The revolution starts now

By Michael McCaughan, Village, Ireland's current affairs weekly, Thursday, September 21, 2006

Michael McCaughan looks at two sets of memoirs written from the front lines of global battlefields by witnesses who join the revolution with no agenda other than their passion and idealism Brigadista: An Irishman’s Fight Against Fascism. By Bob Doyle. Published by Currach Press, €14.99 and Clandestines: the pirate journals of an Irish exile. By Ramor Ryan. Published by AK Press, €14

The nation's book-shelves are creaking with radical ideas these days. Writers like Noam Chomsky and Greg Palast enjoy mainstream exposure at a time of deepening public scepticism over the course of world affairs.

However, it is much harder to find contemporary memoirs which take the reader to the heart of today's global battlefields by participants who are neither UN workers nor NGO delegates applying Band-Aids to matters of grave urgency and social justice. It is rare to find witnesses who owe nothing to anyone and who join foreign conflicts in a spirit of self-sacrifice and idealism.

Some good examples of the genre include Gioconda Belli's The Country Under my Skin; Stuart Christie's Granny made me an Anarchist and the captivating Nor meekly serve my time, which takes the reader on an unpleasant journey into the H-Blocks in the company of some of its former residents.

So it is heartening to discover new books in which Irish rebels who have travelled beyond these shores share their wisdom upon return.

Bob Doyle is a veteran of the international brigades who fought fascism in Spain during the civil war, risking his life for his ideals.

Ramor Ryan is half-a-century younger and motivated by similar ideals. He visited dozens of hot-spots around the globe, from Kurdish guerrilla camps to a Croatian Rainbow Gathering, always striving to understand radical experiments, his role shifting from observer to activist.

Both men have penned their experiences in two fascinating books which combine action and reflection to give a profound insight into the human condition.

Bob Doyle's Brigadista: An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism begins in Dublin in the era of worker struggle and general poverty in 1916. One of five children, his mother was "confined as a religious lunatic" to Grangegorman asylum and his father shovelled coal at sea. He spent nine years with the Sisters of Charity, who allowed no contact whatsoever with his family.

As a teenager, Doyle found work as a houseboy for a wealthy family and soon became active in the struggle for workers' rights. His growing awareness took him to Spain, where thousands of foreign volunteers took up arms to defend the republic. Doyle was on the front line, and was lucky not to be killed as his comrades were cut down beside him.

Captured, he was sent to a concentration camp where starvation rations barely kept him alive as he awaited his inevitable execution. He escaped with his life, on agreement that he would never return to Spain. Before long however, he was back in the country, secretly raising funds for prisoners' relatives and passing messages to the anti-fascist resistance.

In sharp contrast, Ramor Ryan came of age in the 1980s, a self-styled "idle youth" dispatched northwards to witness the funeral of three IRA volunteers shot dead in Gibraltar. The Dublin he leaves behind in Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile is "a grey, depressing place – populated by cynics and alcoholics, soggy from the relentless drizzle". The subsequent murders at Milltown cemetery proved a wake-up call and Ryan is suddenly faced with the significance of commitment and struggle.

From the outset, Ryan is brutally honest with himself, wondering why on earth he is attending these funerals. His response – "it feels necessary" – paraphrases Orwell's observations in Homage to Catalonia where he accounts for his journey into the unknown as simply something that any decent person would do in the circumstances.

In this respect, Ryan and Doyle are worlds apart. Doyle, the Spanish Civil War veteran, was a true believer in the communist cause, willing to overlook contradictions and crimes in the name of a higher freedom. But he was his own man too, and acted on his own initiative, following whatever path his dignity dictated.

An excellent add-on to Brigadista sees Doyle's two sons reflect on their father. This can be a touchy area, since activist fathers have a habit of leaving children and partners behind in their struggle to save the world. Robert and Julian are reconciled to their father's socialist principles, but they also have sharp words to say about some aspects of their upbringing.

In 1958, at the height of the Notting Hill Carnival riots (no, I hadn't heard of them either), Doyle takes his sons out in a van and drives around the area, offering a lift home to frightened West Indians.

These spontaneous acts of selflessness typify the spirit of Bob Doyle. The same spirit is echoed in the pages of Ryan's moving memoir. He writes of the global citizen's movement, publicly deployed in Seattle, Prague and Genoa, which was busy making a difference off the mainstream radar in places like Chiapas and Belize. In south-east Mexico, Ryan joins international volunteers to staff civil-observation camps, which acted as a buffer to a massive army presence surrounding Zapatista rebel villages. These idealists, often derided as over-privileged and ineffectual 'revolutionary tourists', were getting a fast-track education on the price of freedom and rebellion.

Ryan, meanwhile, seemed to have a guardian angel hovering above his head. He took a break from his observation duties just hours before a major military assault in which three Norwegian observers were beaten, slung into a truck and expelled from the country as "pernicious foreigners" before the army got down to the serious business of sacking homes and beating locals who offered resistance. He returned to help the community pick up the pieces, and learned that struggle is as much about defeat as about victory.

Bob Doyle would undoubtedly agree with this appraisal. In Brigadista, he describes decades spent trying to win formal recognition for the sacrifices made by international volunteers and the many thousands of Spanish who were tortured and killed by Franco's thugs. The long march from disdain to respect, which culminates in the decision to honour the international brigade veterans with Spanish citizenship, is one of the most impressive tales in his book.

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