Bob Doyle: Brigadista

Ken Keable and Robert Griffiths review Brigadista - an Irishman's fight against fascism by Bob Doyle, Currach Press, ISBN 1-85607-939-2, £9.99/€14.99 pbk

SINCE THE recent death of Michael O'Riordan, Bob Doyle, now aged 90, is the last remaining Irishman to have fought against Franco in the anti-fascist war in Spain, 1936-39.

Brigadista is not only about that war, though. It is about Bob Doyle's whole life.

Born in 1916 into a poor Dublin family, after his mother was sent to an asylum he was handed over to nuns for upbringing at age five, on the harsh condition of no contact with his family.

The nuns fostered him out to a succession of farming families, sometimes as cheap labour.

He describes the burning of Dublin's Connolly House (headquarters of the Revolutionary Workers' Groups) by a Catholic mob (including himself) inflamed by an anti-Semitic sermon in the Pro-Cathedral.

Under the influence of socialist and republican Kit Conway he joined the IRA and then the Republican Congress of 1934. Bob followed Kit Conway to fight in Spain ,where he fought and was captured along with Frank Ryan, expecting to be executed at any time.

Released in 1939 as part of a prisoner exchange, he went on to enlist in Britain's wartime merchant navy.

All this is excellently described, as is his subsequent life in London as a communist, trade unionist and Connolly Association member and his family life with his Spanish wife Lola. They courageously visited Franco Spain after 1945, and post-Franco Spain where he was eventually honoured as a veteran.

Extra chapters by Bob's two sons and by friend Phyllis Green provide useful insights, and there are further chapters and scholarly notes by Harry Owens. His additions make this a very informative book on the international political context of the war in Spain, essential to understanding it as the opening round of World War Two.

I was privileged to be in Liberty Hall, Dublin, when this wonderful book was launched by a passionate speech from Michael D Higgins, Irish Labour Party spokesperson on international affairs. He condemned "the silence of Irish historiography on the 1930s" and said that the burning of Connolly House was "one of the events that should be taught to every child". He said the book reminded us that history is not only about what happened, but what could have happened if things had gone differently.

Bob Doyle, in his usual black beret and black eye-patch, began reading his speech but had to hand it over to Harry Owens to finish. Manus O'Riordan spoke, many of Ireland's left (and not so left) were there, and Ronnie Drew sang some songs, including one he had written about O'Duffy's pro-Franco Irish brigade.

This is a fast-moving book, inspiring, often funny, easy to read, yet also a great history of the times.

Ken Keable


BOB DOYLE was born in Dublin two months before the 1916 Easter Rising into poverty, hunger and foster care. Like many other children, he was flogged without mercy 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 (language) and Catholic nationalism. The nuns were severe and sadistic", he remembers of his schooldays. Young Bob was also taught to hate Jews for the death of Christ, although he unlearnt that lesson early in his life-long 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, he joined other anti-unemployment protestors 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.

Volunteer Bob Doyle 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 in Cadiz without documentation, where the British consul told him that the International Brigaders were 'hiding around Spain like rats' before ordering him back to Britain.

Returning once more to Cadiz, undaunted, 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, he 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 vividly recounts the important contribution made by Soviet fighter pilots and weaponry to the forces of the Spanish republic, although the role played by urine in cooling the machine-guns has hitherto gone unrecognised.

Captured by Italian troops in battle alongside Frank Ryan, Bob reveals flashes of the legendary Irish republican leader's courage, humour and humanity. In General Franco's prisons, Bob 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 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 mass 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. After the second world war, he made frequent trips back to Spain to engage in clandestine work for the underground left-wing and trade union movement.

This book tells Bob Doyle's remarkable story in his own words, including his subsequent years as a militant print-worker, shop steward, honorary citizen of Spain and honoured member of the Communist Party of Britain (which he remains to this day).

The book also includes valuable accounts of Bob's activities by Harry Owens and other friends and family members. It will inspire and educate the generations of anti-fascists, anti-racists and socialists who succeed him.

The only shortcomings are in the book's binding and editing, neither of which compare favourably with the Spanish-language edition of Bob's autobiography ('Rebel without a pause') published in 2002.

Robert Griffiths

A slightly abridged version of Robert Griffiths' review was originally published in the Morning Star

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-09-12 11:33:36.
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