John Breslin, Daily Mail, April 27, 2006 Thursday

Copyright belongs to John, thanks for his permission to use this piece online. I'm sure readers will find this of interest.

The Fighting Pastor

Immortalised in a Christy Moore ballad, not even his own family know the true story of Bob Hilliard's short but colourful life

IF A life could pack a punch, then the Fighting Pastor was a super heavyweight. He is immortalised in Christy Moore's Spanish civil war ballad, just two lines that reveal much about the man but by no stretch of the imagination all.

'Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor; From Killarney 'cross the Pyrenees he came,' sang Christy in Viva la Quinca Brigade, the singer's tribute to those who fought on the side of the Spanish government against Franco's fascist rebels during the 1936 to 1939 war.

As she was growing up, Sarah Hilliard knew next to nothing about the man, not even that one of Moore's most popular songs contained such a tribute.

'We knew he died in a war, but we had only a vague idea of which war,' said the University of Limerick student yesterday. 'We never talked about him and what we thought we knew turns out to be false. 'Hilliard was her great uncle but his name was rarely mentioned as the now 20-year-old was growing up in Killarney. He was very definitely the black sheep of the family, said Sarah, who bears a remarkable resemblance.

She recalls one story that drifted down the years. He officiated at his sister's wedding, then took his collar off and arrived at the reception in a red tie, a symbol of his commitment to the Communist Party. And this was Kerry in the 1930s.

Growing up, Sarah was always quietly intrigued and kept her ears open on the rare occasions Uncle Robert was mentioned by the extended family, many of whom still live in south Kerry.

So when RTE called, researching a programme for a series on the potentially dubious pasts of members of different families, Sarah agreed to embark on a journey of discovery. And what she found out astonished her and the extended family back in Kerry.

Rev Hilliard was indeed a minister from south Kerry who fought in the Spanish civil war. But he was also a brilliant scholar, an ardent Irish republican, an Olympic boxer, a communist, a religious evangelical, a twice bankrupt and married father of four who deeply loved his wife but nevertheless embarked on an affair with another woman.

THAT WAS all before December 1936, when he took the boat to the continent to fight in the war against fascism, one of 45,000 international volunteers, including 200 Irish. Two months later he died of wounds suffered in a fierce battle outside Madrid. He was aged just 32.

Sarah's journey to Spain was, she says, hugely exciting and illuminating but also emotional as she visited the site where her great uncle was fatally injured as he and three comrades fought a rearguard action against Franco's tanks during the Battle of Jarama.

'The history of battles I always found to be OK, interesting but not that much. But I had the strangest feeling that I've had in my life whenever we were walking through the fields,' she said.

There was still shrapnel, just lumps of metal on the ground, but to Sarah it looked ' disgusting'. Her guide told her that sometimes bullets can be seen and as she walked with the group, he found one, picked it up and handed it to her.

'Everything was so real, so much more alive,' she said of the battlefield where a man, previously unknown to her, fell nearly 70 years ago.

Hilliard was part of an Irish and British battalion charged with defending a route between Madrid and the rest of Republican Spain.

On February 12, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the government forces suffered heavy casualties and the British and Irish were forced to retreat. The republicans successfully counterattacked. Hilliard was fatally injured as he and three others attempted to slow the advance of Franco's tanks.

Sarah has learned he lay dying in the field for a number of hours before being rescued and evacuated. He died of those wounds, not, as some have claimed, after a wall fell on him when the hospital took a direct hit from an enemy bomb, she said. Sarah visited the now consecrated ground where her great uncle, who was known in Spain as Robert Martin, is interred along with thousands of others who died in the war.

It was a dramatic end to a dramatic life that began in Killarney on April 7 1904. His family were, and still are, well known in the area, where his father ran a successful leather business.

Educated at Cork Grammar and Dublin's Mountjoy School, he went to Trinity on a scholarship aged 17, at the height of the War of Independence.

On his visits home, according to Limerick economics lecturer John Corcoran, who has written extensively on Hilliard, he provided meals for the IRA in the kitchen of the Killarney home, as his parents remained upstairs until the 'visitors' left.

During the Civil War, he sided with anti-treaty forces but his exact role is unclear. In 1924, he dropped out of Trinity but not before becoming a boxing champion and top rugby player. That year, he boxed bantamweight for Ireland at the Olympics in Paris.

Later, after becoming a minister, he won back to back national titles at the same weight, after which he earned the Fighting Pastor sobriquet. And his wife Rosemary Robins, the daughter of a British colonial diplomat, married in 1926 and had four children, the last born in 1932. They lived in London and became involved in an evangelical Christian group before returning to Ireland.

Hilliard went back to Trinity, finished off his first degree and completed one in Divinity. He was ordained in 1931 and took up a position in Belfast, where he became involved in a campaign, led by the Communist Party, against the means testing of unemployment benefit.

He had to flee the city after his church was attacked and he got into debt and the family returned to London, where he embarked on the affair, though remaining in close contact with his family.

As she travelled on her journey, Sarah also met Hilliard's daughter Deirdre Davey for the first time. She still has postcards from her father and his Communist Party badge. The family also retain the Olympic team medal.

Whether or not he remains a black sheep in the eyes of some in the Hilliard family, he will certainly be talked about. It was up to Sarah to tell the family over a number of Sunday lunches all about the mysterious 'twice bankrupt but hugely passionate' Uncle Robert.

'They thought it was amazing,' she said.

There are now 5 articles about Hilliard in this site. See the collection here.

Also online is the article, The Rev. Robert Martin Hilliard (1904 - 1937) by John Corcoran.