How to show courage in times of political peril is a subject we are all being forced to contemplate nowadays
Thankfully history has no shortage of inspirational examples. Take the case of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty (1898 – 1963) an Irish Catholic priest and a major figure in the Catholic resistance to Nazism (this was not always the case, sadly).
Next month O'Flaherty's life and legacy will be reconsidered by The Irish Rep in a new play called Kingfishers Catch Fire, a world premiere by Northern Irish playwright Robin Glendinning.
In an era where we are again confronting the global rise of far-right tyranny, the subject matter could hardly be more urgent.
During World War II, O'Flaherty was responsible for saving over 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jewish civilians from the Gestapo, where discovery would have spelled certain death.
In fact, his ease at eluding all the traps that were set for him by the Germans eventually earned him the colorful nickname “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”
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Born in Cork and raised in Kerry (possibly his first major diplomatic incident) as a young man O'Flaherty was posted to Rome in 1922 and then ordained on 20 December 1925. But he never joined his diocese, staying on to work for the Holy See and serving as a gifted Vatican diplomat in countries like Egypt, Haiti, and Czechoslovakia.
Then in 1934, he was appointed a papal chamberlain with the title monsignor. During World War Two fugitive Allied POW's who remembered his kindness earlier in the conflict and had secretly reached Rome asked him for help. Some even made it to the Irish embassy to the Holy See, which was the only English-speaking embassy to remain open during the war.
Soon O'Flaherty and his many helpers were concealing 4,000 escapees in flats, farms, and convents and one of the first hideouts he picked was a building located right beside the local SS headquarters.
Outside the Vatican, he wore multiple disguises until eventually the Nazi's found out the leader of the network that had been foiling all their efforts was led by, of all things, a determined Irish Catholic priest.
In Kingfishers Catch Fire, Glendenning's play takes us forward in time to 1948 when O'Flaherty visits the unrepentant Nazi Herbert Kappler in the Italian prison where he is serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.
During World War II the men were sworn enemies. Kappler was the head of the Gestapo in Rome and O'Flaherty was shrewdly using the Vatican's neutrality to harbor and help transport thousands of trapped Allied servicemen and Jewish civilians.
It was Kappler who ordered O'Flaherty's assassination, although the Irish priest evaded all attempts on his life. But now the two very different men finally meet and profound questions about responsibility and redemption soon erupt between them.
Based on a remarkable true story, Kingfishers Catch Fire asks hard questions about morality and culpability that may rattle you to your core. If anyone knows that living sometimes requires faithlessness as well as faith, or knows the inability of langue to adequately convey suffering, it's a Northern Irish playwright.
Featuring a cast that includes the gifted Irish actor Sean Gormley (Rebel in the Soul) as Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty and Haskell King (Please Continue) as Herbert Kappler it's a welcome outing for the Irish playwright and the hard-hitting play.
Born in Belfast in 1938, Glendinning's own background is as intriguing as his works. Educated at Campbell College Belfast and Trinity College Dublin, he was later a founder member of the non-sectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and was its full-time organizer for two and a half years at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s.
It took profound moral courage to seek real-reconciliation at a time of near civil war but Glendinning, as his play will show, has never been afraid to ask hard questions of himself or others.
Now his dual perspective as a witness to one war and a historian of another will bring this timely tale of courage in the face of implacable evil to the Rep's stage, where the contemplation of the good has always found a home.
For tickets to Kingfishers Catch Fire call +1 212.255.0270.
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