Just as Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize you might think about Irish people down through the years who may have been worthy of the same award. How many people spring to mind and in the same breath I will ask you ‘Have you heard of Hugh?’
Two years ago I was coming back from Berlin after a fabulous weekend with some friends. We had a great time with the usual mix of late nights, shopping and visiting the various tourist attractions. We had a very sobering visit to the Holocaust museum, which was quite depressing and a very real reminder about how crazy our world is capable of being.
On the plane home I spotted an article in the Irish Examiner reviewing a new book The Vatican Pimpernel, about an Irish priest working in Rome, who had helped save over 6,500 people during World War II. First I thought that it must be a fictional story about the war and I read on quite intrigued. To my utter amazement I discovered that this actually happened and the Irish priest in question had been born in Cork and grew up in Killarney!
How could this be possible? How was it that for all 40 plus years of my life that I had not heard about this Irish hero who was from literally just down the road? Asking practically everyone I met I was getting the same response – no one had heard of this terrific Irish man.
The man in question was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.
During World War II, the Monsignor held a senior position within the Vatican. However despite the fact that the Vatican had a neutral capacity during the war the Monsignor could not just ignore pleas for help from people in need. When approached at the gates of the Vatican by people who were in danger and were looking for shelter the Monsignor decided he had no choice but to help. During the course of the war he provided shelter and ultimately saved the lives of over 6,500 people of all nationalities and religions.
Besides being incredibly courageous what I find most fascinating was the strategy, sophisticated planning, organisational and business brilliance of the Monsignor. Despite his life being in constant danger he managed to manage and finance a project that secured a network of safe houses to protect and shelter prisoners of war in Rome through a combination of friends and rented accommodation. With his own life at risk, he managed to raise funds on an ongoing basis that paid for these premises and also provided food and clothing over an extended period for all the people in hiding and kept all of this going until the Allies arrived in Rome in 1945.
A key element to keeping the operation going despite the constant presence of the Nazis was his intelligence network, which succeeded in keeping everyone safe despite many close shaves.
After the war his work did not stop there, the Monsignor spent much of his time visiting German prisoners ensuring that they were being treated properly by the authorities.
The Monsignor received many decorations, including, Commander of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom. The Monsignor retired to Cahirciveen for the last three years of his life and on 30th October, 1963 he sadly passed away. His death was mourned throughout the world, including a front page tribute in the New York Times.
Up until this past year, the Monsignor has never been officially recognised in Ireland by either government or church.
While we can’t exactly compare, we all are now in tough times and we need courage, flexibility, adaptability and ingenuity to steer our way through this tough economical crisis. At the same time we do need to do our best to work with our colleagues, suppliers and customers in a compassionate and respectful manner as they could very well be under severe financial pressure.
To learn more the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty check out the book by Brian Fleming, The Vatican Pimpernel, visit the memorial website http://www.hughoflaherty.com or hire the DVD The Scarlet and the Black featuring Gregory Peck as The Monsignor.
On the weekend of the 6th November in Killarney, the second annual memorial weekend takes place, in honour of The Monsignor. The weekend includes a presentation of his life in pictures at The Killarney Outlet Centre, the presentation of the Hugh O’Flaherty International Humanitarian Award and a fundraising concert so that funds can be raised for a permanent memorial to be erected in Killarney in honour of the Monsignor.
Have you heard of Hugh? We must never forget..