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The Irish Spitfire hero

Ian and Dominic Higgins told David Hennessy about their new film about Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane, the Irish RAF hero of WWII whose story should be remembered.

The Shamrock Spitfire is the award-winning film that chronicles the remarkable true story of Brendan “Paddy” Finucane – the legendary Irish pilot who became one of the most celebrated fighter aces of the Second World War and youngest Wing Commander in RAF history.

Garnering critical acclaim at festivals, The Shamrock Spitfire – from writer-director brothers Dominic and Ian Higgins (7 Days: The Story of Blind Dave Heeley, All That Remains) is out just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, courtesy of 101 Films.

Brendan Finucane (Shane O’Regan) was one of the first Irish men to enlist in the Royal Air Force and he took to the sky with a shamrock painted on the side of his iconic Spitfire.

It was not long before Finucane was given flight command of the 452 Australian Squadron.

Finucane still holds the record for being the RAF’s youngest ever wing commander, having been promoted to the position aged 21 and has one of the highest kill rates in RAF history.

But to do so, Brendan had to rebel against his heritage being the son of an Irish rebel.

His family had a history of fighting against the British, not with them, as his father accompanied former Irish President Eamon de Valera into battle in the 1916 Easter Rising, fighting from Boland’s Mills.

Born in Dublin in 1920, Brendan and his family moved to England when he was a boy.

Finucane acquired a passion for flying at a young age at Baldonnel Airfield near Dublin where he took pleasure flights on an army plane before the family relocated to England in 1936.

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When it became apparent that Germany was becoming a major threat, Finucane then 17, volunteered to join the RAF and use his passion for flying for the better.

The Battle of Britain would be his baptism of fire.

Finucane became a poster boy for the RAF during the war, especially when he shot down the famed German fighter pilot Adolph Galland.

He was also decorated at Buckingham Palace by King George VI.

Heralded as “The Fighting Gael” and “Flying Shamrock terror of the Nazis” by the US press, Finucane and his bravery has been largely forgotten in Ireland

The luck of the Irish finally ran out on 15 July, 1942.

Aged just 21 years old, Spitfire Paddy was hit by machine-gun fire while flying low over a beach at Pointe du Touquet, France.

He was too low in the sky to allow him to bail out. Finucane faced into the sea and left his squadron with the words, “This is it.”

What inspired the telling of this story for you?

Ian Higgins says: “We had always had an awareness of Spitfires.

“We’d been reading a lot of books on Spitfires so that started generating the idea that there’s got to be a story (in there).

“But it was when we saw the Spitfire Paddy name, it really jumped out.

“We’ve got a big Irish family, that motivated us to do a bit more research on who Spitfire Paddy was and I think once we read his Wikipedia page, we pretty much knew he was going to be our next film.

“He was just such a rare individual.

“There was just something so special about Brendan.

“First and foremost, we wanted to tell Brendan’s story.

“We wanted to let people know who this man was.

“It’s just criminal that he’s been so forgotten for so many years.”

So how do you do that? Once you’ve decided that’s what you want to do, is it a case of laying your hands on anything you could possibly read about him? Or did you try to speak to any surviving family members?

Dominic says: “Both. The first thing we do is get our hands on as much material as we can get, read up about him.

“When we said we’re going to make this film, what we wanted to do was get in touch with the family and get their blessing.

“We reached out to Brendan Finucane, who is the nephew of Brendan and said, ‘Look, we want to do this film’.

“He said, ‘Yes, you’ve got my blessing to make this film’.

“And he introduced us to the family historian, John Donovan. And John Donovan is an absolute font of wisdom on all things Brendan Finucane or RAF.

“As we were writing the script, we would pass scenes to John and say, ‘Look, have a look at that. Historically, technically, how accurate is that scene?’

“So he was sort of very much a script advisor.

“He visited us on set several times.

“Every time John was on set, it was almost like having Brendan on set with us because he’s that knowledgeable on Brendan, so we could look at a certain scene say to John, ‘Does that feel right? Does that feel like Brendan?’

“And John was always there to say, ‘Yes, that’s very much how Brendan would act’.

“And then the biggest compliment we had from John on set was when he saw our our lead Shane O’Regan who plays Brendan, walking on set.

“The reaction was, ‘Oh my God, that’s Brendan. You brought him back’.

“And so that just validated that we’ve cast the right actor in the role.

“But it was just a lot of research: Going down to Hornchurch, looking at the archives, reading the letters, and just immersing ourselves into his life as much as we could.”

You say the family were involved as the film progressed, have they seen the finished  product and what was their reaction?

Ian said: “They first saw it at the cast and crew screening in February.

“I think the highlight of that night for us was when Brendan Finucane came up to us at the end of the screening, and he gave us a big hug and he said, ‘You brought him back to life’.

“That’s the moment we said, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve done justice to Brendan’.”

You show the awkward at times relationship between Brendan and his father, was that the way it was?

Ian says: “His father was involved in the Easter rising, he knew De Valera personally so finding out that his son was wanting to join the RAF was like a big slap in the face for him, he was very against it.

“He refused to sign any papers for his son. In fact, Brendan had to go to Jean, his girlfriend’s father, to get the papers signed that he needed to join the RAF.

“But his father did come on board quite quickly afterwards, because he knew what he was fighting.

“He was fighting for freedom of course that was something Andy knew very well.

“And for Brendan, it was very much a crusade that he was fighting.

“He was fighting evil.

“When Brendan left to go for training he said to his dad, ‘If I fail, I’m not coming home’.

“That says it all.

“That’s how strained the relationship was between the pair of them at the time.”

Many Irish men and women did it but they were derided for fighting for the crown.

Ian says: “The Easter rising was recent history.

“Even though they (English and Irish) weren’t fighting anymore, there was tension still there.

“I think Irish men serving in the British regiment were not allowed up until 20 years before Brendan’s time, weren’t even allowed to wear the green.

“They weren’t allowed to wear any shamrocks, they weren’t allowed to wear anything that was pro- Irish.

“So the fact that Brendan got to fly a Spitfire with a shamrock emblazoned across the fuselage must have been, and for his dad as well, such a proud moment.

“Here he is fighting the Germans and he’s carrying this symbol of Ireland on the side of his plane.

“For us, that was a very magical moment in the film.

“It was quite an emotional scene to write.
“Because Brendan was very patriotically Irish, he was very much an Irishman.

“He may be wearing the blue uniform of the RAF but he’s still very much an Irishman.

“There were quite a few Irish men and women that were fighting on the side of English.

“Spitfire Paddy is a nod to all of them.

“Although we obviously want to bring light to the story of Brendan, we also want to show that there were many Irish men and women that served in World War Two, that should be better known.”

Of course they would have been condemned for it and called names like ‘turncoat’, which Brendan says himself sarcastically at one point. That was the price they paid for doing what was right..

“Absolutely,” Dominic says. “It speaks volumes about the man he was.

“That he could still do what he did while having flak from both sides really.

“To deal with all that while fighting, going up in the plane and risking his life was amazing.”

And Brendan had it hard, he was bullied in the RAF at first for being Irish…

Ian says: “Brendan got it from both sides.”

Dominic says: “Speaks a lot about his character, just how tenacious he was as a man.

“The reason why he succeeded in the RAF and why he rose up the ranks wasn’t because he was a particularly exceptional flier, it was because he was a fighter and he had such resilience.

“He just refused to give up.

“The only reason the RAF kept him on the course in the first place was was he just wouldn’t give up and they admired that fighting spirit.

“So the quote in the film that we use, where the commanding officer says that to him is pretty much verbatim what he was told, ‘The only reason we’re not kicking you off is because you just won’t give up’.

“War was coming so they needed fighters.

“It was his fighting spirit that kept him there.”

He was dead at just 21. He crammed a lot into his 21 years..

Dominic says: “He absolutely did, more than most people do in their entire lifetime.

“I think when you look at the pictures, they don’t look 21.”

Ian adds: “We have to keep reminding ourselves when working on this film: He’s only 21 years old.

“He doesn’t look it. None of them did. Some of those RAF guys are 19, 20 years old.

“You think, what were we doing when we were that age?

“We weren’t taking to the skies fighting the German army.”

I know the film has won awards, what have the various reactions to this story been? Has it been disbelief that such a figure has been largely forgotten?

Ian: “We had an early test screening in Ireland just before Christmas at the Richard Harris Film Festival.

“The reaction was, ‘This guy’s not as known as he should be over in Ireland, we need to get his story out there’.

“We did have a lot of that reaction, but the fact that we’ve got the awards just says to us that there’s a need for the story. There’s an interest in Brendan’s story.

“For us it’s a validation. It’s a validation that it was the right story for us to make, we were meant to make that story.

“We were meant to tell Brendan’s story.

“The fact that it’s picking up these awards, it’s just validating.
“It’s just validating, the fact that there’s such an interest still in Brendan’s story.”

The brothers have Irish on both sides of their family with their mother coming from Kerry and their dad’s family being Roscommon.

Ian says: ““Our dad’s ex-military anyway.

“He was in the Parachute Regiment so he’s got a sort of affinity with planes anyways, I suppose that’s where the interest in Spitfires comes from.

“We’ve always wanted to do an Irish story.

“There’s a couple up our sleeves we want to do.

“The fact that Spitfire Paddy was an Irish character just gave us an opportunity to explore that Irish heritage.

“It was a very exciting project for us to work on.”

There is a scene in the film where Jean asks Brendan what it is like to fly.

Nowadays we think nothing of air travel but back then it was something that many people had never experienced..

Ian: “For Brendan it was all about flying- Until he went to Southampton and saw the bombing of Southampton.

“Then something inside him turned at that point.

“That’s the moment he become a fighter pilot.

“That’s the moment for Brendan when it became a crusade.

“He uses of the word crusade when he talks about his involvement in the war.

“It became something like a sacred duty for him.

“He was fighting evil and it was simple.

“It was a simple case of good versus evil for Brendan.
“Seeing up close and personal the damage of Southampton, the devastation, it just brought it home for him.

“When you’re in a dogfight, it’s very much killing somebody from a distance and it’s a machine you’re firing at.

“You don’t get to see the human damage or the human cost involved in that sort of combat but Southampton was all so real for Brendan.

“That was very much a turning point in how he saw the war and his role in that war.

“During the Battle of Britain and everything, it was all about flying.

“That was his love.

“He just wanted to be up in that plane flying.

“We do try to get that across in the movie.

“Brendan’s first love really was flying.

“He has a love affair with Jean but I think it’s very much his first love, flying spitfires.”

He was also very calm when death came to him at that young age.

He took it like a man..

Ian says: “He believed in fate and I think he got that from his mother.

“His mother was very much a believer of fate and she used to tell them the story of a bullet when they were caught in the crossfire. He was barely a year old and they were caught in the crossfire between the IRA and the Black and Tans and the bullet just missed Brendan by an inch.

“It was almost like a fated bullet and the irony is it’s a one in a million chance the bullet missed him and it was a 1 in a million chance bullet that killed him in the end, so there is a strange sense of fate at work through his story.”

He is still listed as missing in action..

Dominic says: “Yeah, his remains have never been found.

“The family have looked. There’s been several attempts to try and find where the wreckage is but it’s just such a vast body of water that the family pretty much said they don’t want any more expeditions. They don’t want any more search parties going out looking for the wreckage, it’s his final resting place.”

And he still holds proud records of being the youngest ever wing commander etc..

Dominic: “He had everything. He had the looks, the charisma.

Ian: “He was like a movie star. Him and Jean were a glamorous couple.”

Dominic: “But he hated the limelight.

“There were stories of him seeing the newspaper men coming down the street and he’d turn and run the other way.

“He hated any of that sort of publicity.

“That speaks about his character.

“He was such a humble, private man despite being one of the top scoring aces in World War Two.”

With that being his nature, what do you think he might make of there now being a film made about him?

Ian says: “He’d be embarrassed, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’

“We had the family historian at the screening who helped us so much during the script stages.

“He said that Brendan’s reaction would just be so embarrassed about all the fuss being made over him.

“That says it all about Brendan.

“He’s a guy who hated the limelight yet he deserves to be in the limelight.

“He’s such a great role model, somebody who just deserves to be remembered.”

Dominic: “We sort of allude to that in the film.

“There’s the scene in his engagement party and everybody’s dancing in the hall but he’s in a hallway by himself because he hates the limelight, even to the extent where it’s his big night and he’s on the outskirts.”

The Shamrock Spitfire is available on DVD and digital now.

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