Street Journalism

Eugene Downing

I have never been accepted into the National Union of Journalists in spite of my years of experience in street journalism. Writing on the pavement with sticks of chalk slogans such as 'DOWN WITH BRITISH IMPERIALISM','NO FREE SPEECH FOR FASCISTS', etc, is not, very unfairly in my opinion, regarded as evidence of an outstanding talent in the writing game. (In a contrary kind of way, your family think that because you have spent so much time pasting up political messages and exhortations on hoardings around the city this means you should be good at wallpapering. People always believe what suits themselves.)

The first pavement which, the early thirties, was honoured with my imperishable words (washed away shortly afterwards by a heavy shower) was in Princes Street. A Guard [police] stood at the corner of the General Post Office staring at me very head. At any moment I expected to be asked for my name and address but the obvious good sense of what I wrote must have drained away his hostility so myself and Sean Redmond who had been working on his own piece of payment walked casually away. This was our first essay in street journalism and our satisfaction was in no way diminished by the rapid reaction of the clerk of the weather who was obviously in the pay of the capitalist class.

Another might blow, as we envisaged it, against the crumbling edifice of capitalism was the chalking of the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park. Using Wellington to convey revolutionary messages to the masses struck us as an extremely hilarious idea and in the dusk of one evening we chalked away undisturbed.

No tremor ran through the city the following day, no dreadful rush fell on the crowds in O'Connell Street. As Conor Cruise O'Brien would probably have said we might as well have saved our chalk.

There was something about chalk, we decided, which took away the meaning from the message.

Our next big effort at direct communication was one year at Ballsbridge before the opening of the Horse Show. Not only did we change from the ephemeral chalk to the longer lasting paint but we had additional forces in the field. We reminded each other not to forget the two dots on the letter 'A' in 'Thaelmann' since it is not unknown for scholars to visit the Horse Show and proving that pedantry and propaganda can live happily together.

As a finale, having done justice to the pavements, Sean Redmond and myself crept up to the German Ambassador's hall door and while Sean painted the word 'RELEASE' I added 'THAELMANN' underneath. This division of labour wasn't meant so much to save time as to confuse the enemy by the two different styles of writing. We were very advanced in those days.

Somebody had a scout around the area the following morning. All, all was gone, utterly vanished, including the two dots over the letter 'A' in Thaelmann. (The authorities can spring into action with amazing alacrity when it suits them.)

Though the results were short-lived this kind of activity was more satisfying than handling out leaflets and selling papers and pamphlets which had all been written by somebody else. But even as purveyors of other people's masterpieces we were still in direct contact with the consumer.

The Guards frowned on all these activities as they were infringements of some byelaw or another but the harassment never went beyond taking names and addresses after which no more was heard of the matter.

Sometimes ill-bred activists would refuse to give this information to show they didn't recognise the State and extremely vulgar scenes would ensue. On one occasion a Guard who had been involved in a heated argument with an IRA 'painting squad' was heard to tell one of his colleagues who arrived on the scene after the enemy had departed ' He threatened to throw the pot at me!' 'Jasus', said the other, 'If he said that to me I'd split him open!'

Having no wish to be split open for nothing we never descended to this level. Mass terrorism, yes, - but individual scuffles were regarded as non-productive of social change besides causing frightful headaches.

However, if the guardians of the law infringed their own law a stronger reaction was called for. I remember one occasion when Jim Prendergast stormed Dublin Castle.

It had been reported to him that some detectives had confiscated a bundle of leaflets from an elderly supporter just before a meeting in College Green. Dashing down to the Castle to make a complaint he collected me on the way. (Since I followed involuntarily as if in the wake of a tornado I feel 'collected' is a very good word here.) We were directed by the Guard at the gate to the office occupied by the Detective Division. The bewildered clerk, who maintained a correct and polite attitude during what must have been for him a verbally rough couple of minutes, insisted nevertheless that the person from whom the leaflets had been taken should come and make the complaint himself. How Prendergast managed to leave, still breathing hostility and banging doors, without being arrested for causing a breach of the peace and insulting behaviour I can't understand. I was wise enough not to try and emulate him, you've got to have a flair for that sort of thing, but merely followed him out like the tail of a comet.

For a brief period, after the establishment of the Broy Harriers, we experienced, not so much friendly relations with the new detective force as an easing of the customary harassment.

On one occasion as a group of us were operating late one night in the North King Street area we heard the slow, measured tread to which we were accustomed. A plainclothes man stopped behind us and perused the anti-Blueshirt poster on the hoarding.

'Goodnight', he said casually and turned away to resume his slow pacing.

This was a new experience and for a brief period I felt myself to be part of the State apparatus and wondered if I shouldn't retire from anti-establishment activities and look for a job in the Civil Service. It wasn't long, however, before the Broy Harriers having run out of Blueshirts turned their eyes sharply from right to left and started arresting their former comrades.

On a later occasion while engaged in a similar enterprise in Suffolk Street we were accosted by two plainclothes men.

The senior one of the two demanded, 'Who gave you authority to place that poster there?' 'The Republican Congress', we replied. 'You know perfectly well that the Republican Congress can't give you authority to break the bye-laws', he snapped back. He whipped out his notebook. In accordance with our polite and civilised custom we had no objection to supplying our names and addresses. Having demonstrated to the younger man, who appeared to be what might be called 'an apprentice detective', how to handle these dangerous situations he relaxed somewhat and in a more mollified mood went to the trouble of explaining the finer points of the law in relation to our offence.

'Hoardings are private property and people pay for the right to put advertisements on them.'

'Why is it an offence to write on the roadway?'

It was a defacement of public property. But that wasn't all. 'If a horse shied at writing on the roadway and somebody was injured, you would be responsible.'

'Only if the horse was a fascist', said Sean Redmond. 'That kind of horse has no right to be on the streets of Dublin will all the republican horses that are looking for work.'

The younger detective allowed himself to look amused. But the man who was steeped in the law took it all very seriously, we could almost imagine him perusing a mass of regulations at the back of his mind. 'That would be a matter for the court', he said ponderously. On this solemn note we parted. No epoch-making trial, with opposing counsel locked in battle, followed this great adventure but I have always felt it was balanced on a razor's edge. Anyway, the fact that no horse ever took fright at our slogans must prove something or another. That horse can't read, or that Dublin horses are all republicans.

Eugene Downing

More material by/about Eugene is also available on this site:

There are 2 obituaries available about him:

One by Manus O'Riordan, the other appeared on the Indymedia site.

In addition to this piece, Eugene has written several few other pieces.
Here are some that are now online on this site.

In September 2000 Eugene was interviewed by Ciaran Crossey and John Quinn about the SCW. Here is Eugene's 5 page version of the notes from that discussion.

A letter to the Irish Times about Mattie Ryan, Pandit Nehru and a shooting exhibition.

The Plaque on the Wall, a report of a visit back to the hospital in Spain.

Letters from Josefina [about his time in hospital and letters between him and Josefina, one of the nurses.]

An interesting piece from Saothar, on Moscow's International Lenin School, attended by Bill McGregor, an IB volunteer.

A funny piece about a brief period when Eugene was in charge.

The IB and the Ebro

The Siege of Connolly House. An interesting piece about a siege of the place the CP offices.

A letter to the Irish Times about the catholic church's refusal to allow a funeral service for
IB volunteer Tony Fox.

Would anyone who knows of further articles by Eugene please get in touch.

Ciaran Crossey, Belfast, 6th August 2003.