Giovanni Battista Rinuccini is best known for his time as Papal Nuncio to Ireland during the time of conflict known as the Irish Confederate Wars (1645-49) during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

The Irish mission

He was sent to Ireland in 1645 by Pope Innocent X to help the Irish Confederate Catholics in their war against English Protestant rule, succeeding the papal envoy there, Pierfrancesco Scarampi. Rinuccini embarked from La Rochelle and arrived in County Kerry with a retinue of twenty-six Italians, several Irish officers, and the Confederacy's secretary, Richard Bellings. At Kilkenny, the confederate capital, Rinuccini was received with great honours, asserting in his Latin declaration that the object of his mission was to sustain the King, but above all to help the Catholic people of Ireland in securing the free and public exercise of the Catholic religion, and the restoration of the churches and church property.

Rinuccini sent ahead arms and ammunition He arrived twelve days later with a further two thousand muskets and cartridge-belts, four thousand swords, four hundred brace of pistols, two thousand pike-heads, and twenty thousand pounds of gunpowder, fully-equipped soldiers and sailors and 150,658 livres tournois to finance the Irish Catholic war effort. These supplies gave him a huge input into the Confederate's internal politics, because the Nuncio doled out the money and arms for specific military projects, rather than handing it over to the Confederate government, or Supreme Council.

Rinuccini hoped that by doing this he could influence the Confederate's strategic policy away from doing a deal with Charles I and the Royalists in the English Civil War and towards the foundation of an independent Catholic-ruled Ireland. In particular, Rinuccini wanted to ensure that Protestant churches and lands taken in the rebellion would remain in Catholic hands. This was consistent with what happened in Catholic-controlled areas during the Thirty Years' War and can be seen as part of the wider counter-reformation in Europe. The Nuncio also had unrealistic hopes of using Ireland as a base to re-establish Catholicism in England. However, apart from some military successes such as the battle of Benburb, the main result of Rinuccini's efforts was to aggravate the infighting between diffent factions within the Irish Confederates.

Factionalism in Ireland:

The Confederate's Supreme Council was dominated by wealthy landed magnates, predominantly of Old English origin, who were anxious to come to a deal with the Stuart monarchy which would guarantee their land ownershp, full civil rights for Catholics, and toleration of Catholicism. However, they were opposed by many within the Confederation, who wanted better terms, including self-government for Ireland, a reversal of the land confiscations of the plantations of Ireland and establishment of Catholicism as the state religion. A particularly sore point in the negotiations with the English Royalists was the insistence of some Irish Catholics on keeping in Catholic hands Protestant churches taken in the war. Rinuccini accepted the assurances of the Supreme Council that such concerns would be addressed in the Duke of Ormonde's peace treaty with the Royalists, negotiated in 1646.

However, when the terms were published, they granted only the private practice of Catholicism. Alleging that he had been deliberately deceived, Rinuccini publicly backed the militant Confederate faction, which included most of the Catholic clergy and Irish military commanders such as Owen Roe O'Neill; on the other side there were the Franciscans Peter Marchant, and later Raymond Caron. In 1646, when the Supreme Council tried to get the Ormonde Peace passed, Rinuccini excommunicated them and helped to get the Treaty voted down in the Confederate General Assembly. The Assembly had the members of the Supreme Council arrested for treason and elected a new Supreme Council.

Defeat in Ireland and return to Italy:

However, the following year, the Confederates' attempts to drive the remaining English (mainly Parliamentarian) armies from Ireland met with disaster at the battles of Dungans Hill and Knocknanauss. As a result, the chastened Confederates hastily concluded a new deal with the English Royalists to try to prevent a Parliamentarian conquest of Ireland in 1648. Although the terms of this second deal were better than the first one, Rinuccini again tried to overturn the treaty. However, on this occasion, the Catholic clergy were split on whether to accept the deal, as were the Confederate military commanders and the General Assembly. Ultimately, the treaty was accepted by the Confederation, which then dissolved itself and joined a Royalist coalition. Rinuccini backed Owen Roe O'Neill, who used his Ulster army to fight against his former comrades who had accepted the deal. The Nuncio tried in vain to repeat his success of 1646 and excommunicate those who supported the peace. However, the Irish bishops were split on the issue and so Rinuccini's authority was diluted. Militarily, Owen Roe O'Neill was unable to reverse the political balance; despairing of the Catholic cause in Ireland, Rinnuccini left the country in 1649. In the same year, Oliver Cromwell led an English Parliamentarian re-conquest of the country, after which Catholicism was thoroughly repressed. Roman Catholic worship was banned, Irish-Catholic-owned land was widely confiscated east of Connacht, and all Catholic clergy who were captured were executed.

Rinuccini returned to Rome, where he wrote an extensive account of his time in Ireland, the Commentarius Rinuccinanus. His account blames personal vainglory and tribal divisions for the Catholic disunity in Ireland. In particular, he cites the treachery of the Old English in Ireland for the Catholic defeat. The Gaelic Irish, he writes, despite being less civilised, are more sincere Catholics. His notes are being translated by Dr Billy Kelly with the Irish Manuscripts Commission and should be published in 2012.