Meath-domiciled Italian war hero feted in Rome on centenary birthday

Story by John Donohoe

Wednesday, 11th February, 2009 9:40am

'Cavalcade of Kentstown" is not an air one would expect to hear in one of Italy"s most famous buildings, the historical Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

However, last Saturday evening, the specially commissioned piece by composer Tom Cullivan marked the finale of the 100th birthday concert of adopted Kentstown resident, Ambassador Amedeo Guillet.

The ambassador, who is spending the winter in Rome, was joined by neighbours from Kentstown and many friends from around Meath for the events to mark the centenary of a remarkable life as a showjumper, cavalry soldier, huntsman and diplomat.

In 1974, having spent 19 years as an Italian ambassador on a number of postings, Amedeo Guillet and his late wife, Beatrice, arrived in Kentstown, and the Old Rectory in the village to which they had decided to retire.

The Guillets couldn"t live in Italy, as Amedeo would have had no peace in his retirement. 'I"d be invited here and have to go there, and be sent on official business - we would have had no time to ourselves,' he recalled.

This is not exaggerated boasting on Amedeo Guillet"s behalf, for the man known around Kentstown as 'Ambassador" is, in fact, Italy"s most decorated war hero. A 1993 biography published in Italy had to be reprinted seven times, while a second biography was published here and in Britain in 2003.

It was inevitable that the young Amedeo was destined for an army career. He came from a family of old soldiers and generals. Before the Second World War, he was a champion sportsman, with numerous triumphs in showjumping and eventing competitions in Turin, Rome, Udine and Naples. He was selected for the 1936 Italian Olympic team. Another ambition was to enter his big Irish grey, Riario, in the Aintree Grand National, but events always intervened. Instead, he contented himself by twice coming second and once third in the Italian equivalent, the Grand Steeplechase di Roma.

When the chance came to serve in the Italian Army in Ethiopia, Amedeo felt he had to go, a decision which didn"t impress the Chef of the Olympic team at the time, Colonel Amalfi.

'But I was a soldier first, and that meant going to war,' Amedeo explained. 'I had to leave the sport - after all, it was only sport, and soldiers really join the army to fight.

'I count myself as a very lucky man,' Amedeo, who was wounded five times during his army career, says. 'Every time I was wounded, it could have been worse. I have been very lucky in life, as each wound was just a fraction away from doing more serious damage. But to be wounded in war is normal, and I"m still walking, thankfully.' His injuries included gunshots to the left hand and ankle. He also suffered numerous bouts of malaria.

Following the conquest of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1936, Amedeo fought for a period in the Spanish Civil War, where Mussolini had been supporting Franco. He later returned to the new empire of Italian East Africa, on the eve of World War II. Here, the cavalryman was to set up a large force of native cavalry, one he was to recruit, arm and train as quickly as possible.

This became the faithful Gruppo Bande Amhara a Cavallo, with 800 horseman, 400 Yemeni infantrymen and 200 camel corps. When the Italian Army surrendered to the British, Amedeo and his Gruppo Banda fought on as guerrillas, derailing British trains, blowing up bridges and looting convoys. Amedeo grew a beard and disguised himself as a Yemeni to escape capture, and lived as a fugitive in Eritrea for eight months, also spending time hiding out as a farm worker.

'The Duke of Aosta, the Prince, was Viceroy. He was a marvellous man, and our family was very close with the Royal family,' Amedeo explained. 'When things were not going well, we were told we should fight, fight, fight, all the time fight as soldiers. I had to do it.'

He says that his soldiers were very loyal to him, even though it was not possible to get help of any sort. 'They were all volunteers - when the troops surrendered and everything was over, my unit decided to stay on without pay. The British put £1,000 on my head, but no-one betrayed me, even though they were poor people. Three to four thousand people knew where or who I was. But if I was still fighting in uniform, I couldn"t have done what we did.'

After a period in incarceration, Amedeo worked for a while as a vet and a farrier in Yemen before his return to Italy and his marriage to his childhood sweetheart and long-term fiancée, Beatrice Gandolfo.

He described his married years as 'paradise years". 'They say marriage can be described in three ways - paradise, hell or purgatory. Mine was definitely paradise.'

But he says his very first notions were to become a Benedictine monk, and he approached the abbot in an abbey about it. 'He told me to come back in a year if I still felt the same, but I had so much going on, it never happened.'

After his military career, Amedeo served as Italian Ambassador to Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco and India, and also at the United Nations in New York.

In his home in Kentstown are many photographs of leaders he became friendly with over those years, including King Hussein of Jordan and Indira Gandhi. He is also surrounded by photographs of friends, family, army colleagues, and even soldiers he fought against, with whom he has since become good friends.

These include British Major Max Harari, who had kept Amedeo"s faithful horse, Sandor, after its capture in a battle in Eritrea. Major Harari became good friends with the Guillets, and on a visit to the Old Rectory, left a present of Sandor"s hoof, shod, mounted in silver and inscribed.

Last year, a documentary on the Ambassador, 'Amedeo Guillet - The Legend of the Devil Commander", won first prize in the 'War and Peace" category at the International Law and Society Film Festival in Moscow.

It was his love of hunting which first brought Amedeo Guillet to Ireland, and he hunted with the Tara Harriers and the Meath Hounds. In the past couple of years, he has returned to Rome for the winter to escape the Irish winters. Sadly, his wife Beatrice passed away in 1991.

Last Saturday, the Palazzo Barberini, headquarters of the Italian Armed Forces, paid host to a celebration of Amedeo"s 100th birthday, attended by the ambassador and his two sons, Paulo and Alfredo, and his extended family.

Addresses were delivered by the chief of staff of the Italian Army, General Fabrizio Caztagnetti, and Professor Vittorio Dan Segre, diplomat, author and Amedeo"s biographer who, when working with British intelligence, was in pursuit of the Italian army man. The two men later became firm friends.

Sebastian O"Kelly, writer of the second biography, also spoke. A brief concert followed which included performances from violinist Carmelo Andriani and his father, Antonio, and Tom Cullivan"s specially commissioned solo piece, 'Cavalcade of Kentstown".

An exhibition of photographs and memorabilia covering Amedeo"s army career was also opened, and it is hoped to transfer this to Ireland later in the year. A painting of the ambassador by Irish artist Benita Stoney was presented to him, as well as a cake featuring Amedeo on horseback.

Among the attendance were representatives of the Italian royal family, the army, local and national government, and ambassadors from Eritrea, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, India and Ireland, countries associated with Amedeo, as well as showjumping brothers Raimondo and Piero D"Inzeo, the first Olympians to compete in eight Olympic Games.

Among those who travelled from Ireland were his Kentstown neighbours, John and Elizabeth Coveney, Angela Lynch, the ambassador"s secretary and her daughter, Frances Doonan; Charlotte Heuston, Fergus O"Connor, Tom and Nancy Cullivan, Diana Connolly-Carew, Brian Malone, Conor and Pru ffrench-Davis, and Raffaele Kavollo, president of the Committee of Italians in Ireland, as well as the ambassador"s trusted friend, Rosangelo Barone.

Ambassador Guillet thanked all who joined with him in the celebrations to mark his landmark birthday.

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