Last fighter of fascists tells all

Tales of poverty-filled youth, street battles with Blueshirts, beatings and derring-do in the Spanish Civil War, a lifelong commitment to communism and the odd marijuana cigarette.

David Lynch reports in Daily Ireland, July 3rd 2006
Copyright rests with Daily Ireland

Thanks to David for his permission to add this piece, CC 7th Sept. 2006

"I still believe in those same values of socialism and communism, things like solidarity and justice still matter."

Ninety year old Bob Doyle is the last 'brigadista' and intensely proud of it. The recent death of his comrade Michael O'Riordan means he is the last surviving Irish member of the International Brigade who fought against fascism in Spain in 1936-39.

Now living in London, Mr Doyle recently visited Dublin for the launch of his memoir, Brigadista: An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism.

Speaking to Daily Ireland with his literary collaborator, Harry Owens, Mr Doyle's character in the book is also clear in person. Humourous and irreverent, he now stands for the same things he did in the fight against Franco in Spain seven decades ago. His memoir of the war is lively and politically fascinating. The war was between the elected Second Spanish Republic and the fascist insurrection led by General Francisco Franco.

Mr Doyle was one of the approximately 320 Irish who fought for Spain's republic. Many more Irish men fought for Franco under the leadership of Eoin O'Duffy and with the support of the Catholic Church and Irish establishment.

Born in 1916, Bob Doyle recalls his childhood exploitation by religious charities and poor families. "I was hungry all the time. We used to get bits from the butchers in Moore Street," he said. "I used to be sent for three pence worth of bits form the butchers. A very different Dublin from now, not half."

A poverty filled youth led him to left wing politics. The street fighting days that were the 1930s in Ireland come alive in his book. The early hopes that the 1932 Fianna Fail government would greatly improve the lot of the poor gave way to disappointment.

Violent clashes between the IRA and leftist groups with the fascist Blueshirts led by Eoin O'Duffy and the infamous 'animal gangs' were common in the capital. Mr Doyle was in the thick of it.

"I was politically active here all the time. I was in the Communist Party, the IRA, the Republican Congress," he said. "I joined these organisations because life was so difficult in the slums of Dublin and I wanted social change. I was unemployed for a while in the 1930s and then I eventually got a job earning very little."

The Republican Congress was a left-wing split form the IRA. However, Mr Doyle did not forget the more 'hands on' tactics he had learned while an IRA volunteer.

"There was a strike for union recognition in branches of Bacon shops across Dublin in the 30s," Harry Owens told Daily Ireland. The shops continued to open. "The Congress was composed of many different groups. The Communist Party element would be more political and picketed the shops. But many of the members of the Congress were ex-IRA like Bob and they would come along with iron bars and wreck the shops. On one occasion Bob brought an iron bar to wreck the weighing scales.

"So he is confessing his political and legal sins from 70 years ago," laughed Mr Owens.

In the mid 1930s, Mr Doyle was aware of the growing trouble in Spain. The media, establishment and church in Ireland was pro-Franco, describing the republican side as 'communist and anti-Catholic.' However, he was determined to go.

"It wasn't a difficult decision for me to go to Spain. I had become politicised by being involved in unemployed demonstrations and I was active against the Blueshirts," he said. "I was familiar with Spain from the beginning."

The details in the book of how Mr Doyle eventually got to Spain could be straight out of an Indiana Jones movie script. A tale of exciting adventure and determinism fuelled by a deep hatred of fascism. Mr Doyle was captured and imprisoned by fascist forces in Spain. Among those he was captured with was leading socialist republican Frank Ryan.

"I was captured with him, right beside him, I did not see him fighting in Spain but I was with him on the streets of Dublin in fights with the Blueshirts."

According to historian Paul Preston, Mr Doyle's account of his imprisonment at the disused fifth-century monastery at San Pedro de Cana near de Burgos is unique.

"Of course, I remember a lot about being captured in Spain, it is very vivid in my mind still," said Mr Doyle. "We were in the hands of the fascists. They treated you terribly. I got terrible beatings with a wooden cane. There was one time I was extremely brutally beaten up along with a South African brigadier.

"After Spain I returned to Ireland and there were no jobs here. And it was hard to get a job when you were known for 'being a red.' But I noticed that then the attitude to those who fought for the Republic was slowing changing for the better.

"Of course I was disappointed when the Spanish republic was defeated when Franco took Madrid we knew that a wider European war would start. There was only six months between us leaving Spain and the Second World War starting, so you really did not have time to wallow in the defeat of the Republic.

"Events were moving too fast and we joined the British forces to fight fascism. We believed all the time that if the Republic had been supported by Britain and the United States the Second World War would not have taken place."

Mr Doyle spent time in the British navy and served in Gibraltar when it was bombed by the Italians. Following the war he remained politically active in London and campaigned over many issues including the Poll Tax in the 1990s.

With such an extraordinary start to his life, it was no wonder that Mr Doyle would become a rather different pensioner than most. A motorcyclist in his 70s, Mr Doyle used marijuana to help him recover following a bad accident when he was 80.

When I asked Mr Doyle if he smoked marijuana in Spain during the war he laughed. "It would have been good for when I was in the prison camp."

When summing up Mr Doyle's politics, Mr Owens said he was "always with the grass roots. I would describe Bob as a life-long communist and a dissident communist."

Brigadista: An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism by Bob Doyle is one sale now at 9.99/14.99 published by Currach Press.

There is a collection of Bob's speeches and articles about him, available here.