EUGENE DOWNING [1913-2003]

Irish Veteran of the Battle of the Ebro

The death has taken place after a short illness of Eugene Downing, an Irish veteran of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War's Fifteenth International Brigade. Eugene, who was in his 90th year, 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 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 Mataro. 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. A notable achievement was his publication in 1986 of the first Irish language account of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. He entitled it 'La Nina Bonita agus an Roisin Dubh' - being figurative names in poetry for the Spanish Republic and Ireland respectively.

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, 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.

Music played on the Irish uileann pipes by Noel Pocock consisted of Roisin Dubh' ( My Dark Rosaleen' or Rosita Morena' - the Gaelic poets' figurative name for Ireland) and two Irish laments - The Wounded Hussar' and Se Mo Laoch, Mo Ghile Mear' ( He is my Hero, my Swift and Bright One'). Jimmy Kelly sang John O'Dreams' to Tchaikovsky's music from Pathetique', while Manus O'Riordan sang a song from the Gandesa front, Si Me Quieres Escribir.

The most moving part of the funeral service was when three of Eugene's grandnieces - Tanya Twyford Troy, Teresa Downing and Elizabeth Byrne - gave loving accounts from themselves and other family members of how Eugene had influenced their lives. Brendan Byrne himself spoke of how widespread poverty in the Dublin of the 1920s and 1930s motivated Eugene to join the Revolutionary Workers' Groups and the Communist Party of Ireland.

Brendan also spoke of how Eugene had been briefly imprisoned because of his support on the picket line for Dublin's bacon shop workers who were on strike for union rights. And Brendan's daughter Elizabeth told how she had been on holiday in Spain when Eugene died. Before returning home on July 29 she had been about to enter a Madrid store to complete some shopping. But then she saw the placards of striking workers outside that store and she knew that Eugene would not allow her cross that picket line.

In the newspaper notices of his death his family rightly said of Eugene Downing: He lived his life with great integrity, strength and fortitude.

Si me quieres escribir,
ya sabes mi paradero,
en el frente de Gandesa,
primera linea de fuego '
If you wish to write to me, you already knew my address, on the Gandesa front, in the first line of fire.

Salud, Eugene! Viva la Quince Brigada!

Manus O'Riordan,
July 31, 2003

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

There are 3 obituaries available about him: In addition to this one the others appeared on the Indymedia site and in Saothar, the journal of the Labour History Society.

In addition to this piece, Eugene has written several few other pieces.

Here are some that are now online on this site.

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

Ciaran Crossey

Belfast, 19th May 2016.

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