Irish News, April 11, 2007 - added to the site, 12th April 2007

Opinion - Irishman who fought to free world from fascism - Dubliner Bob Doyle started life in poverty but went on to join the IRA and fight in the Spanish Civil War before becoming a trade unionist committed to fighting for workers' rights. He speaks to Valerie Robinson about his life

Wearing a black beret and an eye-patch, Bob Doyle looks like a man with an interesting past. The Spanish Civil War veteran sits in the Dublin living room of a friend with a certain sense of wonder that he has crammed so much drama into his 92 years.

He has lived through bloody and troubled times and, unlike many of his peers in Ireland, refused to shelter under the mantle of neutrality.

The roots of his drive for social justice can be traced back to his own impoverished childhood.

Born in Dublin's inner city on February 12 1916, Mr Doyle's mother Margaret was confined as a religious lunatic to the Grangegorman asylum shortly after the birth of her youngest child.

The children's father was away at sea and they soon came to the attention of local nuns who took them into care.

Bob and his two-year-old sister were sent to live with a family in Sandyford, two brothers went to Cork and the eldest sister stayed at home.

"They were hard times," Mr Doyle said, remembering how he and his sister mainly lived on potatoes and bread, often feeling hungry.

He once gorged himself on marmalade sandwiches and even a beating could not quell the delicious memory.

Returning to his family home in the tenements in his early teens, Mr Doyle trained to become an upholsterer while becoming an early opponent of the fascist politics taking hold in Europe.

He remembers being beaten by a group of Blueshirts and police after taking part in the demonstration in Dublin, marching in workers' protests and eventually joining the Dublin Battalion of the IRA.

He was recruited by well-known IRA activist Kit Conway and trained "in the Dublin mountains with dynamite and ammunition, digging trenches and getting ready to fight".

It was during this time that the IRA engineer came to believe a united Ireland had to be a socialist Ireland with "bread on the table" for everyone.

In 1936 as stories of massacres of ordinary Spanish citizens by Franco supporters reached Ireland he offered his support to the republican government in its battle against Franco's nationalists.

He was just 20 years of age when he joined the conflict which claimed one million lives.

"We'd heard a lot about what was happening in Spain and knew that the Nazis had come to power in Germany and that General (Eoin) O'Duffy (founder of the Blueshirts) was intending to follow in their footsteps. The Irish bishops never condemned the Blueshirt movement and we thought there was a danger that Ireland could go fascist."

It was December 1937 before Mr Doyle managed to trick his way past the authorities in France and Spain to enter a country dominated by extreme violence.

Mr Doyle reported to an International Brigade battalion where one comrade was English writer Laurie Lee (author of Cider With Rosie). Others among the more than 100 Irishmen fighting on the republican side were Kit Conway and Dungannon poet Charles Donnelly, both of whom were killed in action.

The Dubliner spent four months in Spain and was captured by Italian fascists during a battle against right-wing troops and tanks in the town of Belchite in February 1938.

"I was a prisoner for 11 months and we lived in constant fear of being executed. At one point we were taken to be shot but it didn't happen. We were worried that if World War II broke out we'd be locked up permanently or killed so that people wouldn't find out about us. I was tortured by the Gestapo."

Mr Doyle and others were released in 1939 to the French in a prisoner exchange deal, although his time in prison did not deter him from volunteering to return to the frontline.

There was little at home for the returning fighters and, unable to find work, Mr Doyle enlisted in the British merchant navy for the duration of the war, eventually settling in London, with Spanish wife Lola, where he worked as a printer.

Ever the activist, he negotiated with media mogul Robert Maxwell for a 40-hour-week for print unions. He later campaigned for the recognition of fallen brigade colleagues, convincing Spanish authorities to allow mass graves to be marked.

Now a widower and father-of-two sons he frequently travels between London, Dublin and Spain and plans to visit Belfast for the Irish Brigade Memorial Trust AGM in October.

In 1996 Bob and other members of the International Brigade were offered Spanish citizenship and he has been awarded medals for his bravery. His experiences are remembered in the book An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism.

Mr Doyle remains optimistic for today's world despite the threat posed by war, poverty and climate change: "I'm not disappointed in mankind. There are a lot of people trying to do good. We can learn a lot from what happened in Spain about the need to fight for the liberation of mankind."