Richard Baxell in The Guardian, February 16, 2009

Bob Doyle: International Brigader and shop steward for the print union Sogat

Bob Doyle, who has died aged 92, was a lifelong political activist, one of the last survivors of the International Brigades which fought during the Spanish civil war - and a Monty Python extra. One of five children, Bob was born in Dublin, where his early experiences were of poverty and foster care. At school he was beaten by nuns, which left him with a hatred of injustice that caused him to gravitate towards leftwing politics. He was soon involved in violent clashes with the police and with the fascist Blueshirts. After being beaten up in a street fight in 1931, which left him with permanent damage in one eye, he joined the IRA, then, three years later, the leftwing Irish Republican Congress.

When, in July 1936, a military rising in Spain progressed towards civil war, the Irish media, establishment and Roman Catholic church all supported the insurgents, starkly depicting the republicans as priest-murdering reds. Bob, however, saw the struggle to defend the democratically elected republican government of Spain as an extension of his street battles with the Blueshirts. Therefore, in 1937, he decided to volunteer for the International Brigades.

His first two attempts to join up met with failure. Undeterred, he persevered and successfully entered Spain in December 1937 by crossing the Pyrenees, arriving at the International Brigade base at Albacete with a number of other volunteers, including the poet Laurie Lee.

As a result of his IRA experience Bob was deployed to train new volunteers at Tarazona de la Mancha. However, determined to fight, he "deserted to the front" and joined the British Battalion. It was a bad time to arrive, for in the spring of 1938 Franco launched a huge offensive on the Aragon front which soon reached the Mediterranean, splitting the republic in two. As part of the 15th International Brigade, Bob was involved in a vain attempt to defend the town of Belchite. Caught up in the chaotic retreats, he was captured and taken prisoner by Italian troops on 30 March that year.

Bob spent the next year in a concentration camp in the disused monastery of San Pedro de Cardena, near Burgos. All prisoners were subjected to indoctrination and obligatory attendance at mass and forced, under threat of shooting, to give the fascist salute. Bob was regularly tortured by the guards, interrogated by the German Gestapo and, on one occasion, taken out to be shot.

However, in February the following year, Bob and his comrades were released as part of a prisoner exchange deal. Following his repatriation back to Britain, he met and fell in love with a Spanish girl, Maria Dolores Lopez, known as Lola, who had worked for the republican consul in London. They were married in 1940. Bob joined the merchant navy on the outbreak of the second world war and was stationed in the straits of Gibraltar and the western Atlantic, before receiving a medical discharge. He spent the remainder of the war as a firewatcher on the Communist Party offices in central London.

After the war, Bob undertook clandestine work, travelling to Franco's Spain to help organise underground trade unions. He became a militant printworker and shop steward with the Sogat trade union, leading a printworkers' strike in 1959.

Over the years, Bob returned to Spain, both to visit his wife's family and to attend commemorations, carrying a banner made by his wife, with the words "International Brigades" inscribed over the Spanish tricolour. More recently, Bob cheerfully accepted his duty as one of the few surviving brigaders to travel and speak in Spain, Ireland and Britain, usually accompanied by one of the "Doylettes", his exuberant granddaughters. In 2006, Bob's memoir Brigadista was released, which accurately portrayed him as "a life-long dissident communist". No Stalinist apparatchik, Bob was a revolutionary with a smile, who possessed an unconventional streak which, on occasion, brought him into conflict with the rather less flexible leadership of the International Brigade Association. He enjoyed riding a motorbike well into his eighties and was an advocate for the legalisation of cannabis, being a surreptitious grower of the plant in his north London greenhouse. He also appeared in two of the Monty Python films, as an extra in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and, as Bob jokingly described it, a "starring role" as a human doorbell in Jabberwocky (1977).

Bob delivered his last speech at the re-dedication of the International Brigade memorial in Belfast last November and was in the process of being granted honorary Spanish citizenship. He is survived by his sons Bob and Julian, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Richard Baxell

Robert Andrew Doyle, political activist, born 12 February 1916; died 22 January 2009

[This was the caption for a photograph.] - Doyle volunteered with Laurie Lee and, in 1938, was taken prisoner in Spain

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