Obituary: Bob Doyle 1916-2009

Morning Star, 26 January 2009

ROBERT GRIIFITHS pays his respects to the much-missed Irish patriot, Communist and international brigader

Bob Doyle, one of the last of the international brigaders who fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s, died in London last Thursday. He fell a few weeks short of his 93rd birthday.

Born in Dublin two months before the Easter Rising, he was lucky to reach his 23rd birthday. Along with Irish republican leader Frank Ryan, he had been captured in battle by Italian troops on the Aragon front, tortured by Spanish prison guards, interrogated by the Gestapo and taken out on one occasion to be shot. It would have been a brutal ending to a short and, in places, brutal life.

Bob was born into poverty, hunger and foster care. Like many other children, he was flogged without mercy at school by the well-remunerated nuns of County Wicklow as his father toiled at sea and his mother languished in a mental asylum.

"Most of the time we had religion, Irish and Catholic nationalism. The nuns were severe and sadistic," he recalled in his splendid autobiography Brigadista: An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism.

Reunited with his family among the tenements of Dublin's Stafford Street, his teenage education came from overcrowding, football, the unemployed "corner boys," swimming in the Liffey and clan brawls broken up with enthusiasm by the police.

In the early 1930s, young Bob joined other anti-unemployment protesters in standing up to the fascist Blueshirts led by former Dublin police chief Eoin O'Duffy. He also enrolled in the Dublin Battalion of the IRA, doing his military training in between upholstery work and job-seeking trips to Liverpool.

Recoiling from his initial participation in the Jesuit-inspired siege of Connolly House in 1933, Bob followed his mentor Kit Conway into the Republican Congress and the Communist Party of Ireland.

They had concluded that Irish nationalism alone would not put bread on the table in Dublin's slums. Bob saw the struggle to defend the democratically elected republican government of Spain as an extension of his street battles with O'Duffy's gang.

Under his own steam, he arrived without documentation in Cadiz, where the British consul told him that the international brigaders were "hiding around Spain like rats" and ordered him back to Britain.

Returning undaunted to Cadiz, Bob saw the docked German and Italian battleships which, according to the British and French governments with their policy of non-intervention, did not officially exist.

In December 1937, Bob crossed the Pyrenees to become a weapons instructor with the International Brigade. Reports from the Kremlin archives picture him as a plain-speaking, tough but not insensitive officer.

Bob would vividly recall the important contribution made by Soviet fighter pilots and weaponry to the forces of the Spanish republic. He was also the first to reveal the role played by urine in cooling the machineguns.

In General Franco's prisons, he and his comrades endured many bouts of brutality inflicted by the self-styled defenders of Christian civilisation. When Spanish civil guards barked at the prisoners, "Communists, socialists, Jews and machine-gunners, step forward!" Bob said that he did not rush to the front to be shot, because he did not meet all of the requirements.

Visiting journalists from right-wing British newspapers dutifully reported how well Franco's beaten and emaciated prisoners were being treated. Basque priests who refused to conduct masses fascist-style were bludgeoned to death, while the bishop of Burgos addressed his captive flock as "the scum of the earth."

Bob and other brigaders were eventually exchanged for Italian prisoners shortly before the end of the Spanish anti-fascist war in 1939. During the second world war, Bob served in the merchant navy. Following a medical discharge, he became a fire-watcher on the roof of the Daily Worker.

Bob later made frequent trips back to Spain to engage in clandestine work for the underground left-wing and trade union movement. It took some time for his puzzled Spanish wife Lola to realise why they spent so much time meeting "old friends" in dark locations late at night.

Settling permanently in London after the war, Bob became a militant print worker and SOGAT shop steward, leading a major strike in 1959, an active campaigner against British fascism and a lifelong member of the Connolly Association and the Communist Party.

In his last years in particular, he accepted his duty as one of the few surviving brigaders to travel and speak extensively in Spain, Ireland and Britain.

An invaluable record of his speeches and memories can be found on the web at

More recently, either Morning Star editor John Haylett or myself would receive a letter or phone call from Bob in the first few weeks of January. He would demand to know why it was taking so long for him to receive his annual party membership card. Only an emergency dash to Bob's north London home would placate him.

We didn't get the call this year.

La Passionaria told the departing international brigaders in Barcelona at the end of 1938: "You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend."

This is Bob's epitaph, one of which his sons Robert and Julian and grandchildren and great grandchildren can be proud.


The same Obit appears in Irish Democrat online, at

Back to the Bob Doyle Collection of articles