Saothar, journal of the Irish Labour History Society, No.28, 2003 Manus O'Riordan

Eugene Downing, who died on July 25, 2003, was not only a veteran of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War's International Brigades, he was also a keen labour historian. His 1986 memoir of that war, written over the Irish version of his name, Eoghan Ó Duinnín, was reviewed by me in Saothar 13. But La Niña Bonita agus an Róisín Dubh was a unique contribution to labour history in more ways than one. It was the first, and so far the only, such account written in the Irish language. But not only did it cover Spain. It was a pioneering chronicle of pre-War Dublin working class life as seen through the eyes of a Communist of the 1930s. This is a book that cries out for translation into English in order to reach an even wider audience, but readers can also get some idea of the vigour of Eugene Downing as a witness of history, through some English-language excerpts posted by Ciarán Crossey on his website, Ireland and the Spanish Civil War.

Eugene Downing had been born on September 12, 1913 in Cuffe Street, Dublin to Teresa and Patrick Downing, a gardener. He himself qualified as an electrician. Responding indignantly to the widespread poverty surrounding him, as well as intellectually to Connolly's Labour in Irish History and Marx's The Communist Manifesto, Eugene joined the Revolutionary Workers' Groups and the Communist Party of Ireland which succeeded it. He would become the printer of that Party's paper, the Workers' Voice, and among his more militant activities would be the defence of Connolly House during its 1935 siege and his picket duty on behalf of striking bacon shop workers in 1935, for which he received a sentence of one month's imprisonment in Mountjoy Jail.

Eugene had a powerfully ironic way of describing such militancy:

"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".

But Eugene could also be evocative in a more serious vein when describing his experiences of war. He recalled that his first childhood memory was of the 1916 Rising in Dublin in which his uncle Greg Murphy took part, before also fighting in Ireland's War of Independence 1919-21. Eugene wrote of his own childhood: "I was raised with the sound of bombs and bullets in my ears".

Almost twenty years later Eugene would experience those same sounds in Spain. In March 1938 Eugene enlisted in the Fifteenth International Brigade in order to defend the Spanish Republic against the forces of fascism. Eugene fought in the Battle of the Ebro. He recalled how on July 26, 1938 he was wounded in the unsuccessful attempt to capture the town of Gandesa:

"The previous morning we had crossed the river, captured five thousand prisoners and proceeded more than twenty miles. 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 left foot!".

Eugene was first brought back to the town of Corbera and then re-crossed the Ebro for hospitalisation in Mataró. The wound had, however, become infected and he had to undergo a below-the-knee amputation. With characteristic dry humour he wrote: "I can truthfully say that I have one foot in the grave!"

But he had a good 65 more years to go. He would reach his 90th year and see along the way not only the triumph of democracy in Spain but the Spanish Parliament's recognition of his own contribution when in 1996 it conferred the right to Spanish citizenship on all International Brigaders.

Eugene Downing died on July 25, 2003, exactly 65 years to the very day that he had crossed the Ebro for that great battle. Illness prevented him attending the commemorative re-crossing of the Ebro that was enacted by brigadistas and their families this July 4, but he was represented at those ceremonies by his nephew Brendan Byrne who gave him a full report on the commemoration before he died.

It was Brendan who also presided over his uncle's funeral service at Dublin's Mount Jerome Crematorium on July 30. The International Brigades were represented by Eugene's fellow-veteran of the Ebro, my father Michael O'Riordan, while family members of brigadistas also attended. Eugene's coffin was appropriately draped with two flags - an International Brigade banner in the colours of the Spanish Republic and the "Starry Plough" flag of James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army during the 1916 Rising.

It was my privilege that his family included my singing of a song about the Gandesa front as a funeral tribute to Eugene. For indeed we had a good friendship for over sixteen years, notwithstanding the fact that many years previously my father and he had fallen out with one another. This was an issue honestly but most good-humouredly addressed by Brendan Bryne in his funeral oration. He recalled that on one occasion he had quizzed my father to ascertain what on earth might have been the issue in dispute. My father could not remember, but added:

"Ah, he was an awkward hoor!" When Brendan reported back, Eugene himself laughed uproariously and went on to comment: "He's right! I am an awkward hoor! Put that on my gravestone!".

One of the earliest political pamphlets read by Eugene during his youth had been on a subject-matter of dialectics, and no more down-to-earth description of the dialectical method of argument could be found than the above. Writers and readers alike of this journal were constantly kept on their toes by Eugene as one of the Irish Labour History Society's keenest correspondents. In Saothar 18 he questioned the thesis in Saothar 17 that Irish International Brigade veteran Paddy O'Daire had participated in a 1939 submarine experiment, stating that it had been in fact another International Brigader, Paddy Duff. But to Eugene's antithesis came rejoinders from Jack Jones and George Matthews that Eugene was indeed right, but that there had also been a second submarine experiment in 1940 involving O'Daire. And so the synthesis resulted in a fuller picture, as did the exchange between Eugene Downing and Barry McLoughlin in Saothar 23 in drawing out the fact that while Bill McGregor had not been known to his comrades in Spain as Liam before he was killed in action in September 1938, this was not some posthumous Gaelic baptism conjured up by a hagiographer, because it was as Liam McGregor that he himself had applied to join the Spanish Communist Party in June 1938.

A seminal work in Russian Marxism was Plekhanov's The Role of the Individual in History. But perhaps it is also appropriate to praise what might be entitled The Role of the Awkward Hoor in Labour History. By constantly demanding exactitude, even when it sometimes evoked responses which drew attention to a number of inexactitudes on his own part, Eugene Downing ensured that the outcome of such exchanges was a labour history that was both more precise and more comprehensive.

In his final years Eugene also addressed some of the shortcomings in his own 1986 book. Ever since William Rust's 1939 book, Britons in Spain, Maurice Ryan (no relation of Frank's) had been listed on the roll of honour of International Brigaders killed in Spain. Yet no picture of any aspect of his personality ever emerged until the sympathetic recall that Eugene published in 1986. But even here there was a strange omission, because while Eugene wrote of the deaths of such comrades as Bill McGregor, he passed over in silence Maurice Ryan's own death.

Shortly afterwards the reason became obvious as it became public knowledge that Ryan had not been killed by the fascists, but had been executed by the Fifteenth International Brigade itself. Various historians have since suggested that Maurice Ryan was either a fascist saboteur, a conscientious non-communist dissident and martyr, or a dysfunctional personality. This last description is what Eugene Downing had himself believed to be the case, but it was only in his September 2000 interview for Ciarán Crossey's web-site that he finally went public. Eugene described Maurice Ryan as "a larger than life character", "a complete extrovert and fearless", and "also an excellent machine gunner". But he then went on to complete the story that he had only half written in 1986:

"Vino was his downfall. During the Ebro battle he turned his gun on his own comrades while roaring drunk. Eventually he was executed".

In losing Eugene Downing the Irish Labour History Society has lost a member who had not only been a maker of such history in his own right, but had also been a critical contributor to the writing of it. Saothar will miss him.

- Manus O'Riordan

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