THE BOXING PARSON
By Stephen Hilliard
Resource Spring Magazine 1988 - Subversive Memories
"With this article on the life of Reverend R. M. Hilliard, we begin a series of reflections on the lives of prominent Christians from Irish history who did not shy away from the challenge of living out the revolutionary political commitment which the gospel requires."
It is now over 50 years since Robert Martin Hilliard, known as the Boxing Parson, died fighting fascism in Spain; yet he still refuses to lie down, and interest in this colourful character, far from waning, is steadily increasing with the passage of time.
He has always been known to the older generation of Irish socialists as a Protestant clergyman, international boxer and anti-fascist fighter, but Cathal O'Shannon's recent RTE documentary on the Spanish Civil War has made him more widely known, and Christy Moore's song about the Irish members of the international Brigades has stimulated further interest.
Now RESOURSE magazine has asked me, his nephew, to write about him, a task I gladly accept. Like him, I am a Church of Ireland clergyman with a background of republican and socialist politics.
My uncle was only 33 when he died in the battle of Jarama in February 1937, and yet the number of people who come up to me to say they remember him is truly amazing. He was clearly someone who made his presence felt wherever he went, whether as a student, a clergyman, a republican, a boxer, a socialist or a soldier in the International Brigades in Spain.
Hilliard was very much a 1930's man: an exuberant crusader, an ardent soul whose idealism was total, who, when he adopted a cause, gave himself to it whit cheerful abandon. He was a hero who belonged to a generation of heroes. Anti-fascism was the great cause of the 1930's and Spain was the place to be.
He was born in Killarney, Co Kerry, in 1903, one of six children born to a successful leather merchant. He was educated in Cork Grammar School and Mountjoy School, Dublin, before going to Trinity College at the age of 17. At Trinity he was noted for his republican politics, being a member of the Thomas Davis Society in College.
Even before coming to Trinity he was known to be someone who liked to walk on the wild side of life, rejecting all that was bland, all that was conventional. On at least one occasion, while home on holidays from college, he fed the local IRA men downstairs in the kitchen of the family home in Killarney, leaving his nervous parents upstairs with strict instructions not to come down while he was entertaining these particular visitors!
In the 1922 general election he was reputed to have voted 17 times before his breakfast - against the Treaty, of course. His involvement in the subsequent Civil War, on the republican side, led to his expulsion from Trinity, before taking his degree. As well as his republican politics he had by this time also embraced atheism and Marxism.
Hilliard's life was by no means bounded by ideological interests, however, for he was also a keen athlete and was boxing champion at Trinity, later holding the Irish featherweight title for two years running and representing his country at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928. Having married an English girl of good family, he and his wife went to live in London where he took up journalism and advertising (he claimed to have fathered the beer slogan, " Great stuff this Bass! ")
In London he found a new cause - Christianity, or to be more precise, that form of Christian faith known as Buchmanism, later known as Moral Rearmament.
Frank Buchman (1878-1963), a Lutheran pastor from Pennsylvania, was the founder of a worldwide evangelistic movement based on moral absolutes and on living by faith. The movement gained considerable support at Oxford University, and came to be known as the Oxford Group (not to be confused with the 19th century Oxford Movement in the Church of England).
The faith of the Oxford Group was a highly individualistic one, with an oversimplified theology. It was sharply opposed to Communism -emphasising the importance of evangelising the rich and powerful, rather than liberating the poor - and it was even accused of Nazi sympathies, though this may not have been quite fair.
He claimed to have fathered the beer slogan, " Great Stuff This Bass "!
In its day the Oxford Group certainly changed the live of a great many people who came into contact with it. Hilliard became a Buchmanite and believed that God was guiding him to return to Dublin to become a clergyman. Obeying his call he returned, finished his degree and completed a course in Divinity at the same time. He also found time to pursue a highly successful boxing career.
In 1931 he was ordained a deacon and started work as curate-assistant in Derriaghy parish, outside Belfast; the following year he was ordained to the priesthood. In 1933 he began working in the Belfast Cathedral mission church, where his preaching and the force of his personality soon doubled the congregation at the mission church, a congregation drawn from some of the toughest areas of Belfast.
Despite this, things began to go seriously wrong, and in 1934 he resigned from the cathedral mission. His marriage had fallen apart and he went to London, leaving his wife and four children, to live with another women. In London he joined the Communist Party, and around the end of 1936 he left for Spain to join the International Brigades in fighting to defend the Spanish Republic against the Franco-led forces.
Hilliard was a member of the British battalion of the newly formed XVth Brigade. From Barcelona, the British battalion went to Madrigueras, where they were to be trained for battle. All too soon, on February the 12th, the XVth brigade went in to action for the first time in a bid to halt the fascist advance along the Jarama River, south of Madrid.
Having fought with great distinction in this battle, one of the most bitterly fought in the war, Hilliard was hit on February 13th, and died five days later. He had been one of a party of four who fought against the advancing tanks with neither anti-tank guns or even grenades. Another casualty of the Battle of Jarama, who died alongside the Protestant Clergyman from Kerry, was Eamon McGrotty, an ex-Christian Brother from Derry. Ecumenism in action!
Hilliard was a popular and a complex man who lived life to the full. Accustomed to tread the edges of life where heroism and total commitment are to be found, he was, however, full of fun, charm and gaiety, remembered with affection and admiration by his contemporaries at Trinity, his former comrades in Spain and his former parishioners in Derriagy.
To me, his nephew and like him a priest and a socialist, it is a matter of great regret that the Christianity that he adopted as an adult was of a narrow, pietistic sort, rather than a more open catholic radicalism. His Buchmanite theology seems to have had very little in common with his socialist vision.
He was a man of action, not, I think a deep thinker. His socialist vision was embodied in the simple dogmatic Stalinism of the 1930s, just as his faith in God was cramped within the confines of the individualistic piety of the Oxford Group. I have often wondered what he would have made of the Christian-Marxist dialogue of the 1960s, or of the liberation theology of the 1970s and 1980s.
Was he a Christian socialist at all? Or was he rather a socialist, then a Christian believer, and then a socialist again? It's hard to say.
One man who knew him in Spain, Jason Gurney, has left his memoir in his book, " Crusade in Spain ":
One of the most amusing characters in Madrigueras was the ex-Anglican parson, the Reverend R.M. Hilliard, who had become a Communist and had developed the most startlingly irreverent manner by the time I knew him. While in wine he would put on his parsonical voice and make a benediction - "In the name of Marx", - and with two fingers raised he made the curve of the sickle; "Engels", - he drew the handle; "Lenin, Stalin, Stakinov, Dimitrov", - the points of the hammer-head; "the Party line" - its handle. All delivered with extreme unction. He was a great drinker and his friends were of all classes. They liked him for his sense of humour and his consistently cheerful attitude.(1)
Gurney's account could leave one with the impression that he had turned against Christianity completely, but I do not think that this is so. Dispatches from Spain always referred to him as the Reverend R.M. Hilliard, which would indicate that he had not renounced his calling as a Christian minister. A stronger indication, however, is given by the fact that, in 1972, another ex-member of the International Brigades, though himself an agnostic, presented to Christ Church, Derriaghy, a communion chalice, paten and cruet in memory of my uncle, to mark the centenary of the parish church. Clearly this man believed that his gift was in keeping with values of his fallen comrade. [my emphasis, Ciaran Crossey]
He was a man of action, not, I think, a deep thinker.
R.M. Hilliard is survived by his widow, two of his four children and numerous grandchildren, all living in England, as well a one sister, living in Dublin. On behalf of the family, I salute his memory.
The last sentence of the Nicene Creed could serve as an epitaph:
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
(1) Crusade in Spain Jason Gurney, Faber and Faber (London). 1974. (p.69)
A more recent article about Hilliard, written by John Corcoran in 2005, with previously unavailable letters and articles is available here.
There are now 5 articles about Hilliard in this site. See the collection here.
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