Catherine O'Flaherty: My grand-uncle, the brave priest who defied the Nazis
Published 30/10/2013 | 01:55
Growing up, my grand-uncle was my hero. He had saved the lives of 6,500 people. He died before I was born, but as a filmmaker I always wanted to tell his story and got the chance to do so when I produced the documentary 'Vatican sa Pimpernel' for TG4.
In February of 1963, an audience of old friends and admirers gathered at the BBC for a recording of 'This is Your Life'. The guest of honour was Major Sam Derry – a British army officer who had helped save more than 4,000 allied POWs and Italian Jews from death at the hands of the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Rome. At one point, a taped message from an elderly Irish priest was played in. This, said Derry, was the man who truly deserved the credit. The man whose bravery and ingenuity had denied the Nazis their prize.
But how did a Catholic priest from a neutral county become a hero of the Roman underground?
Hugh O'Flaherty was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. In 1921 O'Flaherty was sent to Rome to complete his missionary training. By the time Italy entered the war on Germany's side on June 10, 1940, Hitler's campaign in North Africa had resulted in the mass capture of Allied troops, 50,000 of whom ended up in makeshift internment camps all over Italy.
Though neutral, Vatican emissaries were permitted to visit the prisoners and Monsignor O'Flaherty, who was fluent in three languages, was appointed as a translator for the Papal Nuncio. Whatever animosity he may have felt for the British military, having lived through the War of Independence, now took second place to his horror at the brutal treatment of POWs. Though the Vatican was obliged to tread a fine diplomatic line, the monsignor was about to cross it.
Using his extensive knowledge of the Vatican and his contacts within the clergy, O'Flaherty hid refugees in monasteries and convents, his own residence at the German college and whichever of the Vatican's 10,000 rooms he could safely commandeer. O'Flaherty was taking a huge risk, even if he claimed to be acting alone. Government spies were everywhere. If word got out that the Vatican was harbouring refugees, even the Lateran Treaty was no guarantee that the Holy City would be spared an invasion.
After the Italian surrender, tens of thousands of Allied POWs were suddenly released and, using his contacts in the church and among the citizens of Rome, O'Flaherty began placing POWs in safe houses, attics and secret rooms in and around the city. He himself rented two apartments. One – on the Via Firenze – was right behind Gestapo HQ. Before long, a functioning escape line was in place. The Monsignor's network was vast. He knew trolley-car men, farmers, shopkeepers and scores of sympathetic families. He also had friends in higher places, including Delia Murphy, a noted singer of the day and wife of the Irish Vatican envoy, Thomas Kiernan.
The Gestapo and the Italian fascist police suspected O'Flaherty, but they could neither enter the Vatican to arrest him nor catch him on his forays into Rome. Always one step ahead, the monsignor soon became known as the Vatican Pimpernel.
By Christmas of 1943, despite having lost a handful of men to Gestapo informants, the escape line was caring for more than 2,000 POWs and Jews.
Against all the odds, Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty's Roman escape had survived seven months of martial law. Thousands of fugitives were still safe. On June 4, the US 5th army under General Mark Clarke finally rolled into Rome. When Clarke arrived at St Peter's Square, one of the first people he met was a tall Irish cleric whose hand he shook, not knowing who he was or what he'd done. Notoriously self-effacing, the monsignor would have expected no more. Finally released from the confines of the Vatican, Monsignor O'Flaherty turned to the people he'd depended on for the last 10 months, organising money and provisions for the owners of every safe house.
After the war, O'Flaherty quietly returned to his post in the Holy Office, but not before his bravery was recognised in full. He was awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, a CBE and named Righteous Among the Nations by the state of Israel. He was also offered a pension by the Italian state, which he never claimed.
In 1960, on the point of being appointed Papal Nuncio to Tanzania, he suffered a stroke, and after several months in hospital he retired his post and returned to Cahirciveen where he died on October 30, 1963.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, the Hugh O'Flaherty memorial week, in association with The Gathering, takes place in Killarney, Co Kerry, from October 27 to November 3.