Hugh O’Flaherty was born to James and Margaret O’Flaherty in Lisrobin, Kiskeam, County Cork, Ireland, on February 28, 1898. Shortly after his birth O’Flaherty's parents moved to Killarney, Ireland, and made a home on a golf course where James O’Flaherty worked as a steward. During his teenage years Hugh was a talented student and golfer, and in 1918 at age 20 he enrolled in Mungret College to prepare for a career in the missionary preisthood.
The Bishop of Cape Town sponsored O’Flaherty's schooling at Mungret, and it was expected that he would work for the Archdiocese of Cape Town after finishing. However, after being sent to study in Rome in 1922 and having been ordained as a minister on December 20, 1925, Hugh O’Flaherty stayed to study and work for the Holy See in the Vatican. In just two years he earned Doctorate degrees in philosophy, divinity, and canon law from the Vatican. O’Flaherty worked as a Diplomat for the Vatican in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia, and was appointed Monsignor in 1934. He was recalled to the Holy See after four years as a Diplomat, and continued to work for the Vatican in the Holy Office.
During the early years of World War II, Monsignor O’Flaherty travelled and toured POW camps in Italy. In 1942, after seeing first-hand the horrors of the war, O’Flaherty organized a network of diplomats, priests, and other officials throughout Rome to help shelter Jews, allied soldiers, escaped POW’s, and refugees. As the Nazis began transporting Roman Jews to the camps, O’Flaherty walked Jews through the streets relying on false Vatican papers for safe passage.
In total O’Flaherty and his associates managed to hide more than 6,400 individuals in a network of homes, farms, convents, and various other hideouts. After the Gestapo became aware of O’Flaherty’s activities they painted a white line across St. Peter’s Square, dividing the neutral Vatican from Fascist-controlled Rome. They placed guards nearby ready to snatch the Monsignor if he ever crossed. Multiple kidnapping attempts mounted by the Gestapo failed. O’Flaherty donned disguises when travelling outside of the safety of the Vatican and became known locally as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
O’Flaherty’s group continued its activities until the allies arrived in Rome in June 1944. At the time of the liberation of Rome, approximately 6,425 individuals had been cared for and hidden by O'Flaherty’s operation.
After the war, the Gestapo colonel who tried to capture and kill O’Flaherty, Herbert Kappler, was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison. O’Flaherty visited him many times in prison and Kappler converted to Catholicism.
Monsignor O’Flaherty suffered a serious stroke in 1960, and moved in with his sister in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland, where he spent his last years. O’Flaherty died in his sister’s home on October 30, 1963, at age 65.
In his hometown of Killarney, Ireland, a group of the priest’s followers formed the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society. In 2013, the group erected a life size bronze statue in his honor emblazoned with his personal motto, “God has no Country.”
“Monsignor O’Flaherty was an Irish Republican, but when he saw how the Nazis were treating the Jews he knew which side he had to be on,” explained Society chairman Jerry O’Grady. “That’s where his motto originated.”
The 1983 made-for-TV film, The Scarlet and the Black, dramatized O’Flaherty's life during World War II, and starred Gregory Peck as the Monsignor. A documentary titled, The Pimpernel of the Vatican – The Amazing Story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, was produced for the Irish-language TV station TG4, airing in 2008.