Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty may be one of the greatest Irish men who ever lived, yet his story is hardly known.
Growing up in Ireland I never heard his tale, but I suspect I know why. He was the heroic Monsignor, based in the Vatican, who saved thousands of Allied soldiers from the Nazis and also saved hundreds of Jews from the death camps.
Perhaps because he was helping the British in the war effort his story drew a veil of silence in Ireland but it should not have. World War II was a time for people of all backgrounds to choose sides between a monstrous evil and a force to battle that evil.
A new book I have just finished reading outlines in great detail the heroic and extraordinary efforts of a great humanitarian and Irish history.
Though an intensely proud Irishman and deeply nationalist after seeing the Black and Tans in operation during his years in the seminary, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty realized early on that he needed to be on the side of the good guys.
That contrasted sharply with the position taken by Pope Pius XII who dithered while the Nazis over ran Europe.
Flaherty organized the escape route for allied troops who had escaped POW camps or had been shot down but survived.
Through an incredibly close network of friends and confidantes he set up safe houses all over Rome and in the Vatican itself where his work soon drew grave suspicion from the Nazis.
The book is a fascinating account of the stand off between Flaherty and the head SS man in Rome, Herbert Kappler.
Kappler suspected O’Flaherty and had him under surveillance at all times. O’Flaherty comes across as a Michael Collins however, hiding in plain sight, appearing each morning on the steps of Saint Peter's and meeting with those who were organizing the freedom runs.
He helped everyone who sought refuge, including many Jews, which infuriated Kappler. The SS commander tried to have O’Flaherty kidnapped with a view to summary execution but somehow O’Flaherty always managed to survive, earning him the nickname of the “Scarlet Pimpernel”.
Once, having left the neutral confines of the Vatican for a freedom route meeting, the Nazis raided the house and O’Flaherty, who was hiding in the cellar, was saved by sheer luck when two coal-men came to drop their supplies and he “borrowed” one of their outfits and strolled past the SS wearing the outfit and carrying a sack.
After the war he was celebrated all over the world but refused most of the honors. Kappler was tried and found guilty of war crimes. Amazingly O’Flaherty visited him frequently in prison and Kappler converted to Catholicism. O’Flaherty retired to his native Kerry for his final days and passed away there in 1963.
In a poem to celebrate his life, poet and fellow Kerry man Brendan Kennelly wrote of O'Flaherty:
"There is a tree called freedom and it grows Somewhere in the hearts of men Rain falls, ice freezes, wind blows The tree shivers, steadies itself again."
The Israeli government planted a tree in his honor in 1973.
Was there ever a more courageous Irishman?
A clip from "Scarlet and the Black". The true story of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty: