Page 6, 8th November 1963

8th November 1963
Page 6
Page 6, 8th November 1963 — HUGH O'FLAHERTY—A personal reminiscence

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Locations: Rome, County Kerry


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HUGH O'FLAHERTY—A personal reminiscence

by Alan McElwain

house next to the one they were watching.

He slung a hag of coal over his shoulders, shambled down the road, then disappeared from view round a corner. Then he dumped his bag in a doorway. wiped the coal dust from his face, and hurried back to his office in the Vatican.

The priest and the coalman were one and the same, the Right Reverend Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, Rome's wartime "Pimpernel" who helped hundreds of escaped Allied prisoners of war to escape the Nazi net, into which he almost fell several times himself.

The amiable, scholarly priest, who had nothing of the "hero" in his appearance, has died, aged 65, at the home of his widowed sister, Mrs. Christopher Sheehan, of Cahirciveen, in County Kerry, Ireland, ON THE RUN He was always more proud of being a Kerry man than a "Pimpernel" or "any other of those fancy names they've been after giving me". He leaves behind an astonishing legend.

Until 1960, he was a senior official in the Vatican's Holy Office, where I used to call on him at least once a week.

He was always complaining, in a fey Irish way, that he was constantly misrepresented in the dozens of stories that had been written about him, and I was attempting to get him to let me write his personal O'Flaherty story to end all O'Flaherty stories.

I used to get him well on the way, but then he would become restless, say he didn't want anything more said or written about his wartime exploits, and, in the end, made me promise not to "put anything in the paper". Now, all his countless friends will agree that it is a great pity he never gave his own version of his "Pimpernel" days.

His adventures started in 1943, soon after Marshal Badoglio became Italy's head of State, after Mussolini fell. Monsignor O'Flaherty had then been in Rome 21 years and knew every highway and byway of it so well that he produced a famous guidebook on it.

This knowledge enabled him to outwit his enemies time and again, once the Germans had made him their Number One target. Although Badoglio took over, with headquarters in North Italy, Rome remained in German hands for another nine months before the Allies liberated the city.

In that time, Rome was a city on the run. Mgr. O'Flaherty said that half the population was hiding the other half and a lot more as well. Nearly every family had a relative or friend wanted by the Germans. Thousands of people were also sheltering in seminaries, monasteries or convents.

Among the fugitives were British, Australian, New Zealand and South African prisoners of war who, escaping when Mussolini fell made from the surrounding hills for Rome on the mistaken impression that the war in Italy had ended.

Mgr. O'Flaherty had been an official Vatican visitor to prisoper of war camps and helped compile those lists of missing or captured soldiers that brought such comfort to anxious relatives when broadcast over Vatican Radio and released through local Papal Nuncios and Delegates.

Once Rome began to fill up with fugitives, many of them who had met Mgr. O'Flaherty on his camp visits, turned to him.

DISGUISES At first, he had no difficulty in finding hideouts for them, but as more and more arrived his network of undercover accommodation grew and at one time he had 50 shelters, mostly • apartments owned by anti-Fascist Italians, to whom he paid small sums for the food their "guests" ate.

In the finish, he was hiding not only ex-P.O.W.s, but hundreds of Jews. He saved at least 1,700 Jews from the deportation or death which the Nazis meted out to others.

Mgr. O'Flaherty appointed several Allied officers among his charges to keep discipline in the escape set-up, /but many highspirited characters, tired of being confined to apartments, ventured into Rome streets in various types of disguises—priests' or nuns' habits and the like—and took foolhardy risks, especially if they had been spending too long in wine bars.

Two "priests" were picked up by German police after one of them so far forgot himself as to ogle a pretty girl on a bus.

Another, roaring drunk, stood below the balcony of Palazzo Venezia, from which Mussolini used to bellow at his Fascist mobs, and, looking a couple of policemen straight in the eye, defiantly broke into "It's a long way to Tipperary".

He was still singing as they carted him off to prison.

Inevitably, German and Fascist troops and police were ordered to catch Mgr. O'Flaherty redhanded and at all costs. He was shadowed whenever he ventured from the safety of the Vatican, which had extra-territorial rights. into Rome.

His enemies repeatedly tried to decoy him, but he was always warned in time. The nearest he came to being captured and shot was when an Italian who had been helping him for some time told him some escapers wanted to see him at a rendezvous outside Rome.

Mgr. O'Flaherty was on his way across St. Peter's Square to keep the appointment when someone he was never able to identify sidled up to him, whispered "don't go", then hurried away. Mgr. O'Flaherty discovered later that his helper had turned traitor and taken money from the Germans to betray him.

Mgr. O'Flaherty was instrumental in saving the life of Colonel Hubert Kappler, "the Nazi but

cher of Rome", who, as head of the S.S. in the city, wanted more than anyone else to get the priest into his hands. The Allies grabbed Kappler when they entered Rome and put him on trial for attrocities.

He would undoubtedly have been condemned to death had not Mgr. O'Flaherty revealed at his trial that the Colonel had disobeyed Nazi orders to shoot on sight Allied soldiers landing in Italy by parachute.

Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment, and later, at his request, Mgr. O'Flaherty, in the gaol chapel, received him into the Catholic Church.

I was talking to him in the Holy Office piazza a few days afterwards, when tough Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo, came by. "Well," he said to Mgr. O'Flaherty, with a mischievous grin, "it took an Irishman to tell them!"

Mgr. O'Flaherty retired from the Holy Office in 1960, after he had suffered a slight stroke. Oddly enough, I phoned him the morning this happened and asked if I could come, as usual, to see him.


He answered the phone himself, feeling very ill, as I later discovered, and merely said: "Something seemed to go wrong with one of my hands while I was saying Mass this morning. Perhaps it would be better if you came tomorrow."

It was not until that tomorrow that I learned just how badly he had been struck.

He had friends all over the world and no one received more visitors in Rome. In the tourist season, year after year, he literally wore himself out looking after them.

There wasn't a cleric, Swiss Guard, gendarme or general factotum who did not know him and he got top treatment wherever he went. One of his greatest friends, who will be mourning him deeply now, was the proprietor of a newspaper stall immediately below the Papal Palace walls, who was one of his most courageous underground workers during the war.

After he had retired from the Holy Office in 1960 because of illhealth, he slipped away from Rome as unobtrusively as he had once helped his "boys" to slip through the Nazi dragnet. He had been here fir 38 years and the blow of having to leave was terribly heavy for him.

He could have stayed on. His "boss", as he always called Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, offered to let him keep his little flat in the Holy Office as long as he desired, but the Monsignor told me he could not bear to remain if there was nothing for him to do,

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