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 CountyWicklow, 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 remembers of his school days. 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 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, Doyle 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.
As a volunteer, 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 home.
Returning once more to Cadiz, undaunted, Doyle 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.
Captured by Italian troops in battle alongside Frank Ryan, the legendary Irish republican leader, Doyle revealed flashes of the courage, humour and humanity. When Spanish civil guards barked at the prisoners: "Communists, socialists, Jews and machine-gunners, step forward," Doyle 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 in the fascist-style were bludgeoned to death, while the Bishop of Burgos addressed his captive flock as "the scum of the earth", as required by Franco’s authorities.
Pic: International Brigade veterans at Liberty Hall, Dublin, in 1991. Bob Doyle is back right, with beret.
Doyle and other Brigaders were eventually exchanged for Italian prisoners shortly before the end of the Spanish anti-fascist war in 1939. After World War II, he made frequent trips back to Spain to engage in clandestine work for the underground left-wing and trade union movement. In his memoirs, `Brigadista’ by Bob Doyle (Currach Press, £9.99), Doyle tells his remarkable story in his own words, including his subsequent years as a militant printworker, shop steward, honorary citizen of Spain and honoured member of the Communist Party of Britain.
Morning Star 28th August 2006