By Pier Fausto Palumbo
The diplomatic mission between Italy and Ireland, established in accordance with the December 14, 1937 vote by the Dublin Parliament, has not initiated but rather renewed the centuries-old relations between these two peoples, relations inspired by religious and cultural reasons.
However, the exchange of official representatives between the two countries takes place at a historic moment that can not be ignored: this is a time in which the northern island is now able to claim its rights of freedom and autonomy, after a tenacious centuries-long struggle, following in the same footsteps as Italy, with its admirable resurrection.
Now that the tormented and stormy sense of freedom that had inspired a desperate resistance and anxious waiting within the Irish people for so many the centuries can at last have its fulfillment, or be close to it, it is only natural that Rome—which spread the greatest light to the island: the light of faith—, and Italy—the land in which Irish missionary emigration reached its most remarkable and conclusive stage—can not but revive its intimate links to Ireland, renewed and strengthened by struggle and by victory.
Not unknown to the Romans, even if it remained separated from the dominions of the Empire in contrast to neighboring Britannia, Ireland (which ancient geographers called Hibernia, a name which was later forgotten) had a deeply rooted Celtic civilization, albeit not without Roman influences. The furthermost land of the old West, Ireland was drawn—even setting aside the theory of the Mediterranean origin of its inhabitants—into the orbit of Latinity and its highest expression, Rome, through the spread of Christianity. From that point forward, a close relationship developed between the Apostolic See and the Celtic Island, which was a faithful supporter of the primacy of Rome. Thus, by virtue of a great common religion, geographical distance was counter-balanced by close spiritual proximity: since then, and for many centuries, all the roads of Ireland led to Rome.
In the second half of the fifth century, Ireland received the miraculous gift of the Christian faith from the ancient slave Patrick, who was fascinated by the Emerald Isle: from that moment the progress of civilization in Ireland was rapid and incessant. From Rome it received its religious institutions in addition to classical culture, which imbued its national soul, to such an extent that it became ever closer—more so than any other nation—to the spiritual climate of the Latin and Mediterranean world, thanks to the inimitable guide of the culture and faith of Rome. Faith and culture merged into one great love during the splendid flourishing of ascetics and thinkers, who from the 6th to the 12th century intensively contributed to the formation of the monastic spirit and to the establishment of scholasticism. The fervent movement of religious expansion can be seen in the remnants of those Irish cloisters, in which rows of ascetics and scholars were once gathered.
Their culture derived from their religious faith. The illumination of the missionary movement had a unique result: the victorious affirmation of the faith—in its highest sense—among those peoples not yet touched or insufficiently touched by the divine word. Both in groups and individually, Irish monks settled in France, Spain, Switzerland, and especially in neighboring Britain: with their ascetic enthusiasm they sought to reinvigorate the faith in those lands, which they felt was in decline. But the land which was prized and sought after more than any other—and which also was among the most affected—was Italy. Upon arriving in Italy, they founded famous convents and became bishops, and were renown for their self-sacrifice and piety: St. Columbanus, St. Fridianus, St. Donatus, St. Emilian, Dungal and Marcellus.
This expansionary movement, motivated and inspired by asceticism, was followed by the Danish invasion of Ireland, and soon after the first English raids and autocratic pretensions were carried out against the Island, causing an emigration movement of scholars, poets and patricians who poured their active fervor and their intellectual power into other countries. Thus we find at the court of Charlemagne, in Aachen, a host of pilgrims of knowledge—scholars—whom the great emperor esteems and loves and entrusts important offices to: Sedulius Scotus, Scotus Eriugena, Josephus Scottus and Clemens Scotus. At the imperial court, these Irish scholars met with distinguished representatives of Italian culture, such as Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon and Patriarch Paulinus II. And Charlemagne also made sure to tighten the already close ties between the two nations, equally distant from the center of his empire, by sending Irishmen to Italy: Dungal, for example, founded the school of Pavia.
Behind these heralds of piety and Irish doctrine, a small crowd loomed: these were emigrants from the green island, forced to leave their homeland forever due to harassment and slaughter by their new English rulers. A strong group of exiles established themselves in Italy. While the number of Irish monks increased in the cloisters, which in preceding centuries had been founded by their illustrious compatriots, small Irish quarters were established in the major Italian cities. In Rome too: the diffusion of the surname Scotti is the greatest proof of this.
A new relationship was established between Italy and the distant island—again inspired by the Church and by Rome—through that vast movement which led to the spread of Gregorian chant throughout the world. This, together with the Roman liturgy and classical culture, was the third element which formed that spiritual bond which was equally felt in the centers of the Italian Peninsula and in the centers of Ireland during the Middle Ages. The ecclesiastical forms of music, namely the Gregorian style, would exercise a profound influence on Irish popular music for many centuries.
On the other hand, even in the later Middle Ages, Irish culture did not remain passively subject to Latin and ecclesiastical influences: in culture and in music it affirmed its originality and its expansive fervor. Well representative of Ireland during this time are the unknown authors of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani and the Visio Tnugdali—splendid works which were known to Dante and to all the medievals—as well as the innovators of the modus musicae: Sedulius Scotus and Scotus Eriugena.
However, these relations did not end in the Middle Ages: when it came time for the northern isle to suffer the worst slavery, to which was then added—under Henry VIII and his successors—political as well as religious persecution, among the masses of fervent patriots and Catholics who abandoned their homeland—by now cut up, bloodied and divided—were strong groups of pilgrims who made their way to Rome. During the terrible reign of James I Stuart, a group of exiles made a permanent journey to Rome, never to return home: hence why in the blissful aura of the Roman Church of San Pietro in Montorio, some of the greatest champions of Irish patriotism are buried: the heroic O'Neill, his son Hugh and two members of the O'Donnell family.
It is to Luke Wadding—the young man who left Ireland and was exiled to Rome—that we owe those Annales Minorum, which he wrote with great care and which constitute one of the greatest testimonies of fervent scholarship in seventeenth century Rome. And the two religious institutes in the Urbe that still today remember the distant island, most faithful to Rome: the Irish College and the Franciscan convent of Sant’Isidoro.
Religious and cultural factors, as we have seen, make the two distant countries very close. But not only does the spiritual factor fill that geographical distance (which is not a serious issue these days); national and political affinities also bridge the gap. Italy preceded Ireland by eighty years in its fulfillment of freedom and unity. But the two national resurgences, the two national revolutions, had developed side by side until 1860. On the bloody eve, at the beginning of 1848, the Italians anxiously awaited news from Ireland, while the Irish awaited news from Italy. Ireland's political servitude lasted a longer period of time, and their oppression under foreign domination was more severe because their rulers were nearer to them and much more powerful: but the last steps towards freedom took place in stages and, one could say, in tandem. Between 1847 and 1848 Mazzini looked to O'Connell, and O'Connell to Mazzini.
This love which the Italians had for their sister Island in times of misfortune did not arise suddenly in the nineteenth century. The truly vigilant and anxious interest of some popes for the Irish cause—a cause of faith and justice—, the hopes placed by Gregory XIII in that fervidly Catholic island as a loyal ally and as a sure base for the struggle against Protestantism and the re-Catholicization of England, the attempts made by Urban VIII—through his nuncio Scarambi and through Bishop Rinuccini—to ensure the effectiveness of the Catholic reaction in the Island, are the most sincere premises for that torrent of sympathy for Ireland amongst our people during the decisive years of the Risorgimento. The misfortunes of the unhappy island could not but meet with understanding and sympathy in an Italy fervently struggling with all her strength for her own imminent redemption.
The dawn of freedom was announced for Ireland after the repeal of Poynings' Law and the establishment of the Acts of Union; for Italy it was after the Napoleonic affair and the revolts of 1820-21. The national cause had been lost in past centuries owing to the struggles between the various rulers and the lack of a strong national cohesion, in addition to the unconscious appeal to foreigners to settle local conflicts. The same inexhaustible national passion had, from the sad moment of foreign conquest, prepared the way for arduous vengeance. But, as concerns this intimacy and this historic closeness between Italy and Ireland, let's remember the last gesture of the Irish national hero Daniel O'Connell, which serves as a perfect testimony. He—a victim of the tragic epidemic of 1848, a man whose death was sufficient to crush and postpone for a century the irrefutable beginnings of autonomy and freedom—wanted his heart to be preserved in that universal Pantheon known as the city of Rome: perhaps in order to entrust the continuation of the struggle and the certainty of victory to the immortal destinies of the Urbe.
His wish did not fail to be fulfilled. Even if today the political situation of Ireland, deprived of its northern provinces, is very similar to that of Italy in the 1860's when national unity had been proclaimed despite being deprived of Venice and Rome. But no doubt it is now possible for Ireland to repeat the fate of Italy—albeit after a century of painful delay—and complete its path to freedom, which is sacred for all people.
The ratification of the new Constitution elaborated by De Valera could not, by itself, heal all the wounds and resolve all the problems that centuries of oppression and servitude—with unprecedented violence—had caused. Even if a very different form of autonomy than the one enshrined in the Statute of 1921 arose from the new Constitution, and although the high lordship of the English crown and its representation by means of a governor as well as the obligatory tribute recognizing the ancient right of the landlords (English landowners in Ireland) have been dissolved and buried, the Irish State still remains in a precarious state and dependent on neighboring Britain due to the persistence of the English province of Ulster and due to the practical impossibility of separating the still primitive Irish economy from trade with England.
But there is also another problem which Ireland must face and solve—and here too Italy has set the example—: that of organizing its millions of scattered children around the world into a living and integral part of the Nation. From these, as from the Irish at home, Ireland must await its new existence.
But the Irish Nation's rise to new life is today delayed and hindered by an event of far greater scope: the European war, which has already perhaps become a world war. In recent weeks the war has been approaching the coast of Ireland: as the fatal hour approaches, England is seeking to create a diversion in the smaller neighboring island, which is now its only base of supplies and control, in order to secure the increasingly urgent American aid, or perhaps even in order to transfer the British Government to its distant Canadian Dominion.
The threat is getting worse by the day in Ireland. Its small army is ready to desperately attempt to push a new unannounced invasion back into the sea. But, facing the imminence of its own danger, England will have no qualms, even fewer than it ever had in the past when no vital reason existed to motivate it. However, alongside this extreme danger, a more secure vision of the future can now be clarified to the Irish people and to the world. The war has created a new situation which will make a secure existence for the new Ireland possible; the war has created the conditions for the total independence of the island and its autonomy—both economic and political—from neighboring Great Britain.
The end of the war, with the weakening that England will fatally suffer, will make possible that which was considered impossible before September 1939: an Ireland for the Irish—truly and forever for the Irish. Even in this higher sense of the immense ongoing struggle, there is no one who can deny that an equal destiny connects Italy and Ireland.