Joe Boyd:- The Last Brigader

A daughter's touching tribute for father's day

By Liz Shaw in the Belfast Telegraph, Saturday 18 June 2005

During the Spanish Civil War Belfast milkman Joe Boyd defied orders to drive his field ambulance into no-man's-land to collect wounded from both sides. Once back home he was more committed to peace than ever, going to extraordinary lengths to make his point. Now daughter Liz Shaw, from Dundonald, pays a deeply moving Father's Day tribute to the old war hero she called dad.

The silver medal lay in a drawer in my dining room for a long time, waiting for my little son to become an adult and claim it.

"I don't need it, I have my memories," said my father Joe Boyd with a smile when he handed it over after his trip to Madrid in 1986 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War.

My parents had travelled to Madrid by Talgo, the express train that goes twice a day from Jaravia, their tiny village, and then took a taxi from Atocha station to the meeting point for the veterans who'd gathered from around the world.

They had three wonderful days in the company of Americans from the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, Greeks and Slavic people from the Dimitrov Brigade, and survivors of the 15 battalions who had gone to the aid of the elected Spanish government, forced out by insurrection.

There were lunches and dinners; interviews and photographs. A bus took them to the Valley of the Fallen, Franco's memorial to his own dead.

It must have been very touching meeting the old surviving volunteers from the International Brigade. Remembering a forgotten conflict when some lifted their heads from their own affairs, risking everything because they saw the dangers facing Europe, but I confess I was too caught up in raising my own family in Ulster to be there.

The cost of more plane tickets wasn't a priority with me and, anyway, I'd heard all the original stories many times already and the resentment of rejection burned too deep.

The ironies and contradictions of life!

My father, a Belfast milkman and pacifist was captured on his 29th birthday on the Toledo Front in November, 1936, as he defied orders to drive his field ambulance into no-man's-land to collect wounded from both sides as the government troops fell back in retreat.

Condemned and waiting for death

In a cell with dwindling numbers as others were taken to the yard to be shot, his own turn was delayed because his planter accent confused them. The Fascists thought he was Russian and that they could get information from him.

On the way to another interrogation, he applied first aid to a bleeding captor in the corridor and managed to convey that he and his companion, Fred McMahon from Cliftonville, were British ambulance men.

They were with the Scottish Ambulance Unit led from Glasgow by Sir Daniel Stevenson, Provost of Glasgow University.

Anthony Eden and Harry Midgley negotiated their release, but all Joe and Fred's papers had been confiscated and, when they were dumped at the Portuguese border, they had a very real fear they'd be shot in the back. Instead, they were imprisoned in Lisbon because they had no documents. My Dad returned from the Civil War to deliver milk in the Belfast suburbs again.

Originally from Stewartstown, where he had once played football in a field with other youngsters including a young man named Kevin Barry, Dad had settled in Belfast after living in New York for eight years.

Together with his brother John, they set up a wholesale and retail milk business in the early thirties, pasteurising and bottling milk using the more hygienic methods they'd seen in the US.

When the second World War was declared, Dad tried to enlist but was rejected as a liability because of his anti-fascist past - if captured he'd have been sent to a concentration camp or shot immediately.

The government had another task for him that I only learned about shortly before he died. Had Nazi forces reached Northern Ireland my father was to form a cell of insurrection. As someone legitimately visiting houses in the darkness of early morning he wouldn't have attracted undue attention as he moved around the streets, perhaps passing messages or giving instructions.

He was issued with a revolver and after the war he tried to give it back but couldn't find any official willing to accept it. The revolver was kept under a hat at the top of his wardrobe where I once discovered it. When Belfast erupted in the late Sixties with our own civil war, the Government called a weapons amnesty. Dad surrendered the revolver to Dunmurry Police Station to the surprise of the officers who knew him as a JP signing their summons papers. It was one of only 50 weapons handed in over the entire province during the amnesty.

The dissenter in Dad was always on the surface. Never a family to be taken on walks, one Sunday in the 1950s we were very specifically taken to a park, lifted over the locked gate and told we had to play on the swings and slides. As a ratepayer my father wanted his money's worth and this time his children were the means for him to get it! Of course, he was trying to make a point: we had a garden and our suburban street was safe, but other children didn't have that advantage. We'd be brought to see the Orange parades and, equally, the Republican ones; all points of view respected, for we belonged to the brotherhood of man.

Our own big day was the first Saturday in May. We'd assemble in May's Markets in Belfast and march with red carnations and shiny shoes along Royal Avenue with my father's friends from the old Socialist Party and the remnants of the constitutional Northern Ireland Labour Party. We also supported CND, with shoppers gawping as we children hoped no-one from school would recognise us.

Although it frustrated him, he was so proud to be part of Northern Ireland with its richness of views and traditions.

We had many visitors to our home because my dad talked to everyone and didn't take any side but the pacifist one. "Keep talking and work out the differences," he'd say.

If he met someone on the street he'd bring them back for something to eat. As children we were never banished but could stay and listen to the fertile conversation in the living room.

"Light upon your darkness," Dad said when he was explaining something to a Nigerian student visiting us for dinner as we sat silent in dismay and our guest laughed appreciatively. "They're all heathens in my family," he boasted to a Plymouth Brethren missionary relative.

He was always fired up about something, effortlessly managing to make us cringe at his political incorrectness before the term was coined.

Through reading and asking questions he taught himself about the creeds and races of the world and couldn't understand why this wasn't on our school curriculum that he was paying taxes for.

My parents moved permanently to Spain in 1972. At least, they went for three months' holiday and didn't come back except briefly in the first couple of years to collect the remainder of their possessions. Then they gave up the pretence of returning but I continued to hope they'd come even for a holiday, wishing I could show them the school my children attended, introduce them to my friends and have them share in my life.

Technically my father was still under sentence of death so none of their new neighbours knew about his Spanish past until Franco declared an amnesty in 1976. Then all the people who'd been hiding for 30 years in fear of reprisal for backing the wrong side literally crawled out from the holes in the ground. Children considered illegitimate were able to acknowledge parentage and their mothers who'd been 'widowed' ceased to be ostracised for promiscuity as the dead came back to life with democracy.

Dad spent most of his time happily on his finca, trying to grow apples and pears in Andalusian soil and climate that traditionally only grew olives, capers, oranges and lemons. We told him it wouldn't work, but typically he said it was worth a try.

Except for the trip to Madrid, for the last 20 years of his life he didn't leave the district he had chosen to be buried in, he didn't want to have a holiday in case he didn't get back to finish the legend he wanted to live.

I thought it was ridiculous but was perhaps only to be expected of a man more cast in the mould of the dissenter, of the United Irishmen of 1798 with his immense pride in his Ulster culture and Irish birthplace, the contempt he felt for what he saw as the apologists of London and Dublin. He, who'd seen the atrocities of both sides in a vicious civil war and was equally condemning.

Standing in the rain at his funeral seven years ago, I thought the elements had the last laugh. The weather he abandoned family and country to escape came to kiss him goodbye, to remind him who he was.

I felt it only just in my anger that a man who had spent so much energy confronting traditions be buried on a cold, wet winter day in his beloved sunny Spain. After a lifetime of confirmed atheism he had arranged burial in the English Protestant graveyard - in a backward Roman Catholic agricultural community that had resisted Franco longest.

The passing of time has helped me to understand many things, mostly about myself. I have inherited the legacy of perhaps being better able to express what I am against than what I am for.

Old habits die hard. Old soldiers just fade away. These late proud words are in tribute to my much loved father who died in his 90th year - Joe Boyd - The Last Brigader.

How Joe Boyd, from Tyrone,
went to Spain in '36 and survived to tell a bloody tale. A report from a 1976 paper

More on other Brigadiers