From the archives: June 2018

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

Having proved its worth as an internment camp for civilians in 1914–18, the Isle of Man found itself being used for the same purpose during the Second World War. This time the Italians were the enemy and those interned included a larger number of Catholics than in the previous conflict. The Holy See took a great interest in their welfare, and among Archbishop Downey's papers available for research in the Archdiocesan archives are reports and letters to the Vatican containing 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 in traditional Italian occupations such as barbers, ice-cream makers, and fish and chip shop owners. The vast majority were Catholic. They included 15 priests, all of them members of an Italian missionary order, the Verona Fathers. Throughout the existence of the Italian internment camps these priests celebrated Mass daily and ministered 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 aeroplane, 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 course, were German, and though there were fewer Catholics there was more difficulty in finding priests to work among them. One of the early German internees, Rev Dr Aloysius Thiessen, was a professor of Scripture at Ushaw College. 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.