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Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, CBE (28 February 1898 – 30 October 1963) was an Irish Roman Catholic priest and senior official of the Roman Curia. During World War II, he was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews. Due to his ability to evade the traps set by the German Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst, Monsignor O'Flaherty earned the nickname "the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican".
Shortly after the birth of Hugh O'Flaherty in Lisrobin, Kiskeam, County Cork, his parents, James and Margaret, moved to Killarney. The family lived on the golf course where James worked as a steward. By his late teens, young O'Flaherty had a scratch handicap and a scholarship to a teacher training college. But his destiny lay elsewhere. In 1918, he enrolled at Mungret, a Jesuit college in Limerick dedicated to preparing young men for missionary priesthood.
Normally, students ranged from 14 to 18 years of age. At the time when O'Flaherty came in, he was a bit older than most of the students, about 20. The college allowed for some older people to come in if they had been accepted by a bishop who would pay for them.
O'Flaherty's sponsor was the Bishop of Cape Town, Cornelius O'Reilly, in whose diocese he would be posted after ordination, a big step for a young man who had never stepped foot outside of Munster. At the time when O'Flaherty was in Mungret, there was a lot of conflict in Ireland. He was posted to Rome in 1922 to finish his studies and was ordained on 20 December 1925. He would never join his diocese. Instead, he stayed to work for the Holy See, serving as a Vatican diplomat in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia. In 1934, O'Flaherty received the title of Monsignor.
In the early years of World War II, O'Flaherty toured prisoner of war (POW) camps in Italy and tried to find out about prisoners who had been reported missing in action. If he found them alive, he tried to reassure their families through Radio Vatican.
When Italy changed sides in 1943, thousands of British POWs were released. Some of them, remembering visits by O'Flaherty, reached Rome and asked him for help. Others went to the Irish Embassy to the Holy See, the only English-speaking embassy to remain open in Rome during the war. Delia Murphy, who was the wife of the ambassador and in her day a well-known ballad singer, was one of those who helped O'Flaherty.
O'Flaherty did not wait for permission from his superiors. He recruited the help of other priests (including two young New Zealanders Fathers Owen Snedden and John Flanagan), two agents working for the Free French, François de Vial and Yves Debroise, and even Communists and a Swiss count. One of his aides was British Major Sam Derry, an escaped POW. Derry along with British Officers and escaped POWs Lieutenants Furman and Simpson and Canadian Captain Byrnes were responsible for the security and operational organisation. O'Flaherty also kept contact with Sir D'Arcy Osborne, British Ambassador to the Vatican and his butler John May, whom O'Flaherty described as "a genius...the most magnificent scrounger.". O'Flaherty and his allies concealed 4,000 escapees − Allied soldiers and Jews − in flats, farms and convents. One of the first hideouts was beside the local SS headquarters. O'Flaherty and Derry coordinated all this. When he was visiting outside the Vatican, he wore various disguises.
The German occupiers of Rome tried to stop him and eventually they found out that the leader of the network was a priest. SS attempts to assassinate him failed. They learned his identity, but could not arrest him inside the Vatican. When the German ambassador revealed this to O'Flaherty, he began to meet his contacts on the stairs of the St. Peter's Basilica.
Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS Sicherheitsdienst and Gestapo in Rome learned of O'Flaherty's actions; he ordered a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of St. Peter's Square (signifying the border between Vatican City and Italy), stating that O'Flaherty would be killed if he crossed it. Ludwig Koch, the head of the neo-Fascist Italian police in Rome often spoke of his intention to torture O'Flaherty before executing him, if O'Flaherty ever fell into his hands.
Several others, including priests, nuns and lay people, worked in secret with O'Flaherty, and even hid refugees in their own private homes around Rome. Among these were Augustinian Maltese Fathers, Egidio Galea, Aurelio Borg, Ugolino Gatt and Brother Robert Pace of the Brothers of Christian Schools. Another person who contributed significantly to this operation was the Malta-born widow Chetta Chevalier, who hid some refugees in her house with her children, and was lucky to escape detection. Jewish religious services were conducted in the Basilica di San Clemente under a painting of Tobias − the Basilica was under Irish diplomatic protection.
When the Allies arrived in Rome in June 1944, 6,425 of the escapees were still alive. O'Flaherty demanded that German prisoners be treated properly as well. He took a plane to South Africa to meet Italian POWs and to Jerusalem to visit Jewish refugees. Of the 9,700 Jews in Rome, 1,007 had been shipped to Auschwitz. The rest were hidden, 5,000 of them by the official Church − 3,000 in Castel Gandolfo, 200 or 400 (estimates vary) as "members" of the Palatine Guard and some 1,500 in monasteries, convents and colleges. The remaining 3,700 were hidden in private homes.
At the time of the liberation of Rome, O'Flaherty's and Major Sam Derry's organisation was caring for 3,925 escapees and men who had succeeded in evading arrest. Of these 1,695 were British, 896 South African, 429 Russian, 425 Greek and 185 American. The remainder were from 20 different nations. This does not include Jews and sundry other men and women who were in O'Flaherty's strictly personal care.
After the war Hugh O'Flaherty received a number of awards including Commander of the Order of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm. He was also honoured by Canada and Australia. He refused to use the lifetime pension that Italy had given him.
In the 1950s, the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy, in the form proposed by the now-sainted Mary Faustina Kowalska, was under a ban from the Vatican. It was O'Flaherty who, as Notary, signed the document that notified Catholics of the ban.
O'Flaherty regularly visited his old nemesis Colonel Herbert Kappler (the former SS chief in Rome) in prison, month after month, being Kappler's only visitor. In 1959, Kappler converted to Catholicism and was baptised by O'Flaherty.
In 1960, O'Flaherty suffered a serious stroke during Mass and was forced to return to Ireland. Shortly before his first stroke in 1960, he was due to be confirmed as the Papal Nuncio to Tanzania. He moved to Caherciveen to live with his sister, Bride Sheehan. He died at her home on 30 October 1963 aged 65. He was buried in the cemetery of the Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church in Caherciveen.
There is a grove of Hugh O'Flaherty Trees in the Killarney National Park.
O'Flaherty was portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 television film, The Scarlet and the Black, which follows the exploits of O'Flaherty from the German occupation of Rome to its liberation by the Allies. He was also the second principal character in a radio play by Robin Glendinning on Kappler's time seeking asylum in the Vatican, entitled The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, which was first broadcast on 30 November 2006 on Radio 4, with Wolf Kahler as Kappler.
The Irish-language television station TG4 broadcast a 51-minute documentary on Hugh O'Flaherty in 2008. It is available (in mixed Irish/English with full English subtitles) on a region free DVD titled 'The Pimpernel of the Vatican - The Amazing Story of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty'.