Bob Doyle: Activist who fought for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War

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The Independent Online

Born into poverty in Dublin, Bob Doyle was to become a lifelong rebel and champion of radical causes. He joined the IRA and served in the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. During the Second World War he was a merchant seaman and settled in London, where he later became a Fleet Street print worker and union militant.

With their mother in a psychiatric hospital and their father away at sea, Doyle and his four brothers and sisters were raised in Catholic orphanages or foster homes. As a young man he shared a flat in Dublin with Kit Conway, a young IRA fighter who had made a name for himself in Tipperary during clashes with the Black and Tans. Under Conway's wing, Doyle joined the street battles against Ireland's Blueshirt fascists. "Kit was my inspiration," Doyle recalled later, and he was recruited into the IRA's Dublin battalion, though his only activity involved blowing up statues and other "relics of British imperialism". However, there were tensions in the organisation between its traditionalists and a more politically radical wing and Doyle soon followed Conway into the Communist Party and the newly formed Republican Congress.

Activists of the left-wing Republican Congress formed the nucleus of the Irish contingent in the International Brigades that fought against General Franco in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Doyle was determined to join the volunteers defending the Spanish Republic and, after saving some money while working in a Lyons Corner House in London's Piccadilly Circus, made his way to Marseilles where, in July 1937, he stowed away on a Greek ship bound for Valencia.

On arrival he was interviewed by the British consul, who ordered him to leave the country. Doyle hastily took a job on a MacAndrews Line freighter sailing between Liverpool and Spanish ports. Liaising with the Spanish aid committee in Liverpool, he smuggled leaflets into fascist-held Spain and took letters to and from International Brigaders until his activities came to the attention of the ship's captain and he was sacked.

In October 1937 he went to Communist Party headquarters in London and requested to join the International Brigades. With his knowledge of Spain and Spanish, he was put in charge of a group who made their way through France. Once they were across the Pyrenees, the young writer Laurie Lee was attached to to the group. He had entered Spain alone early in December and was to be briefly enlisted in the International Brigades until being medically discharged because of epilepsy in February 1938. Writing about Lee to battalion superiors, Doyle said: "I report that comrade Laurence Lee has on two occasions of the journey taken some kind of fits. I may add that the comrade's conduct was excellent, that although weak he showed willingness to comply with regulations."

Following training at the British battalion's base camp at Tarazona de la Mancha, Doyle travelled north to the front in Aragón. Facing overwhelming enemy firepower in fighting around Belchite, he and the rest of the machine-gun company were forced to take refuge in the town. For two days they held out in and around the church, facing relentless bombing by German Stukas and pounding by Italian artillery before escaping as Italian and Moorish troops entered the town.

Remnants of the British battalion joined the Republican retreat eastward in March 1938. At Calaceite, Doyle and some 140 other volunteers were captured. "We had walked into a classic military ambush set by Mussolini's Black Arrow division," he wrote years later in his memoir, noting too that it was on the same day that Rab Butler, secretary of state at the Foreign Office, had told the House of Commons: "We have no proof of intervention in Spain by Germany or Italy."

The next 11 months he spent as a prisoner of war, for most of the time at a prison camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos, where he survived beatings and was interviewed by Gestapo agents and, more bizarrely, by Spanish psychiatrists attempting to establish the traits of a degenerate "Red" personality.

Release came on 6 February 1939 when, as part of an exchange for Italian POWs, Doyle and other British and Irish volunteers sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" as they crossed the frontier into France at Hendaye. He resumed work as a merchant seaman and settled in Paddington, west London, after marrying Dolores (Lola) López, who had arrived in London from Spain in 1932. In 1940 he was shipped out to Gibraltar where, though still a merchant seaman, he served – now as a chief petty officer cook – on Royal Navy ships patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar and the Western Approaches. In mid-war his seafaring career was cut short when he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. He was employed for a while by the Communist Party in London and, through the print union Sogat, entered the printing trade.

For 18 years he worked in Blackfriars for the magazine publisher Amalgamated Press, trimming the company's comics and women's titles. As father of the chapel and a member of the union's central London committee, he was one of the leaders of the successful six-week national strike in 1959 for a 40-hour week. During the strike he was arrested, along with five other flying pickets, outside the Oldhams Press print works in Long Acre. He was charged with riotous assembly but acquitted by the jury after a 10-day trial at the Old Bailey.

During the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, Doyle, who lived in the area, organised patrols to protect immigrant West Indians as well as a demonstration which he headed carrying a placard saying "No Little Rock Here". He also drew regular Sunday crowds of up to 600 at Speakers' Corner, where he would attract attention by setting fire to newspapers and saying "That's what I think of the capitalist press". Trips to Spain were an opportunity to distribute anti-Franco leaflets: he scattered them in Madrid among football crowds and on buses before making a swift getaway.

Doyle's instinctive rebelliousness permeated most aspects of his life. Some weekends he would set off on his motorbike to the Berkshire countryside to poach pheasants or trout, which he would serve at the family dinner following grace beginning: "Thank you Lord so-and-so", naming whoever's estate he had just visited. At the age of 72 he discovered marijuana and became an advocate of legalisation, writing letters to ministers and MPs on the subject. Now living in suburban North-west London, he grew "Neasden Dope" in his back garden and only stopped doing so when local youths discovered this and began breaking into his greenhouse at night.

In October 1993 he starred in the BBC2 "Video Diaries" documentary Rebel Without a Pause which showed him travelling to Spain to campaign for a memorial at the unmarked mass grave containing the International Brigade dead of the Battle of Jarama of February 1937. Among them were his friend Kit Conway and the Irish poet Charles Donnelly, whose niece, Cluna Donnelly, made the film. Doyle also wrote to the former prime minister Edward Heath, knowing of his youthful sympathies for the Spanish Republic. Heath raised the matter with the Spanish premier Felipe González and forwarded Doyle a letter from González saying that he had ordered an inquiry into the state of the grave and hoped that the International Brigaders "will be remembered with the dignity which they deserve". An inscribed plaque was subsequently unveiled at the cemetery at Morata de Tajuña in October 1994.

In 2002 Doyle's Spanish-language autobiography, Memorias de un rebelde sin pausa, was launched amid much publicity in Madrid. An English-language edition, Brigadista: An Irishman's Fight Against Fascism was published in Dublin in 2006.

Robert Andrew Doyle, political activist: born Dublin 12 February 1916; married María Dolores López 1940 (deceased 1997, two sons); died London 22 January 2009.