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Spitfire Paddy: The Ace with the Shamrock

Dublin born Brendan Finucane, or ‘Spitfire Paddy’ as he came to be known, was a young man whose dream of piloting a plane led him into the Second World War. As one of Britain’s best Spitfire pilots Finucane became famous, however, his achievements were little known in his home nation. Now a new documentary tells the tale of the Irish WWII fighter pilot ace.

The story of Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane may come as a surprise to many Irish people. A member of the Royal Air Force with a shamrock emblazoned on his Supermarine Spitfire, he was one of the top fighter pilots, and at 21, the youngest wing commander during the Battle of Britain – the youngest to ever hold this rank.

The young Dubliner achieved hero status in Britain during the early years of the Second World War and following his death in 1942 over 2,500 people attended his memorial service in Westminster Cathedral. Today, a London street and hospital wing bear his name but it’s only very recently that Finucane’s story has started to be remembered here at home.

Taking more than four years to produce, documentary film Spitfire Paddy: The Ace with the Shamrock chronicles the fascinating life story of Finucane, the Irishman who became a war hero in Britain and around the world. For an RAF fighter pilot his background was not what you would expect. Born in Dublin, Finucane was educated by the Christian Brothers and his father fought as a volunteer alongside Eamon de Valera in Boland’s Mill during the 1916 Rising.

Growing up, Brendan was a keen sportsman, excelling in boxing, rowing and rugby – where he proved to be a natural leader on the pitch. Like most young boys, he had a passion for flying and on visits to his cousins in Britain he would camp out at Southampton Airport and watch the planes take off and land. In 1932 Brendan’s interest in flying was cemented when he and his younger brother Ray took a trip around Baldonnel Aerodrome in a biplane. It was at that moment he knew he had to become a pilot.

In the winter of 1936, at the age of 16, Brendan emigrated with his family to Richmond in London where he started work as an accounts clerk in a local garage. However, his childhood ambition to fly still burned and he joined the RAF on a short service commission two years later at just 171⁄2, the minimum age requirement. With political unrest in Europe and the dark clouds of war looming, he began his training in Sywell, Northants.

It was there that the nickname ‘Paddy’ began. Given to him because of his Irish heritage, it would follow him throughout his RAF career. Surprisingly, considering his later accomplishments, Brendan initially struggled to gain his pilot’s license and at one point even crashed a plane. He was on the verge of being dismissed when his commanding officer, noting his determination to succeed, decided to send him for further training. It was only when ‘Paddy’ finally took the controls of a Spitfire in June 1940 that he truly felt at home with his aircraft.

On 12 August that same year, Nazi Germany launched ‘Eagles Day’, an offensive that marked the beginning of what was to become the Battle of Britain. In his first true test, Finucane proved his prowess, shooting down his first German plane that morning. Over the course of the campaign he was credited with destroying four enemy planes and damaging one. This exceptional contribution led to his commanding officer recommending him for a distinguished Flying Cross medal.

Altogether it’s believed that Spitfire Paddy downed 32 enemy planes in just two years – the second highest tally of any RAF pilot. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming wing commander at just 21, the youngest ever to hold the rank. Finucane became a poster boy for the RAF during the war in particular after shooting down the well-known

German pilot Adolph Gallard. His reputation and fame spread on both sides of the Atlantic and he was interviewed by the BBC serval times.In one interview Finucane spoke with pride about his Irish blood but expressed concern at seeing it wasted when it would gush out of him after being shot. “The cockpit was awash with blood. It was not until I was feeling a bit sick and dizzy did it dawn on me that it was my blood!” he said. “It was good Dublin blood which, I thought, should not be wasted. How I even managed to land without a crack-up will never be known. The luck of the Irish triumphed that day.”

Despite the media attention however, Finucane’s nephew, Brendan Finucane QC, said his uncle didn’t like the limelight. If Finucane had a weakness, it was for his girlfriend Jean Woolford. She lived on the same street as him, only two doors up, and was often referred to by the press  and media as his ‘girl-next-door’. They became a celebrity couple of their day and were followed incessantly by reporters. Finucane would often have to climb over the back wall of his home just to meet Jean on his visits home.

Unfortunately, like many fighter-pilots, while Finucane’s life was action-packed it was also short-lived. On 15 July 1942, he was killed in action when his aircraft was shot down over the English Channel. He was just 21 when he died.

For filmmaker Gerry Johnston, Spitfire Paddy: The Ace With The Shamrock offered an opportunity to tell a story about a great, but forgotten hero: “I wanted to tell the story about a guy that was never really heard of in Ireland because of the suppression of news by the then Irish government, which didn’t want to talk about anyone in foreign armies or anything like that. He is celebrated around the world by a lot of countries but unfortunately in Ireland he was never talked about or celebrated.”

“This is the story of a young Irish boy, born at a crossroads in Irish history, who went on to become the youngest wing commander in the history of the RAF in the 1940s. He became famous, worked his way up and was the greatest pilot in the commonwealth, which was unheard of at the time. All the sadness and romance of the story makes it a great tale with a great hero and I wanted to tell the story of Paddy Finucane.”

Gerry Johnston only learnt about Spitfire Paddy himself a few years ago after a colleague in the aviation industry told him the story. The documentary took four years to make and was mainly self-financed with funding from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA).

During production Johnston built a scale model of Finucane’s Spitfire with the distinctive shamrock emblazoned on the side. He has since built a full size replica of the real plane and, although it cannot fly, he plans to use it in a feature film about Finucane which he is currently developing.

Through interviews with those who knew him and documents such as the letters he wrote home and the newspaper clippings kept by his sister, we gain insight into a fascinating individual who was at once quiet and charismatic, religious but prepared to fight for freedom, and proud of his Irish roots while still striving to protect his adopted home.

Spitfire Paddy: The Ace with the Shamrock brings to life the  tale of a young boy with a passion for flying, who would go on to become a World War II legend and one of Ireland’s forgotten heroes.

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