‘Sympathy for the Pope’: Irish nationalists in the North East of England and the threat to Pope Pius IX, 1860.

After the collapse of the Repeal movement and the death of Daniel O’Connell in 1847, there was no organised outlet for Irish nationalists living in the North East of England other than for the semi-criminal and oath-bound Ribbon or Hibernian gangs, whose often-violent sectarian activities in Felling,[1] Crook,[2] Shotley Bridge[3] and elsewhere[4] during the 1850s led to their condemnation by the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle as ‘unlawful’ and ‘iniquitous’.[5] Denounced from the pulpit and with gang members forbidden the sacraments ‘even at the hour of death’,[6] it is doubtful if any ‘respectable’ Irish nationalist would have joined these secret societies.

At the end of the 1850s, however, two events did see the North East’s Irish nationalists tentatively organise. In March 1858, there was a public meeting in Newcastle’s Boys’ Catholic School to raise subscriptions for famine relief in Donegal,[7] and in 1859, following the Franco-Austrian War, the appeal to present a ‘sword of honour’ to the French Marshal McMahon caused a flurry of donations from across the North East,[8] though no meetings appear to have been generated.[9]

In July 1859, the advanced nationalist newspaper The Irishman published a letter from Michael O’Hanlon of Newcastle, congratulating the editor, Denis Holland, on the paper’s first year of publication and on its ‘noble effort to resuscitate national feeling in the breasts of my down-trodden countrymen’, claiming that the Irish in Newcastle ‘have learned from its pages to be patriots’.[10] The following month, O’Hanlon wrote again to The Irishman, complaining that the Irish on Tyneside had ‘no centre of action. Our patriot energy is drowned for want of some honest nationalist of influence and standing to assist us by his counsel and inspire us by his example’.[11]

In 1860, however, that ‘patriot energy’ found a popular cause that united Irish Catholics and nationalists of all classes under one banner.[12] That cause was the Italian nationalist threat to the temporal power of Pope Pius IX.

Elected in 1846, Pius IX had initially been welcomed by moderate Italian nationalists as a reformist, who would embrace Italian unification. In 1848, however, the Papal States remained neutral in a nationalist alliance against Austria and, in February 1849, as the tide of European revolution reached Rome, Pius IX fled the city and a Roman Republic was declared.[13] Though soon restored and then maintained in power in Rome by a French garrison in the city, Pius IX was obliged to raise his own army to hold the Papal States. And so in late 1859, threatened from north and south by Italian nationalist armies, he appealed to Catholics everywhere for assistance.[14]

Before 1914, Irish nationalists voiced their support for the subject peoples of the Hapsburg, Ottoman, Russian and British empires seeking self-determination.[15] There was one nationalist struggle, however, that many, if not most, Irish Catholic nationalists were unwilling to support and that was the unification of Italy, where unification would mean the end of papal rule in central Italy. In this struggle, allegiance to Pope Pius IX far outweighed any sense of solidarity with Italian nationalists, and this Irish Catholic support for the pope was hardened by the adoption of the cause of Italian unification – Risorgimento – and the elevation of the Italian nationalist leader, Garibaldi, to the rank of hero by Protestants and Radicals in Britain and Ireland.

In Ireland, prayers and special masses for Pius IX were soon augmented with donations to a papal fund promoted by the Catholic clergy and the nationalist press, and by February 1860 over £80,000 had been raised.[16] The response to the papal appeal did not stop there, however. In October 1859, the nationalist newspaper The Nation had suggested that Irish volunteers should join the ranks of the Papal Army, and, despite the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, which forbade British subjects from serving in a foreign army, recruitment began in early 1860.[17] And by late June 1860 over 1,300 volunteers had left Ireland to serve in an Irish Brigade called the Battalion of St Patrick.[18]

In late September 1860, however, after just three weeks of fighting, the Papal Army surrendered and the Irish and other international Catholic volunteers taken prisoner. In November, the defeated Irish soldiers were released and sent home, where they were given a heroes’ welcome, made all the louder by the jeering of the British press.

The papal appeal was heard too in the North East of England by both English and Irish Catholics,[19] and in late January 1860 over 5,000 Catholics met in Newcastle’s town hall.[20] Most were described as being ‘Irish labourers, employed in the chemical factories, iron ship-building-yards, and iron works on the Tyne’, many of whom, no doubt, had been or still were Ribbonmen or Hibernians.[21] Not all the audience, however, were from ‘the labouring classes’, and ‘respectable’ Irish Catholics sat with local English Catholic gentry on the stage, whilst the hall’s gallery was reserved for women.[22] 

This meeting, convened following a lay appeal to parish priests, was chaired by William Hogarth, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, and supported by clergy from across Tyneside.[23] Its sole  purpose was ‘to express sympathy for the Pope’, and speaker after speaker spoke in his support, with Father Robert Suffield of St Andrew’s Church in Newcastle calling for the expulsion ‘from the Pope’s dominions’ of ‘the insolent foreigners who hold a Sardinian dagger in one hand and English gold in the other’.[24] Collections were also held across the North East and by October 1860 over £1,000 had been raised and sent to Rome.[25]

On 25 May 1860, the following was printed in the Durham Chronicle:[26]

‘We are informed upon the best authority that the movement to raise soldiers in this country for the army of Pope Pius IX has reached Tyneside, and that some of the more ardent but indiscreet friends of his Holiness are surreptitiously endeavouring to swell the number of his soldiers by recruits from this district. We are not in a position to say what success has attended these efforts.’

This story was carried in other newspapers in Britain and Ireland,[27] but no further details were added nor the story followed-up, so it seemed unlikely that any Irish volunteers from the North East joined the Irish Brigade and served in the Papal States.

On 8 December 1860, however, a month after the freed Irish Brigade volunteers had landed at Cork harbour to be fêted across Ireland,[28] the Catholic Telegraph printed a letter from William Duffy[29]in which he described a grand entertainment’ held in James Mulligan’s inn in Newcastle for returned members of the Irish Brigade.[30]  There, in a room decorated with papal banners and the image of Major Myles O’Reilly, who had commanded the Brigade in Italy, nine members of the Irish Brigade were welcomed back to the North East. Duffy did not give their names, presumably in fear of the Foreign Enlistment Act, but described them all as being ‘Natives of the Sea-girt Isle’, and living in Newcastle, Crook, and Berry Edge (Consett). Each ‘Brigademan’ was presented with ‘a purse of sovereigns’ by Canon Eyre from St Mary’s Cathedral, and speakers included Michael O’Hanlon, who spoke on ‘Irish valour from Fontenoy to the crimson heights of Spoleto’,[31] whilst Bernard McAnulty contrasted the honour and valour of the Irish Brigade volunteers with ‘the cut-throat assassins called the English Legion, the robber banditti who went to harass the Catholic natives in favour of Garibaldi’.[32] Patriotic songs ended the evening, which Duffy described as ‘a great one in the cause of God and Rome, and ever-faithful Catholic Ireland’.[33]

With their ‘patriot energy’ reinvigorated by the threat to the papacy and the emotion surrounding the Irish Brigade, the North East’s nationalists rallied to the call from Ireland for a ‘monster National Petition for the Repeal of the Union’.[34] Committees were organised to collect signatures by ‘house to house canvas’,[35] and meetings were held across the region. Michael O’Hanlon, as president of the newly-formed ‘Newcastle Committee of the National Repeal Association’, was a key speaker,[36] but he was not to be the ‘centre of action’ that he had previously identified as lacking in the North East. That role was to fall to another who had attended the ‘grand entertainment’, County Down-born Bernard McAnulty.[37] This successful businessman made himself central to every nationalist organisation in Newcastle and the North East from the 1860s, and, on his death in 1894, he was lauded as having held ‘the foremost place amongst Irish Nationalists in the North of England’.


With the return of the Irish Brigade, the plight of Pius IX no longer appears to have aroused the ire of Irish nationalists, as the Fenians came to dominate their attention. For Irish – and British – Catholics, however, the pope was still under threat, in spite of the Imperial French garrison in the city, as the newly-proclaimed Kingdom of Italy claimed Rome as its capital. In response to these threats, volunteers from across Europe and beyond joined the ranks of the Papal Zouaves to defend Rome, and from late 1867 The Tablet began to report on young English volunteers in Rome.[38] There were, however, fewer than sixty English Papal Zouaves, and most seem to have come from middle-class English Catholic families.[39] Amongst that number, however, were six Irish Catholic coal miners from Crook and nearby colliery villages in County Durham. These men had been recruited by their parish priest, Thomas Wilkinson. who was to be consecrated as Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in 1889.[40] (Note: There are brief biographies of these six men below.)

In August 1870, with France at war with Prussia, the French garrison in Rome was withdrawn. On 11 September, after Sedan had fallen and the French Emperor made prisoner, Royal Italian forces moved on Rome, and just nine days later a white flag was flying from the dome of St Peter’s. Rome had surrendered.[41] On 14 October 1870, an Italian steamer docked in the River Mersey. On board were Irish, English and French-Canadian Papal Zouaves still wearing their uniforms. The eighty-one English and Irish Zouaves disembarked in Liverpool the next day and, after being welcomed in the Catholic Club in Church Street, were billeted on local Catholic families, before being given the train fare to their homes, plus an additional ten shillings. Ostensibly a Catholic rather than a nationalist occasion, these arrangements, however, had been organised by the Catholic Club’s secretary – and leading Liverpool Fenian – John Denvir.[42]  

In July 1909, a photograph was published in the Ushaw Magazine showing Canon Thomas Wilkinson, parish priest of Our Lady Immaculate and St Cuthbert’s Church, Crook, with six uniformed Papal Zouaves in Rome.[43] The Zouaves were named as Felix McTimney, James Quinn, John Norton, Thomas Carlon (sic Caroll), Pat Clusky and Bernard Riley.[44]

The original photograph was dated ‘1870’ on the reverse, though it was probably taken before then. Canon Wilkinson had first seen the Papal Zouaves, when he accompanied the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle to Rome in 1867. On his return to Crook, Canon Wilkinson set about finding suitable volunteers amongst his parishioners to join the Zouaves. Six men were soon found and left for Rome with all their expenses paid for by their parish priest.[45] Presumably in 1870, after their release from prison, these six men disembarked at Liverpool and made their way back to County Durham, still wearing their exotic uniforms.

Felix McTimney: Born in Ireland about 1848, in 1881 he was working as a miner and living with his wife and children in Cornsay Colliery. He later lived and worked in Willington. Felix McTimney died in September 1917, aged 73 years, and was buried in the cemetery of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and St Thomas’s Church, Willington.

The Newcastle Journal reported his death and well-attended funeral:

‘Special honours were paid to his remains. His Zouave dress placed in the coffin, and his hat and plume on the coffin lid. On the night before burial the remains were carried in procession from his residence to Willington Catholic Church, where they remained all night… Mr McTimney’s death severs the chain of local associations with troublesome times at the Vatican about 1870.’[46]    

James Quinn: Born In Ireland about 1852, in 1901 he was working and living with his wife and family in Esh. James Quinn died in November 1905 and was buried in Redhills Roman Catholic Cemetery, Durham.[47]

John Henry Norton: Born in Huddersfield about 1851, in 1871, after his return from Rome, he was living with his Irish-born parents and working as a colliery labourer in Willington. John Norton died in March 1872 and was buried at the foot of the tower of Our Lady Immaculate and St Cuthbert’s Church, Crook. On his elaborate tomb is inscribed: ‘Pray for the soul of John H Norton. A Pontifical Zouave of Pius IX. Who fell asleep in the Lord March 8th 1872. Aged 21 years. RIP.’

Thomas Caroll: Born in Ireland about 1846, in 1881 he was working as a miner and living with his wife and children in Roddymoor, Crook. He later lived and worked in Witton Gilbert. Thomas Carroll died in 1908.

Patrick Cluskey: Not identified.

Bernard Riley: Born in Carlisle about 1843 of Irish-born parents, in 1861 he was working as a miner in Billy Row, Crook. In 1911, he and his wife were living with their son’s family in Esh Winning. Bernard Riley died in April 1916 and was buried at Blessed Virgin Mary Queen of Martyrs’ Church, Newhouse.

In September 1886, The Tablet reported the celebration of the ‘Feast of the Seven Dolours’ at the Queen of Martyrs’ Church, Newhouse. In the Sunday evening procession of the ‘Blessed Sacrament’ around the grounds of the church, there were ‘little girls dressed in white’ carrying bouquets of flowers and boys wearing ‘red sashes’. At the head of the procession, carrying the processional cross, was Bernard Riley dressed in his ‘Pontifical Zouave’ uniform.[48]

Tomb of John Norton, Papal Zouave, Our Lady Immaculate and St Cuthbert’s Church, Crook, County Durham.

[1] Newcastle Weekly Courant, 18 July 1856.

[2] The Nation, 8 May 1858.

[3] Durham Chronicle, 16 July 1858.

[4] Durham Chronicle, 5 February 1858.

[5] North & South Shields Daily Gazette, 23 September 1858.

[6] Newcastle Chronicle and Northern Counties Advertiser, 6 January 1859.

[7] Catholic Telegraph, 27 March 1858. The meeting was chaired by Bernard McAnulty. William Duffy and Michael O’Hanlon were present, as was the Count de Maricourt, the French Consul in Newcastle.

[8] For example from Sunderland and Durham City, The Irishman, 8 & 22 October 1859.

[9] See John Mitchell, Jail Journal (Ireland 1913, reprinted London 1983), pp.393-5; Anon, ‘An Irish Sword for Marshal MacMahon’, The Irish Sword, winter 1960, pp.246-248.

[10] The Irishman, 16 July 1859.

[11] The Irishman, 20 August 1859.

[12] The Nation, 28 July 1860.

[13] Donal Corcoran, The Irish Brigade in the Pope’s Army 1860. Faith, Fatherland and Fighting (Dublin, 2018), pp.15-17.

[14] For the history of the Papal States and Italian Unification see Corcoran, The Irish Brigade.

[15] In 1863, an Irish nationalist in Dublin described Poland as Ireland’s ‘sister of the East’ in his support of rebels fighting Russian occupation. See Róisín Healy, Poland in the Irish Nationalist Imagination, 1772-1922: Anti-Colonialism within Europe, (Basingstoke, 2017), pp.1-3.

[16] Corcoran, The Irish Brigade, p.50-51.

[17] R. V. Comerford, The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics & Society 1848-82 (Dublin, 1985), p.60.

[18] Corcoran, The Irish Brigade, p.59.

[19] See Jonathan Bush, ‘Papists’ and Prejudice: Popular anti-Catholicism and Anglo-Irish conflict in the North East of England, 1845-70 (Newcastle, 2013), pp.110-129.

[20] The Nation, 28 January 1860.

[21] Durham Chronicle, 27 January 1860.

[22] Newcastle Guardian, 28 January 1860.

[23] Morning Chronicle, 26 January 1860.

[24] Catholic Telegraph, 28 January 1860.

[25] The Tablet, 13 October 1860. Also see Bush, ‘Papists’ and Prejudice, p.127.

[26] Durham Chronicle, 25 May 1860.

[27] For example The Tablet, 2 June 1860.

[28] Corcoran, Irish Brigade, pp.148-157.

[29] Born In Ireland about 1821, William Duffy worked as a ‘classical teacher’ in Newcastle. An avid letter writer to newspapers in the 1850s and 1860s, Duffy also lectured on Catholic and Irish topics. See Newcastle Chronicle & Northern Counties Advertiser, 3 December 1858 & 10 July 1860.

[30] Catholic Telegraph, 8 December 1860. James Mulligan ran the Beeswing Inn in Gallowgate, Newcastle upon Tyne. Ward’s 1859 Directory for Northumberland & Durham, p.95b.

[31] An Irish Brigade served with the victorious French Army at Fontenoy in 1745. Irish volunteers from the Battalion of St Patrick fought in the Papal Army’s unsuccessful defence of Spoleto in September 1860, suffering some twenty casualties, including three dead. Corcoran, Irish Brigade, p.134.

[32] In late 1860, over 600 British volunteers landed in Naples to serve with Garibaldi. Newcastle Courant, 14 December 1860.

[33] Catholic Telegraph, 8 December 1860.

[34] The Nation, 28 July 1860.

[35] The Nation, 13 October 1860. A petition with 5,500 signatures collected in Newcastle was sent to the Central Repeal Committee in Dublin in November 1860. The Irishman, 17 November 1860. In Crook, 773 signatures were collected. The Irishman, 11 May 1861.

[36] Newcastle Chronicle and Northern Counties Advertiser, 8 November 1860.

[37] Bernard McAnulty, born in County Down in 1818, worked as a seasonal cattle drover before settling in Newcastle c.1838, and becoming a wealthy linen draper and businessman. Newcastle Weekly Courant, 15 September 1894; see also T. P. McDermott, ‘Irish Workers on Tyneside’, in Norman McCord (ed.), Essays in Tyneside Labour History (Newcastle, 1977), pp.165-168.

[38] The Tablet, 19 October 1867.

[39] The Tablet, 30 January 1869 & 14 December 1867.

[40] Dundalk Democrat & People’s Journal, 19 June 1869.

[41] R. L. Smith, ‘The Taking of Rome in 1870’, The Venerabile, vol.3, no.4, April 1928 (English College, Rome) pp.321-328.

[42] The Tablet, 22 October 1870.

[43] The photograph was reprinted in Neil McNicholas and Peter Maloney, History of Our Lady Immaculate & St Cuthbert’s Parish, Crook (Crook, 1990), p.17. Ushaw Collage was a Catholic seminary near Ushaw Moor in County Durham. Founded in 1808, the seminary closed in 2011.

[44] The brief biographies of the six Papal Zouaves from County Durham have been compiled from a range of sources.

[45] McNicholas & Maloney, History of Our Lady Immaculate & St Cuthbert’s, pp.16-17.

[46] Newcastle Journal, 26 September 1917.

[47] Fermanagh Herald, 25 November 1905.

[48] The Tablet, 25 September 1886. An unnamed ‘Papal Zouave in uniform’ (almost certainly Bernard Riley) led the same procession in 1888. The Tablet, 22 September 1888.

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