“And straight I will repair
To the Curragh of Kildare
For it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear.”
I was thinking about that Dublin weekend with my father and uncle all those years ago , after a recent visit to my dentist to replace a filling a few days ago. Both of them are dead now and even the song lyrics above have taken on other subtle references, already alien to their old folk origins.
You know how the mind works .My dentist hadn’t quite climbed into my mouth just yet, although he and his assistant were already ganging uparmed with a lethal looking syringe and other mysterious looking devices of dentition torture . He had placed a cotton pad between my gum and jaw making me feel like Brando’s swollen Godfather , so I was still able to speak in little more than just monosyllabic grunts. Nevertheless, as the “freeze” took hold in my gums we got to joking about the film “Marathon Man ” which starred Laurence Olivier …as the Nazi dentist drilling into his poor victim ,Dustin Hoffman’s teeth. Yes…i know …very apt! . My dentist and I have a good rapport, so as we chatted he regaled me with tale ….to me ,an otherwise great,previously unheard story (at least I couldn’t recall hearing it before) . Our chat had triggered off a yarn about a close associate of Hitler who ‘d fled to Wicklow in Ireland and eventually became a farmer there in the 1950’s .Was this possible? I thought.
That story seemed so unusual that it would make a great film ,I said , after hearing some of the details. We wondered thta nobody had bothered to make a great thriller of a film from those bare bones. We laughed and discussed who you’d need to sell a story like that to. Who would make the best film out of it…?
“Everyone is only a few steps away from someone famous “, he said . He’s right, I thought .We all know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knew the man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo ….. and so on …..In his case he ..”.nudge…nudge …wink …wink…say no more”…knew someone who was very friendly with Bruce Springsteen. I said ..”Well , I’m sure Springsteen knows Martin Scorcese, the film-maker ,because Scorcese knows Bob Dylan… and Dylan knows Robbie Robertson who worked on some soundtrack music with Scorcese!” It all fits together !!All you had to do was join up the dots and write a stunning screenplay!
So there we had it .
Now all we had to do was get the film script written , right ……….! Right?
It was just idle chat and amusement ,but I have to say that the actual story really had great potential as a film and as Liam Neeson still has the chops of an action hero and the same gravitas he brought to “Schindler’s List”, it was no stretch of imagination to easily see the big Irishman in another career- defining role. Having worked out the easy part to our satisfaction we laughed that if we can get that script written for Liam and Marty Scorcese and we can all get our diaries straight……well….Bob’s your uncle!
Here’s how the unlikely story ran….
The man in question was called Otto Skorzeny and apparently he was Adolph Hitler’s favourite Nazi commander. He had rescued that other dictator Mussolini from an IIalian hilltop fortress, obviously some time before old Musso was famously hung up on a lamp-post by his heels by his unforgiving public. In any case our friend Otto was known as “the most dangerous man in Europe”.I find stuff like this extraordinary, if only for the simple reason that I’d never heard of the man…never mnd him being “the most dangerous…etc…etc….”. Okay, I’d heard of Hesse and Goering and a few other notable nazis such as the “Butcher of Belsen” and I ‘d watched many programmes about the horrors the Nazis inflicted on the Jews and the Poles and I’d read about the Nuremburg Trials and saw the amazing films about the death camps. …but this guy rang no bells at all .He seemed to have slipped by my personal radar whicle i was busy elsewhere. The kicker was that he’d re-located to 1950’s Ireland and set himself up as a farmer here . Now , that, I thought, made it a story.
As the cliche goes …you couldn’t make this stuff up..It is so improbable ….Or is it?
Otto was born in 1908 in Vienna . He went on like many young men of his times and his station to join the Austrian Nazi party in the 1930s and when World War Two started up , he fought on the Eastern Front, when the germans invaded both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
Like many Nazis , Oscar headed for Argentina where he soon became a bodyguard for Eva Peron of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina “, fame .Yes he was Evita’s minder! He met her husband, Argentine President Juan Perón and he was even supposed to have an affair with the man’s wife .That bit will definitely have to be an episode in the film.By this time he must have appeared as a very impressive looking individual , standing over six feet tall, weighing up around a heavily muscled eighteen stone, and with what was possibly a well-earned duelling- scar on his cheek. In those circles, such a mark of sport or conflict was de rigeur for the swashbuckling rapier-wielding set and was seen among them as something of a romantic badge of honour .
Let’s not forget that the man was still a Nazi ,though.
For all of that he arrived in Ireland sometime in 1959 and set himself up as a farmer in County Kildare. Apparently he became a well-known figure locally too ,given that he must have stood out like the proverbial….after all, he had been an impressive looking head of German special forces , the SS commandoes so he must have been a towering mountain of a man among the buttermilk -drinking , bacon and eggs eating Irishmen of the 1950’s. He was very obviously much better fed.His presence in Ireland didn’t go unsaid in post-war Ireland and apparently there were questions about him in the Irish parliament.What was a Nazi doing in Ireland in any case ?People were uneasy, even though Ireland had not been a player in the world war, having remained neutral under De Valera.
It should be remembered that Otto and his SS commandoes had descended in silent gliders to rescue Hitler’s ally ,the equally odious, Mussolini from imprisonment in Italy in 1943. That bit will have to go in the film too, I thought…I could see Mr Neeson or maybe a younger CGI version of him at the controls of a glider, parachuting through the quiet ink-black ,night skies..The mission was a success and Otto overwhelmed the guards and freed the dictator in one daring mission. Hitler had chosen very well when he ‘d tasked him with the mission and duly promoted him to the rank of major.England’s hero , Winston Churchill even described him as ,heroically,” a man of great daring “.Then Churchill would , wouldn’t he ? He had been a reckless bugger himself in his day. In any case Otto and Mussolini were paraded in front of the assembled media , given that the Nazis and Leni Riefenstahl knew a thing or two about propaganda , the power of the press and the Big Lie. He gained heroic status in Nazi Germany.
Otto was involved in other adventures which were Nazi-related and he featured in the Battle of the Bulge during December 1944, but shortly after Hitler’s suicide in the bunker, he knew it was all over and gave himself up to the inavading Americans and stood trial for war crimes in Dachau in 1947 a few years later..Typical of the man , nothing stuck to him and he was kept imprisoned because other countries wanted a piece of him .It’ll come as no surprise that this Scarlet pimpernel of a character escaped with the aid of some of his other Nazi friends in the SS and he eventually ended up setting up an import/ export business in Madrid. Many saw this as a front for exporting wanted Nazis to South America.
As the story unfolds , Otto’s whiff of the exotic went down a storm with the “In-Set” when he arrived into Dublin’s social scene and apparently, according to legend , a young Charles Haughey ,who was later to become Prime Minister of Ireland, also rubbed up closely to the reflected light of this questionable figure..This social acceptance may have been one of the reasons why Otto chose to buy his large farm and mansion in the Curragh of Kildare . He was granted a visa to stay in Ireland but was apparently not allowed to use Ireland as a back door into Britain. Indeed he was indignant and frustrated that the British wouldn’t allow him entry by all acoounts.
Of course ,in the 1950’s and 1960’s the threat of Nazism still hung in the air and Otto was suspected of filtering Nazis through Spain while using his farm at the Curragh as a hiding- place and staging- post. Otto denied all of this, saying that his only interest was in racing horses.It can’t be denied that many high-profile Nazis came to Ireland in the years after World War Two .
He died of cancer in Madrid in 1975 and was buried in a coffin replete with Nazi insignia and colours. He never apologised for any of it and his Nazi former comrades draped his coffin as if in defiance.
A documentary film made some ten years ago surmised that somewhere between one hundred and two hundred Nazis actually moved to Ireland after the end of the war. That may have been because many people had not the same access to information about them as they do now and in any case , the Irish tend , in general terms, to be welcoming and well-wishing no matter the person’s origin story. It’s hard to believe that many knew very little about the Holocaust until relatively recently and some preferred to beieve that England’s enemy would always be their friend no matter what. I suppose it wasn’t really common-knowledge exactly what the Nazis did until television coverage improved and documentary film-makers started really digging for details. . Still , it makes you wonder, though … It is quite a story in anyone person’s life and I still think it has great potential as a movie.
What do you think of it so far , Liam…?
Nota bene: Since writing the above jocular little piece , I’ve since discovered that local Armagh author Stuart Neville has actually pipped my dentist and myself to the proverbial post and has already actually gone ahead and has written his fine book ,”Ratlines”, which uses some of the above as the basis of his own thrilling story.It might actually become a television series too.You could do a lot worse than supporting Stuart by buying his fine book.