Obituary: Bob Doyle 1916 - 2009

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.

Robert Griffiths is the general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain. The above obituary originally appeared in the Morning Star


Neil O'Riordan:

THE LAST surviving Irish combatant on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War has died.

Bob Doyle passed away in London on Thursday, January 22, aged 92, after a short illness. Doyle was born in Dublin on February 12, 1916, shortly before the Easter Rising, and became politically active himself in the 1930s, joining the IRA after being beaten up in street fights with the Blueshirts which left him with permanent damage in one eye.

But he quickly became more interested in social issues and, in 1937, decided to volunteer for the International Brigade, motivated in part by the fact that his former flat-mate Kit Conway had been killed in action at the Battle of Jarama on Doyle's 21st birthday.

He was foiled in his initial attempts, arrested and expelled from Valencia after he had stowed away on a boat. Undeterred, he eventually made it back to Spain later that year by crossing the Pyrenees.

Initially deployed to train new volunteers, as a result of his IRA experience, he disobeyed orders in order to join a group heading for the front line. After engaging in battle at Belchite, he was taken prisoner by Italian fascist troops on the Aragon front in March 1938, along with Irish International Brigade leader Frank Ryan.

He was imprisoned for 11 months in a concentration camp established in the disused monastery of San Pedro, near Burgos, where he was regularly tortured by Spanish fascist guards and interrogated by the German Gestapo and, once, taken out to be shot.

Released as part of a prisoner exchange deal, Doyle enlisted in the British Merchant Navy for the duration of the Second World War before settling in London with his Spanish wife Lola.

Active until the very end, Doyle was a regular visitor to both his native Ireland and to Spain for International Brigade commemorations and, in 1996, along with all other survivors of the Brigades, was offered Spanish citizenship. He delivered his last speech at the re-dedication of Belfast's International Brigade memorial on November 8.

He published an account of his experiences in Brigadista - An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism in June 2006, launched by Michael D Higgins and Ronnie Drew.

Since Michael O'Riordan's passing in May of that year, Doyle had been the last surviving Irish combatant in the International Brigade

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


Eugene McCarten, Communist Party of Ireland:

"IT IS with great sadness that we have learned of the death in London of Bob Doyle, who was an active participant in the anti-fascist war in Spain 1936-39. He was the last surviving member of the Connolly Column of the International Brigade.

"Bob was born in North King Street,in Dublin city, where he grew up in a family of five children. In his adult life, his commitment to world peace and social justice was an example to all. Right up until his death Bob traveled across Ireland and to Europe speaking at many meetings, so as to inform and inspire the younger generation to honour the International Brigadiers and to stand up for social justice and world peace.

"He remained a committed anti-fascist, peace activist and a communist to the end. Bob remained active in politics up to a very short time before his death. He recorded his life's work in a wonderful biography "Brigadista- an Irishman's fight against fascism. We express our sympathy to his family.

"He lived his long life with out regrets. We salute his memory."


Mary Lou MacDonald, Sinn Féin:

"ON BEHALF of Sinn Féin I want to pay tribute to the late Bob Doyle and to express sympathy with his family, friends and comrades. As the last member of the James Connolly Column of the International Brigade, Bob's passing marks the end of an era. The heroic stand of the International Brigade in defense of the Spanish Republic against fascism has inspired generations of people across the globe, including the Irish people. Many of Bob's Irish comrades gave their lives in that struggle.

"Bob Doyle, a native of North King Street, Dublin, began his life of political activism as a member of the IRA's Dublin Brigade. His opposition to British imperialism in Ireland and his commitment to the cause of socialism and internationalism never wavered. He shared his experiences of struggle with young people and also his youthful enthusiasm. He will be greatly missed."

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2009-02-03 20:55:33.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © Robert Griffiths and others 2009