The Two Patricks: RTÉ’s Lost Among Wolves & Fanatic Heart

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), News, Volume 9

Two recent TV documentaries on Irish revolutionaries, both in RTÉ’s True Lives series, offer a strikingly contrasting view of the lives of two men caught up in the politics of the twentieth century. Patrick Pearse and Pat Breslin—the former firmly established in the pantheon of Irish nationalism, the latter virtually forgotten except by his children in Ireland and Russia—were very well served by the two documentaries under review.
Lost Among Wolves was an extraordinarily interesting and quite moving account of the life and death of a sensitive and gifted intellectual who was drawn into the tragedy of Soviet history under Stalin. Pat Breslin was born in London in 1907 to Irish parents. His family returned to Dublin in 1920 and as a young teenager Breslin received a practical political education at Dublin street meetings in 1920 and 1921. He joined the Communist Party of Ireland in 1922 and at the age of fourteen was writing articles for the Workers’ Republic and was a leading activist in the youth section of a party largely composed of teenagers.
As part of the Comintern’s efforts to control the fledgling Communist parties beyond Soviet frontiers, Breslin and seven other young Irish communists—including Jim Larkin jr—were sent to Moscow to be educated at the International Lenin School (ILS) in 1927 (see HI Winter 1999, 37-9). Like many western communists, Breslin found it hard to adapt to the discipline of the Soviet party system. In his ideology classes he openly disagreed with Lenin’s view that the 1916 Rising had happened a year too early, but even more dangerously, he rejected the philosophy of dialectical materialism. Breslin’s poetic mind could not accept the rigorous exclusion of the spiritual. Even in the late 1920s, however, there was still room for wayward intellectuals in Moscow and though Breslin was expelled from the ILS course, he was employed in the school as a translator. In 1929 he married a linguist, Katya Kreutzer, and had two children, one of whom spoke in the film. During the 1930s Breslin produced some very important translations of contemporary Russian and Spanish poetry and a considerable amount of hack-work for party newspapers. People like Harry Kernoff and Liam O’Flaherty visited him in Moscow, something which was later held against him during his interrogations.
His increasing disillusion with the Stalinist regime and the break-up of his marriage to Kreutzer were important factors behind Breslin’s desire to return to Ireland, but the most important reason was his whirlwind romance with and marriage to another gifted linguist, Daisy MacMackin, in Moscow in 1936. An aspect of Breslin’s tragedy was that he had finally been persuaded to renounce his Irish passport and apply for Soviet citizenship two months before he met Daisy at a party in Moscow in June 1936. Daisy MacMackin was a brilliant graduate of Queen’s University who had been a research student at the Sorbonne. Her strong republican background and their shared love of languages brought them together, but when MacMackin returned to Ireland to give birth to their daughter, Pat was trapped in Moscow, practically a stateless person. His increasingly desperate efforts to gain permission to leave over the next four years are well documented—most poignantly in the many letters he sent to Daisy in Ireland. Neither the Irish nor British foreign ministries were prepared to give him a passport. In considerable despair he was arrested in 1940 as a ‘suspect foreigner’, interrogated for six months and sentenced to eight years in 1941. He died of tuberculosis in a gulag in Soviet Central Asia in 1942.
Enormously detailed files on Breslin survive in Russian archives and their retrieval is due to the tenacity of his family and the work of Irish historian Barry McLoughlin who is based in Vienna. Following the opening of many of the Soviet archives by the Rehabilitation Law of 1991, McLoughlin has recovered enormous amounts of information on Irish and Austrian victims of the Stalin security system. Breslin’s party files and the records of his interrogation and imprisonment are fascinating insights into his life and the history of the time. Left-wing revolutionaries like Breslin have been either completely ignored or confined to marginal places in the conventional history of Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. De Valera’s refusal to grant Breslin an Irish passport in 1938 is symbolic of the difficult relationship between nationalism and socialism after 1922. For Irish readers, the recovery of this aspect of modern Irish history is very illuminating. On a wider level, it opens up a window into the real experience of millions of people in revolutionary Russia and also in the Stalinist repression even more effectively than the literary accounts of writers like Vasily Grossman and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Glimpses of Breslin’s poetic translations suggested that they might be worth serious study. The interviews with Patrick Breslin’s daughter, Mairéad, and with some of his Russian contemporaries, one a survivor of the prison camp, brought out the human tragedy and courage which were at the heart of this sympathetic insight into a life and an era.
By contrast with Breslin, Patrick Pearse has been the subject of intense discussion ever since 1916. Few people born before 1970 will have any difficulty recalling the main details of Pearse’s life and death. Sensibly Steve Carson’s documentary avoided rehearsing the well-known facts of his life to concentrate instead on a discussion of what we think of Pearse now. The underlying assumption was that we see Pearse through several perspectives—notably those of his nationalist hagiographers and of the revisionist historians of the 1970s and 1980s. It was interesting to see how much the image of Pearse has changed over the past thirty years. Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose 1977 biography, The Triumph of Failure, was seen as iconoclastic at the time, offered a sympathetic, almost affectionate, view of Pearse. Similarly, Conor Cruise O’Brien acknowledged Pearse’s importance in twentieth-century nationalism. The problem here is nationalism, not the personality of Pearse. The film suggested that Pearse was increasingly overcome by the debts of St Enda’s before 1916, which is an interesting if not convincing explanation for his revolutionary career. Not enough was made of Pearse’s role as an educationalist. Many of the faults he found with the Edwardian educational system were unfortunately replicated in Ireland after 1922. Like Breslin’s socialism, Pearse’s educational reforms were too radical for independent Ireland, which was intolerant of social experiments of any kind.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in modern history at University College Dublin.

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