‘The Wearing of the Green’ – An Irishman’s Diary on the Irish Brigade in Rome in 1944

Most people remember the celebrated meeting of Pope John Paul II and Jack Charlton’s Irish team before the World Cup quarter-final in Rome in 1990.

Not so well known is the visit to the Vatican by another group of Irishmen, the 38th Irish Brigade of the British army, 75 years ago this month.

On the morning of June 12th, 1944, 150 men from the brigade were received by Pope Pius XII. These men, like their footballing counterparts 46 years later, were drawn from the ranks of the Irish-born and the second and third generation Irish born in Britain.

There were even some Orangemen among the contingent which left the brigade’s front lines 60 kilometres north of Rome for the trip to the Vatican.

The visit to Pope Pius XII had been arranged by the brigade’s Kerry-born chaplain Fr Dan Kelleher, by the commanding officer Brigadier Pat Scott, and the head of the Irish legation to the Vatican Dr John Kiernan.

Scott, the son of a British general, had antecedents from Co Fermanagh. Though a Protestant, he understood the importance of the Catholic faith to many of his men. He also had an arch sense of humour and said of the date chosen: “I was only sorry it wasn’t the 12th of July.”

The 38th (Irish) Brigade was formed in 1942. It had seen fierce fighting in Tunisia and had been involved in the landings at Sicily and then the Italian campaign as the Allies sought to liberate the peninsula from German occupation, the Italians having switched sides.

He fretted that the only 'thing that would be remembered about Éire after the war was that it was neutral'

Rome had been liberated on June 4th, 1944, though at an unacceptable price, many military historians believed. The American commander, Gen Mark Clark, walked into what was an open city. It was a prestigious target achieved two days before D-Day, but in doing so he allowed the German defenders to escape north.

The frontline had advanced 50 kilometres north of Rome when the call came to meet the pope.

Scott wrote shortly afterwards: “The advance was going so quickly that it seemed a question of now or never. Everyone in the brigade of all denominations seemed to think that it would be a good thing to do. The pope thought it would be a good idea too.”

There was competition as only a contingent could go. Scott decided only Catholics from the ranks would be allowed attend along with six officers from each of the brigade’s three battalions. There were, Scott admitted, some “out and out Orangemen” among the officers and he declined to name them lest it be “read out in their local Orange Hall at home”.

Vatican officials changed the time from 10am to 9am. At 8.45 the men formed up in Vatican City and walked into St Peter’s in formation. The pope told them they belonged “to the nation which has ever belonged to God’s church since St Patrick. We are well aware of the good which the Irish have done in spreading the faith from the shores of their green isle into the United States of America, Australia, South Africa and many other nations.”

Scott then asked pope if he would like to hear a tune. The pipes struck up The Wearing of the Green.

The irony of a British army formation playing an Irish rebel song about their antecedents in the British army hanging men and women for the wearing of the green may well have been lost on the pope.

The pope spoke to some of the men personally and gave them all rosary beads and prayer cards.

Pope Pius XII’s activities during the war are the subject of ongoing controversy. Some say he did not do enough to denounce the Holocaust. Ostensibly neutral, nobody doubted where his allegiances really were and his meeting with the Irish Brigade was a significant development at such a critical time in the war.

Outside, the brigade’s pipers started again on the steps of St Peter’s. In short order they were joined by “innumerable” Irish priests and nuns who were “mad with excitement”, according to Scott, and requested further songs to be played.

I had served Mass in many strange places, but to do so in St Peter's Cathedral was beyond belief

Scott said it had a serious purpose. He fretted that the only “thing that would be remembered about Éire after the war was that it was neutral. What we hope is that all the magnificent deeds wrought by the sons of Éire in this war, against the barbarians of Germany and her Allies, may be remembered to her credit.”

Among those present on the day was Edmund O’Sullivan, who served with the 2nd battalion of the London Irish Rifles during the war. He was invited to serve Mass and did so with alacrity.

“I had served Mass in many strange places, but to do so in St Peter’s Cathedral was beyond belief. The basilica was enormous and I could not wait to see over it. The Pietà (a sculptural masterpiece by Michelangelo) and the magnificent High Altar will remain in my memory.”

His sons Edmund (Gerard) and Richard O’Sullivan have created a website in memory of their father, who reached the rank of sergeant major, and the other men who served in the battalion.

This has been a meticulous labour of love over many years, containing war diaries, personal accounts, photographs and maps.

They have also made a series of videos tracing their father’s war time journey from Algiers in 1942 to Villach in southern Austria, which they reached in May 1945.