In Casalattico, Italy, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with
gusto. Situated south of Rome in the Valle di Comino, the tiny
mountainous village is rustic, harsh and rocky. It has a touch
of Connemara, that isolated, rugged region in the west of
On March 17 each year, a special Mass is celebrated in the
town in honor of the Irish patron saint. Green banners abound.
Shamrock is flaunted by those lucky enough to have received it
by mail – real shamrock from Ireland. Irish music, Italian
music fills the air. Sometimes both brands merge. By evening
they may be competing! There are Irish dancers. Some dancers
look Italian. Or are they Irish? In many cases they are both.
Many of the Italians who settled in Ireland came from
sunlit Casalattico. It wasn’t a huge flow of immigrants over
the cold Atlantic. It was more of a trickle. But it was
steady. The exodus followed Italy’s 1858 revolution, the
Risorgimento. With the victory of King Victor Emmanuel, many
who fought with Garabaldi fled the country. Some of them, and
others who left because of extreme poverty, traveled by foot
through Italy into France. Many settled in England or Scotland,
others in Ireland.
Earlier, Irish missionaries, often called “warrior monks,”
had left their mark all over Europe, including Italy. Irishman
St. Cathal is the patron saint of Taranto in southern Italy.
Donogh O’Brien, the son of Brian Boru entered the Roman monastery
of Santo Stefano Rotondo, where he died. The Normans, who built
castles in Sicily 50 years later began cultural links between
Italy and Ireland. The great Norman-Irish families such as the
Fitzgeralds claimed Italian ancestors. The Geraldines can trace
their heritage to the powerful Gherardini family of Florence.
Why the Italians were at home in Ireland
Moving forward to the early 19th century, it seems
remarkable that Italians such as those of Casalattico, who were
poor, would emmigrate to Ireland, which was also poor at that
time. Yet, in many ways, the migration was logical.
Following the winning of Catholic emancipation in Ireland
in 1829, there was a boom in church building. There was a demand
for stone masons, church decorators and terrazzo tile workers.
Italians with such skills had already been brought over
to Ireland to ornament the graceful houses of Georgian Dublin and
the country homes of the English landlords. Alessandro Galilei,
the architect who designed the façade of St. John Latern in Rome,
built Castletown House in Kildare for William Connolly. Other
craftsmen decorated such mansions as Russborough, Maynooth College
and Arus an Uachtaran. Today, the latter is the residence of the
president of Ireland. The master craftsman Bartholomew Crammillion
decorated Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. The lovely fleur-de-lis,
cupids and angels still to be seen on many of the Georgian house
of Dublin are synonymous with such names as Francini and Bossi.
At the time of Catholic emancipation, Paul Cullen was
Archbishop of Dublin. He had studied at the Irish College in Rome
and acquired a taste for Roman-style churches, ornate decorating
and Italian religious symbolism. Catholic churches in Ireland, which
for centuries had been confined to side streets and limited in
size, could now expand and be beautified. There was work for the
specialists in stone work – the Italian stuccatori.
The demand grew. Years after the Great Famine (1845-1849)
many of the one million Irish who had emigrated worldwide in
search of work and food sent money home to have gravestones made
and decorated in memory of parents, brothers or sisters who had
died of starvation.
There were other reasons why the Italians were quickly
assimilated into the Irish culture. They were not taking work
away from the Irish. Their skills were needed. Both ethnic
groups shared the same religion, an instant, common link
intensified because the Italians came from the homeland of
Catholicism. The Italians brought with them gastronomic skills
including the introduction of ice cream. When summer was over,
they introduced hot chestnuts. They also produced a feast that
is not Italian, one they had learned along the way – fish and
chips. In fact, many of the Italians who came to Ireland,
other than those in stone and terrazzo work, ended up selling
fish and chips, not spaghetti!
In her book, “Terra Straniera: The Story of the Italians
in Ireland,” Una Power writes that “property in Ireland was cheap
in those days, particularly in the inner-city.
Hard work and thrift were doctrines that governed the Italians.
Preferring to be employed using the native skill of cooking,
names such as Di Mascio, Cafolla, Cervi, Cassoni, Matassa,
Rocca and others became household words.”
Among other early businesses established by the Italians
was that of the sole Fiat car agency in Ireland. Names such as
De Vito and Marcari later achieved fame in television and
international soccer. Like many others, Luigi Fulgoni, who had
survived internment in Australia during World War II, found peace
and eventual prosperity in Ireland. He developed a perfume called
Shamrock Leaves, which was bottled in exquisite cut glass. The
factory closed down in 1965 but the family still receives requests
for the bottled fragrance evocative of the sweet misty Irish air.
Fulgoni’s next venture, in 1959, was opening Dublin’s well-known
Unicorn Restaurant. The establishment carved out a history of
attracting the leading literary and political figures of the times.
Until 1969, there was a large Italian community in the
North of Ireland, mainly in Belfast, where members attended
St. Mary’s Church in Chapel Lane. There was even an Italian
school in the city. A close social life was maintained, dances
were organized and in the early years marriage among Italian
families was encouraged. Always, the link with Italy was maintained.
The financial and material support from the Italian-Irish at the
time of Italy’s disastrous flood in 1951 was an example of that
In 1978, a dream came true for the Italian Irish – the
official opening of the first phase of the Club Italiano center
in Tibraden on the outskirts of Dublin. Today, the club is the
comfortable, official center of the Italian-Irish. The Italian
Cultural Institute in Dublin provides classes in the Italian
language and focuses on appreciation and preservation of Italian
art and culture. Italia Stampa is the official publication of the
entire Italian-Irish community.
Next to the Jewish community, the Italians form the oldest
and most cohesive group of immigrants in Ireland. They advertise
their nationality through their names: Cipriani, Cafolla,
Borza, Fusco, Macari, De Vito, Cassoni, Caprani.
Carlo Bianconi (“Brian Cooney” to his neighbors in Thurles,
County Tipperary!) built and organized the first Irish transport
system. He arrived in Ireland in 1804. One of the few Italians to
venture into Irish politics, he helped his friend Daniel O’Connell
in his fight for Catholic emancipation. G. Nanetti was a Lord Mayor
of Dublin as well as a Westminster MP. Vincent Caprani, a present-day
writer of Gothic and historical novels, books on Irish travel and
local pub poetry says his grandfather, Tony Caprani, and also
Nanetti, are mentioned in James Joyce’s “Ulysses."
Caprani says his grandfather’s association with Joyce probably
evolved because both men were in the printing business. Also, Joyce
had a good voice. He was a tenor. Dublin has a long history of love
of opera and Joyce probably used his Italian connections to improve
his Italian in order to sing the popular Italian operatic arias.
Guglielmo Marconi, who carried out much of his experimental
work in radio along the coast of Ireland, married an Irish girl.
An Italian named Corri was one of Irish hero Michael Collins’
Michelle Rocca, the granddaughter of Egidio Rocca, who founded the
Rocca Tile Company in 1935, became Miss Ireland in a Miss World
The ultimate Italian link with the ancestral homeland came
in 1955. Vincente Forte was elected Mayor of Casalattico despite
the fact that he was living in Belfast at the time of his election!
Eventually, the Italian community in Dublin had its own
chaplain, Msgr. John Maloney, the parish priest at Three Patrons
Church, Rathgar. He had studied in Rome. He spoke fluent Italian,
loved the people and understood them.
Today, an Italian name and an Irish accent does not always
mean Italian heritage as shown in this delightful story by Una Power:
When Mary Bonotti was elected to the European Parliament in 1984,
she began her maiden speech in Irish since she was an Irish woman.
However, the president of the European Parliament was perplexed
and asked her to stop and continue in an official language. She
completed her speech in Italian. The Italians were delighted but
the president was even more perplexed. An Irish woman speaking
fluent Italian? The mystery was quickly resolved. Mary had learned
her fluent Italian from her Italian husband and had much practice
during her stay in Rome, which she loved. She is amused when she
recalls that (Irish) people used to ask her, unaware that she owed
her name to an Italian husband, ‘Did your father have a fish and
chip shop in Fairview?’ ‘No,’ she would always reply, ‘but I wish
Mary Bonotti, now a fourteen-year member of the European
Parliament, is a niece of Michael Collins. She was one of the four
women candidates for the Irish presidency during the 1998 elections.
Although she did not win, the possibility of having an Irish
president with an Italian name must have provided moments of lively
speculation for today’s Italian-Irish residents.
The Italian-Irish today
Today, several Italian towns have twinned with Irish towns.
Among these are Killarney, which pledges its solidarity with
Castlglione de Sicilia, the home town of Msgr. Gaetano Alibranti,
Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland in 1998; Clonmel with Ganji and Torre
San Patrizio, north of Rome, with Kells. The tiny town of
Casalattico has twinned with Naas in County Kildare.
The first Italian immigrants in Ireland married within their
own ethnic group. With time that gradually changed. Vincent Caprani
traces his Italian-Irish heredity to the marriage of his
great-grandfather to an Irish girl, a Protestant, in a Catholic
Church in London. They eventually settled in Ireland and raised a
family, his great-grandfather having put his stone-making precision
talent to use in the printing business. Vincent Caprani is connected
with the printing business to this day.
“I’ve always thought we had the best of both worlds,”
Caprani says. “We had this lovely mixture – we were Irish, very much
so; we were Italian, and proud of it. We were Catholic and we were
Protestant. My brother and I used to say we were probably one of the
first ecumenical families in Ireland!”
Today, The Italian-Irish still maintain close ties with the
towns their ancestors left behind. Some who left returned to live out
their lives in the homeland they loved. Despite the fact that time
seems to have passed by Casalattico and other depressed towns in the
Valle di Comino, several families whose ancestors left the region
generations earlier have invested in the town and contributed to its
improvement. Others have become regular visitors, their Italian-Irish
children forming close links with their Italian cousins.
No wonder St. Patrick’s Day is a big day in Casalattico. Nearly
everyone there has been to Ireland at some time or a family member
lives there. Walking the narrow streets of Casalattico, there are the
titillating sounds of Irish voices. There are distinctly Irish facial
features. And, always, there is the subtle echo of Irish music.
It’s almost like being in Ireland!