How a Kerry nun, Sr Noreen Dennehy, helped Msgr O’Flaherty save thousands of lives in WW2

Sr Noreen Dennehy and Judge Hugh O’Flaherty holding a portrait of Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of lives during the Nazi occupation of Italy.
Sr Noreen Dennehy and Judge Hugh O’Flaherty holding a portrait of Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of lives during the Nazi occupation of Italy (pic source: Irish Life and Lore).

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A new podcast featuring Sister Noreen Dennehy, a daring nun from Kerry, who helped Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty rescue thousands of individuals during World War 2, is now available on streaming platforms. This firsthand account offers a glimpse into O’Flaherty’s remarkable wartime activities and those of his brave, dedicated helpers.

Irish Life and Lore’s latest history podcast explores the remarkable efforts of Sr Noreen Dennehy from West Kerry in helping her dear friend and fellow Kerry native, Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty, in Rome during World War 2.

At the war’s end, around 6,500 Italian Jews, Allied servicemen and others trapped behind enemy lines would owe their lives to the escape line organized by Msgr O’Flaherty – known as the “scarlet pimpernel of the Vatican” and the “Oscar Schindler of Killarney” – and his aides.

One of his valued helpers, Sr Noreen Dennehy, who passed away six years ago, recounts her story, in her own (unassuming) words, for the very first time in this new podcast, which is available on streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple.

Sr Noreen Dennehy and her fellow Irish nuns of the Community of Missionary Franciscan Sisters courageously provided refuge for hundreds of Jewish women and children, throughout the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943 and 1944. They would shelter, feed and clothe up to 40 at a time in their convent in Rome, located outside the enclave of the neutral Vatican City State.

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Sr Noreen also liaised between Msgr O’Flaherty and members of the highest echelons of society in wartime Rome. In the podcast, she reveals the details of her covert missions through the cobbled streets of Rome, conveying messages from the monsignor to the “princess” – a key member of the local elite who provided the necessary logistical support and funding to sustain the operation of the escape route.

The Irish clergyman had forged close ties with the local elite through his membership in the Rome Golf Club. Golf was an unusual pastime for Italian clerics at the time but Msgr O’Flaherty – having spent much of his youth practising on the old Killarney golf course, where his father was steward – was an accomplished golfer, which helped to enhance his standing among Rome’s aristocracy.

Portrait of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who rescued thousands of Jews, servicemen and others during the Nazi occupation of Italy.
Portrait of Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty, who rescued thousands of Jews, servicemen and others during the Nazi occupation of Italy.

During World War 2, following his tenure as secretary to the papal nuncio in prisoner-of-war camps in northern Italy, Msgr O’Flaherty began helping, smuggling and hiding Jews, refugees, dissidents and deserting Italian soldiers. Later, at significant personal risk, the Irishman established a vast rescue network of contacts, which reached its climax after the Italian surrender in 1943 and throughout the Nazi occupation of Rome. The monsignor’s fearless character is revealed through Sr Noreen’s stories.

Husband and wife duo Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe, who manage Irish Life and Lore, had a remarkable encounter about 15 years ago when Sr Noreen and her sister walked into their antique shop in Tralee, Co. Kerry. Maurice recorded an interview with this unsung hero on the spot. This serendipitous encounter was a historian’s dream come true!

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Sometime later, Maurice recorded her for the second time in the presence of Judge Hugh O’Flaherty, a nephew of Msgr O’Flaherty, and both interviews are included in the podcast. Judge O’Flaherty’s contribution adds a thorough overview of his uncle’s life.

Maurice said:

“Sr Noreen has a great story where she encountered this coalman who spoke English to her as she was entering the Vatican one day. She didn’t answer him as she had been told not to speak English when she was out.

She met the monsignor the following day who jokingly chided her for not having spoken to him the day before. Sr Noreen asked when she had met him as she had no memory of it, only for O’Flaherty to reveal he had been the coalman, getting in and out of the Vatican in disguise to avoid the Nazis!”

Listen to the full podcast here.

Irish Life and Lore releases a free weekly podcast drawn from its vast archive of 4,000 individual recordings, which were recorded over a 30-year span and feature people from all corners of Ireland. The complete list of episodes in the Irish Life and Lore podcast series is available here.

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