11 July 2012

70th Death Anniversary of Wing Commander Brendan 'Paddy' Finucane

Wing Commander Brendan 'Paddy' Finucane (16 October 1920 - 15 July 1942)

I'm not sure when or how I first came to know of Brendan Finucane, one of the greatest 'aces' in the Royal Air Force during World War II and whose 70th death anniversary occurs on Sunday. Maybe it was in reading English 'comics' when I was in primary school. Weeklies such as The Rover, Adventure, The Hotspur, The Wizard,  featured adventure stories for boys and sometimes had real-life stories. My Uncle Joe Kiernan drove a delivery van for Easons newsagents in Dublin and kept me well supplied.

At some stage I discovered that this airman, known in England as 'Paddy', had become the youngest ever Wing Commander - equivalent to Lieutenant colonel - in the RAF and that he had studied in the same school as myself, O'Connell Christian Brothers' School, Dublin. By the time I began in secondary school there (I was in primary from 1951 to 1956 and in secondary from then till 1961) I heard his name being mentioned from time to time in the school. He had left in 1936 when his family moved to England and he joined the RAF two years later. Among his classmates in O'Connell's were two famous sports commentators, Mícheál O’Hehir and Philip Greene. Philip died only last year.

My great desire when I turned 13 was to be a pilot. This desire was fuelled by reading adventure stories about James Bigglesworth, a fictional character known as 'Biggles', created by Captain W.E. Johns, who had fought as a pilot in the Great War. 'Biggles' managed to fly in both World Wars! In the Second he flew Spitfires and Hurricanes.With some of my closest friends at school I used to devour the 'Biggles' stories, which we borrowed from the public libraries of Dublin. We all wanted to be like 'Biggles' but none of us ended up doing anything more exciting than flying as passengers. Tim Corcoran became a diplomat and Shay Mullany a psychiatrist, both gone to their reward. A third, John Donohoe, became a top kidney doctor and I became a Columban priest. Another classmate, the late Kevin Brady, had an older brother Jim who flew Spitfires in the Irish Air Corps.

Brendan Finucane's 'Spitfire' with shamrock marking

But when I was 15 or 16 I discovered Wing Commander Brendan Finucane in a new way in a book called Daring to Live: Heroic Christians of Our Day by Doris Burton, who wrote for young people. The book came out in 1955 and had chapters on such persons as Louis Pasteur, Fr Miguel Pro SJ, the Mexican martyred in 1927 at the age of 36 and beatified by Blessed John Paul, as was Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Italian born of a wealthy family who discovered at his funeral how he had served the poor of Turin. He died suddenly of polio in 1925 aged only 24. 

One of the things I remember from the book is that the young Irish pilot, when he'd return from a sortie, used to go and pray the rosary for any German whose plane he had shot down. That meant at least 26 rosaries. In a programme on RTÉ Radio 1 broadcast in 2004,  In Search of 'Paddy' Finucane,  one of his brothers, Raymond, speaks of Brendan being 'a good Catholic', taking after their father whom he describes as 'a very keen Catholic, indeed'.

In the RTÉ documentary one of those in his squadron speaks about a song that Brendan loved and that was very popular at the time, Tangerine. The pilots would usually listen to it on their gramophone before going up and Brendan was always among them - except for the day he died.

Brendan is quoted as saying that the Luftwaffe would never get him. Nor did they. During a raid on some ground installations near the French coast a gunner on the ground hit Brendan's plane as it was flying low. He never made it back to England and crashed into the English Channel not far from where this photo of the White Cliffs of Dover was taken. He was too low to bail out.

I don't know if Brendan ever heard Dame Vera Lynn's recording of The White Cliffs of Dover, a song that will be for ever associated with World War II. She recorded it in 1942 but I don't know if this was before or after his death. (I've an idea that this is not Vera's original recording but one she made some years later). Someone has put the song together with a display by Spitfires, in a peaceful setting. I'm sure that Brendan, whom you can find 'live' at 3:54 into a video here, would have enjoyed this.

May this handsome, talented young men who died around the time I was conceived and who inspired me during my adolescent years rest in peace.

No comments: