence, I had prepared for them at the barracks fresh straw mattresses and warm soup, and, having made these arrangements, went forward to meet them on the road to Ancona.
Confused cries and sounding hurrahs soon announced the approach of the column. I presented myself to the new almoner, whom I recognized by his long black coat and high gaiters. At once he gave a prodigious hurrah for the Pope, which was instantly repeated by the two hundred volunteers with an enthusiasm of which the pure races are alone capable. At the same time they brandished enormous cudgels, which served them alike as walking-sticks and weapons, and with which each man had provided himself before quitting his native parish.
It would be difficult to portray the terror which such scenes produced on the peaceful inhabitants of the town, little accustomed to such noisy demonstrations. They always avoided meeting the Ollandesi, as they then ignorantly termed them the Verdoni, (canary colour, half green and half yellow,) as they afterwards called them, from the colours of their uniform. The women were content to gaze timidly from the windows at these strange guests; the urchins alone, braver or more frolicsome, escorted the newly-arrived, and strove to keep step with these giants of the north, four times as great as themselves.
As it happened, the Battalion of Saint Patrick never served together and was split into companies, four of which, including Michaels, arrived in the port town of Ancona on July 5th, 1860. Little over a month later, Michael the N.C.O. was to become Michael the officer with his appointment to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. On the 15th August General La Moriciere wrote to Colonel Guerra, the officer in command; “Take all the trouble that you can, my dear Colonel, about these four companys. With them one requires patience, give and take, and an inflexible firmness in serious matters.”
On this occasion he sanctioned the appointment of a 2nd Leiutenant, mainly as a disciplinarian, Mr O’Connell. The appointment was given on the grounds that any “nephew” of Daniel O’Connell must of course have a commission. How La Moriciere, a great fan of the Liberator, came to this conclusion is anyones guess.
Ministry of defence honours Signore Michael O’Connell. And with God’s blessing, is pleased to promote him to sub lieutenant in St Patrick’s Battalion with the stipend of the subsequent rank. Rome, 20 August, 1860; Registered at No. 1688; The Director of Personnel; (signature indecipherable).
Ireland was ruled from London during Michael’s life and Britain was opposed to the aims of Pope Pius IX, openly supporting Garibaldi with her navy during his invasion of Sicily. As a result, with no military source for arms and uniforms, the Irish were poorly clothed, worse than any other nationality serving in the Papal army. They were issued with surplus Austrian uniforms, leftovers from previous wars; their weaponry consisted of the obsolete smooth bore muskets and only some were given haversacks and ammunition belts. One comment reportedly from an Irish officer was that “the muskets with a bayonet were only as useful as the pikes our grandfathers used in 1798.” The green uniforms, promised months before in Ireland, never arrived and this caused the most disappointment to the men as they had no external sign of their national identity. Some officers did have the time and money to get tailored green and gold trimmed uniforms but it is not known if Michael was among this small group.
Despite this ramshackle appearance, the Irish were enthusiastic. General Lamoriciere, who was not slow to blame the slack units in his thrown together army, always spoke of the Irish with praise:- “the ferocious self-sacrifice of men fighting for their ideals.”
The invasion of the papal states, by the Peidmontese, began on September 11th, 1860 and the resistance put up by La Moriciere was largely nominal. There was, however, sharp fighting against Victor Emmanuel’s Bersaglieri and the Piedmonts in a number of areas where the Irish companies were posted.
13th September, - One company, commanded by Capt. James Blackney. The battle consisted of a number of running street skirmishes and was over within the day to the delight of the natives who opposed the occupying Papal army.
Clooney describes in a letter to the Citizen:
We were stationed in one of the palaces - that of the Corso. Time wore on for a few days and we were in expectation of an attack but it did not come off at this time. However, on the Sunday evening after, I was sitting with a friend on one of the walls of the fortress, speaking of poor old Ireland, when we were interrupted by the noise of persons on horseback flashing under the walls beneath us, and looking down we beheld a mounted gendarme sweeping under the gates of the fort. He had not passed us, scarcely, when another appeared, his horse dripping with sweat, and himself in apparent consternation. After him followed another bearing on his horse’s back the clothes of a wounded comrade. They conveyed the information that a band of rebels from Tuscany, which had been hovering about the frontier for some days, had entered one of the villages by surprise, routed the gendarmerie, had taken a captain prisoner with four men, and murdered one of their comrades. This was news of some importance to us, and we were ordered to be ready to turn out at a moments notice as an advance on Perugia was expected. Of course we were ready in little or no time, but no attack was made by the supposed rebels.
The reported attack may or may not have been a trick. A few days later there was a similar report and General Schmidt, Commander of the Perugia Garrison responded. On 10 September he led out a column of 1,250 men, leaving just two companies - one Irish and one Italian (of suspect loyalty) - and a few gendarmes - in all less than 400 men behind to hold Perugia. The next day, 11 September, war was formally declared and an Italian force of 12,000 men, the right wing of the army, commanded by General Fanti, advanced on Perugia.
As soon as he heard that war had been declared, Schmidt rushed back to Perugia, hoping to get there before General Fanti and his 12,000 Piedmontese regulars. After marching 27 miles in 14 hours, he arrived there at about 7 a.m. on the morning of the 13th, just a half-an-hour before Fanti arrived. To gain time while he deployed his exhausted troops, Schmidt sent some of the Irish to guard the gates of the walled town. Clooney himself now takes up the story.
“The Irish, God knows, were small enough in the fortress being only 120 strong (Company No. 1) but they were to be still smaller, and twenty Irishmen were ordered to go and guard the gate of St. Angelo from attack. I happened to be one of the twenty; and down we went to guard the gate. Here there was no cover for us; so we should stand in the open street if an enemy came upon us.
Our orders on leaving the fort were, if attacked by odds to fire on the enemy and retire to the fortress. We had not been an hour at the gate when sharp cross firing was heard in several directions and we knew the enemy had entered the town. It was so. He had gained admission by the eastern gate of the city. The cannon was firing from the fortress but the enemy held the town, and had taken all the guards except the twenty of which I was one. In a few minutes cross firing was heard near us and presently the enemy appeared at the top of the street (not through the gate, as we expected him). The enemy drawing up in a front three deep, discharged a heavy volley into the twenty men. We grasped our firelocks and gave them a volley in return, when we retired behind the street corner and the enemy came down on our small band who retreated down the street. We took our way as well as we could find through strange streets we had never seen.
At the corner of each street as we cleared it we got a volley from the enemy. Only for God was with us we were all cut up. One of our lads was severely wounded, a musket ball passing through his leg. He fell into the hands of the enemy. At the corner of one of these streets, I received a slight wound in the arm from a spent ball. There will only be a slight mark. The men, nineteen in all, formed up to attempt to force a passage through to the fort when they were forced back by a fresh volley from the enemy. I regret to say one of our men, a lad from Dublin - Corporal Allman - a medical student of that city, was shot through the heart. He fell by our side bathed in blood. Here also more of our men were severely wounded, among them Corporal Synan of Clonmel by a bullet passing through his jaw and out again. Our men now discharged at the enemy, killing and wounding many of them.
We were now forced to divide. Six of our lads passed across the street and got under cover; twelve more turned across and wheeling by a small street, broke open a door where we endeavoured to protect ourselves till evening when we might join the whole company of Irish for a deadly fight. But some of the civilians sold us and in about an hour after entering the house we were surrounded by Piedmontese soldiers.
The whole of the young men asked me to direct the movements, though there was a corporal to do so. I directed them to remain silent for a while as it was best to stab them as they came up the dark stairs; but scarcely had the Piedmontese broken open the door and demanded a surrender when six of our lads discharged a volley right into them, wounding several. They now appeared at and around the house, fired away at the windows and below them in about our ears, while others poured volley after volley up the stairs and our lads were blowing down on them in return. They demanded a surrender. I feared that they might fire the house. I advanced and shook hands with a sergeant and so we made an honourable surrender. Of how we were treated I cannot speak now, as I am a prisoner.
While we were fighting in the streets the Irish in the fort did good service; and if everyone in the fortress there had fought as well as the Irish, Perugia would never have fallen into enemy hands. I cannot finish without mentioning the name of M. L. Luther, a young lad formerly of the Waterford Artillery and from Clonmel. He was always at the guns, firing and directing the fire. His name will live on the lips of every man of the Irish Brigade while there is one of us alive. My love to all enquiring friends and well-wishers. My bag and all it contained were blown to pieces in the fort.”
The rest of the garrison would soon join Clooney in captivity.
There are few details available as to the capture of the fortress and the rest of Company No. 1. General Schmidt in his report stated that he had been obliged to surrender when his Italian and Swiss troops refused to fight on. However, he exempted the Irish from this criticism. “The Irish company and the majority of the 2nd Line Battalion alone showed themselves determined to do their duty.”
17th September, - The capture of Perugia opened the road to Spoleto some 60 miles to the South, which was now garrisoned by about 800 officers and men, almost half of whom were Irish and all under the command of Major O’Reilly. On the 15th, Fanti and his troops approached the town. A summons to surrender was rejected by O’Reilly…“Return and tell your commander, that we are Irishmen, and that we hold this citadel for God and the Pope. The Irish who serve the Pope are ready to die and not to surrender.”
At 8 o’clock on the morning of the 17th the Piedmontese opened a heavy artillery bombardment. Two companies, under their brigade commander, Major Myles O’Reilly, were given the task of holding the North Wall and the vital Gate House of the majestic Castle Albornozian or Rocca. The Irish performed with distinction, holding their ground and the gate for fourteen hours, besieged by 2,500 veteran Piedmontese with field artillery under General Brigonne. This was also the battle where John Coppinger, later of Civil War fame, came to prominence and was wounded repelling a bayonet charge. After holding out against repeated attacks, Major O’Reilly eventually negotiated a favourable surrender when the possibility of re-enforcements had become unlikely.
Writing sixty years later, the English historian G. M. Trevelyan wrote:
For twelve hours on September 17th the North Italians bombarded the Rocca of Spoleto, and in the afternoon attempted to storm its gate. Almost all of the small column of assault were killed or wounded. Both Irish and North Italians, here, as a few weeks later at Ancona, displayed the ferocious self-sacrifice of men fighting for ideals. The assault was repulsed for that day, but when the night fell the castle was crumbling beneath the bombardment, the ammunition was running out, and the Swiss and Italian Papalists compelled Major O’Reilly and the boys to open the gate. After a gallant resistance that won the admiration of many, O’Reilly was forced to surrender.
18th September - Two Irish companies, recently arrived from Spoleto, were in the field near the small town of Castelfidardo with General La Moriciere, under the command of Captain Martin Kirwan. They were prominent in the defense of an area called the ‘Upper Farm’ when Austrian soldiers manning the artillery had become causalities or had retreated. It was reported that the Irish rushed to man the abandoned guns, hauling them out of reach of the enemy.
Taken from a letter by, Albert Delahoyde, a soldier in the Papal Brigade (Ancona) to his mother describing the Battle of Castelfidardo, 19 Sept 1860:
The General was on his march with Pimodan’s brigade of Franco-Belge and two companies of Irish. He was attacked near Loretta by 20,000 and fearfully cut up. General Pimodan was shot through the body. The revolution had its emissaries enrolled as soldiers in the Pontifical army. One of these, by a traitorous blow from behind, slew the brave Pimodan in the height of the battle. These traitors also caused a panic at the decisive moment by spreading false alarms. (Pius IX. And His Time By The Rev. Æneas MacDonell Dawson.) and many officers killed or taken. 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 and then, along with the Belgians, charged the main body, twenty to one and in the confusion the General and about 200 German Light Dragoons and the Guides, charged and cut his way through the enemy. He arrived here (Ancona) yesterday evening with about fifty or sixty dragoons and two guides. He came in so cool that we thought at first he was victorious.
To get an insight from the victors, the following is the official account of the Battle of Castelfidardo written by the opposing commander, General Caldini:
To General Cacchiari, Bologna:
This morning at ten o’clock, General Lamoricière attacked my extreme position on the counterfort, which extends from Castelfidardo, by Crocetta, to the sea. All the prisoners affirm that he had with him 11,000 men and fourteen pieces of artillery, having reinforced the troops at Foligno with all that he had at Terni, Oscali, and elsewhere. He supported his attack by a sortie of 4,000 men from the garrison of Ancona. These troops attacked us in a really furious manner. The combat was short, but violent and bloody. We had to storm several positions successively and, after a simulated surrender, the defenders of these positions assassinated our soldiers with poniards. Several of the wounded stabbed our men as they were coming up to succor them. We have taken 600 prisoners, among them are thirty officers, some of them of high rank. We have also taken six pieces of artillery, and among them those given by Charles Albert to Pope Pius IX, in 1848; a great many ammunition and baggage wagons, one flag, an infinity of arms, and many knapsacks left behind by the routed men. All the enemies wounded, including General de Pimodan, who led the attacking column, are in my power, as also a considerable number of dead. The column which sallied forth from Ancona was compelled to retreat, but I have good hopes that I shall capture a great part of it this night. Prisoners and deserters are coming in every moment in great numbers. The fleet has arrived, and is opening fire upon Ancona.
The General commanding the Fourth Corps d’Armee.”
The comments by General Caldini about a column sallying forth from Ancona is of interest to us as this is where Michael was posted and may have been the reason for him being awarded the “Medaglia de Pro Petri Sede” (Otherwise known as the Castelfidardo medal). Myles Keogh, of Custers Last Stand fame, participated in this sortie on September 15th and wrote home to Carlow telling of his experience:–
“My dearest Mother, We expect to have an engagement every day. Our 450 men with 200 others and 2 pieces of cannon made a reconnaissance on Saturday evening. Everywhere we saw the enemy who keeps his outposts within 5 miles of us. Lamoriciere is expecting an engagement tomorrow. Do not fear for me, dearest mother. I am prepared. Myles”
The phrase, “I am prepared”, was underlined by Myles in his letter and is assumed as a comfort to his mother that he received the sacrament of mass and probably confession. Father John McDermott, a chaplain to the troops in Ancona, told of how the men withstood the siege:–
“Our poor fellows are in great heart, cheering, etc. I am really fatigued hearing their confessions and preparing them to die happily…”
Cialdini’s victorious army was now advancing towards Second Lieutenant Michael O’Connell and the remainder of the Irish Brigade at Ancona, less than 8 miles away and a siege began almost the same day.
The harbour city was bombarded intensely, with well placed artillery, almost 200 siege guns, with a range double that of the Papal guns. The Piedmontese fleet, under Admiral Persano, launched a simultaneous attack from sea. Persano’s fleet, with the steam frigates Maria Adelaide (flag), Carlo Alberto, Vittorio Emanuele, the sail frigate San Michele and the paddle corvettes Governolo Constituzione and Monzambano consisted of 400 guns. The Papal artillery responded defiantly with less than 149 assorted pieces of artillery. The Piedmontese and Sardinian troops stormed the outer works several times with both sides showing great courage.
Despite being opposed to their occupation of the city, the Governor of Ancona 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 reported that the Irish 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.
On the morning of the 26th, the Sardinians, under the command of General Fanti, attacked the land side fort of Monte Pelago, situated on a height above the city where the Irish, under Captain Russell, were among the defending occupants. Just when it seemed that the fort and its precious guns were to be captured, two companies of Irish launched themselves at the attackers. This allowed Jan Chosciak Popiel’s Austrian gunners to withdraw their cannon and resulted in the capture of 15 Sardinians. However, following almost daily exchanges with the Irish on the east side of Ancona, Monte Pelago was eventually captured and used to lay heavy artillery fire upon Captain Russell and his command. To counteract this danger, Russell instructed his men to build a traverse but the completed fortification proved to be short lived as the next day their position, Bastion No. 8, fell.
Due to their enthusiasm and tenacity, the Irish companies were then constantly moved to where the threat of a breach was more likely. On September 27, at the lunette of San Stefano near the town’s citadel, the Irish finally clashed in open combat with General Fanti’s troops. Firstly they held their fire as the Sardinians advanced up the small hill. When the attackers were within range and poised to fire, the Irish unleashed a deadly fusillade from their ramshackle muskets before charging, bayonets fixed, at the shocked and retreating Italians, whose retreat became a rout. Given their civilian background, it was a remarkable feat of bravery and military acumen by the Irish against veteran, battle hardened soldiers. Nonetheless, the Piedmontese kept up an unrelenting barrage on the fortifications which defended the entrance to the harbour.
On the 28th of September and after ten days of combat, the frigate Carlo Alberto opened well directed and continuous fire against La Lanterna, the naval base occupied by the Papal forces, and caused a good deal of damage. Captain Battista Albini ordered the Vittorio Emanuele to head for the battery and discharge a full broadside against it. Its magazine took a direct hit and exploded.
According to Russell:– “a tremendous explosion occurred and an immense jet of flame accompanied by a thousand pieces of stone and bronze, hurtled skyward, then fell on all sides like a deadly rainstorm. The falling debris obliterated the heavy pontoons that held the chain across the entrance to the harbour, leaving a gap of 500 metres open to the enemy…it was our death knell.” With this lucky strike, the Piedmontese had fatally weakened the defence of Ancona and, soon after, the white flag was raised over the citadel but the Piedmontese refused to cease the bombardment even after the Papal Army had surrendered. Finally, after just 18 days, the formalities of surrender were completed and the guns fell silent. The Papal War of 1860 had ended, with between 70 and 100 Irish soldiers thought killed or wounded in action during those few weeks in September. Overall, the Pope’s army received reasonable treatment from the victors, who were mindful that the eyes of the Catholic world were upon them.
Michael’s commanding officer, Captain Frank Russell, wrote in his account - Dix Annees Au Service Pontifical:–
During the bombardment of Ancona, which lasted six days, I occupied with the fourth Irish company a bastion of the intrenched camp, situated on a height which commanded the city and the defence from the land side. For some days we had nothing to shelter us; and to add to the annoyance, the earth having been lately turned for the works ordered by the general, the first rain changed it to thick mud. On this couch my men had to sleep, with naught above them save the arch of heaven. Nevertheless, they did not complain, as I might have expected from their previous conduct, and they remained the whole night exposed to a driving rain on this wet soil without uttering one complaint, so much had the sight of the enemy excited their ardour and developed their military virtues. Strange! It had only required a few bomb-shells to change these peasants, so intractable the evening before, into sober, patient, and warlike soldiers, ready for all sacrifices.
Every afternoon, about five o’clock, the bombardment ceased, as if by agreement, and then commenced the most original scene which can be imagined. In the midst of the terreplein of my bastion they kindled a fire, and grouped themselves pell-mell around it, just as chance arranged them, soldiers, non-commissioned and commissioned officers. For the latter seats of honour were reserved, consisting principally of inverted wheel-barrows, water-buckets, and old pieces of lumber. The pipes struck up, the gourds of brandy passed from hand to hand, and tongues were unloosed; and as the day had been more or less exciting, so was the conversation animated. One of a dramatic turn, endowed with a long and neglected beard and draped majestically in some old cloak, recited with upraised hands some scene of mighty Shakespeare. Another, somewhat younger, sung tenderly a national air, a sweet melody of the poet Moore. I have always remembered one of these touching ballads, and cannot resist giving it here:
Rich and rare were the gems she wore,
And a bright gold ring on her wand she bore;
But oh! her beauty was far beyond
Her sparkling gems or snow-white wand.
“Lady, dost thou not fear to stray,
So lone and lovely, through this bleak way?
Are Erin’s sons so good or so cold
As not to be tempted by woman or gold?”
“Sir Knight! I feel not the least alarm;
No son of Erin will offer me harm;
For though they love woman and golden store,
Sir Knight, they love honour and virtue more!”
On she went, and her maiden smile,
In safety lighted her round the green isle,
And blest for ever is she who relied
On Erin’s honour and Erin’s pride.
Another, an inhabitant of the mountains, began some interminable legend, in which the ghosts of his ancestors played an important part. Sighs and cries of joy accompanied the recital, broken only by the monotonous “All’s well”, which the sentries on the parapet passed from one end of the camp to the other. All listened, awed, wonder-stricken, and transported in spirit to the hearths which they had left, and around which they had often kept joyous vigil by the light of the burning turf. Fortunately, no inopportune shell came from the enemy’s batteries to cast its lurid glare over the joyous group or glitter on the beard of the singer. O pure and romantic natures! Oh! what a natural poesy and gaiety surrounds this race, which we are wont to cover with a cloud of melancholy sadness. Were I to live a hundred years, I could not efface the vivid remembrance of those noisy vigils at Bastion No. 8, at the bombardment of Ancona in 1860.
Momentary enthusiasm was their great motive power. Whoever knew how to excite them, could obtain from them whatever he wished. And then, to see the play of their chests, their arms and shoulders; they seemed like so many Vulcans. The heaviest weights, which an Italian could scarcely move, gun-carriages, shell, beams, blocks of stone, they raised without difficulty, and, placing them on their stalwart shoulders, carried them with the greatest ease, one after another. From this I derived much benefit in a critical situation. The Piedmontese having, half by surprise and half by main force, seized one of the outposts of Monte Pelago, and having there posted a battery, whence a raking fire entirely commanded the bastion which I occupied, I saw that, in order to protect my men, I must construct a traverse in the midst of the bastion. But how remove the earth? How perform all the necessary work under the fire whose balls rained among us and whistled unpleasantly in our ears? Fortune favoured me; a heavy rain storm interrupted the bombardment.
“To work, boys! To work!” I cried. “In three hours you must raise twelve feet in length of a traverse, eight feet high, five feet thick at the top, and ten at the bottom, which will withstand everything they may send from Monte Pelago. Here, you terracemakers, come on with your picks and shovels. And you, Sergeant Tongue – you are a master carpenter; dress these logs and slabs for me, to make a frame for the work. In this manner, by God’s grace, we will get ready a traverse that would keep the devil out, even if we had not the Pope with us. To work, boys! to work!”
In a few hours we had the bastion sheltered from the fire of the enemy. Alas! my poor traverse, fruit of such generous labour, we did not keep you long. In fact, the following day all was over, unfortunately ended; Bastion No. 8, along with all the others, passed into the hands of the enemy.
I did not take part in the defence of Spoleto, that feat of arms so glorious for the Irish Legion; but after seeing these volunteers at the bombardment of Ancona, I can easily imagine what must have been that struggle of twenty-four hours of their two companies against ten thousand Piedmontese.
An old cannon of heavy calibre, for many years laid aside as condemned, was buried in a corner of the fortress. Instantly it was extricated from the debris, transported by main force to a height whence it commanded the enemy, and mounted on a gun-carriage; and the rusty old piece, astonished at its resurrection, killed more men on that one day than during the entire century of its past existence.
A decayed, half-ruined gate afforded an entrance into the citadel. The enemy directed their efforts against it. The athletic sons of St. Patrick fell to work, and in an hour it was braced up and barricaded with gabions, and firmly resisted two successive assaults of the enemy’s column.
I could cite twenty instances of this kind, where heroic courage joined to prodigious muscular strength worked miracles. But if a more prosaic example will suffice to form an idea of the strength of these iron limbs, I would add, softly and not without a slight blush, that during the period of my command I never saw a guard-house door which could resist their opposing efforts more than two hours, however well bolted it might be. After the iniquitous bombardment, which did not respect the white flag floating over all the works of the citadel and fort, our general capitulated, and we were obliged to abandon the place. The departure was very trying, and I cannot recall without grief the humiliation of that disastrous day. I do not wish to speak of it, nor could I do so without bitter tears; but it gives me pleasure to remember a spirited act of the Irish Legion.
It was six o’clock in the evening; our companies, of which I commanded the last, marched in close column, flanked, alas! by a line of Piedmontese, who, I must admit, had more regard for our misfortune than the dastardly population of the city. We passed gloomily the gate which leads to the Porta Pia quickening our step as much as the escort would allow, when some of my men came to me.
“Captain,” said they, “we have come to say that Ireland will blush for her children if she learns that we abandoned this city without bidding a last adieu to the Pope; we ask permission to salute him after our fashion at this last moment.”
“I understand; be quiet for a moment, and Ireland will be content with you and with me.”
A few moments after this, we reached the boundary of the suburbs. As the last man passed the gates of this unfortunate city, judging the moment opportune for the execution of our project, I gave with all the strength of my voice a last hurrah.
“Hurrah for the Pope!” shouted all in unison. The walls, the city, the gate, even the ocean itself, were shaken. To paint the astonishment of our guards would be impossible. They consulted together for an explanation of what had just occurred. Finally, I heard a sous-officer say to his neighbour, “Lasciamo fare, sono Irlandesi! Bah! these are Irishmen; of what use is it to trouble yourselves about their savage cries?”
Such was our departure from Ancona, on the 20th of September, 1860, and such the solemn adieu of the Irish Legion to the pontifical soil.”
After Ancona’s fall the prisoners were keep in an open field for three days. The Irish enlisted men were separated from their officers, all destined for imprisonment in Genoa. The latter sailed on the ship “Count Cavour,” while the rank and file travelled overland in thirteen days, on only one of which they were allowed any rest, then deported to Marseilles. On arrival in Genoa, the Irish officers were kept in a large barracks but granted a “parole d’honneur” to visit the nearby town if they wished. Despite this relatively loose form of imprisonment, one rumor that troubled the Irish officers was that they were to be transported to Malta, imprisioned there and denied food to compel them to join the British army. However, this never came to pass, and after three to four weeks of imprisonment, the officers were released and the vast majority of the Pope’s Irish battalion returned home.
Raffaele De Cesare, wrote in his “The last days of papal Rome, (1909)”:–
The first anniversary of the defeat of Castelfidardo was commemorated in the church of San Carlo al Corso with a requiem service for the Pontifical soldiers who had fallen in the fight. The inscription above the church door ran:–
“All honour and glory to the martyrs of Castelfidardo, victims of treason and force.”
Here is what the Belgian cardinal, Xavier de Merode, Papal Pro-Minister for War, wrote of the Irish Zouaves after they were released from their Genoese prison:–
“At the moment in which, in consequence of the present sad state of affairs, the brave soldiers of the Battalion of St Patrick, who had hastened hither for the defence of the States of the Church, are about to leave the Pontifical army, the undersigned Minister of War experiences the liveliest satisfaction in being able to express to those soldiers his entire satisfaction and in bestowing upon them the highest praise for their conduct. Nothing more could be expected from them. The Battalion of St Patrick at Spoleto, at Perugia, at Castel-Fidardo, and in Ancona, has shown the power of faith united to the sentiment of honour, in the treacherous and unequal contest in which a small number of brave soldiers resisted to the last an entire army of sacrilegious invaders. May this recollection never perish from their hearts! God, who defends His Church, will bless what they have done.”
Cardinal Manning:– “In that little band were men of noble blood, of time-honoured memory, of high culture, fighting side by side with simple, hard-handed, broad-hearted peasants, who, full of devotion, left their hamlets and their homes to defend the Vicar of our Lord, and with striplings of seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years of age, mature in faith, and the manhood of Christian chivalry. These were the men who, forsaking home and all that life holds best and dearest, went to bear arms as private soldiers, without hire and without hope, except that of defending the person and authority of the Vicar of Christ, and of shedding their blood, if need be, in the justest warfare and for the holiest cause.”
For their service, each officer and enlisted man was awarded a commemorative service medal – Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede – and all those who fought were declared “meritorious of the Catholic Church, the Holy See and all human society.” In further recognition of the Irish endeavors in battle, Papal officials decided to form a Company of St. Patrick to serve in the reorganized but greatly reduced Papal army. The disaster at Castelfidardo gave an excuse for weeding out any remaining undesirable elements in the ranks of the recently-formed and now decimated papal units. Vicomte Louis de Becdelievre, veteran soldier and commander of the Battalion of French-Belgian Sharpshooters, in January of 1861, was able to reconstitute a new force from the survivors of the St. Patrick and Franco-Belgian Sharpshooter Battalions. These he outfitted with a popular Algerian uniform initially used by Zouaoua Berbers serving in the French Army, winning for those wearing it in Rome the name of Papal Zouaves. Six hundred strong to begin with, the Papal Zouaves were an extraordinary international brigade. Becoming part of the Papal Zouaves, Michael and the Irish contingent never numbered more than fifty, with Frank Russell retained as captain and the company’s initial commanding officer.
On Christmas morning 1860 Pius IX personally administered communion to the troops in the Sistine Chapel. After each kissed the Papal ring they marched to the Royal Salon of the Vatican, where they were supplied with chocolate, coffee, and ice cream, waited upon, not by the household servants, but by the cardinals and bishops, who vied with each other to show them the most marked attentions and courtesies.
All Zouaves were bound by a solemn oath, first taken on January 9, 1861 at St. John the Lateran:–
“I swear to Almighty God to be obedient and faithful to my sovereign, the Roman Pontiff, our very Holy Father, Pope Pius IX and his legitimate successors.
I swear to serve him with honor and fidelity and to sacrifice my life for the defense of his august and sacred person, for the support of his sovereignty and for the maintenance of his rights.
I swear not to belong to any civil or religious sect, to any secret society or corporation, whatever they might be, having for its direct or indirect goal to offend the Catholic religion and to corrupt society.
I swear to not join any sect or society condemned by the decrees of the Roman Pontiffs.
I swear also to the very good and great God to not have any direct or indirect communication with the enemies, whoever they might be, of religion and the Roman Pontiffs.”
On the 19th of January, 1861, Michael was honoured by the Pope who conferred on him a Knighthood:-
“Chevalier Michael Augustine O’Connell.
Beloved son, greetings and apostolic blessing. The splendid witness of faith, respect and devotion which you have shown to the seat of blessed Peter in such bitter times persuades us to offer you this glorious title to reward your acts of service. Therefore as a particular proof of our very favourably disposed attitude towards you, wishing to adorn you with honour, and absolving you by the grace of this decree from any excommunications and prohibitions and other ecclesiastical censures and penalties you may have incurred in any way or for any reason, and judging that you will be absolved by our apostolic authority, by the power of this letter, we elect, establish and declare you a knight of the order of Pius and enter you in that most distinguished order which was set up by us and was called after our name. Accordingly we permit you, beloved son, to wear the cloak appropriate to Knights of the Third class and also to wear freely and lawfully the correct medal which hangs on the left side of the breast on a silk ribbon with a double blue line set off by red at the edges. But that no difficulty may arise in the wearing of cloak and medal, we order the attached description to be handed over to you. Given at St Peter’s in Rome under the Fisherman’s Ring on the ninteenth day of January 1861 in the 15th year of our Pontificate.”
From the Freeman’s Journal, Wednesday 15 May 1861, (Sydney, NSW). – The Irish Brigade. – By a brief dated Jan. 21st, 1861, his Holiness has deigned to confer the Order of Pius IX. (third class) on Michael O’Connell, of the County Kerry, Ireland, sub-lieutenant of the former battalion of St. Patrick, as a reward for his brave conduct in the last campaign. — Correspondance de Rome.
With Civil War raging in America, Secretary of State William H. Seward began seeking experienced European officers to serve the Union, and called upon a number of prominent clerics to assist in this endeavour. John Hughes, Archbishop of New York, travelled to Italy to recruit veterans of the Papal War, and met with Michael and his comrades. With the fighting over Michael saw little purpose in remaining at Rome. In 1862 he embarked for America.