Celebrated Irish RAF pilot recalled
Of all the Irishmen who fought in the second World War, none was better known in their time than Brendan "Paddy" Finucane.
Finucane was just 21 when he died 70 years ago today. At the time of his death, he was the RAF’s top operational pilot and its youngest wing commander.
His record of 32 victories (downed enemy planes) was achieved in just two short years.
Feted by the British press as a replacement for Douglas Bader, the legendary disabled pilot who was captured during the war, Finucane was a household name in Britain.
In 1948 during a speech in the House of Commons in which wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill again berated Ireland for its neutral stance, he added the caveat: “If ever I feel a bitter feeling rising in me about the Irish the hands of heroes like Finucane seem to stretch out to soothe them away.”
His popularity was all the more remarkable given his nationality and more so given the fact that his father, Andrew, fought in the Easter Rising alongside Eamon De Valera, the future architect of Ireland’s neutrality policy, at Bolands Mill.
His nephew, Brendan Finucane QC, who is a judge in London, said during the 1950s and 1960s he was constantly asked if he was related to his namesake. “He was really well known among my parent's generation. When I went into a bank, I was always asked about it. Even now it is quite extraordinary the number of people who ask me am I related to him,” he said.
Mr Finucane said he nursed Brendan's father in his later years. He remained a "proud Irishman" until the end of his life and had no difficulty with his sons serving in the armed forces he had fought against in 1916. Andrew Finucane believed that if Hitler managed to invade Britain that it would finish Ireland off as well.
Brendan Finucane was nicknamed Paddy because of his nationality, and his Spitfire was distinguished by a Shamrock logo.
Andrew Finucane moved the family from Rathmines in Dublin to Richmond, Surrey, in 1936 to work, and his son joined the RAF in 1938 as did Brendan’s younger brother Raymond who flew 33 missions with Bomber Command during the war.
After the Battle of Britain in which he fought, Finucane and his pilots was charged by Churchill with harassing the Germans in occupied France by bombing and strafing their supply lines.
In one month in August 1941 Finucane destroyed 11 German planes. He predicted that no Luftwaffe aircraft would bring him down and he was correct, but, tragically, not in the way he intended.
On July 15th, 1942, on a sweep to attack a German army camp in northern France, Finucane’s plane was hit by machine gun fire and he ditched his plane in the English Channel.
Because of wartime censorship and the historical aversion until recently of acknowledging the exploits of Irishmen and women who fought in the second World War, Finucane remains largely unknown in his own country, although in recent years steps have been taken to remedy that omission.
In 2004 RTÉ broadcast a documentary about him, and a rose was unveiled at Baldonnel Aerodrome called Spitfire Paddy.
Last weekend military historian Maurice Byrne held a talk at the National Museum of Ireland to mark the 70th anniversary of the airman's death. He also commissioned a painting by Barry Weekly, a UK aviation painter, depicting Finucane with his wingman on the day he was killed.
Separately, model plane maker Gerry Hanlon, who is a member of International Plastic Modellers' Society Ireland, is completing an exact replica of Finucane’s Spitfire.
It is hoped that a memorial mass for Finucane will be held at his alma mater O’Connell School in September when classes return.
“It’s been a labour of love with me for many years,” said Mr Byrne. “The Irish in World War II are now being recognised for the sacrifices that they made and it is not before time.”
Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane is depicted going on his last mission with his Canadian wingman Alan ‘Butch’ Aikman in a painting by aviation artist Barry Weekly. His trademark shamrock and his initials BF, reserved for fighter aces, can be seen on his Spitfire. Image courtesy of Maurice Byrne