Bob Doyle

Lifelong campaigner for social justice who was the last survivor of the Irish volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War

The Times, February 26, 2009

Bob Doyle was a veteran of the Irish International Brigade who emerged unscathed from the Spanish Civil War to pursue a lifelong commitment to the struggle for social justice.

He was the last survivor of the approximately 200 Irishmen, Catholic and Protestant, who fought as volunteers for the Republic. They were known as the Connolly Column, in honour of James Connolly, executed by British firing squad in 1916, and fought alongside British and US volunteers in the XV International Brigade.

Doyle fought in some of the bloodiest battles and was captured by Italian forces, Franco's allies in the conflict.

Bob Doyle was born in Dublin in 1916, on the eve of the Easter Rising that ravaged the working-class district in which he and his four siblings were raised. He became politicised in his teens and joined socialist movements campaigning for fair wages and living conditions. At 14 he joined the Irish Republican Army and became close to the Communist Party of Ireland. He fought in street battles against Eoin O'Duffy's fascist Blueshirts and often also confronted the police. In one encounter with Irish fascists he was badly beaten and his left eye was permanently damaged.

Doyle's motive for fighting in Spain was plain: "I didn't know much about Spain," he later said, "but I knew my thoughts were that every bullet I fired would be against the Dublin landlords and capitalists." He was also spurred on by the deaths of two friends, Kit Conway and Charles Donnelly, fighting to defend Madrid in the valley of the Jarama River in February 1937.

Doyle's first attempt to enter Spain, as a stowaway on a ship bound for Valencia, was foiled. Later he managed to enter Spain across the Pyrenees in a group that included the author Laurie Lee. Since the border was officially closed the volunteers had to travel by night to avoid French patrols.

In Spain Doyle was posted to a training role in Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades, because of his military experience with the IRA.

However, he decided to head for the front line without orders, to gain practical experience, and he took part in the fighting around Belchite, in Aragon.

In March 1938 the Nationalists began a rapid offensive through Aragon. Doyle recalled the heavy fighting, when a Russian-made machinegun he was wielding malfunctioned: "I threw it down and picked up a rifle. I stood up and started firing till it got too hot. I don't know how I wasn't killed, because the bullets were flying everywhere." He later described taking control of a damaged Republican tank and returning it to the front with his companions.

He was eventually taken prisoner by an Italian unit, the Black Arrows, and spent 11 months in the infamous prisoner of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeņa, in Burgos province, northern Spain. Conditions at the camp were appalling and Doyle was tortured by members of the fascist Falange and interrogated by the German Gestapo, which was in Spain searching for prominent communists. He was released in a prisoner exchange in February 1939 - five captured Italians were released for every two brigaders.

On his release, Doyle travelled to London, where he settled. At the outset of the Second World War he volunteered for the British Merchant Navy and served in the western Atlantic before his medical discharge as a result of an ulcer. He was subsequently an air raid warden in London, where he married a Spanish exile, Lola, from Asturias in northern Spain. They had two sons.

In 2006 Doyle published a book, Brigadista. An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism in which he recounted his experience in Spain and his formative years in Dublin (a Spanish version had appeared in 2002).

He remained a committed political activist and was active in trade union and peace movements. In 1959 he was the communist leader of a print workers' strike that sought to establish a 40-hour working week. He also frequently returned to Spain clandestinely when it was still under Franco's rule. After the dictator's death in 1975 he attended several events in honour of the international volunteers. He was a regular presence at the commemorations of the Jarama and Brunete battles, and in October 2008 he was in Barcelona for the 70th anniversary of the farewell parade for the International Brigades, which he had not originally attended because he was in captivity. As he used to say in speeches at these events: "Our struggle for the freedom of humanity continues." He is survived by his two sons.

Bob Doyle, Irish activist and Spanish Civil War veteran, was born on February 12, 1916. He died on January 22, 2009, aged 92

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