Pat Breslin (RTsKhIDNI)

An Irish victim of Stalin remembered, despite the amnesia of the left

A most interesting book published by Coiscéim was launched in Dublin on February 11. It is entitled Ceistiúchán, and is a translation into Irish of the interrogation by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 and 1941 of Pat Breslin, a former Irish Communist.

Breslin’s file had been copied from Russian to English by historian Barry O’Loughlin in 1991. O’Loughlin refers extensively to the file in his excellent book Left to the Wolves (2007) which details the cases of Breslin and two other Irishmen, Brian Goold-Verschoyle and Seán McAteer who were also victims of the Stalinist terror. 

You have most likely never heard of them, and Christy Moore has never sung about them, nor have any soggy-eyed bunch of leftie sentimentalists ever proposed that they be memorialised. That would interfere with the project of some on the left to make the ideology that led to the terror popular again. They must deny the countless millions of the victims of socialism, just as their mirror image must deny the truth of Nazi atrocities.

The Irish translation is the work of Breslin’s daughter Máiréad who was born in 1937 after her mother Margaret, or Daisy, McMackin, returned to Ireland just as Stalin’s Great Terror was starting to reach its apogee. 

When Máiréad travelled to Russia in 1991 she met her brother Genrich and her sister Irina who were the children of Breslin’s first wife Katya Kreitser who had herself spent six years in the camps between 1938 and 1944. Máiréad spoke briefly about all of this in a recent feature on Raidió na Gaeltachta’s Tús Áite programme.

Breslin ended up in Moscow as a student in the Communist International’s Lenin School. He had been a member of the tiny and eccentric Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), as described by myself in my history of the party. The first CPI was dissolved by the Comintern in 1924 and Breslin joined Jim Larkin’s Irish Worker’s League which Moscow hoped would become a mass party. Larkin, however, was solely interested in getting money from them to run the Irish Workers Union and the IWL, but agreed to send Breslin and his own son Jim Junior among a group of students in 1928.

A combination of several factors; Breslin having been pressured into taking Soviet citizenship, his wife having been purged by the NKVD, the Comintern’s annoyance with Larkin and his IWU ally Jack Carney who was later claimed to be a Trotskyist, and Breslin’s choice of drinking buddies among the English-speaking emigres contributed to his own destruction. 

Some of those who were named by Breslin’s tormentors probably never realised how fortunate they were not to have been in the Soviet Union at that time. Larkin and Carney would certainly have been placing themselves in danger had they visited. As possibly might have the Communist Party of Great Britain leader, Tom Bell, who for a time basically ran the Irish communist organisation, and who was friendly with Breslin in Moscow. 

Likewise, the 1931 book, I Went To Russia by  writer Liam Ó Flaithearta, who Breslin named as an acquaintance, would have left him open to arrest had he ever been foolish enough to return. 

Among the factors in destining Breslin for the executioners was that one of his Irish ‘comrades’, Charlie Ashmore, denounced him during a purge of the Lenin School in 1929.

The basis for that was Breslin’s interest in mysticism that had been sparked by his friendship with Cyril Fagan who wrote books about astrology in Dublin. The fact that Fagan also worked in the patents office of the Department of Industry and Commerce here and made a joke to Breslin about getting work as a spy in Moscow, and other connections to people close to the Fianna Fáil government and the IRA became for a time the focus of the NKVD’s absurd attempt to suggest that Breslin was in fact a spy for the Irish state. 

As is often the case, the security services of the revolution were not only peopled by thugs and deviants, but by not particularly bright thugs and deviants. 

Their main aim was to prove that Breslin had been working for either British or American intelligence. Breslin consistently denied that, although the decision to drop that and instead to get him to confess to “counter-revolutionary agitation” had much to do with the fact that the accusation of espionage was dropped within days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. 

That brought an end to the two-year alliance between Stalin and Hitler – another thing the Irish left does not want to know about – and thus, being a spy for the Brits no longer carried the penalty premium it once did. 

And so Breslin’s admission of having all the time since 1928 rejected the nonsense of Marxist “historical materialism” and having maligned the regime earned him a sentence of 8 years in the camps. Had he been convicted of spying he would probably have been shot. As it turned out he only survived another year and died in a camp at Kazan on June 21, 1942 of a heart attack brought on by tuberculosis.

Given what we know from the accounts of Solzhenitsyn and other survivors, it is likely that Breslin was subject to some form of torture. The physical brutality of 1937 and 1938 seems to have then abated, mostly to due to the number of people who died under torture or were left in such a state as to be otherwise of no use in convicting others. 

O’Loughlin claims that in the prisons like Taganka and Lefortovo where the interrogations took place that sleep deprivation was the main tool. 

Breslin endured 60 sessions that lasted in total 390 hours. The harsh light was kept on all the time and no sleep permitted between 6am and 10pm. It was often around this time or in the early hours that the all night interrogations began. It is a tribute indeed to Breslin – who had been taken as prisoner from a clinic where he was being treated for alcohol abuse – that he stubbornly refused to admit to being a spy. 

Máiréad’s account and O’Loughlin’s book deserve a wider audience, especially given that Ireland is one of the few countries where drivel about the men who went to fight in Stalin’s International Brigades still remains largely uninterrogated, pardon the pun. These were men who fought mostly under the command of former British Auxie George Nathan who was most likely involved in the murder of Limerick Sinn Féin mayors George Clancy and Michael O’Callaghan in May 1921.  

There was no separate “Connolly Column” of Irish volunteers in Spain. Peadar O’Donnell who partly created the myth was effectively a Comintern agent who attempted for years, successfully in the 1930s, to split IRA Volunteers away into a Communist organisation. 

Frank Ryan died as part of an ill-conceived German intelligence operation. Ryan’s achievement was to have in effect wittingly served both Hitler and Stalin. Pat Breslin’s misfortune was that he unwittingly became a victim of the totalitarianism with which much of the Irish left refuses to settle accounts. 



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