Joseph O’Connor’s new book, My Father’s House, opens with an electrifying account of how Delia Murphy Kiernan drove the Irish ambassador’s car through Nazi-occupied Rome — and ultimately through a closed gate — so that an escaped prisoner of war could get the medical attention he urgently needed.
In a few nail-biting pages, O’Connor captures the scene so vividly that the reader is right there with Delia; “blood throbs in her temples” as she makes her furtive way through the quieter streets of the city to avoid SS patrols while her patient moans in agony as the car bounces over cobbles.
If that doesn’t draw you into this best-selling marvel of historical fiction, then nothing will. It is a glorious read, but also one with deep resonance. As anti-refugee sentiment is being stoked around the country, is there a better time to remind ourselves of the Irish people who risked their lives to save others during World War ll?
The work of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty is already very well known. The Irish Vatican official, who organised a vast rescue network that saved thousands, is a household name. And rightly so.
It is a joy, however, to see that Joseph O’Connor introduces Delia Murphy Kiernan to a wider public. Mention her name and many will recall a woman once described as Ireland’s first home-grown singing star who, in the 1930s and 40s, laid the foundation for the Irish Folk Revival.
Prisoners of war
But, as she said herself, she was also deeply involved in the underground network that helped prisoners of war and others escape from Rome during the German occupation of the city from late 1943 to June 1944.
“I was in the thick of it,” she said, speaking after the death of her husband Dr TJ Kiernan, who was Irish ambassador to Rome at the time. He barely knew of her activities, if at all. In her biography, I’ll live till I die, however, author Aidan O’Hara casts a fascinating light on a woman who was, to use her own words, “determined to save the hides of others and not get caught”.
At first, she wrestled with her conscience and prayed for guidance about what she should do to help Monsignor O’Flaherty.
“What else could it be but charity to help those in trouble with the Nazis?… The Germans had splashed posters warning that anyone found sheltering an Allied prisoner of war (POW) would be shot. I doubt if they would have shot the wife of the Irish Minister, but they might not have hesitated with others in our group.”
The incident described at the start of Joseph O’Connor’s book really happened, although with a different POW. Delia recalled picking up a Scottish soldier with peritonitis and driving him to a convent hospital that the Nazis were using for their sick and wounded.
She collected Fr ‘Spike’ Buckley on the way and drove both priest and patient “in what must have been one of the fanciest ambulances in Rome — my roomy limousine with diplomatic licence plates, and the tricolour of Ireland fluttering from the fender.”
The priest carried the patient into the operating theatre covered in a priest’s cassock. Delia drove around the city for a few hours as he underwent his operation and afterwards, on the instructions of O’Flaherty, took him to the home of Henrietta Chevalier, a Maltese woman who played a key role in the Monsignor’s rescue operation.
‘I risked my neck’
Delia Murphy Kiernan’s role was also important but has been under-recognised. As she said herself: “I risked my neck and Her Excellency’s immunity because a voice inside of me said it was my duty to help.”
One of her most daring exploits was ‘removing’ boots from the Wehrmacht shoe repair depot right under the noses of the Germans. Shoes were scarce and the increasing numbers of escaping prisoners of war desperately needed them.
When she got word from ‘Golf’ [Hugh O’Flaherty’s code name] that help was needed, Delia went to the depot and managed to persuade the Italian shoemaker to part with several pairs.
“While my driver transferred the ‘booty’ into the back of the diplomatic car, I engaged the German office staff opposite in idle conversation, making sure they looked anywhere but out of their window,” she later recalled.
That is one of several episodes recounted by Aidan O’Hara in his illuminating biography of a woman whose bravery during World War ll is little known and whose fame as a major influence in the cultural life of Ireland is starting to fade.
Those of a certain age remember her songs — ‘The Spinning Wheel’, ‘If I Were A Blackbird’ and ‘Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion’ — her early broadcas