Dubbed “Ireland’s Oskar Schindler”, Hugh O’Flaherty masterminded a large-scale operation from within the Vatican to help Jews and escaped Allied prisoners on the run from the Nazis. He placed himself in danger on countless occasions, came to be viewed as a high value target by the Gestapo and was so successful at evading their traps that he came to be known by many as the “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”.
O’Flaherty born on February 28th 1898 in Lisrobin, Kiskeam, County Cork to James O’Flaherty, a golf course steward, and his wife Margaret. In 1918 he enrolled at the Mungret Jesuit College in County Limerick to for a missionary priesthood and was sponsored by Cornelius O’Reilly, the Bishop of Cape Town. He was posted to Rome in 1922 to finish his studies and was ordained on 20 December 1925 and went on to work for the Holy See, serving as a Vatican diplomat in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia. In 1934, he was appointed Monsignor.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, O’Flaherty was based in Rome. In the early years of the conflict he toured numerous POW camps across Italy and used Radio Vatican to convey messages from POW’s to their worried families.
When Mussolini was ousted from power in 1943, thousands of British POW’s were released only to face immediate recapture by the occupying Germans. O’Flaherty recruited the help of fellow priests, Free French agents, communists, escaped British POW’s and the British Ambassador and set about forming an escape network. He did this by establishing a series of routes and safe houses, the first of which was beside the local SS headquarters, as well as recruiting people to act as guides. He would often participate directly under various disguises and constantly placed himself in danger.
O’Flaherty and his fellow conspirators concealed roughly 4,000 escapees, mainly Allied soldiers and Jews, in flats, farms and convents and churches across Italy. His success did not go unnoticed and he was eventually identified as the network’s leader by local Gestapo commander Herbert Kappler. This set in motion a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Keppler ordering numerous attempts on the Priest’s life. O’Flaherty continued in his activities unfazed and managed to evade Keppler’s agents every time.
Keppler was enraged. He eventually had a white line painted on the pavement at the border between Vatican City and Italy and ordered that O’Flaherty was to be shot if caught crossing it. Ludwig Koch, head of the neo-Fascist Italian police in Rome, was so angered by O’Flaherty’s seemingly endless luck that he often spoke of his intention to torture the priest if he ever fell into his hands.
O’Flaherty never did fall into Koch’s hands and the allies liberated Rome in the June of 1944. Over 8,000 of the city’s 9,700 Jews had successfully evaded the Germans, 5,000 of whom were hidden by the Catholic Church and at the time of the Liberation around 4,000 escapees were in the care of O’Flahery’s organisation. It is believed between 1939 and 1945, O’Flaherty was responsible for saving over 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews. After the war he demanded fair treatment for German prisoners and travelled widely to meet those he had helped in Jerusalem and around Europe.
He was awarded a CBE by the UK, a US Medal of Freedom, a medal from France and a medal from Italy. He died in County Kerry on 30 October in 1963 and is buried in Cahersiveen.
You can find Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty in many of our historical records, including passenger lists, and local newspaper articles. Why not explore our family history records to find the heroes in your family?