Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty
Life and times of the great Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty – the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican – who grew up in Killarney and later saved the lives of an estimated 6,500 people who he hid in monasteries, convents and other safe houses in Rome during World War II
BIBLE in hand, his purple-trimmed black cassock flowing in the wind behind him, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty walked swiftly and confidently across St Peter’s Square and glanced up from beneath his wide-brimmed hat towards an elevated window in a neighbouring building.
Through his distinguished circular-shaped spectacles, he stared down the lens of a high-powered rifle pointed directly at his head by Colonel Herbert Kappler. The ruthless head of the German security forces in Rome, who had become preoccupied with eliminating the charismatic cleric, desperately wanted to squeeze the trigger and end the life of a man who had resisted his attempts to rule with an iron fist.
Showing absolutely no hint of fear, and comforted by the protection offered by the Vatican, Monsignor O’Flaherty smiled, shook his head in a gesture of pity for his would-be assassin and set off about his business.
It is almost impossible to believe that almost 40 years have now passed since that dramatic scene was portrayed by Hollywood idols Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer in The Scarlet and the Black, a TV movie charting the fascinating life and times of the man known as The Scarlet Pimpernel.
But if current day DVD copies or Youtube snatches of that 1983 film paint a romantic picture of the tall, elegant cleric, the fact of the matter is that Hugh O’Flaherty’s real life heroics were far more dramatic, daring and adventurous than any screenwriter could ever hope to conjure up.
The incredible life and times of the Kiskeam, Co Cork born but Killarney, Co Kerry reared priest provides the type of action adventure storyline that could make heroes in boys’ comic books come to life. His amazing exploits and passion for justice can teach a lesson on how life should be lived.
During a near idyllic childhood in Killarney, where his father was a golf course steward, Hugh O’Flaherty’s intelligence was always obvious and it came as no surprise to those who knew him as a boy in short trousers when he embarked on a career as a canon lawyer and theologian.
Having furthered his education with the Jesuits in Limerick and following his Christmas week ordination in 1925, he travelled extensively and spent time living, working and preaching in Egypt, Czechoslovakia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and elsewhere.
He was eventually summoned to Rome where his great skills as a diplomat were put to use in the Vatican and he was elevated to the rank of monsignor.
It was during the notorious Nazi occupation of the Italian capital that Monsignor O’Flaherty created his everlasting legacy and, as a result of his great bravery and humanitarian work during that brutal period, his place in the hall of fame of the most important and inspiring figures in world history is assured.
Providing all the necessary ingredients required for a fast-paced bestselling thriller, he set about his mission with grit and determination as he responded to Nazi acts of terror with a courageous stand against Kappler’s troops.
Countless words have been written about the role played by Monsignor O’Flaherty during World War II but it can be summed up in just one marvellous fact – thousands of people had their lives saved as a result of his intervention as he helped Jews, escaped prisoners of war and others to safety from the Gestapo.
Becoming a true master of disguise – a talent that earned him the title of the Scarlet Pimpernel – the monsignor and those he inspired helped an estimated 6,500 people to hide in monasteries, convents and other safe houses until he could successfully lead them to safety.
His compassion was to the fore again when, after the war had ended, he regularly visited his nemesis, Colonel Herbert Kappler, in prison to pray with him, to comfort him and even to baptise him when he converted to Catholicism. The gentle giant that was the monsignor had set priorities in life that were all based on ensuring right conquered wrong, helping those in need and cherishing all people equally.
Kappler, war historians inform us, was responsible for deporting approximately 10,000 Italian Jews and he also murdered 335 Italians in retaliation for a bomb which had killed 33 Germans in 1944.
In Rome, Kappler sent the Gestapo on to the streets to enforce his will and he himself is reported to have put a bullet through the head of a Catholic priest who had been captured carrying messages for the partisans.
Although he received many wonderful honours and decorations prior to his death, in Cahersiveen in 1963, the permanent memorial in Killarney, the town of his childhood, has become the most touching tribute of all to the modest monsignor who can be best described as an ordinary man who lived a truly extraordinary life.
The life-sized bronze statue, unveiled in 2013, was commissioned by a committee established to honour the charismatic cleric and the striking monument was created by Valentia Island based artist and sculptor Alan Ryan-Hall who devoted over three years to the project.
Up until then the only memorial to the great man was a grove of trees planted in 1994 in Killarney National Park.
After the war the monsignor received many decorations, including Commander of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom but when Italy’s first post-war government awarded him a lifetime pension he refused to take one lira of it, insisting wanted nothing for himself.
In 1960, Monsignor O’Flaherty suffered a stroke while saying Mass and returned to Ireland to live with his sister in Caherciveen. He passed away in October 1963.