Book Review: Brigadista - an Irishman's fight against fascism, by Bob Doyle

Reviewed on the Irish Socialist Network site

Brigadista - an Irishman's Fight Against Fascism is not only about the Spanish Civil War, it is about Bob Doyle's life as a communist, activist and socialist republican. Bob Doyle, aged 90, is the last remaining Irishman to have fought against Franco in the anti-fascist war in Spain, 1936-39. Born in Dublin, after his mother was sent to a ‘mental home’ suffering from post natal depression, he was handed over to nuns for upbringing at the age of five, without contact with his family, who fostered him out to a succession of farming families for cheap slave labour.

He vividly describes the burning of Dublin's Connolly House headquarters of the Revolutionary Workers' Groups (precursor to The Communist Party of Ireland) by a Catholic mob led by priests and gives the reader a real sense of the anti communist hysteria created by the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1930’s. Under the influence of socialist republican Kit Conway, he joined the IRA and then the left wing Republican Congress. In the early 1930s, he joined other anti-fascist protestors in resisting the Irish fascist 'Blueshirts' led by Eoin O'Duffy. Bob followed Kit Conway to join the Republican side in Spain, where he fought and was captured along with Frank Ryan. Bob and other prisoners were eventually exchanged for Italian prisoners in 1939. After the Second World War, he made frequent trips back to Spain to engage in ‘illegal’ work for the underground left wing and trade union movement.

The chapters on the Civil War were disappointingly short and they failed to address political questions arising from the positions and actions of communists in relation to both the POUM (independent Marxists) and Anarchists, who were loyal to the Republic but fell foul of the Spanish Government. The POUM are mentioned only once, in an incident when they attempted to disarm his unit. Bob continued as a communist activist after his release and as a committed anti fascist with experiences of fascist prison he would have certainly been ‘at odds’ with the CPGB over the “no to imperialist war” position adopted at the beginning of WWII by the Comintern and fraternal communist parties under Stalin’s direction. But for a vague mention of him supporting Harry Pollitt’s position (Pollitt stood down as CPGB General Secretary in opposition to this decision) this is not elaborated upon in any detail which is unfortunate as many communists found themselves with the same standpoint, so it would have been interesting to discover how, as a communist, he maintained his opposition whilst remaining loyal to the Party.

The latter part of the book outlines Bob’s life in London as a grass-roots communist, trade unionist, Connolly Association member and also his family life there. He comes across as a relentless campaigner willing to risk imprisonment and a number of assaults for his beliefs. A gifted orator, Bob relished the opportunity to address workers at every opportunity. I particularly enjoyed his response to regular hecklers in Hyde Park. When accused of being a communist he would reply, “what do you mean by communist?” after he listened to the hecklers description of communist he would retort, “No, I’m not one of them!”

Anyone reading this book will be inspired to know more about Spain and the anti-fascist struggle that unfolded there. Bob Doyle’s story is a remarkable memoir of an instinctive communist, the struggle for progress and his unfaltering faith in humanity and his lifelong commitment to socialism.