Memoirs of a lifelong rebel and activist

Emmanuel Kehoe, in the Sunday Business Post, July 9th 2006.

Is it so far-fetched to suggest that the modern equivalent of those foreigners who went to fight for the Spanish Republican in the 1930s are Muslim fighters taking a hand in wars against great powers? Against Russia in Chechnya, for example, or against the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Of course, the volunteers of 70 years ago were fighting in Spain for quite a different cause, for democracy and a secular republic, though not all of those against General Franco had quite the same idea about what constituted the ideal state of man. Some could hardly be described as democrats at all.

Bob Doyle was a Dublin brigadista who grew up in truly dreadful conditions in Dublin. His deprivations helped to politicise him, but unfortunately his recollections jump rather too rapidly from childhood to his involvement in unemployed demonstrations, pitched battles with Blueshirts and the city's most infamous gang of toughs, the Animal Gang.

He joined the IRA, recruited by left-wing republican Kit Conway, who would later die in the battle of Jarama in the Spanish Civil War. Doyle’s account of the Dublin in the 1930s, with mobs egged on by priests to attack leftists and communists, is a novel perspective on a country which is seen often as monolithic theistic and complaint.

Doyle gave up attending mass when he was asked for an offering of sixpence to go through the mina door of the Pro-Cathedral to attend High Mass at which Eamon de Valera was present. 'The only time I have been since is through force and through fear of reprisal.'

He took the leftist side in the IRA split of 1934 and became involved with the Republican Congress. But the public was intolerant of anything what smelled of communism, and in one incident members of the Republican Congress had to flee from their meeting in Rathmines Town Hall, when a hostile crowd arrived outside singing Faith of our Fathers.

Doyle's experience of combat, though at times intense, was relatively short. He was captured in an ambush along with Frank Ryan in March 1938 by Italian troops of Mussolini's Black Arrow division. He survived an encounter with the Civil Guard, which ordered 'Communists, Jews and machine gunners' to step forward for the firing squad. There then followed a year of hardship and brutality as a prisoner of the Fascists at San Pedro, until he was released in a prisoner exchange.

Doyle became a merchant seaman during World War 2 and in 1940 married Lola, a Spanish woman who was working as a domestic for the Republican consul in London. The rest of his life has seen him involved in many leftist and human rights causes, mainly in Britain, though he also worked with underground unions in Franco's Spain.

At one stage he became an enthusiast for marijuana, growing specimen plants in his greenhouse. It's hardly surprising that a BBC Video Diary programme featuring Doyle was called Rebel Without a Pause.

Doyle’s story is heavily annotated by his 'friend and comrade' Harry Owens, and contains recollections form his two sons, Julian and Robert, on their unconventional father. The general feel of the publication if that a sort of festschrift, Doyle’s memoir mixed with admiration bordering on adulation.

Back to the collection of Bob Doyle material