Remembering Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty

UPDATE: If you’d like to see the Irish National Broadcaster, RTE’s coverage of this event, click here

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Cork Independent, Thursday 27th November 2008

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Irish Independent, Saturday 15th November 2008

I’ve been very lucky in my life, over the course of it I’ve had the chance through coincidence and chance to meet pretty much all of my heroes. In fact, I’ve been using the archetypal hero as a theme in my work for a few years now and have had the opportunity to paint both portraits and homages to my own personal heroes.

I’m sad to say that unfortunately I’ll never have the chance to meet Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a man who is the very definition of the word hero, but I wish to show my appreciation of his deeds in some small way. The great thing about being an artist is that when you find a cause that’s really worthy, you can use your talent to make something towards helping it. You see, the Monsignor was one of the greatest humanitarians over the course of World War II, and has been recognised with some of the highest accolades that can be awarded from countries as diverse as America, England, France and Israel, but is largely unheard of in Ireland, his home country.

On Friday 14th of October I went to Killarney to the opening of the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Weekend, an event that hopefully will raise awareness of this remarkable man. There was an excellent photographic exhibition in the upstairs of the Killarney Outlet Centre and after that there was a lunch with the Killarney Chamber of Commerce in the Malton Hotel. After the lunch I presented the painting with the Monsignors good friend Dr. Veronica Dunne, the famous singer. I was very honoured when she told me that I captured his likeness and the glint in his eye, which is a great compliment for an artist. It was also announced that the painting will be auctioned in February 2009 to raise money to make a permanent memorial for the Monsignor.

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was a priest from Killarney, Co. Kerry. The Monsignor was a Vatican priest during the second world war and was responsible for saving more Allied lives than any other single person during the war. It was his vision and selflessness that helped create an underground network of safehouses that housed and hid escaping Allied POW’s and Roman Jews.

O’Flaherty began the war feeling no particular affinity for either side. He began visiting Allied prisoners in POW camps and sending letters home to their families confirming they were still alive and passing on messages. He became even more involved in 1942, when the occupying Germans began a crackdown on the prominent Jews of Rome, and aristocratic anti-fascists. Some of the Monsignors closest friends were included in these demographics and he could not stand by and see them taken away to their deaths, so he began hiding them in monasteries, in convents, and even in his own residence.

In 1943, he widened his net of safety to include any of the Jews whom the Nazis had begun herding onto cattle cars for their horrendous last journey. He took in escaped British POW’s, and acquired the partnership of Sir Francis Osborne, British Minister to the Vatican. It is likely because of this alliance that the British extended a line of credit through the Vatican bank for the monsignor, to finance his clandestine activities. In no time, the cleric and his network were giving their life-saving assistance to refugees of any nationality or creed who approached them. They had thousands of people wanted by the Nazis hidden away in nearly every catholic building in Rome, on every floor from the cellar to the attic, in every edifice from private homes to seminaries and convents.

Colonel Herbert Kappler, the chief of the gestapo in Rome soon identified O’Flaherty as a marked man, and began to look for a way to get past the restriction of O’Flaherty’s diplomatic immunity as a member of the Vatican. He hunted the man and set traps for him at every opportunity. The stories about O’Flaherty’s eluding these traps are legendary. He is supposed to have disguised himself at different times as everything from a nun to a coal man in order to escape capture off Vatican grounds. Kappler’s frustration at not being able to apprehend the elusive Irishman even led him to an attempt to have O’Flaherty forcibly dragged off Vatican property by a couple of Gestapo assassins. The Germans were thwarted once again when members of the Swiss guard pummeled them and sent them running.

Now what really illustrates the Monsignors heroic qualities are how he viewed everyone as a person and all people as equals. When the Allies arrived in Rome in June 1944, and began to punish German soldiers, O’Flaherty demanded that German prisoners should be treated properly as well.

The most amazing example of this was when he agreed to a request from Colonel Kappler, who was imprisoned for a life sentence after the Nuremberg trials, to assist in the relocation of his family back to Germany.  During Kapplers imprisonment, he had only one visitor for ten years. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who called once a month to see him. Their Friendship developed over the years, and Kappler later wrote of the Monsignor that “to me he became a fatherly friend”. Kappler was baptised a Catholic by the Monsignor in 1956.

There are even more incredible stories about his man, and the movie “The scarlet and the black” is a dramatization of his life if you’re interested in seeing his life in Hollywood style.

I donated the painting for auction in Killarney in February 2009, where hopefully some philanthropic soul will buy it to add money to the fund to create a permanent memorial for this heroic man.

(some details sourced from here)

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