The ‘Oskar Schin dler of Killarney’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 2 (March/April 2013), News, The Emergency, Volume 21

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty’s niece Pearl Dineen and sculptor Alan Ryan Hall beside a full-sized model of the proposed memorial.

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty’s niece Pearl Dineen and sculptor Alan Ryan Hall beside a full-sized model of the proposed memorial.

Hugh O’Flaherty was actually born in Cork in 1898 (his father was in the RIC) but he grew up in Killarney, where his parents had settled down. A noted athlete in his youth, he trained as a missionary priest and embarked on a globe-trotting career that saw him serve the Vatican in a range of capacities in South Africa, Egypt, Haiti, Czechoslovakia, Santa Domingo and Los Angeles. Yet it is his activities in Rome itself for which he is best known, and which prompted the campaign to commemorate him.


O’Flaherty was ordained in Rome in 1925 and was almost immediately made vice-rector of the Propaganda College, a notable position for one so young. He was gifted academically, holding three doctorates and speaking nine languages, and served in the Vatican diplomatic service in the 1930s before returning to Rome in 1938. After the outbreak of the war, O’Flaherty began to help potential victims of the Mussolini regime, including many Jews. Thousands availed of a vast and surreptitious escape network that O’Flaherty kept hidden from his superiors. He continued this ‘underground railroad’ during the German occupation of Rome in 1943–4; he was confined to the Vatican and narrowly avoided assassination at the hands of the Gestapo. Lauded by the victorious allies, O’Flaherty later claimed to have been politically neutral. His actions were, he argued, simply those of a Christian: after the war he even struck up a friendship of sorts with the imprisoned Herbert Kappler, the former Gestapo commander in Rome who had ordered his assassination. Having enjoyed a stellar ecclesiastical career, O’Flaherty died in Cahirciveen in 1963.

Ireland and World War II has been the subject of controversy in recent times, much of which has revolved around the morality of the struggle against fascism vis-à-vis that of Irish neutrality. O’Flaherty’s story certainly speaks to the former, though the fact that his wartime actions may have been perceived as a breach of the latter might explain the absence of any official memorial to him.

The Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty Committee was established in July 2008 with the object of rectifying the omission. O’Flaherty is currently commemorated with a grove of trees in Killarney National Park, but the plan is to erect a statue in Killarney itself, sculpted by Alan Ryan Hall of Valentia Island. The society is not, to date, in receipt of any public funds: any monies raised have come from donations and fund-raising events. At a recent one in January, new patrons of the society—each of whom pledged at least €1,000—were presented with limited-edition models of the proposed sculpture. The society hopes to have the statue erected in time for the 50th anniversary of O’Flaherty’s death on 30 October 2013. To this end, they have come up with an ambitious programme for 2013, culminating in a week-long series of events and exhibitions in late October and early November. Details at  HI


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