The Irish priest who outwitted the Nazis
Rome is perhaps the ideal setting for a historical novel, and the writer Joseph O’Connor explores the city’s mysteries in gripping detail in My Father’s House, the first in a trilogy that takes place in occupied Rome during World War II. The novel, which was published in the United States in January, centers on Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a real life Irish priest who helped form the Escape Line, an eclectic group of expatriates who shuttled escaped prisoners of war to safety, in defiance of the Nazis who occupied Rome. Mr. O’Connor is the author of, among other books, Star of the Sea and Shadowplay. A native of Ireland, he spoke with Tim Reidy from his home in Dublin in February about his novel and his Jesuit connections. This excerpt from their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you give us a brief introduction to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty?
He was born in 1898 in County Cork in Ireland, but he was brought up in County Kerry. In his later 20s he became a Catholic priest and went to live and study in Rome. He was a scholarly man, very intelligent: two Ph.D.s, lectured in theology, spoke five or six languages.
He’s living in Italy in the late 1930s and the Nazis start conquering parts of Europe, including Italy, moving closer and closer to Rome. And finally, in September 1943, the Nazis overrun Rome, but as your readers will know, in the middle of Rome, there’s Vatican City, which is technically an independent country and was neutral in the Second World War. So the Nazis did not enter Vatican City. I think because of their fear of what German Catholics back at home would feel if they did, but we don’t know.
My Father’s House centers on Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a real life Irish priest who helped shuttle escaped prisoners of war captives to safety.
So Hugh and a small band of very brave activist friends began smuggling and hiding fugitives from the Nazis, mainly escaped prisoners of war from the allied countries. The word seems to have gone out: If you can get yourself to Rome and into the Vatican, this great big, tall, very noticeable man and monsignor from County Kerry in Ireland will do his best to save you.
So he continued to do that through the 10-month occupation by the Nazis of Rome, and was a very great man, very courageous man. Didn’t talk about it much as far as I have been able to ascertain. He did one interview about this in the course of his whole life, and died in October of 1963. I was born in September of 1963. And I’m very, very glad that for one month, I was on the same planet with the great Hugh O’Flaherty.
In terms of research, how much was available to you?
I was assisted by his surviving family, who very graciously made available to me his surviving correspondence. So I’ve read most of that. And he was a good writer—very vivid eye for the juicy details. In fact, after the war, he wrote a newspaper column for two years for the Daily Express newspaper in England, and he was, you know, Our Man in Rome. And his columns are very interesting, full of anecdote and observation, and often very colorful. So I read his own writing, and I had one very long interview with his nephew, who is also called Hugh O’Flaherty. And he is the only person I met who actually met Hugh. And so it was great to have a connection, some personal detail.
There are many other interesting characters in the story, which I gather are also based on real people.
In my book, the Escape Line, this group that Monsignor Hugh put together, consists of eightpeople. It may have been more, it may have been less, but in my novel, it’s eight. And they masquerade as a choir, because they are convinced that the Nazis have bugged every room in the Vatican.
The Escape Line masquerades as a choir, because they are convinced that the Nazis have bugged every room in the Vatican.
Some of them are based on people who really did exist. There’s a woman called Delia Kiernan, who would be known to fans of Irish folk music as Delia Murphy. She was a big star in the 1940s and ’50s in Ireland. And there are people from very different faiths, perspectives and from no faith. There are people in the group who are communists; there are people in the group who are atheists. They’re brought together by, I suppose, no. 1, their love of Rome. And no. 2, their determination that in this struggle, when the chips are down, they’re going to have to do something to save as many people as they can.
At the very end of the book, there’s a scene where the British ambassador, who is also based on a real person, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, is giving a speech. And he says, “When I have been requested down the years to define the Rome Escape Line, I’ve always said the same thing. And I always shall. It was my dear friend Hugh O’Flaherty and a number of us who loved him.” And I think that’s true.
You once said that people don’t pick up novels to read sermons; they want to read good stories. So how do you approach a story about courageous people who are inspiring, but also make them compelling and human?
In my younger life, I used to do this; I’d actually have a written list of words that I would never say. And now I just have it in my head. So you never say “freedom.” You never say “heroism.” You never say “sainthood.” You probably say “argument.” And you’re always looking for the characters’ flaws.
I think Monsignor Hugh saw himself as the strong, silent type. It’s great to write about a character like that.
I was struck by a couple of references in Hugh’s letters to liking American movies. I think he was a kind of George Raft sort of a guy. I think he was an old-fashioned, stand-up guy, that you would have liked to have on your side in a bar fight, as well as a very scholarly man with a love of theology and a love of God. I think he saw himself as the strong, silent type. It’s great to write about a character like that, because you don’t see him in novels too much these days. I don’t think he would have enjoyed going to, you know, the men’s support group—which I’m sure he should have (laughs). He reminds me of both of my own grandfathers, who were rather silent, tough, hard working.
You have a scene in there with Pope Pius XII. And like other scenes with people in authority, he doesn’t come off well. What was your thinking in creating that scene?
Well, I created the scene because rather than discuss, in general terms, that the Vatican authorities did not want Hugh or anybody else endangering the physical and cultural and artistic heritage of the Vatican by involving the Nazis. I thought, O.K., well, let’s go for it. Let’s bring in the pope, the big guy, because, you know, Hugh struggled with authority, but he was an ordained Catholic priest, and I assume that he loved the pope. And I assume what the pope said mattered. So I thought, “O.K., let’s embody that.”
The pope sort of says to him: Do you think you invented being humane? Like, where do you get off thinking that you and your little band of helpers is more important than 2,000 years of Christianity? You do realize this is the Vatican, you do realize that St. Peter, a man who met Jesus Christ, and who witnessed the transfiguration, you do realize this is where he’s buried? And do you really want the Nazi tanks rolling into St. Peter’s Square and the swastika flying from the Basilica? Because maybe you better have a think about that, while you’re saving the world.
I think that Pius XII was not the first pope, and will not be the last pope, who is able to think two contradictory things at the same time.
So fiction can be very true to life, even though it didn’t necessarily happen in that literal way. The pope’s view of what was going on may have evolved over the course of the 10-month occupation. I think it’s entirely credible that he knew exactly what Hugh O’Flaherty and others were doing, and that he decided not to say anything about it. And I think that he was not the first pope, and will not be the last pope, perhaps, unfortunately, who is able to think two contradictory things at the same time. There’s no attempt to demonize him, but simply to say to Hugh, and I suppose to all people who think themselves virtuous, you do realize what’s at stake here? The universe isn’t black and white.
It sounds like you are aware of some of the controversies that still exist around Pius XII. So you’re wading into an area that is not settled history for a lot of people.
Well, I hope that I’m not wading into too much, because to me, this is not a novel about the Catholic Church. I flippantly said to a couple of journalists that to say this is a book about the Catholic Church is a bit like saying that “The Sound of Music” is a movie about nuns. I don’t really mean that. But you know, it’s much more about the group of eight people at the center of it, and the things that they are feeling and the things they’re trying to do. And the first duty of any novel, as far as I’m concerned, is to be a beautiful thing. That’s got to be number one; it’s got to be written with beauty. And it’s got to be a page turner, and it’s got to evoke Rome. And it’s got to occasionally be funny. Those things for the novelist are far more important.
Do you find it difficult to write a priest as a character? Are there any novelists that you look to?
I know that some of the reviews have mentioned the novels of Graham Greene, in which a priest appears, but I’m not a huge fan. They haven’t played any role whatsoever in my construction of Hugh. I love the work of Flannery O’Connor, who’s a great Catholic writer—just her sense of the sentence; she’s such a beautiful writer and such a gothic writer. Such a sense of evil as well as good.
I know that some of the reviews have mentioned the novels of Graham Greene, in which a priest appears, but I’m not a huge fan.
I suppose what I tried to do most of all is to say, O.K., so I’m gonna write this book, which is about a person of faith, and they’re not going to be a monster. They’re not going to be a caricature. They’re not going to be a figure of fun. They’re going to be an ordinary person who is a person of faith. That’s who Hugh is.
The way you evoke Rome is really engaging. What makes Rome such a great subject as a historical novelist to write about?
Well, there’s a lot of it there, isn’t there? It’s never ending. You could go to Rome every year and find something new. We were there just this Christmas, six weeks ago, and we were fortunate enough to go on a tour of the scavi, the excavations beneath St. Peter’s, one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been. There are tunnels under St. Peter’s that nobody had seen for 1,000 years, until they were accidentally rediscovered in the 1940s.
There is so much of Rome that is hidden. A lot of this is addressed in the book, because there’s a lot of tunnels and passageways and catacombs, and it drives the Nazis crazy that Hugh has these ways of moving around the city that they don’t know about. So I think it’s one of the great, beautiful cities, but its secrets are endless, its hidden rooms are endless. Hence, “In my father’s house there are many rooms”—and there are many, many rooms in Rome. So it’s an interesting metaphor for faith, as well as just being beautiful: the food’s beautiful, and the music and the opera. I wrote a lot of the book during the lockdown. It was great to sit down at the kitchen table every day, and just go away to Rome, in your mind.
What role did the church play in your own formation as a writer?
I was raised Catholic. I was religious in an intense way as a teenager for a couple of years. I have been in my life both a believer and an unbeliever. I am now a struggling believer or a believing doubter. My tutor in college was a Jesuit priest, Father Michael Paul Gallagher. He was a great teacher and a wonderful reader. One of his own books, Help My Unbelief, meant a lot to me, and still does. I thought about it a lot while writing this novel, because it has one of the most remarkable pieces of religious writing I’ve ever read.
My reverence for the beauty and the legacy of the church in terms of its music, in particular, I hope is there to be seen in the book. We were fortunate on Christmas Eve to attend midnight Mass in the Vatican, in St. Peter’s, with the Sistine Chapel choir. That was unearthly and no matter what state your belief or unbelief is—it’s a bit like if you hear Aretha Franklin singing “Amazing Grace”: For those four minutes, you’re going to believe. When you hear the Sistine Chapel choir sing, you believe that we are other than the body. Music is the art that opens that portal for me.