Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

The Italian Irish
A Quiet Migration
by Maura (Barry) Ciarrocchi
Ireland of the Welcomes magazine,
March/April 2001

   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 unbroken link. 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’ active servicemen. Michelle Rocca, the granddaughter of Egidio Rocca, who founded the Rocca Tile Company in 1935, became Miss Ireland in a Miss World Beauty Contest. 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 he had.’” 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!

Gli Scalpellini
By Vincent Caprani

They came from sunny, vine clad hills
Or fields that knew the arid drought
And forever said farewell to homes
Despoiled by despots in the south.
To the grey-damp cities of the north
(Where bitter tears are better lost in rain)
They marched away in dark defeat
Through mists that blurred the shape of pain.

They were artisans and peasant men
From the sun-rich Roman shore
And to a timeless Celtic isle
They brought their ancient lore.
In this alien, green and fertile land
Where famine late held sway
They found a kindred suffering
And they vowed to halt and stay.

They unpacked their age-old secrets
Like peddlers at the fair
And they pointed to the graveyards grey
And the churches gaunt and bare;
And they spoke with simple gestures
Of how they shared a common creed
And the native people nodded
As they sensed the strangers’ need.

They carved their simple effigies
The Crucified – the Thief
And they mingled all their heartbreak
With a hapless nation’s grief.
They worked with stone and chisel sharp
With the marble and the tile;
They carved and cut and pointed
And with time began to smile.

Then the native notes of wistfulness
Joined their lilting, sunlit songs
And with the sharing and the singing
Each forgot their ancient wrongs.
For they hoisted rough-hewn granite
And they struck with ringing tone
And they hammered out a victory
And composed their hymns in stone.