When Germany occupied Rome in 1943, O’Flaherty and some like-minded friends hid Jews and Allied soldiers from the Nazis. They used convents, farms and even flats beside the SS headquarters. When Rome was liberated, 6,500 of O’Flaherty’s escapees were still alive. Monsigner Hugh was also amateur golf champion of Italy. From to 1942-43, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was the most-wanted man in Rome.
O’Flaherty stood 6″2 inches tall and weighed over 200 lbs. 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 instilled trust in people from all levels of society.
Born in Lisrobin, Co Cork on 28 February 1898, to Margaret and James O’Flaherty, Hugh called himself a loyal Kerryman having grown up on the Killarney golf course in Co 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 folks felt ambivalent when he later became amateur golf champion of Italy, for diocesan priests weren’t allowed to play golf.
In 1918, O’Flaherty enrolled at the Jesuit Mungret College in Co 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 on 20 December 1925. He then earned 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.
Hugh O’Flaherty was a fierce Irish nationalist, having formed his opinions when as a seminarian, he witnessed atrocities in Ireland, and saw four of his friends killed by Black and Tans. Remembering these appalling 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.
In the early years of World War II, O’Flaherty toured 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 25 July 1943, his replacement, Gen. Pietro Badoglio, sought peace with the Allies, attaining an armistice on 3 September 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 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 from their own funds, including O’Flaherty.
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 rumoured, 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.
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 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.
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. He died at home on 30 October 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 honour 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.
Featured Image | The Hugh O’Flaherty statue on Mission Road, Killarney, Co Kerry | Don MacMonagle Photography