Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was a reluctant war hero. The Co Kerry native was working in the Vatican when the second World War broke out. A mixture of circumstance, fate and his humanitarian spirit meant he ended up running one of the most successful Allied escape operations seen during the conflict. His story is as remarkable as it is dramatic, writes GEMMA GRANT
In 1918, when Hugh O’Flaherty entered Mungret Jesuit College in County Limerick, the twenty-year-old Kerryman had his sights set on the missionary fields. The young seminarian moved quickly through the clerical ranks attaining several doctorates, mastering numerous languages and became a Monsignor by the age of thirty-six.
His skills were not overlooked by his superiors who earmarked him for the diplomatic office rather than missionary work. Accepting the challenge, Monsignor O’Flaherty served in various countries before returning to Rome in 1938, to become an official at the Holy Office.
His diplomatic skills and missionary zeal, that never left him, would be put to good use the following year when Europe went to war.
In 1940, Italy under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, allied itself with Germany. Italian Prisoner of War camps sprang up between 1940-42 detaining some 75,000 captured allied troops. Concerned for the well-being of the men, the Vatican assigned Papal Nuncio, Francesco Duca, to inspect the camps along with Fr. O’Flaherty, acting as assistant and interpreter.
Fr. O’Flaherty was no admirer of British imperialism. He witnessed Black and Tan atrocities in Ireland and lost several friends during that period. He once told a colleague, “I don’t think there is anything to choose between Britain and Germany.”
However, his genuine concern was for the allied prisoners. With missionary zeal, he set about ensuring they received proper clothing, blankets and Red Cross packages. He also used Vatican Radio to pass messages from prisoners to their families. Such were his protests over conditions in the camps, that the Italian authorities pressurised the Church to have him reassigned.
However, their demands failed. Fr. Hugh found another way to help the POW’s that eventually led him into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, one of Rome’s most notorious Nazis.
When Mussolini was overthrown in 1943, Italy signed an unconditional armistice with General Eisenhower. Thousands of POWs escaped and spread across Italy, many asking and receiving sanctuary from the Vatican. It fell to Kappler, as head of the Gestapo, to restore order to Rome, regardless of the cost to life or liberty.