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A True Hero: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty In the Words of Ronnie Dunne

In July 1946 having finished boarding school at the Sacred Heart Convent, Mount Anville, my one and only ambition was to further my vocal studies in Italy. Before leaving Mount Anville, Mother Bodkin, who was then Mistress of Studies, very kindly wrote to the Mother House in Milan seeking accommodation for me. They advised me not to come as they had neither food nor water and the whole of Italy was still devastated after the war.

It was, as the Italians would say, “La forza del destino” that I met the famous Irish Ballad Singer Delia Murphy and her husband Dr Thomas Kiernan, who had just returned from Rome, having served five years as Ambassador to the Holy See. I told them of my determination to go to Italy. They advised me to continue my studies in Rome (instead of Milan) as the Holy City had been spared from destruction by the Germans and the Allies. It so happened that a great friend of theirs, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, was in Ireland at the same time on vacation from the Vatican. Mrs Kiernan decided that he should be the person to take charge of me while in Rome.

A month later the Kiernans arrived at my home accompanied by the Monsignor. With his lovely Kerry accent he tried to discourage me from going, as conditions in Rome were bad and every hotel and pensione had been requisitioned by the Armed Forces. No matter what he said, I became more determined to go. Eventually he turned to my father and said “I can see that I am going to have my hands full with this young woman, but no matter, I will keep an eye on her and my friends will find her the right teacher.”

Off I went in late September, arriving at a Military Air Force Base outside Rome called Ciampino. Waiting for me on the tarmac was the Monsignor who greeted me saying, “Do you see that plane?” I nodded and he continued, “If I catch you with an Italian man you will be back on the next flight home welcome to Rome.”

We drove into the city until we reached the Sacred Heart convent of Monte del Gianicolo where I was to stay until I found other accommodation.

The following day I joined Monsignor for lunch at his apartment. His housekeeper, Maria, chatted to me incessantly, but I could only smile and repeat ‘si’ ad nauseam, as I could not understand a word of Italian. While she was preparing the pasta, I noticed a large black box with earphones and a microphone in a corner. I quizzed the Monsignor as to their purpose. He told me that he had used them during the German occupation to contact British intelligence. Suddenly all the stories I had been told about how he had helped thousands of prisoners of war and Jews to safety became a reality. Eager to learn more, I pursued the subject. The Monsignor began by educating me in wartime politics. He explained how the Germans took control of Northern Italy after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime in September 1943 and the surrender of the Italian people under King Vittorio Emmanuel II to the allies. Then the Monsignor began telling me of his rescue operations. He recounted many of his dangerous sorties into the city to bring clothes and food to households harbouring allied fugitives and Jews. I was amazed at the lengths to which he had to go to in order to evade the SS, who in Rome were under the command of a man called Colonel Kappler.

Monsignor smiled when he thought of Kappler because the Colonel had issued a reward of 30,000 lire for any information regarding the elusive cleric. “You know, Ronnaccio,” as he used to call me, “he nearly caught me.” It was the winter of 1944, the Monsignor had to call on Prince Filippo Doria Pamphile, who was also involved in the underground movement. While he was there the Gestapo raided the Palazzo. Monsignor fled to the cellar and as luck would have it, coal was being delivered. So he stuffed his soutane and clerical hat into a sack, covered himself with soot, climbed up the ladder and crept out behind the SS trucks and headed for home.

The stories continued during my years in Rome. I would meet the Monsignor for lunch every Friday, he would inquire about my progress and I would uncover more about his fascinating past. I discovered still more about his missions and learned how his efforts had been formally recognised by both the British and American governments who awarded him the CBE and the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm. However I did not need to be told of the Monsignor’s kindness to others; I witnessed it continually during my stay. I used to sometimes travel with the Monsignor to the camps for displaced soldiers where he would bring rations from the NAAFI stores every Saturday. Indeed, he not only helped to feed the soldiers, but he did as much as he possibly could to ensure that they got back to their families. And in a true sense of charity, he pleaded specifically for the return of former German soldiers. The most amazing example of this was when he agreed to a request from Colonel Kappler, who was now serving a life prison sentence, to assist in the relocation of his family back to Germany. The Monsignor not only did this for his former enemies, but he befriended the SS Colonel. Their friendship developed and Kappler later wrote that, “to me he became a fatherly friend.” Kappler was baptised a Catholic by the Monsignor in 1956.

All my time with the Monsignor was special, but there was one occasion which made a greater impact on me than any other. One day in early Spring of 1947, the Monsignor asked me to accompany him to the Ardeatine Caves just outside Rome. On our way he explained the purpose of the visit. He told me that in March 1944 there had been an incident in Rome that had resulted in the death of thirty-two SS troopers. In reprisal for the killings, Kappler had ordered that ten Italians for every one German soldier were to be shot. So the SS rounded up three hundred and thirty-two Italians and brought them out to the caves. The Italians were forced into the caves and executed, then the SS blasted the rock covering in the holes. Now almost three years later, the Italians had blasted open the rock face and we were going out to pray and console with the people of Rome.

We arrived there in the late afternoon to find the place crowded with people. Upon entering the cave, we saw row upon row of coffins, and on each coffin was placed a photo along with the name and age of the person inside. Candles were burning and the back wall was covered with wreaths of flowers. The Monsignor and I walked in silence looking at the photos. I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of the scene and my tears began to flow; I noticed that the Monsignor was crying, too.

I have always considered Monsignor O’Flaherty my hero. Because whenever I am asked to define heroism or to identify the qualities that I feel most exemplify it, I do not try and recount abstract explanations, but simply revisit the very real image forever buried in my mind of the tall priest standing beside me in the caves with tears streaming down his face. I remember how obvious it was that he was tortured by the idea of human suffering and that he would go to any length to stop it. It was this powerful motivation which made all those incredible stories credible. It was this source of strength that provided him with an endless reservoir of goodness, which he used to alleviate the suffering of any person no matter of their race, religion or creed.

Since my time in Rome, I am always reminded of the Monsignor by good people doing good things. My measuring tape for heroism has always been and will always remain a good priest from Kerry who during extraordinary times was, quite simply, an extraordinary man.