On October 30, 1963, Cahirciveen, County Kerry saw the largest outpouring of grief since the loss their favorite son, the great Daniel O’Connell in 1847. This time it was for another one of their own – Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Although he was born in Kiskeam, County Cork and grew up in Killarney, where his father was the steward of the old Killarney Golf Club, Hugh retired to Cahirciveen three years before his death and was honored as one of their own. He was also honored with many decorations, including Commander of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom for Hugh O’Flaherty was a very special man who was mourned throughout the world, including in a front page tribute in the New York Times.
Young Hugh had a vocation for the priesthood and as a young seminarian he was posted to Rome in 1922, the year that Mussolini came to power. He earned a degree in Theology and was ordained in 1925. Continuing his studies, he earned doctorates in Divinity, Canon Law and Philosophy. He became a skilled diplomat and served the Vatican at posts in Egypt, Haiti, San Domingo and Czechoslovakia after which he was called back to Rome and appointed to serve the Holy Office at the Vatican.
Father O’Flaherty was also an excellent golfer having learned at the Killarney Golf Club from his father. While in Rome, he played regularly with Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, with the former king Alfonso of Spain and other social luminaries. In 1934, he was elevated to the position of Monsignor and enjoyed a high standing in the social life of Rome which he was able to use in the years after 1937 when Italy joined Germany and Japan as part of the Axis powers. The new Monsignor was from an Irish nationalist background and in his youth witnessed atrocities being carried out by Black and Tans during which a number of his friends were killed. When WWII began in 1939, he refused to take sides believing that the Brits were as bad as the Nazis however, that soon changed. When the allies invaded at Salerno on Sept 3, 1943, Italy left the Axis and made peace with the Allies. An armistice was publicly declared on Sept 8 between Italy and the Allied forces. Once Germany learned that the Italians signed an armistice, they quickly took over critical defensive positions in Italy and on Sept 10 the Germans occupied Rome.
The Nazis began to crack down on prominent Jews and aristocratic anti-fascists. Having socialized with these people before the war, the Monsignor hid them in farms, monasteries, convents, his old college and his own residence. O’Flaherty’s views changed after he learned of the violence being inflicted by the Nazis. He visited Allied prisoners held in harsh conditions in Italian jails and began to offer shelter to Allied servicemen who turned up at the Vatican looking for sanctuary. He expanded his operations to help escaped allied prisoners-of-war and shot-down pilots. He gradually recruited a group to assist him and set up a network of safe houses in Rome where they could hide. Allied military who evaded capture or were able to escape, made their way to the Vatican seeking asylum. Others went to the Irish Embassy to the Holy See – the only English-speaking embassy to remain open in Rome during the war. The great Irish singer, Delia Murphy, was the wife of the Irish Ambassador at the time and was one of those who helped O’Flaherty.
By the war’s end the Monsignor and his group had helped more than 6,500 Jews, American and British Soldiers escape the Nazis and he was referred to as “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.” He also became a master of disguises to avoid capture from the Germans when he had to go beyond the ‘White Line’ on his rescue missions. The line was a plain white line painted on the streets outside the Vatican on the instructions of Herbert Kappler, the head of the Gestapo, to mark the point where the Vatican’s authority ended and Nazi rule began. Kappler had learned of O’Flaherty’s operation and it was also to remind O’Flaherty that if he was caught beyond that line he would be executed! In March 1944, after the Italian Resistance killed 33 German soldiers in a bomb attack Hitler demanded revenge so Kappler drew up plans to kill 10 Italians for each German soldier killed. His men killed 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. It was the worst atrocity on Italian soil during the War. Such was the manner of man who tried several times to kidnap and kill O’Flaherty and placed a bounty of 30,000 Lire on his head. Meanwhile, O’Flaherty continued to outwit Kappler with fake credentials and documents printed in the Vatican, a secret communication network and by evading capture by the Gestapo.
At the War Crimes trial after the war, Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole for the Ardeatine Caves massacre. In a surprising move, Italy’s most hated prisoner wrote to his old rival inviting Msgr O’Flaherty to visit him in prison; the Kerry cleric immediately went to meet with his former foe. Their meetings became regular affairs during which they discussed religion and literature. The Monsignor joked, “Here I am with this man who put 30,000 lire on my head and now we are sort of pals.” The feeling was mutual as Kappler described O’Flaherty as “a fatherly friend”. After his sentence Kappler, who was a Protestant, called on the Monsignor and the two men prayed together after which Msgr O’Flaherty received Kappler into the Faith. In what was probably Monsignor O’Flaherty’s greatest victory, Italy’s most notorious Nazi was welcomed into the Catholic Church by the very man he had tried so hard to kill.
Kappler remained in prison in Italy until he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1975 and was transferred to a military hospital in Rome. In August 1977 his wife dramatically smuggled him out of the hospital into a waiting car and took him back to Germany where he died in 1978 with few to mourn his passing. As for his courageous rival, in October 1963, (50 years ago this month) the village of Caherciveen, County Kerry saw the biggest funeral it had ever seen. Representatives from the Catholic Church and officials from the British and Irish governments and friends from his days in Rome were among the mourners. The 1983 film ‘The Scarlet and the Black’ with Gregory Peck describes his wartime activities, but the rivalry, forged in wartime, which became a friendship created in peacetime remains one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the Second World War.