Ireland’s Shining Priest
by Rosa Kasper
From to 1942-43, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was the most-wanted man in Rome. During this time, he saved at least 6,500 Jews and Allied soldiers from near-certain death.
O’Flaherty was a brawny man, who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed over 200 pounds. Those who met him said his eyes twinkled behind his cheap wire-frame eyeglasses. He was known and loved by many for his authentic Irish charm and for his deep compassion for all who suffered, and he inspired affection and trust in people from all levels of society.
Born in Lisrobin, County Cork Feb. 28, 1898, to Margaret and James O’Flaherty (family photo above), Hugh called himself a loyal Kerryman having grown up on the Killarney golf course in County Kerry, where his father worked as a steward. By the time he reached adulthood, O’Flaherty played an impressive golf game and excelled at boxing and hurling. Some people looked askance when he later became amateur golf champion of Italy, for diocesan priests weren’t allowed to play golf.
O’Flaherty’s powerful education
In 1918 O’Flaherty enrolled at the Jesuit Mungret College in County Limerick, to train as a missionary priest. He earned his bachelor’s degree in theology, at the Urban College of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, and was ordained in December 1925. He then earned then doctorates in canon law, divinity, and philosophy, and remained to work as a diplomat for the Holy See.
He was posted to Haiti, Santo Domingo, Egypt, and Czechosolvakia. In 1934, O’Flaherty was the first Irishman to be appointed a notary of the Holy Office.
O’Flaherty declines to take sides
Hugh O’Flaherty was a fierce Irish nationalist, having formed his opinions when as a seminarian he witnessed atrocities by British Black and Tans, and saw four of his old friends killed. Remembering these dire events, he didn’t take sides when World War II began in 1939.
“I didn’t know which side to believe until they started rounding up the Jews in Rome. They treated them like beasts…It got worse and worse, and I knew then which side I had to believe,” O’Flaherty said.
O’Flaherty tours prison camps
In the early years of World War II, O’Flaherty toured prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Italy trying to get news of prisoners reported missing in action, so as to notify their families through Vatican Radio if he found them alive.
When Benito Mussolini was overthrown on July 25, 1943, his replacement, Gen. Pietro Badoglio, sought peace with the Allies, attaining an armistice on Sept. 3. 1943. One month later, after Italy surrendered to Allied forces, it declared war on Nazi Germany, which had occupation troops stationed in Rome and throughout the country.
During this chaotic time, released or escaped British and Allied POWs risked being recaptured by the Germans, and killed or shuttled off to Germany in cattle cars. Recalling visits by O’Flaherty, some escapees reached Rome and implored him to help them.
O’Flaherty assembles helpers
O’Flaherty then recruited or inspired the assistance, financial and practical, of an international group of Rome residents, often acting without waiting for formal permission from his superiors. The fugitives needed food, false documents, and medical care, as well as safe lodging, and those who could contributed sacrifically from their own funds, including O’Flaherty.
Among those willing to help were priests, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, including New Zealanders Fathers Owen Snedden and John Flanagan, as well as Italian aristocrats, members of the Free French, British Major Sam Derry, and Sir D’Arcy Osborne, British Ambassador to the Holy See and his butler, John May. One women who valiantly hid escape Allied soldiers in her apartment among her children was the Maltese widow Henrietta Chevalier.
Working together, these people hid escaped Allied soldiers and Jews in safe houses and apartments throughout Rome, as well as in farms, country cottages, monasteries, and convents.
O’Flaherty becomes a master of disguise and evasion
During this time, O’Flaherty became a master of disguise and evasion, sometimes assuming the uniform of a street sweeper or a postman, and, it was rumored, even the habit of a nun.
During one narrow escape from a Nazi SS raid at the home of one of his supporters, Prince Filipo Doria Pamphili, O’Flaherty raced downstairs to the coal cellar, rubbed himself with coal dust, persuaded one of the coalmen pouring sacks of coal into the trapdoor to lend him his clothes, and climbed out of the coal chute, with his monsignor’s robe and hat stashed in an empty coal sack. He then strolled past two lines of SS troops to safety.
O’Flaherty’s facility for disguise and for evading capture inspired his admirers to dub him “The Vatican Pimpernel” after ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ a 1903 novel and a play by Emma Orczy, featuring a self-effacing hero with a swashbuckling secret identity who rescues French aristocrats and others sentenced to death by the guillotine during the French revolution.* The 1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel film based on the play was popular during World War II.
The price on O’Flaherty’s head
When the Germans discovered the leader of the network was a priest, they tried to assassinate him and threatened to torture him if they should catch him. The head of the SS and Gestapo in Rome, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, put a 30,000 lire bounty on his head.
O’Flaherty would taunt Kappler’s men in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game in which he always remained a step ahead. Kappler ordered a white line to be painted on the pavement delineating the border between the neutral Vatican and Italy, and promised to kill O’Flaherty if he should step over it. An attempt to drag him over the line and kidnap him failed utterly.
During this time, Kappler also ordered the killing of some 300 civilians chosen at random in retribution for an attach by resistance forces on German soldiers. In addition, he led the removal of many of Rome’s Jews to Auschwitz.
After the War, a shocking conversion
After the war Hugh O’Flaherty was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom with a Silver Palm. But he declined to use the lifetime pension that Italy had given him.
Colonel Herbert Kappler was tried and sentenced to life in prison in Rome for his war crimes. O’Flaherty visited him month after month in prison, and in 1959 converted him to Catholicism and baptised him.
O’Flaherty returns to Ireland
In 1960, O’Flaherty suffered a stroke while celebrating Mass in Rome and came home to Ireland to Cahersiveen where he lived with his sister, at whose home he died on October 30,1963, aged 65. He was buried in the cemetery of the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church in Cahersiveen. There is a monument in Killarney town and a grove of Hugh O’Flaherty Trees in the Killarney National Park.
Another tree stands in his honor in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Authority conferred on him the title “Righteous Among Nations.”
One of O’Flaherty’s favorite sayings was “God has no country.” These words have been incorporated into his memorial in Killarney.
*Orczy named her hero after a tiny red flower that grows on creeping stems. The blossoms open only in bright mid-morning sunlight, and close before three o’clock in the afternoon, vanishing from view among greenness of their leaves.
To learn more about Msgr. O’Flaherty:
1983: Gregory Peck portrays Fr. O’Flaherty in The Scarlet and the Black, a made-for-television film, available today through NetFlix. The film,which also stars John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) shows how Mgr. O’Flaherty earned the title “the Oscar Schindler of Killarney” by hiding 4,000 Jews and escaped Allied prisoners.
2008: The Pimpernel of the Vatican: The Amazing Story of Monsignor Hugh O”Flaherty: a Gaelic documentary, with subtitles.
Fleming, Brian. The Vatican Pimpernel: The Wartime Exploits of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. The Collilns Press, 2014
Gallagher, J.P. The Scarlet and the Black: The True Story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty: Hero of the Vatican Underground Coward-McCann, 1967.
Walker, Stephen. Hide and Seek: The Irish Priest in the Vatican who defied the Nazi Command. Lyons Press, 2012
Walsh, Allison. Hugh O’Flaherty: His Wartime Adventures. The Collins Press, 2010.