The Rev. Robert Martin Hilliard

(1904 - 1937)

By John Corcoran

John Corcoran lectures in International Economics at the University of Limerick. He is the co-author with Dr D Watson of An Inspiring Example- the North East of England and the defence of the Spanish Republic. He has visited the battlefield at Jarama and the photograph shows the author overlooking "Suicide Hill" close to where Robert Hilliard was fatally wounded.

Many readers will be familiar with the words of the Christy Moore ballad "Viva la Quinca Brigada", where tribute is paid to the memory of those who fought in defence of the democratically elected Spanish Government between 1937 and 1939. A conflict, which is popularly known as the "Spanish Civil War".

These lines particularly intrigue Kerry people,

"Bob Hilliard was Church of Ireland pastor;
From Killarney cross the Pyrenees he came."

Who was this unlikely recruit to the International Brigades? How did an ordained Church of Ireland minister from Killarney end his days fighting fascism in Spain?

Robert Martin Hilliard was born on the 7th of April 1904 in Moyeightragh near Killarney, he came from the well-known Hilliard family of South Kerry. One of six children, his father ran a successful leather business in the town of Killarney.

Hilliard was very much a product of the political and social climate, which pervaded Europe in the 1920's and 1930's. He was by nature an exuberant crusader, a man of ardent opinions who when he adopted a cause gave himself fully to it.

He was educated in Cork Grammar School, and Mountjoy School Dublin, before going to Trinity College at the age of 17 (1).

He was financially assisted through his studies at Trinity College, by a Read Sizarship (2).. Whilst at Trinity, like many of his generation, he became involved in Republican politics, being an active member of the Trinity College Thomas Davis society.

Even before going to College he was known as an unconventional figure, and he was certainly swimming against the tide of opinion of his own social milieu when he took up the cause of Irish Republicanism.

On at least one occasion, whilst home on holiday from Trinity, he provided meals for local IRA men downstairs in the kitchen of the family home, leaving his nervous parents upstairs with strict instructions not to come downstairs whilst he entertained his "visitors".3.

In the 1922 general election he reputedly voted early and often for the Anti-Treaty party. His involvement in the subsequent civil war has led some to suppose that he may have been expelled from Trinity before taking his degree, addresses in family address records however suggest that he was at Trinity and in Dublin up to August 1924, followed by Killarney and then London in 1925.

This rather suggests that he may have simply dropped out of College, his daughter Deirdre Davey whose correspondence with the author has added some extremely valuable insights and details into her fathers life, as suggested that it may have been a combination of Hilliard's Olympic training with his courtship of her mother, Rosemary Robins, which led him to drop away from his academic courses.

As well as being actively involved in Republican politics, Hilliard first became interested in Marxism in this period (4), but his interest in political ideology was merely one facet of his larger than life personality.

At this time he emerged as a keen athlete and boxer, and whilst at Trinity he became a College boxing champion and played fly half in the Trinity Rugby team. This was despite suffering from hypermetropic vision (long-sight) and a squint if not wearing glasses. (5)

His interest in boxing continued with him taking the Irish bantamweight title for two years running, and according to Ms Deirdre Davey he later successfully boxed again in 1930/31, taking the Irish featherweight championship in May 1931

"I always understood that my father boxed bantam weight, and my mother gave the Irish Champion bantamweight silver cup to my younger brother before she died in 1994."

He also represented Ireland in the 1924 Paris Olympics, where according to Ms. Davey, her mother observed that he was unfortunate in having to fight an eventual medal winner in his first or second fight. His son inherited Robert Hilliard's team medal and Ms Davey was left his team blazer badge.

After the Olympics, at some point in 1925, he met his wife to be, Miss Rosemary Robins from Kingswood Hanger in Surrey. They met at a party held by a family relative in Merrion Square, where the poet James Stephens introduced twenty year old Robert to Rosemary, who was still only nineteen. (6)

Rosemary Robins was the daughter of Stephen Robins a British colonial District Commissioner in Nyasaland, who was brought up by her mother and grandmother after her fathers death from Blackwater fever.

Hilliard and his future wife, although both from well-to-do backgrounds, were not of a similar background in terms of the strict delineations of social class prevalent at the time, her family were from the "professional" classes, most having positions in the Church, law or army, and his future wife's family may have looked down on the Hilliard's family's roots in "trade".

In political terms however, Hilliard may have had much more in common with his wife, according to Deirdre Davey's testimony her

"…Mother had socialist leanings as a girl, and was always very religious. She was involved in the work of Muriel Lester in Poplar, and carried Muriel's tub when she went to speak at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park or on Tower Hill. So they had a concern for the poor and unemployed in common. My mother was a Labour Party member when she was sixteen, though in later years she became a bit of a drawing room pink." (7)

He and his wife were married in 1926, Robert and Rosemary being just 22 and 21 resepctively, after the couple moved to England, moving into a little house at Hindhead in Surrey. Robert Hilliard's father bought it for them as a wedding present for four hundred pounds. In England he took up a career in journalism and advertising. Amongst his most successful advertising campaigns was the work he undertook for the brewers of Bass beer; he claimed to have originated the slogan "Great Stuff this Bass!" (8)

Robert Hilliard and his wife had four children, the eldest, Tim was born in 1927, followed by Deirdre in 1928 and two more children were to follow, Davnet in 1931 and Kit in 1933.

It was in London that he took a new direction when he encountered and was converted to a form of evangelical Christianity known as Buchmanism. This movement founded by a Lutheran pastor from Pennsylvania named Frank Buchman (1878-1963).

Buchman's followers, reassessed their lives and "cleaned house" by making amends to those they had hurt or offended by their actions in the past, they then set about living life according to a code of moral absolutes, such as a commitment to absolute honesty and unconditional love.

Buchman's followers believed that God was an active force in their lives, and inspired its believers to seek out God's will through a regime of prayer and by subsequently following his "will", which could be manifested in a variety of manifestations. The movement gained a considerable following 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).

Deirdre Davey recollects that her mother said that he justified his embracing of Buchmanite Christianity through his belief that "pure Marxism was Christianity in practice, only without Christ". Furthermore, Hilliard faced a growing personal crisis through his weakness for drink and gambling, this brand of Christian renewal offered a chance for him to rebuild his life anew (9).

Buchmanite Christianity later evolved into a movement called Moral Rearmament, which after the World War II went into a steep decline.

Interestingly, its ideas were influential in the establishment of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) worldwide fellowship, whose founders were both adherents of the Buchmanite creed; the highly successful 12 step approach to addiction problems pioneered by AA was profoundly influenced by the Buchmanite approach to personal change through faith.

Through his involvement in the Oxford Group, Hilliard came to believe that God was guiding him to return to Dublin to become a clergyman. Obeying this vocational calling, he returned to Trinity College and finished his degree. He also simultaneously completed a course in Divinity.

In 1931 he was ordained as a deacon, and took up a position as curate-assistant in Christ Church in Derriaghy parish just outside Belfast. This was a tough working class area , and Hilliard appears to have thrived on the challenge. By 1932 he was ordained into the Anglican priesthood, and in 1933 was appointed to work in the Belfast Cathedral mission church, where his preaching and the force of his personality soon doubled the congregation. This was a period of severe economic hardship, and in Britain the government introduced a policy of requiring the unemployed to sell off personal possessions before they were entitled to unemployment benefit, the much-hated "Means Test".

This was bitterly resented by the many unemployed, and Belfast was very severely affected by the worst recession in economic history. The Communist Party was active in Belfast on this issue, and a movement of unemployed workers emerged to challenge the Means Test, this movement of the unemployed was unique in Northern Ireland at the time, since the campaign transcended the sectarian division, by organising unemployed workers from both the nationalist and unionist communities.

It appears that the Reverend Hilliard became drawn into the campaign around the means test, and this marked the beginning of a revival in his interest in radical politics.

In 1933 Mrs Hilliard became very ill after the birth of their last child. According to Deirdre Davey this meant that a lot of help was needed in looking after the four very young children and in nursing a very sick wife over several months of total bed rest (10).

Debt was incurred, and the Reverend Hilliard, disillusioned with a lack of financial support from his Dean and overwhelmed by the severity of his financial problems resigned from the Cathedral Mission in Belfast and left for London in 1934.

Although his daughter observes that he was not blameless in this matter , she does add that "His expenses were far too much for his very small pay. He appealed to the Dean to no avail, and felt deserted by the Church in Belfast." (11)

Once again settled in London, picking up the threads of his political radicalism he became a member of the Communist Party, and returned to his previous profession of journalism. It does appear, that following this personal crisis, Hilliard embarked upon another relationship with a woman who he lived with for a while in London. Despite this, it appears that he maintained close written contact with his wife and family.

As Deirdre Davey puts it,

"I know that my mother never felt that the marriage was over, they never divorced, and I have his last communication to her from Spain which is very loving to her and all his children. I also have the letters from his wallet, forwarded from the hospital where he died, written most lovingly by my mother." (12)

By December 1936, Robert Hilliard had left for Spain to join the International Brigades, which were being established to defend the Spanish Republic against the forces of General Franco and the most reactionary elements of the Spanish military.

The normal route taken by International Brigade volunteers was to travel in small groups or separately from London Victoria on a day trip ferry ticket to France via a British channel port such as Dover. Once on French soil volunteers would head for Paris, where the French Communist Party would arrange accommodation and forward travel via through France, usually to Perpignan, close to the Spanish border. From there International Brigade volunteers would cross the Pyrenees into Spain, taking care to avoid French military patrols charged with preventing the foreign volunteers making it across to the Spanish Republic. Active prevention of volunteers reaching Spain was in keeping with the position of the French and British governments position of "non-intervention" in Spain, a policy that was in contrast to the active support offered to Franco's forces by the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. (13)

Robert Hilliard appears to have followed this route, since his wife received a picture postcard dated 21/12/36 from Perpignan, which remains in his daughter's possession.

On this card he wrote ,

Dear Mummy, This is where I am today. Tomorrow elsewhere and quite safe and well, and see you in a month or two, Love Robert. (14)

In the face of the troops, tanks and planes, being sent to Franco by the fascist regimes of Europe led by Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, anti-fascists felt that international solidarity against fascism was vital. For anti-fascists throughout the world, the war in Spain was clearly the harbinger of a second world war.

Confronting fascism in Spain therefore became the over whelming political issue of the day for all those on the left. Thousands of young anti-fascists, assisted by the organisational networks created by the constituent Communist Parties of the Third International, travelled through France and over the Pyrenees to participate in what would prove to be an extremely bloody and hard fought war, with huge numbers of fatalities on both sides.

The Spanish Civil War also introduced a new and terrifying aspect to modern warfare, the use of the indiscriminate bombing of towns and cities by the fascist air-force, most notably the bloody bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, immortalised by Picasso's painting commemorating the massacre.

In February 1937 having failed to take Madrid by frontal assault, Franco gave orders for the main road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A fascist force of 40,000 men crossed the Jarama River on 11th February 1937. In the Battle of Jarama alone, 7000 Republican soldiers, including the Rev. Robert M Hilliard, gave their lives in this battle.

Less than three weeks before the Battle of Jarama commenced, Robert Hilliard was able to send a letter to his wife via members of a delegation visiting the British and Irish International Brigade volunteers from the Daily Worker newspaper.


My dear, Five minutes ago I got your letter. There is a D.W. (Daily Worker - JC ) delegation here who will take this back. They leave in ten minutes so I have time for no more than a card which will have an English postmark. Teach the kids to stand for democracy. Thanks for the parcels, I expect they have been forwarded to me, but posts are held up very long & especially parcels. Do not worry too much about me, I expect I shall be quite safe. I think I am going to make quite a good soldier. It was good (Mrs Hilliard had donated 5 shillings- JC) to contribute to the Harry Pollitt fund. You'll get news in the Daily Worker from time to time. I still hate fighting but this time it has to be done, unless fascism is beaten in Spain & in the world it means war and hell for our kids. All the time when I am thinking of you & the children I am glad I have come. Give my love to Tim, Deirdre, Davnet & Kit. Write when you can, it will help-love to you, Robert. (15)

This brief letter was the last communication from Rev. Hilliard to his wife Rosemary, and was written on a card in very hurried writing, it was delivered to Mrs Hilliard enclosed in an envelope when the delegation returned to Britain.

His contemporaries at Trinity, his former comrades in Spain, and his former parishioners in Derriaghy remembered Robert Hilliard, a popular and a complex man, with affection and admiration. In fact in 1972, a former comrade of his from the International Brigade, although himself an agnostic, presented to Christ Church, Derriaghy, Hilliard's first parish, a communion chalice, paten and cruet in his memory.

He retained contacts with his alma mater, and shortly after his death the Trinity College Magazine, TCD: A College Miscellany (27/3/1937) published a letter from Robert Hilliard from Spain, a vivid and revealing account which has lain largely forgotten in the Trinity College's archives for nearly 70 years.

It does not appear to have been posted to the magazine for publication, but rather to have been an extract from a letter sent to a third party who, possibly hearing of Hilliard's death, forwarded it to the TCD editor for publication. The editors introductory comments refers to Hilliard as a "sometime editor of TCD" which rather suggests that Hilliard had close connections with the magazine whilst a student at Trinity.

"…We came from France in motor lorries. Spirits were high. Speaking one to another we said "Franco has heard we are coming, already he is on the run" In the morning we were in the barracks at Figueras .The commandant arrived and we were given the choice of a days rest or of moving on. Unanimously we voted to move. Fours hours sleep and breakfast. Then the train to Barcelona. We marched through Barcelona. What a march! Everywhere the people were out to salute-the clenched fist-anti-fascist salute, but in particular I remember one woman. She was about four feet in height, she wore a brown shawl with a design at the border-a shawl very like what an Irish woman from the country wears in town on market days. She carried a basket on her left arm, but her right arm was raised ,and her hand clenched in the anti-fascist salute. Her face though was what mattered .Her hair was black, her forehead wrinkled and heavy lines marked the sides of her mouth. She stood to attention as we passed, nearly two hundred of us marching in fours, and her mouth was moving rapidly up and down, holding back the tears. She was a brave old lady. Who knows whom she had lost in the fight against fascism?

In the train from Barcelona to Albicete, via Valencia, in my carriage was another woman -this time much younger. In her arms was a baby, she showed us her Communist Party card and a document to say that she had certain rights and privileges with regard to transport and food. This was signed by the highest government authorities. With difficulty we could understand what she said. She had been a commandant in the Woman's Militia in Madrid. She was sent back, because of her baby, still at her breast, but fighting in the capital were her husband and two sons. The older son was 18.

Through Albicete to somewhere in Spain we advanced. Somewhere in Spain the Work began-a couple of hundred of us doing manoeuvres, learning the art of guerrilla warfare. Now we are 500 strong, a battalion. We were fortunate. The commander of our battalion had the experience of an imperialist army behind him. He also had advantages unknown to any imperialist army in the world-he knew and knows the worst in men, also the best. He fought for us, he secured English food for us, he determined we should not go into the line untrained. When we go-before this is read in England-we shall be a shock battalion, the best battalion in the international column.

First the commander enforced discipline. This was the hardest job that faced him, as far as we could see. Many of us had come out here thinking we were joining a "Red Army" a "Workers Army" or a " Peoples Army". It was thought that the words "Red," "Workers," or "People's" nullified the word "Army" with the result that not infrequently a volunteer was heard to say "You can't do that there 'ere-this is a 'so and so' army.

This arose chiefly from the fact that only a few understood the significance of the word Army. It was thought that we could elect our own officers , or alternatively depose them at will. In fact, our officers are appointed by the Government of Spain, and short of proven incompetence remain as such. The practice of electing officers had been tried out in anarchist battalions in the early stages of the war with results that compelled all parties to agree to permanent appointments.

Some of us imagined that everybody in the battalion had come to Spain with the same political understanding as an advanced anti-fascist fighter. The fact is that only a percentage -a very high percentage-understood the full implications of fascism and although the great majority realise the ultimate significance in world politics played by the International Column, there are definitely some whose anti-fascism is born of instinct rather than of reason. Such obstacles, added to which were the bad elements which will always find their way into any Democratic army the Commandant McCartney had to overcome. But the fact that it was a Democratic, though not a "RED" nor a Workers army came to his aid . The political organisations did their job.

The Communist Party and the Labour Party at work amongst the soldiers worked wonders. Comrade Springhall, political commissar to the battalion, started with a lecture which summed up, was to the effect that fascism could not be fought by individuals -that only collective effort of all democrats could ensure victory; that as a democratic army we could command the best brains in the world, brains which as sectarians would be denied us; that in contra-distinction to an imperialist army, political thought and activity were encouraged; and finally, and in conclusion, to sum up that the army believed that the greater the political activity the stronger and more effective would be the fight against fascism.

Arising out of this talk political commissars were appointed to each company. To each section, 40 men approx. and to each group 12 men approx. political delegates were elected. In some cases the delegates were communists and in some cases members of the Labour Party, Communist cells, Labour Party and Trade Union Sections met, with the result that political lectures were arranged and the conscious understanding of the anti-fascist war brought new life to the battalion.

Voluntary military training was undertaken during our spare time. Machine gun instruction and rifle drill were the most popular. Red Cross lectures were well attended, but most important of all, the battalion, besides volunteering to fight fascism in the abstract had undertaken to overcome a concrete enemy of the working class, and in order to do so they had volunteered to obey orders from the competent military authorities of the Spanish Army." (16)

Shortly after the above account was written, Robert Hilliard's battalion took part in a heroic defence of the Spanish Republic's lines in the battle of Jarama.

On 12th February, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. The British and Irish battalion was forced to order a retreat back to the next ridge that is off the road between San Martin de la Vega and Morata de Tajuna.

The Fascists then advanced up Suicide Hill and were routed by Republican machine-gun fire; it is believed that Robert Hilliard was later hit alongside three others whilst attempting to slow the advance of fascist tanks, the others died on the spot, but Hilliard appears to have been evacuated from the battlefield and unfortunately died five days later in a Barcelona hospital when, as a result of a direct hit by a bomb a wall collapsed in on him. Oddly enough, another fatality of the Battle of Jarama, who fought directly alongside Hilliard, was Eamon McGrotty a former Christian Brother from Derry.

Robert Hilliard's daughter Deirdre recalls him in most affectionate terms,

"I remember him as being a very loving father, a shoulder to ride on, a rescuer of small girls from the usual scrapes, smelling of tobacco and tweed, and who read or told grand stories at bedtime. We wanted him back, and were sure until that dreadful day that he would come." (17)

The International Brigade was comprised of some 45,000 volunteers from 54 countries and included approximately 200 Irishmen, over 60 of whom including Robert Hilliard from Killarney made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives on Spanish soil.

In 1996 all the surviving members of the International Brigade were issued with formal invitations to return to Spain to be conferred with Spanish citizenship by the King of Spain. Hundreds of elderly volunteers, made an immense personal effort to return for the ceremony. All reported that they were overwhelmed by the huge warmth of their reception. Hundreds of thousands of the citizens of democratic Spain turned out to salute them. This final tribute had been promised to them by the famous Spanish Republican political leader La Pasionara (Dolores Ibarurri) 58 years earlier in a famous valedictory oration to the International Brigades in Barcelona on October 28th 1938.

" You can go proudly. You are History. You are Legend. You are the heroic example of democracy's solidarity and universality. We shall not forget you, and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic's victory- come back!" (18) La Pasionara (Dolores Ibarurri) 28/10/37

A contingent of elderly Irish Brigaders, including men who had fought at Jarama alongside Robert Hilliard, were present for the ceremony and proudly accepted the tribute from the people of Spain, not only on their behalf, but most importantly for their many comrades who had fallen as young men sixty years before.


(1)Denis Carrol, Unusual Suspects- Twelve Radical Clergy, Columbia Press, London, 1998, p249.

(2)The Sizarship was for students from Co.Kerry, and at the time Hilliard received it, was awarded for examination results.

(3) cf. The Boxing Parson an article by Stephen Hilliard in Resource Spring 1988 pp14-15.

(4) References to Hilliard's singular approach to Marxism are made in M. O'Riordan's Connolly Column, New Books, Dublin 1979- (Republished by Warren and Pell Publishing, Pontypool UK 2005), also in Jason Gurney's Crusade in Spain (Faber and Faber, London, 1974), also Wm Rust, Britons in Spain Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1939.

(5) For this detail the author is indebted to personal correspondence to the author in December 2004 from the Rev. RM Hilliard's daughter Ms Deirdre Davey.

(6) ibid .,

(7) ibid .,

(8) cf . "The Boxing Parson" an article by Stephen Hilliard in Resource Spring 1988, pp15-16.

(9) For this detail the author is indebted to personal correspondence in December 2004 to the author from the Rev. RM Hilliard's daughter Ms Deirdre Davey,

(10) ibid.,

(11) ibid.,

(12) ibid.,

(13) Fuller details of the arrangements for the clandestine entry of International Brigade Volunteers into Republican Spain can be found in Watson and Corcoran's An Inspiring Example- The North East of England and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, The McGuffin Press, London, 1996, pp 30-31. Further details on recruitment, transport, and infiltration of volunteers into Spain are to be found throughout Bill Alexander's British Volunteers for Liberty 1936-39 Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1982.

(14) Quoted verbatim from personal Correspondence between RM Hilliard and Mrs Rosemary Hilliard 1937, a copy of which was donated to the author by Mrs Deirdre Davey.

(15) ibid.,

(16) Trinity College Magazine, Dublin, TCD: A College Miscellany, (27/3/1937)

(17) For this reflective comment the author is indebted to personal correspondence in December 2004 to the author from the Rev. RM Hilliard's daughter Ms Deirdre Davey.

(18) "La Passionara" - Dolores Ibarurri made her farewell address to the International Brigades on October 28th 1938. The full text of her speech is quoted from You are History You are Legend by Manus O'Riordan - a special limited edition booklet, issued to mark the unveiling of the memorial to the 11 Waterford volunteers who fought in defence of the Spanish Republic on 9/7/2004.

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