Mamma Mia! Interned on the Isle of Man

By Neil Sayer

Archdiocesan archivist Neil Sayer recalls the case of the island’s Italian POWs during the Second World War.

The Isle of Man's First World War history as an internment camp for civilians from Germany and Austria-Hungary is a subject we featured in last month's Pic. When the Second World War began, the island 'welcomed' more internees – and this time there were many Italians, meaning a larger number of Catholics in the camps than in the previous conflict. Archbishop Downey's papers, which are available for research in the Archdiocesan archives, show that the Vatican took a great interest in their welfare, with his reports and letters to Rome holding a great deal of information on how the camps operated.

In its early days at least, the Italian camp consisted of requisitioned hotels and boarding houses, cordoned off behind barbed wire along the promenade at Douglas. Within weeks of their country's entry into the war, some 3,000 Italian men had been brought to the island. Most of them had led blameless existences in communities up and down the country, many working as barbers, ice-cream makers and fish-and-chip shop owners. The vast majority were Catholic and there were 15 priests among them, all members of the Verona Fathers, an Italian missionary order. Throughout the existence of the Italian internment camps these priests would celebrate Mass daily and minister to the spiritual welfare of their captive congregation.

Archbishop Downey's first visit to the island was accidental. In only his second flight in an airplane, bad weather over Dublin forced his party to abandon that destination and put down on the Isle of Man. He took the opportunity to visit the camps and meet many of those interned. By this time, some 8,000 internees were on the island, most of them German, and it was more difficult finding priests to work among their prison population. One of the early German internees, Rev Dr Aloysius Thiessen, was a professor of Scripture at Ushaw College and he served at the Ramsey camp but was soon allowed to return to his employment. On a later visit, Archbishop Downey arranged for one of the Italian priests to visit the German camps to minister to their needs.

Most of the internees were released by the end of 1942, though some were repatriated when Italy changed sides to join the Allies in the following year. Liverpool's own 'Little Italy' communities quietly reabsorbed their own.