Eugene Downing:

Veteran who stayed true to ideals of Spanish war

The Irish Times: August 9, 2003

Eugene Downing, who has died aged 89, was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, having enlisted in the 15th International Brigade in 1938. From a Republican background, he remembered being raised during the War of Independence and Civil War with the 'sound of bombs and bullets' in his ears.

He fought in the Battle of the Ebro and was wounded in the unsuccessful attempt to capture the town of Gandesa. 'The previous morning we had crossed the river, captured 5,000 prisoners and proceeded more than 20 miles,' he wrote. 'But now the enemy were composing themselves and overcoming their surprise. Franco heard the bad news: 'el enemigo ha pasado el Ebro'. He began to strengthen his defence line; he had the war equipment to do just that. In any case we kept up a steady fire as ordered. Suddenly, a bullet went directly through my foot!'

He was taken to hospital in Mataro. The wound had been infected and a below-the-knee amputation was necessary. 'I can truthfully say,' he dryly noted, 'that I have one foot in the grave.' He was born on September 12th, 1913, at 2, Cuffe Street, Dublin, one of the four children of Patrick Downing, a gardener, and his wife Teresa (nee Murphy). He was educated at Francis Street CBS and qualified as an electrician at Kevin Street Technical College.

He spoke Irish fluently from an early age, perfecting his command of the language while on holidays with family friends in Spiddal, Co Galway. He was drawn to Marxism after reading the Communist Manifesto and James Connolly's Labour in Irish History, which convinced him of the centrality of class struggle to politics. And the empathy of Marx and Engels with the Irish cause strengthened his belief in their theories.

The next logical step was to join the Revolutionary Workers' Groups, the forerunner of the Communist Party of Ireland. On joining, he renewed his acquaintance with a childhood friend, Jim Prendergast, with whom he had once swapped copies of the Magnet, Gem and Wizard. They were soon swapping copies of publications of a higher intellectual order. As well as political and economic tracts, he read Jack London, H.G. Wells, Patrick MacGill, Shaw and Theodore Dreiser. For balance, he read Chesterton and Belloc. Not all his comrades approved of his choices, one of them dismissing Wells as 'the Edgar Wallace of science'. But Downing read what he liked.

Unable to find work as an electrician, he helped with the production of the party weekly, the Workers' Voice. He also wrote for the paper and sold it door-to-door. He helped to organise meetings for the unemployed and distributed leaflets in opposition to the Blueshirts.

He took part in the defence of Connolly House, the party's headquarters, when it was attacked by a mob led by members of the notorious Animal Gang. He was imprisoned for a month in Mountjoy Gaol in 1935 for taking part in a Republican Congress picket in support of a strike by employees of Dublin bacon shops. He held Frank Ryan in high regard, and in later life repudiated suggestions that Ryan, who had fought fascism in Spain, collaborated with the Nazis.

In early 1938, acknowledging that the prospects for revolution in Ireland were bleak, he decided to join the fight in Spain. He took the boat to Liverpool, telling his parents that he was going to the Aintree Grand National. On reaching London, he was amused to read that one of the winners at Aintree was named Blue Shirt. He went to Paris, travelled south and crossed the Pyrenees at night.

In Barcelona he saw the film Battleship Potemkin. By July, he and his comrades were camped near the river Ebro, trained in the use of arms and ready for battle. Convalescing in hospital he received a present of a bottle of champagne. He found it ironic that the only time he tasted champagne, 'which I had always associated with high living, degeneracy and bloated capitalists', was in Spain at a time when even bread was rationed. Returning to Ireland in December 1938, he was unable to find work.

He worked in London for the International Brigade Association and later for Middlesex County Council. Back in Dublin in the late 1940s he worked for the printer, Tom O'Brien, another Spanish Civil War veteran, before setting up a travelling lending library. The early 1960s found him in London again, working for a film distribution company. He next worked for British Gas, retiring in 1978.

He lived in Dublin for a short time before finally settling in Valleymount, Co Wicklow. He contributed humorous pieces to Ireland's Own, and wrote a series of articles, based on his experiences in Spain, for the Irish-language weekly Inniu. These latter articles formed the basis of his book, La Nina Bonita agus An Roisin Dubh (1986). Although his membership of the Communist Party long ago lapsed, he remained true to the ideals that in 1938 brought him to Spain.

He is survived by his sister, Vera, nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.

Eugene Downing: born September 12th, 1913; died July 25th, 2003