Page 5, 15th July 1983

15th July 1983
Page 5
Page 5, 15th July 1983 — PIMPERNEL OF ROME

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"IN THIS IMPERFECT world you may never receive the honour that is due to you. But I want you to know that in my heart I honour you. The real treasure of Our Church, which make it imperishable, is that every once in a while someone comes to it, my son, like you."

These words were spoken by Pope Pius XII to Mgr Hugh O'Flaherty on the liberation of Rome in 1944 when almost 4,000 American and British soldiers and Jews saved by the Irish Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican were still alive.

Now twenty years later the world pays its final tribute to Mgr O'Flaherty by the release of a major three hour film for television, The Scarlet and the Black, which tells of his remarkable escape network delicately balanced between Nazi efforts to capture him and Pope Pius XII's attempts to maintain Vatican neutrality.

The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck as Mgr O'Flaherty, Christopher Plummer as Colonel Herbert Kappler, the Gestapo chief in Rome, and Sir John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII, has already been voted best film overall in 1982/83 by the US Television Fan Association. Gregory Peck has been voted best actor, Jerry London best director and David Butler best writer by the Association.

Now the film has been released in Britain on tape by Precision Video, the first time a major film has been released in Britain before cinema or television, and Mr Walter Woyda, CEO Precision, flew to Dublin to present a copy to Mr Hugh J O'Flaherty, nephew of the Pimpernel.

"This is the first opportunity that arose to meet the family of a person portrayed in a major film and present them with a copy of it," said Mr Woyda.

Mgr Hugh O'Flaherty, eldest of four children of James and Margaret O'Flaherty, of Killarney, Co Kerry, was born in his mother's home in Boherbue, Co Cork on February 28. 1898.

"He was a non-smoker, non-drinker, who excelled at golf, cards, hurling, boxing and handball," said his sister, Mrs Bride Sheehan, of Cahirciveen, Co Kerry. "He was a nice, quiet man, loved by everbody, who was mad on golf and never gave his parents a moment's anxiety."

Yet to the thousands of American and British soldiers, and Jews, whose lives he saved during the Nazi regime in Italy, Mgr O'Flaherty is remembered as the Pimpernel of the Vatican and when he died peacefully in Cahirciveen on October 30, 1964, his death was highlighted on page one of the world's largest daily paper, the New York Times, and was taken up by papers all over the world under the heading, "The Pimpernel is Dead."

It was during his boyhood in Killarney where he attended school in the monastery, that Hugh O'Flaherty developed a love of golf which was to remain with him all through his life. He was in fact the amateur golf champion of Italy and during the Nazi regime his code in the escape line was golf.

Hugh O'Flaherty was ordained in Rome on December 20, 1925, and was immediately appointed Vice Rector of the Propaganda College where only recently he had been a student.

"Hugh was ordained for South Africa but he never got there," said Mrs Sheeham — the reason being that his skill as a diplomat had already been appreciated by the Vatican and he served with distinction in Egypt, Haiti, San Domingo and Czechoslovakia before being recalled to Rome and appointed to the Holy Office.

When the German army took over in Rome in September 1943 the Gestapo was commanded by a young Lieutenant Colonel, Herbert Kappler, (played in the film by Christopher Plummer) who had already spent several years in Rome.

As the occupation continued, food became more scarce, Jews were sent to Auschwitz and allied prisoners of war were tortured and murdered. Mgr O'Flaherty went about his usual business as an official of the Holy Office but in fact his principal activity was helping thousands of allied POWs and Jews to escape torture and death.

The work required frequent trips outside the Vatican fixing up the escapers with money, clothes and lodging, operating the escape line in the face of constant threats of torture and execution without the knowledge or consent of his superiors.

Colonel Kappler gave top priority to wiping out Mgr O'Flaherty's network but he could never capture the Irish Scarlet Pimpernel. An attempt to assassinate him in St Peter's failed.

After the war Colonel Kappler was among those tried by the Allies for war crimes, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in Gaeta prison between Rome and Naples. Only one person visited him in Gaeta prison — Mgr O'Flaherty. They became friends and in March 1959 Kappler was baptised into the Catholic Church by the Mgr who had just been appointed Chief Notary in the Holy Office.

In 1960 the Mgr suffered a stroke while saying Mass and returned to his sister in Cahirciveen. He remained as active as possible and, in spite of the stroke, continued to play golf. When he recovered he went to California where he worked in the Curia which advises the Archbishop on technical, legal and canonical matters. But his health again began to deteriorate and he returned to Cahirciveen at the beginning of 1963.

The Pimpernel died on October 30 and is buried in the grounds of the local church under a simple headstone.

Gregory Peck, enthusiastic about his role in The Scarlet and the Black, said Mgr O'Flaherty was not the type of man to be sent as a missionary to the jungle.

"He was more useful as a diplomat and a politician," said Peck whose grandmother, who reared him, came from Dingle, Co Kerry, and whose father, as a boy, lived in Killarney.

Hugh O'Flaherty was unlucky enough to become a legend in his own lifetime and this, combined with the love and esteem which he had, quite unconsciously, won throughout half the countries in the world, aroused bitter jealousy among his colleagues and superiors, with the exception of Cardinal Ottaviani who stood by him to the end.

None of those people who publicly declared their jealousy by dubbing him an adventurer, a jumped-up Irish peasant, could ever understand his simple love of people which guided all his priestly life.

And although his last years were tilled with disappointment and sadness, "I have lost too much promotion," he would say, he was happy, in the words of an Englishman who visited him in Rome before his return to Cahirciveen, that his brain had been able to do what his heart dictated.

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