Bob Doyle

A lifelong fight to put people before profits

Bob Doyle’s struggle for social justice began on the streets of Dublin and took him to Civil War Spain. Even at the end of his life, he insisted it was a fight that must go on, writes Dan Carrier

Camden New Journal, 29 January 2009

BOB DOYLE, the last surviving Irishman who fought Franco in the 1930s, died last week. But for the veteran, who lived in Tufnell Park, the political struggles he participated in during that chaotic period never ended. Right up to his death, aged 92, he was convinced there were still lessons to be learnt from the sacrifices his generation made in Spain.

Bob was born in Dublin in 1916, days before the Easter Rising. He had a lifelong hatred of religion because of the treatment he suffered at the hands of nuns who had taken him in as a child.

His politics was underlined when he fought Irish fascists in the streets of Dublin as a young man and where he joined the IRA. He saw friends head to Spain and when he was 21, and he decided he had to be there too.

His fellow countrymen had formed the Connolly Column of the International Brigades. The Connollys fought at the Battle of Jarama in 1936 – where Bob’s former Dublin flatmate Kit Conway was killed.

A merchant seaman, Bob had gone on voyages from Liverpool to Spain, and used the trips to smuggle Communist leaflets in and out. He jumped ship at Valencia to enlist, but was caught and turned away.

Later he presented himself at the Communist Party headquarters in King Street, Covent Garden, and was sent with other volunteers to France.

But other comrades made the mistake of spending the £5 they had been given for expenses on booze. With the fresh sea air in their lungs and war in their blood they made no effort to keep a low profile. Instead, they banded together on deck and sang The Internationale.

Many of them were turned back by the police at Calais, their Spanish destination obvious. But Bob was more determined, more disciplined. Using his merchant seaman’s identity card that could be used in place of a passport at harbours, he got to Paris and from there was sent to the south of France.

Following the route many Brigaders took over the Pyrenees, he got into Spain and was sent to the castle town of Figueras, where he signed up to fight against Franco.

While in Figueras he met and befriended the writer Laurie Lee. Bob had been asked to write reports on the suitability of other volunteers to the Brigades for the Communist Party. There were fears about the political persuasions of some – the threat of Franco’s agents was real – and with limited resources, the Brigades had little time for those who were not able to pull their weight.

Bob compiled a secret report, outlining that some were more interested in drawing a wage to spend on drink than in fighting fascism, but he said of Lee that he was politically strong and dedicated – his only problem was the fact he suffered from epilepsy and would probably not be suited for active service. Bob’s reports, stored in the Communist Party’s archives in Moscow, lent credence to Lee’s stories of his time in Spain – many had doubted the accuracy of his descriptions of his time there.

Bob’s experience in the IRA meant he was valuable to the Brigades. They needed men who could handle machine guns, and teach new recruits what they knew. It meant Bob had the frustrating experience of being held at a camp for recruits, where he was expected to pass on his knowledge, not fight. He decided one day enough was enough – he got on a lorry full of troops heading for battle. He saw service at the battle of Belchite in 1937.

Bob was captured in an ambush by Italian troops in March 1938 on the Aragon front and was held for 11 months in a prison of war camp. Tortured by the guards, interrogated by the German Gestapo, he lived with the daily threat of execution hanging over him.

Yet he never gave in, and never compromised his beliefs. He was eventually freed under a prison exchange deal and headed back to London. Because of his Communist past, he was seen as suspect by the British government.

He enlisted back in the merchant navy during the war and then afterwards, having settled in Tufnell Park, became a printer. He was active in the print workers’ union Sogat, and as a father of the chapel (shop steward) he was involved in strike action in 1958 in the campaign for a 40-hour week. Bob later wrote of his experiences in Spain in his book Brigadista – An Irishman’s Fight Against Fascism and was active in the Brigades Memorial Trust.

In July last year he was with his comrades at the annual memorial meeting for the Brigaders in Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank, and he attended meetings when he could, including a visit to Belfast to unveil a memorial to Irish volunteers last November.

He is survived by his sons Bob and Julian, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Passion that never subsided

SPEAKING at an anti-war rally in Southampton just two years ago, Bob received a standing ovation.

That night he said:

“Some of you may wonder why a 90-year-old veteran of a war that happened a long time ago in a far off country is speaking to you here today.

“Some of you will know a little about the Spanish Civil war and may see it as a glamorous episode in working-class history, when young poets, like Byron in Greece, fought and died in a foreign land for a noble cause. Perhaps you have come to see me, a decrepit, romantic relic.

“But I am not here to indulge in emotional memories, though I have many memories of comrades and events that affect me deeply.

“I am not here to make you sad with tragic recollections of a heroically fought war, or to make you happy with my survival into old age.

“I am here to make your blood boil with anger; the powers that supported Franco in Spain are still active today. Their reach is global. The same US corporations that supplied the Fascists with oil in Spain are today pilfering the oil of the Iraqi people.”

His powerful rhetoric recalled the struggle he had fought as a young man and applied it to the struggle today. People listened to Bob. They knew here was a person who had offered his life for his ideals, and seen many friends die as they tried to create a better world.

He continued: “Those who lie and cheat to hold on to power, who exploit child and slave labour in the third world to make yet more profits, who torture, murder and massacre in defence of their interests – they are still in control.

“When I am told Spain was the last noble cause, I know I am speaking to someone who doesn’t want to see the obvious truth. Today the fight against those who put profit before people is just as intense.”

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