The Christmas Season is a time of paradoxes. As the days get darker and colder, our spirits grow brighter and warmer as we anticipate the divine contradiction of the King of Kings born in a stable, It is also a time when we proclaim good will toward our fellow man. It is therefore appropriate at this time to write about a man whose life embodied both paradox and good will to his fellow man in action, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who is sometimes called ”the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”
O’Flaherty was born in Lisrobin, County Cork, though he would grow up in Killarney, County Kerry where his father, a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was posted. A staunch republican family, the father James would ultimately resign from the force rather than aid the English in their campaign against the Irish people, a principled decision that no doubt influenced his son. An additional consequence of James O’Flaherty’s decision was that he became the caretaker of the Killarney Golf Club. Despite wire rimmed glasses giving young Hugh O’Flaherty the look of a scholarly bookworm, he was in fact 6’ 2” and a natural athlete excelling in boxing, hurling and naturally golf. Hugh entered the priesthood initially at Killarney seminary but finished his studies in Rome where he was ordained a priest in 1925 and eventually earned degrees and doctorates in Divinity, Philosophy, and Canon Law. He continued to work for the Holy See as a Vatican Diplomat traveling to Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Czechoslovakia and showed a natural talent for the work before being recalled to Rome and appointed Monsignor. In his spare time, O’Flaherty’s youth spent on the Killarney Golf Club paid off when he became Italy’s amateur champion. His notoriety garnished him invitations to all the leading social events where his natural charm and wit made him a favorite of Roman Society. While this lifestyle raised an eyebrow with some of his superiors, others saw O’Flaherty’s unique gifts and continued to use him as a natural ambassador to the broader world.
All this was to change utterly with the outbreak of World War II. The Vatican was a neutral independent country surrounded like an island by fascist, and later German occupied, Italy. Ireland had also declared neutrality. Despite being “doubly neutral”, it did not take O’Flaherty long to see the
atrocities of the fascists and be moved to action. He began by visiting Italian Prisoner of War Camps in search of men listed as missing in action, passing the names of men he found back to the Vatican Radio station where the information could be broadcast to anxiously waiting families. He filed charges of graft and corruption at the expense of their prisoners against prison commandants that resulted in their dismissal. It was not long before the Italian regime realized that in any camp where O’Flaherty visited the prisoners morale was raised while the guards morale correspondingly sank and put a halt to his visits.
Yet Monsignor O’Flaherty’s role in World War II was about to enter a new stage and the one for which he is best known for. With the collapse of Mussolini’s government in 1943, thousands of British POWs were released only to be hunted down as the Germans seized the government,. Hundreds fled to Rome: some remembering O’Flaherty’s previous kindness and seeking his assistance. Additionally, the Germans began to round up political dissenters and Jews, many of whom had known O’Flaherty from better days, and turned to him for assistance With characteristic decisiveness, O’Flaherty did not wait for permission before taking action. Just as the title character in the book “The Scarlet Pimpernel” rescued from the Reign of Terror of the French Republic, O’Flaherty began rescuing the victims from the Nazis. He hid asylum seekers within monasteries, convents and amongst sympathetic friends who were not as yet under suspicion. Ironically, a large number of refugees were hidden from the Germans within the “German College” of the Vatican. What started as an impromptu response to a cry for help gradually under O’Flaherty became a vast and sophisticated network dedicated to saving people from the Nazis. Among its members was the wife of the Irish Ambassador, a Swiss Count, and the cockney Butler of the British Ambassador to the Holy See. Just as diverse were the people that O’Flaherty rescued without distinction to nationality or religion. In one safe house on the Vatican grounds were hidden eighteen Americans, eight British soldiers, one Irish Guardsman, several political fugitives, a Protestant clergyman from South Africa, and an Italian pilot who was being hunted for having flown government officials to Italy’s surrender negotiations.
The vast scope of O’Flaherty’s actions could not go undetected for long, as he drew the attention of the brutal SS Colonel Herbert Kappler who had supervised the removal of Rome’s Jews to Auschwitz and ordered over 300 civilians chosen at random killed in retaliation for an attack on German soldiers. A white line was painted at the boundary between the Vatican and the rest of Rome. The line was ostensibly to show German soldiers where Vatican sovereignty began, but its real purpose was to keep O’Flaherty and other members of the Vatican in. Word was sent by Kappler that if O’Flaherty was found on the other side of the line he would be shot. Yet the brave Priest would not be deterred, literally “towing the line” daily in defiance of German snipers as he said his prayers at the white boundary line awaiting other asylum seekers and coordinating their rescue. At night he would still slip out to seek safe refuge for refugees and bring them supplies at grave personal risk; at one time making a narrow escape through a coal chute. Through all this O’Flaherty remained undaunted in his work, if not relishing the game of cat and mouse. In a combination of Irish defiance and wit, he rented a safe house for some of his refugees that backed up on the barracks of the local Gestapo.
By wars end, it is estimated that O’Flaherty and his network saved over 6,500 people from the hands of the Nazis. For his work Monsignor O’Flaherty, the passionate Irish republican , was made a Commander of the British Empire and awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm. A grove of Italian trees was planted in Killarney National Park as a memorial him. 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.”
In these troubled times where the media appears to revel in past transgression of the Church , the shining example of the many men of faith such as Monsignor O’Flaherty are sadly dismissed, ignored and forgotten. At this time of peace on earth and good will to men, let us as Irish Americans not forget this heroic priest who put his faith into action, his life in jeopardy and used his talents for the good of his fellow man.
Historian Neil F. Cosgrove
Did You Know That?
• The man who hunted Monsignor O’Flaherty, and would have ordered his death if he had been captured, SS Colonel Herbert Kappler, was captured and convicted of War Crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. For the next ten years he had only one visitor who came to see him every month: Monsignor O’Flaherty who would eventually convert and baptize him.
• In one poignant case a Jewish man had approached O’Flaherty with his young son saying that he and his wife cared nothing for themselves, but could he save the boy? He gave O’Flaherty his gold watch to pay for his support. O’Flaherty took the boy, but also arranged to get his parents to safety. After the war the boy was reunited with his family, carrying the father’s watch.
• As a ship of a neutral nation, the Irish Cargo Ship MV Kerlogue on several occasions saved sailors from both sides of the conflict, most notably 168 German sailors from a destroyer sunk in the Bay of Biscay, who would have surely drowned.
• The Northern Irish Government was ill prepared for the Start of World War II, mistakenly believing they were outside of effective airstrike range. When the German Air Force attacked the docks of Belfast, several fire brigades were dispatched by the Irish Government to aid in the rescue efforts.