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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 June 2007, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Irish victims of Stalin uncovered
By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC NI's Dublin correspondent

Vienna-based historian Dr Barry McLoughlin never expected to find an Irish name while researching the fate of Austrians who died in Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Millions died in Stalin's purges

But when the name Patrick Breslin appeared in a Moscow News newspaper article in 1989, it was to begin a journey of discovery which would tell the tragic stories of three of Stalin's victims.

Millions died in the purges, but few realised that among them were a number of Irish who had travelled to the Soviet Union as communist idealists in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Patrick Breslin was hand-picked in 1928 by Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin to study at the International Lenin School in Moscow, the training ground for a future cadre or elite of world communist leaders.

But Breslin's free-thinking landed him in trouble, his views on spirituality not in keeping with his hard-line communist teachers who expelled him for his views.

He began working as a journalist in Moscow, married a Russian woman and had two children before the marriage foundered.

But he found love again in Moscow, this time to an Irish woman from Belfast, Margaret "Daisy" McMackin.

Their marriage in 1936 was at the height of Stalin's purges. When Daisy became pregnant, she returned to Ireland to have her child, the couple planning to reunite shortly afterwards in their homeland.

But Patrick had been forced to take out Soviet citizenship during his earlier marriage, and was prevented from leaving.

He was never to see his child, and repeated requests to leave brought arrest in 1940.

He died of ill-health in the appalling conditions of a Soviet camp in Kazan in 1942.


Brian Goold-Verschoyle was born in County Donegal in 1912 into Anglo-Irish gentry.

Educated at Portora Royal and Marlborough public schools, he, like two of his brothers, came from an unlikely background for a communist.

"The family would have been minor gentry in comfortable circumstances but they would have seen a lot of poverty around them so they would have been conscious of what they would have perceived as the injustices around them.

"There was also a neighbour, a retired British naval Captain (Thomas) Fforde who was a communist and he probably introduced them to communist ideas," said Brian's nephew, David Simms, retired professor of mathematics at Trinity College Dublin.

Brian began working as an engineer in England, but after visiting his brother Neil in Moscow, became a Soviet spy.

When you look at it properly it's tragic because his eyes are looking into the eyes of his executioners
Victim's daughter

He fell in love in England with a German Jewish refugee, Lotte Moos, but when he took his lover to Moscow against orders, he fell foul of his Soviet masters.

He was sent to fight in the Spanish Civil War, on condition he broke off all contact with Lotte - who lives in England today.

But he disobeyed, and was tricked onto a Soviet ship in Spain, which took him back to imprisonment in the USSR where he died in 1942.

Sean McAteer was born into an Irish family in Liverpool in 1892 of a republican outlook.

He was active in James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army in pre-rebellion Ireland, causing him to flee to the US in 1915 where he was jailed for trade union activities.

He returned to fight in the Irish Civil War, but afterwards fled for the USSR when he killed a man in a botched robbery in Liverpool.

gulag graves
Graves of some of the Gulag's victims

He worked as a propagandist and English teacher in Odessa, and as a Soviet spy in China, before he was shot by firing squad in 1937 during the height of the purges.

His Soviet wife Tamara and daughter Maria's persistence succeeded in having him rehabilitated posthumously in the 1950s.

After uncovering Breslin's name in the Moscow News, Barry McLoughlin's friend Shay Courtney tracked down Patrick's daughter Mairead in Dublin, who gave the required permission for him to view her father's file in the Moscow secret archives.

But he also tracked down her brother and sister Irina and Genrikh, enabling a deeply emotional meeting for the first time in 1993.

"They were waiting for me, my brother and sister and my grand-niece Katya and it was just amazing," said Mairead at her home in Dublin.

"On top of the fridge, there was the photo of papa.

"When you look at it properly, it's tragic, because his eyes are looking into the eyes of his executioners.

"But that was the beginning of some wonderful years, until Genrikh died in 2002 and Irina in 2004."

The stories of Brian and Sean were also uncovered by Dr McLoughlin's research, their families learning of their fate for the first time. He said the men's radical outlook which brought them to communism was to contribute to their doom.

To tell the truth I felt very sad. I was sad my father wasn't around to finally have the mystery unravelled for him
Nephew of purge victim

"Before they became communists, they were also influenced by Irish radical politics and their own backgrounds.

"They had minds of their own and I think that was part of the reason they got into trouble with the Stalinist authorities," he says, adding that there may well be other Irish victims of Stalinism whose stories remain untold.

For the families, the revelations are tinged with sadness at the deaths their relatives suffered in unthinkable loneliness, far from their homes and loved ones, in Stalinist horror.

For Mairead it was the end of a dream that perhaps she might one day find her father as an elderly man in Russia.

But Sean McEntee's nephew Eamon in Dublin says that his uncle was fortunate to have a quick death compared to Patrick and Brian.

"To tell the truth I felt very sad. I was sad my father wasn't around to finally have the mystery unravelled for him," he says.

Their stories, silent for so long, have finally been told.

Diarmaid Fleming tells the story of Barry McLoughlin's book Left to the Wolves - Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror on The Book Programme, BBC Radio Ulster at 1130 BST on Saturday 16 June, and at 1430 BST on Sunday 17 June

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