‘A Homeland Free of Foreign Invaders’

Archival collections do not have to be large to be of historical value and the small collection of Eugene Downing is a great example of this. Downing’s papers consist of only 15 items but they give us an insight into the life of an Irish man who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Downing was was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, having enlisted in the 15th International Brigade in 1938. From an Irish Republican background, he remembered being raised during the War of Independence and Civil War with the ‘sound of bombs and bullets’ in his ears. Downing was born in September 1913 at 2 Cuffe Street, Dublin. 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. He was drawn to Marxism after reading the Communist Manifesto and James Connolly‘s Labour in Irish History. These works convinced him that the struggle of the classes, especially those of the working class, played a central role in politics. The empathy of Karl Marx and Friedrich 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. 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. In early 1938, Downing decided to join the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He took the boat to Liverpool, telling his parents that he was going to the Aintree Grand National. He went to Paris, travelled south and crossed the Pyrenees at night.

By July, he and his comrades were camped near the river Ebro, trained in the use of arms and ready for battle. He fought in the Battle of the Ebro and was wounded in the unsuccessful attempt to capture the town of Gandesa. He was taken to hospital in Mataro. The wound had been infected and a below-the-knee amputation was necessary.

Returning to Ireland in December 1938, he was unable to find work so he went to London where he was employed by the International Brigade Association. Downing tried to keep in contact with his fellow comrades in Spain. An example of this can be seen when Downing tried sending money to his friend, Fred Stark, in the Campo de Miranda del Ebro. He initially tried sending £7 10s through the International Brigade Association but this was not allowed by the Spanish authorities, instead Downing had to send money through the Red Cross, as the letters below explain.

A handwritten note in Spanish comes from the Union de Muchachas (Girl’s Union). In it the Union asked Downing and his fellow comrades to promise that they would fight relentlessly so the people may have ‘una Patria libre de invasors extrangers (a Homeland free of foreign invaders)’.

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