23 April 2018
A visit to the grave of the
‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the
Vatican’ in Cahersiveeen
When I stopped to see the Daniel O’Connel Memorial Church in the centre of Cahersiveen on the way to Ballinskelligs in the Kerry Galetacht late last week, I also visited the grave of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who is known as the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.’
Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (1898-1963) is buried in the grounds of the church and in my sermons on Sunday morning [22 April 2018] in Castletown and Rathkeale I cited one of the quotation on his grave: ‘God has no country.’
He is proudly portrayed on a gable wall abutting the churchyard, and the story of his heroic life, which involved saving more than 5,000 people, including Jews, children, and prisoners of war, while he was a senior diplomat in the Vatican, is told in the Gregory Peck television film, The Scarlet and the Black (1983).
Monsignor O’Flaherty, who was born in Lisrobin, Kiskeam, Co Cork, on 28 February 1898, and grew up near Killarney, where his father, James O’Flaherty, worked as a green keeper.
He went to the Jesuit-run Mungret College, Co Limerick, at the age of 20 in 1916 to train for the priesthood. He was sent to Rome in 1922 and was ordained on 20 December 1925. He went on to work as a Vatican diplomat in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Czechoslovakia. In 1934, he was appointed a papal chamberlain with the title of monsignor.
In the early years of World War II, Monsignor O’Flaherty visited prisoner of war camps in Italy, searching for prisoners who had been reported missing in action. During the German occupation of Italy, the Irish embassy to the Holy See was the only English-speaking embassy to remain open in Rome.
O'Flaherty and his friends hid over 4,000 people, including Allied soldiers and Jews, in flats, farms and convents. SS attempts to arrest or assassinate him failed, and the Germans threatened to kill him should he step across a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of Saint Peter’s Square, signifying the border between the Vatican City and Italy.
During O’ Flaherty’s underground activities, Jewish religious services were held in the Basilica of San Clemente. Of the 9,700 Jews in Rome, 1,007 had been shipped to Auschwitz. The rest were hidden, including 3,000 in Castel Gandolfo, 200 to 400 as ‘members’ of the Palatine Guard and another 1,500 in monasteries, convents and colleges. Another 3,700 were hidden in private homes.
After World War II, Monsignor O'Flaherty received a number of international awards. Britain made him a CBE and the US gave him the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm. In 1953, the Vatican appointed him a domestic prelate.
Monsignor O’Flaherty was due to take up an appointment as the Papal Nuncio to Tanzania in 1960 when he suffered a serious stroke while celebrating Mass. He was forced to return to Ireland, and moved to Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, to live with his sister.
He died at his sister’s home on 30 October 1963, at the age of 65, and was buried in the churchyard at the Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church in Cahersiveen. There is a also monument to him in Killarney town and a grove of trees dedicated to his memory in the Killarney National Park.
He has been nominated as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but this has not yet been confirmed.