Pope Francis gives thumbs up at commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Irish Brigade brigade’s audience in the Vatican

LCpl Miskelly, Royal Irish Regiment Pope FrancisPope Francis salutes the Bugles, Pipes & Drums of the Royal Irish Regiment with a thumbs up at St Peter’s Basilica on 12 June

A clearly enthralled Pope Francis gave a thumbs-up sign to the pipes and drums of the Royal Irish Regiment in St Peter’s Square on 12 June at an event to mark the 80th anniversary of the meeting between 38 (Irish) Brigade and Pope Pius XII in 1944.

The encounter followed a performance by the band on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica of Killaloe, the regiment’s quick marching tune.

A delegation representing the Irish Brigade attended the general papal audience as part of the commemorations of the liberation of Rome and the end of the blockade of the Vatican on 4 June 1944.

On 12 June 1944,  150 men of the brigade arrived in the Vatican at 845am having travelled by truck from the Allied front line north of Rome. The brigade comprised 6 Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers; 1 Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2 London Irish Rifles. It originally comprised men born in Ireland or of Irish descent.

They entered the consistory chamber in the Apostolic Palace and at 9 o’clock, Pope Pius XII entered and delivered the follow statement.

“Dearly beloved sons, we bid you welcome. You belong 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 many nations. We greet you and bless you with all our hearts’ affection and your dear ones at home. God be with you always…”

The massed brigade band played ‘Killaloe’. Rosary beads given to each soldier were blessed by the pope. The assembly was given the pontifical blessing. The Pope walked out to the sound of pipes.

London Irish Colour Sergeant Ted O’Sullivan was one of the members of the brigade at the Vatican that day. He recorded what he saw in his memoirs published in 2007.

“The retreat was beat on the steps of St Peter’s,” he wrote. “Crowds of clergy stood around clapping and, beyond the square, a vast crowd had gathered. The Catholics in the detachment, who were in the majority, and many others went into Mass at the Blessed Sacrament altar. I was the master of ceremonies and there were about 10 other servers. I had served Mass in many strange places, but to do so in St Peter’s Cathedral was beyond belief.”

That afternoon, the men of the brigade returned to the front line. Several were to lose their lives in fighting in northern Italy.

The encounter was an expression of Irish unity that involved men from both the northern and southern Ireland and Catholics and Protestants.

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