Mary Catherine O’Flaherty – Heroic Canadian

Mary was a dear friend of a dear friend… I had several long talks with Mary O-Flaherty many years ago while she was still serving overseas in the Canadian Diplomatic Corps … The adventure she accounted of her role during the 1979 Student Uprising in Tehran was just one of our conversations, and I might just take it to my grave. Candian Hero? Oh, definitely! Tip of the iceberg? You have no idea… The history books need to be revised to reflect the true extent of her brilliant and cool-under-fire leadership in “The Canadian Caper”, and other instances at other postings over the years.

Amazing woman, and true unsung Canadian hero. – Paul

Article from CBC Newfoundland

Newfoundland woman Mary Catherine O’Flaherty played key role in ‘caper’ that inspired film Argo

She was a modest woman who rarely drew attention to herself, but Mary Catherine O’Flaherty had an incredible story to tell.

Almost 40 years ago, the woman from St. John’s played a pivotal role in the “Canadian Caper,” a tense international incident that involved armed Iranian revolutionaries, a prolonged hostage-taking, coded diplomatic messages and an ultra-secret CIA plan that would later become the subject of the Oscar-winning film Argo.

When O’Flaherty died last month in Ottawa at the age of 92, her brief obituary gave no indication of her remarkable life in the diplomatic corps.

Calm in tough circumstances

“She was calm under the toughest of circumstances,” says Valerie Pike, a longtime family friend who lives in St. John’s. “It would really have to be something to distract Mary’s attention or destabilize her in any way.”

Those qualities were put to the test in November 1979.

O’Flaherty was in charge of communications at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran when militant Iranian students stormed the American Embassy, taking more than 50 people hostage. In the chaos that erupted that day, six members of the embassy’s staff escaped from the U.S. compound.

Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. (AFP/Getty Images)

With the help of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, the six were eventually taken to the home of his chief immigration officer, where they stayed in secret for almost three months.

During that time, O’Flaherty handled a constant stream of top secret messages between Tehran and Ottawa.

“It was Mary’s role, using communications equipment, to do the coded messages, to decipher the encryptions and to ensure the security of the messages,” says Pike. “As we know, she was indispensable.”

With each passing day, Taylor and his staff worried that the Iranian hostage-takers would realize that not all of the U.S. Embassy staff were accounted for. He ordered the shredding of documents in preparation for a quick departure, and plans were hatched for a rescue mission.

In early January 1980, two undercover CIA agents were dispatched to Tehran, where they posed as Canadian filmmakers. Using forged documents and Canadian passports, the six American fugitives were smuggled out of Iran on a regularly scheduled Swissair flight on Jan. 27.

The secret operation was referred to as the “exfiltration.”

But it wasn’t over.

The remaining staff at the Canadian Embassy left later that day.

O’Flaherty sent a final message to Ottawa: “See you later, exfiltrator.” And as a precaution, a military policeman smashed her cipher equipment.

“You can just imagine the tension,” says Pike. “The city was so violent at the time.”

From left to right: Mary O’Flaherty, Ken Taylor’s secretary Laverna Dollimore and Roger Lucy. Lucy says that he and O’Flaherty were “wined and dined” in the months after they returned from Iran following the ‘Canadian Caper’. O’Flaherty died May 13, 2018. (Submitted by Roger Lucy)

The story broke in the media on Jan. 29, 1980, bringing an outpouring of gratitude from across the United States.

Taylor and members of his staff received many awards. O’Flaherty was appointed a member of the Order of Canada on July 1, 1980.

However, she remained humble about her role in the high-stakes, cloak-and-dagger affair.

“I never heard Mary say that her role was key,” says Pike. “That would not come from her. She would share what was permitted to be shared — the facts already in the public discussion. She would never have put the limelight anywhere near herself.”

Served around the world

Though O’Flaherty was careful about what she disclosed about her work with the Department of External Affairs, that didn’t mean she was boring. In fact, she could be quite mischievous, Pike says.

“She always took the divergent path in conversation,” she says. “She would always poke something into the conversation that would really make you think.”

Over a long career, O’Flaherty served around the world. Her postings included Moscow, New York, Canberra and Islamabad. Her home in Ottawa was filled with treasured keepsakes that were fodder for conversation, Pike says.

“Her perspective on the world and her life experience was just so uniquely rich and diverse…. We would be like sponges around her.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About cPaul

Father: "He never amounted to anything". Mother: "Who the hell does he think he is"? Former Teacher: "Smart as a bag of hammers". Former Boss: "Condescending". Brother: "Mom loves me more".
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