The Vatican has unveiled a commemorative plaque dedicated to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest who helped save thousands of Jewish people and Allied prisoners of war from the Nazis during World War II, in occupied Rome.
O’Flaherty, from Killarney, County Kerry, had been involved in the Rome Escape Line, a British organization in Rome which helped prisoners to escape. The Irish priest garnered the nickname “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” because of his ability to evade the Nazis.
He used fake IDs, disguises and operated a communications network inside and outside the Vatican. O’Flaherty outsmarted the Gestapo (Nazi secret service police) and gave refuge to 6,500 Jewish and Allied prisoners of war. He hid those in need in houses, convents and monasteries across Rome and even inside the Vatican.
Much of his clandestine operation was conducted from the German College, where he lived for 22 years.
Members of the priest’s family and of the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society who traveled from Ireland, as well as the ambassadors of Britain, the US, and Canada, and Vatican officials were present for the unveiling, to recognize the the Monsignor’s “moral courage.” The Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Emma Madigan, paid tribute to the Kerry priest’s contribution to the resistance and courage in “very dark times.”
Madigan said O’Flaherty’s compassion was “not bounded by lines of nationality or religious community.”
She went on to quote Pope Francis saying there are people who “do not grow accustomed to evil, who defeat it with good."
On behalf of the 6,500+ souls who O’Flaherty saved she thanked the Monsignor.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner Jerry O’Grady, the Chairman of the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society, said the 60 people who attended the ceremony from Ireland and the UK included the sons of Major Sam Derry, who was the other big player in the Rome Escape Line and the grandchildren of Henrietta Chevalier, the Maltese widow who gave her apartment for use as a safe house.
O’Grady said, “We feel extremely proud that one of our own is now remembered for what he did to alleviate suffering during the Second World War.” He continued, “It has the same relevance today as it had 70 years ago... he is an inspirational role model.”
O’Flaherty was born in Kiskeam, in North Cork and grew up in Killarney, where his father was the steward of the old Killarney Golf Club, in Deerpark. He was posted to Rome as a young seminarian in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power. In just one year he earned a degree in theology in Rome and was ordained in 1925. He continued his studies for two years earning doctorates in divinity, canon law and philosophy.
He proved his skills as an excellent diplomat and represented the Vatican in Egypt, Haiti, San Domingo and Czechoslovakia. He was then recalled to Rome, after four years, and appointed to the Holy Office.
In Killarney O’Flaherty had grown up playing golf. His skills on the green would stand to him as he regularly played with Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, and with the ex-king Alfonso of Spain. His high standing in these social circles would stand him in good stead.
By the fall of 1942 the Germans and Italians began to crackdown on prominent Italian Jews and aristocratic anti-fascists. The Monsignor now hid his golfing friends. In the spring of 1943 his operation broadened to take in British prisoners-of-war and shot-down allied airmen. O’Flaherty organized a network of safe apartments in Rome in which they could hide.
Having saved the lives of over 6,500 people during the war O’Flaherty received many decorations, including, Commander of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom.
He retired to Cahirciveen for the last three years of his life and he died on October 30, 1963. His death was mourned around the world, including a front page tribute in the New York Times.
In October 2013 a memorial to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was unveiled in Cahirciveen.
Tales of O’Flaherty’s amazing bravery were depicted in the movie “The Scarlet and the Black,” starring Gregory Peck, which you can watch below: