BY FACHTNA O’DONOVAN
ON October 19th 1919, a young, unarmed constable of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) was fatally wounded as he walked his beat at 2am near Christchurch Cathedral in the historic Liberties area of the city.
Constable Michael Downing came from farming stock in Adrigole on the Beara peninsula. He was 23 years and single. A versatile handball player, he was described as being ‘well liked and inoffensive’ in the district, and had swapped shifts to work for a colleague who had a date that night.
No motive was established for the shooting, but it is now known that the Dublin battalion of the IRA had an arms dump in the vicinity, so it would appear to be an unfortunate case of being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
His first words to a bystander who ran to his aid were: ‘I have been shot. Get me a priest. Pray for me’. He remained conscious for some time, and despite being in receipt of a blood transfusion donated by a colleague, he died from his wounds 19 hours later. He stated that he was ‘merely crossing the street’ when one of a group of men on the other side pulled out a revolver and shot him as he approached them.
Detective Eamonn Broy, one of Michael Collins’ ‘Spies in the Castle’, was later arrested on a charge of passing files on the shooting to Collins. Unlike the discredited RIC force, which was disbanded in 1922, the DMP was amalgamated with the new Garda Síochána in 1925. In 1933 Eamonn Broy was appointed Garda Commissioner by the new Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera, replacing the sacked Eoin O’Duffy.
Constable Downing’s colleagues presented his grieving family with a large framed portrait of their fallen friend which, a century later, remains hanging on the parlour wall in the family homestead at Curragh, Adrigole at the foot of the Caha Mountains. The Beara Historical Society recently presented a copy of the picture for display in the new Kevin Street Garda Station in Dublin 8.
Michael Downing’s brother Mark played a prominent role in the War of Independence campaign in Beara and was imprisoned for his activities. In 1930 he received a Carnegie Hero Trust award for his outstanding bravery in rescuing crewmen from a British trawler wrecked off the Adrigole coast.
The Cork County Eagle of October 25th 1919 published a poem ‘Constable Downing, Murdered in Dublin’ penned by a ‘PS, Skibbereen’, the first verse of which reflected the sentiments of the vast majority of Irish people to the shooting at that time:
A Dublin street with blood runs red,
That by no strangers hand was shed;
Slayer and slain – our own;
An Irish boy, the victim lies;
Above arch the midnight skies,
Where God sits on His Throne ….
Four nephews of Michael Downing joined the Garda Síochána, Jim Downing, (father of The Southern Star editor Con), Tony Power, Michael Power and Christy O’Sullivan. And recently a great-grandniece Muireann Fleming also joined the ranks.
Organised by the Beara Historical Society for National Heritage Week, a centenary commemoration will be held at Michael Downing’s graveside at Adrigole cemetery at 3pm on Saturday, August 17th.