Heroic Corkman who saved 6,000 people in WWII

Remarkably, Mary Elmes, after whom Cork’s latest bridge is being named, was not the only Cork person to have heroically saved Jews during World War II. DAVID FORSYTHE remembers the amazing life of Hugh O’Flaherty
Heroic Corkman who saved 6,000 people in WWII
Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, the saviour of more than 6,500 Jews and political prisoners who would otherwise have perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

THE decision by Cork city councillors to dedicate the new footbridge over the Lee to the memory of Mary Elmes was widely welcomed last week, as long overdue recognition for one of our most remarkable heroes.

Elmes is, to date, the only Irish person to be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel, a title given to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish people from the Nazis during the Holocaust.

But there is another Irish candidate for this honour, however, who has similarly been overlooked for too long.

Hugh O’Flaherty was born on February 28, 1898, in the townland of Lisrobin in rural north Cork, between Boherbue and Kiskeam.

His mother’s people were natives of the area and his father was in the RIC.

Soon after Hugh was born, his father, who was a golf fanatic, took a job as steward with Killarney Golf Club and it was here that the young boy would spend his formative years, developing a life-long passion for golf himself.

On completing his schooling, Hugh decided to join the priesthood and studied at Mungret College in Limerick. He then went to Rome in 1922, the year dictator Benito Mussolini came to power, to continue his studies and complete his degree in theology. Hugh was ordained in 1925 and continued his training as a priest.

A gifted academic, he was fluent in several languages including German and Italian and progressed quickly in his clerical career.

He became a successful Vatican diplomat and was assigned to a number of different locations in this capacity, including Egypt, Haiti, San Domingo (Dominican Republic) and Czechoslovakia.

Back in Rome in 1934, he became a papal chamberlain and subsequently went by the title of monsignor.

As well as being a talented boxer and hurler, Hugh had remained a passionate golfer since his boyhood days and became the Italian amateur champion. Now settled in Rome, he built up extensive contacts in the wider community and counted many local dignitaries among his golfing partners, including the former Spanish King Alfonso XIII and Galeazzo Ciano, the foreign minister and Mussolini’s son-in-law.

However, World War II then broke out and, in 1940, fascist Italy joined the conflict as one of the Axis Powers alongside Nazi Germany.

They were dangerous times in Rome, but Cork-born Hugh O’Flaherty risked his life and began to hide Jews, anti-fascists and other opponents of the government at various locations in and around the city, making use of the extensive contacts he had cultivated in the previous years.

In 1943, his network expanded greatly as Mussolini was removed from power. Many prisoners were released but the Germans quickly moved to fill the power vacuum and occupied Italy.

At this time, many more prisoners of war and allied airmen were also seeking refuge in Rome as the frontline fighting drew closer and the Allies advanced.

With the Vatican neutral during the conflict, O’Flaherty was safe within its confines, but in Rome itself he had to be very careful when making arrangements to hide fugitives.

He began going out wearing various disguises and became known as the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’.

The SS Obersturmbannführer in Rome, Herbert Kappler, had become aware of his identity and German officials warned that if Hugh set foot outside of the Vatican he would be shot on sight.

Despite the great danger, O’Flaherty and his associates continued their efforts hiding thousands of people in numerous locations, from monasteries to colleges to private homes all over the city.

When Rome was finally liberated in June, 1944, there were more than 6,000 people being successfully hidden in O’Flaherty’s clandestine network.

Showing mercy, when SS boss Kappler was arrested by the Allies, O’Flaherty regularly visited him in prison.

Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment for his actions during the war but later converted to Catholicism.

O’Flaherty was honoured by being made a Commander of the British Empire and was a recipient of the US Medal of Freedom.

Following a stroke while saying mass in Rome in 1960, he retired to live with his sister in Cahirsiveen in County Kerry, where he continued to say mass and to play golf, though his health was deteriorating.

In 1963, he was to be the subject of the hit British TV show This Is Your Life, hosted by Eamonn Andrews, but by this time he was too ill to participate in the programme.

The producers instead focused on his old friend from Rome, Sam Derry, a British escapee who helped him to run his network.

Despite doctors’ advice, Hugh attended the TV programme as the surprise final guest, to rapturous applause from the audience.

Hugh died back in Ireland soon after the programme aired and was buried in Cahirsiveen.

His life was further celebrated in 1983 with the release of TV movie The Scarlet and The Black starring Gregory Peck as Hugh O’Flaherty and Christopher Plummer as his arch enemy Herbert Kappler.

In 2008, the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty Committee was established to fund-raise for the erection of a statue in his honour, and the work by Valentia sculptor Alan Ryan Hall was unveiled at the entrance to Killarney National Park in 2013.

The Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society continues to promote his legacy, hosting the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Weekend and a school’s essay competition, and awarding a bursary.

Supporters are also lobbying, with the support of Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, to have Hugh O’Flaherty recognised by Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel, as Ireland’s second recipient of the Righteous Among the Nations honour, following the example of Mary Elmes.

Hugh O’Flaherty and Mary Elmes both feature in David Forsythe’s new book, What Have The Irish Ever Done For Us?, published on March 8 by Currach Press.

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