From the slums of Dublin to the battlefields of Spain: Brigadista Bob Doyle (1915-2009)
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by Stewart Reddin
Robert (Bob) Andrew Doyle was born on 12th February 1916 at 15 Linenhall Street in Dublin’s northwest inner city. He was the second youngest of five siblings. Bob’s parents, Peter Doyle and Margaret Alldritt, were married in Dublin on 13th November 1904. Peter, aged 20 at the time, was employed as a seaman and lived on Upper Dorset Street with his three sisters. It appears that both his parents were deceased by 1901 as his eldest sister Anna, aged 20, is recorded in that year’s Census as head of the family.
Bob’s mother Margaret was 19 when she married and she lived in Kilmainham with her family. Alldritt is not a common surname in Ireland (in his biography, Brigadista, written in conjunction with Harry Owens, Bob’s mother’s family name is recorded as Aldridge, however the birth, marriage and census records confirm her family name was Alldritt). In the 1911 Census there were just seven Alldritt families recorded in Ireland; four were located in Dublin and three in Co Antrim. All of the Alldritt families were Protestant, with the exception of Margaret’s family who were Catholic.
Following their marriage, Peter and Margaret lived at 18 Moore Street, later moving to 33 King’s Inn Street where they shared a room with Margaret’s parents, Ignatius and Margaret Alldritt, and sister Annie. According to the 1911 Census Bob’s grandmother Margaret was 75 years of age (she was born in 1836 almost a decade before the Famine) and was 20 years older than his grandfather Ignatius. Bob’s grandparents had married in the Catholic church of St Andrews in 1874 and his grandmother was 50 years of age when she gave birth to Bob’s mother.
By 1911 Bob’s father was employed as a marine firefighter in Dublin’s docks and his mother Margaret had given birth to three children. However, two of her children had died in infancy and only one, Mary aged four, was surviving. Sadly, this was an all too familiar feature of working-class life in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century.
High unemployment, overcrowded accommodation (one third of all families in Dublin lived in one room dwellings) and lack of public sanitation resulted in Dublin having the highest infant mortality rate (142 per thousand births) of any city in Ireland or Britain. Following the redevelopment of the area around North King Street and Church Street in 1915 Peter and Margaret moved to a newly built home at 15 Linenhall Street.
The wretched slums of Dublin
Linenhall Street is enclosed within a triangle of main thoroughfares — Church Street to the west, North King Street to the south and Henrietta Street to the north. In the 1700s the area was at the centre of Dublin’s burgeoning linen industry. It was the site of the city’s magnificent Linen Hall with its splendid façade, distinguished by a domed gated entrance which faced onto Linenhall Street.
However, by the late 1700s the linen industry in Dublin had declined significantly and was eventually relocated to Belfast. The collapse of the industry and the flight of capital from the city following the 1801 Act of Union saw the locality steadily decline. By the mid-1800s all that remained on Linenhall Street was a grocery store, a seed merchants and a long row of decaying tenement houses. The surrounding area was described by Joseph O’Brien in Dear Dirty Dublin as one of the worst slums in Dublin:
…for the squalor of its surroundings and the misery of its inhabitants … with places so wretched and dangerous that even collectors of the rates were deterred from entering them without the protection of the police.
The 1911 Census for the street provides a remarkable snapshot of life in a Dublin tenement in the early twentieth century. By then there were just four houses occupied on Linenhall Street. At №2 there were a total of 31 residents made up of seven families, each living in one room.
In terms of the residents’ occupations there were four general labourers, one fish dealer, one charwoman, one rag sorter, one news vendor, one messenger, and one harness maker. Two of the seven families were headed by widows. Sarah McGrath, aged 34, lived in Room 2.1 with Edward, her husband of 20 years, and six of their children. Sarah had married at 14 and by the age of 34 had given birth to 11 children. Only seven were surviving.
By 1913, the year of the Dublin Lockout — the epic battle between Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) and the city’s bosses led by the notorious William Martin Murphy — Linenhall Street was effectively in ruins. Of the 14 dwellings listed in the Thom’s Directory in 1913 Nos. 1,2,3 and 4 were ruins, №5 was vacant, Nos. 6 and 7 were ruins, №8 was a tenement and Nos. 9 to 14 were ruins.
That same year the appalling housing conditions endured by working class Dubliners had tragic consequences when two tenement houses on nearby Church Street collapsed killing seven residents. Amongst the dead was another local hero Hugh Salmon.
Aged 17, Hugh was a member of the ITGWU and during the 1913 Lockout had been locked out by his employer at Jacob’s biscuit factory. At great risk to himself, Hugh had repeatedly returned to the collapsing houses to rescue family and neighbours. Tragically, as he carried his four-year-old sister Elizabeth from the ruins the entire edifice crashed down on them. They both perished.
Born in a Dublin street
Dublin Corporation’s Improvements Committee had long proposed a rehabilitation scheme for the area around Linenhall Street and North King Street. In 1911 it adopted a report by the city’s Medical Superintendent, Charles Cameron, which indicated that the area was:
in an unsanitary condition, that all the houses are unfit for human habitation and the evils connected with same and the sanitary defects of such area cannot be effectively remedied otherwise than by an improvement scheme for the rearrangement and reconstruction of the streets and houses within such area.
The Council agreed a plan to demolish the existing dwellings and construct 48 houses. Each house was two storeys in height and consisted of three rooms. A children’s playground was built at the entrance to the estate. The estimated cost of the new housing development was £7,000. Work commenced in 1914 and was completed in 1915. The weekly rent was set at 4s 6d — a not inconsiderable sum given the average working wage was between 16s and 18s. A further 181 cottages were proposed for the adjacent Beresford Street area at a lower rent.
The Doyle family was among the first residents of the new development, moving into 15 Linenhall Street where Bob was born in February 1916. Just two months later the neighbourhood was at the centre of one of the seminal events in modern Irish history — the 1916 Rising. The area around the Doyle home saw some of the fiercest fighting of that momentous week with virtual hand-to-hand fighting between a small party of Irish Volunteers led by Edward Daly and the British crown forces.
During the course of the week the British army’s Linenhall Barracks, the building which had formerly housed the great Linen Hall, was burned to the ground by the rebel forces. As the fighting came to an end on the Friday of Easter Week and just prior to the rebels’ surrender, the British army went on a murderous rampage through the neighbourhood. Sixteen of Bob’s neighbours were brutally murdered in a horrifying incident that became known as the North King Street Massacre.
The youngest victim, Christopher Hickey, aged 16, was shot dead alongside his father Thomas, who ran the local butchers at 170 North King Street just around the corner from where Bob was born. Many of the victims were undoubtedly known to Bob’s parents. The neighbourhood would later witness intense guerilla fighting during the War of Independence (including the capture of Kevin Barry on North King Street in November 1920 following an IRA ambush on a British army convoy) and a major battle at the nearby Four Courts during the Civil War.
Detained in the asylum
When he was five, Bob’s mother was detained in the nearby Richmond Asylum in Grangegorman. In the early 1900s the locking up of poor working-class women, men and children in mental asylums, workhouses and laundries was widespread. By the early 1920s at the time Margaret Doyle was detained at Grangegorman there were almost 20,000 people locked up in public mental asylums in Ireland. Yet as Pauline Conroy established in A Bit Different — A history of Disability in Ireland, a significant proportion of those so detained were not in fact mentally ill.
Many of those detained at Grangegorman were described as being ‘melancholic’ or ‘manic’, most likely suffering with some form of depression, others were diagnosed with epilepsy and some had intellectual disabilities (described in official reports of the time as ‘idiots’). Given the massive scale of incarceration the asylum at Grangegorman was chronically overcrowded. Originally opened in 1814 it was expanded later in the century and could accommodate 1,000 patients; however, by 1911 there were 1,640 people incarcerated there.
Following Bob’s mother’s incarceration four of the five Doyle children were taken into the care of the nuns who subsequently placed Bob and his youngest sister Eileen with a family in Sandyford, south county Dublin before moving them to another family in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow. There Bob is said to have enjoyed the expanse of the countryside and the freedom to play in the fields.
However, at the age of ten he was considered strong enough to be sent to work on a farm, an experience he described as “lonely and a misery”. He suffered regular beatings at the hands of the farmer with whom the nuns had placed him. Three years later Bob was back in the care of his family in Dublin who by now were living in Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street).
Following a short stint working as a ‘houseboy’ for a middle-class unionist family in Sandymount, Bob became politically active on the streets of the capital. It was a time of great ferment in Ireland and internationally. After ten years of a deeply conservative Cumann na nGaedheal government, which saw no improvement in the conditions of Dublin’s teeming slums, Fianna Fáil, led by 1916 veteran Éamon de Valera, won the 1932 general election and formed a government with support from the Labour Party. Meanwhile, the 1929 Wall Street Crash signalled a decade-long global economic depression resulting in mass unemployment, homelessness and destitution.
From the rubble of economic catastrophe in Europe emerged the evil of fascism. Ireland’s fascist movement emerged in the form of the Army Comrades Association (ACA). Sections of the Cumann na nGaedheal party were dismayed at the loss of the 1932 election and alarmed at Fianna Fáil’s decision to immediately release all IRA prisoners. Fianna Fáil’s election promises to redistribute land, to tackle unemployment and to clear the slums caused further alarm.
The ACA was led by Eoin O’Duffy the former Garda Commissioner who had been sacked from his position by de Valera in 1933. Following the example of the Italian Blackshirts and the Nazi Brownshirts it donned blue shirts, formed a quasi-military organisation and adopted the straight arm salute. The Blueshirts’ attempts to organise on the streets did not, however, go unchallenged and throughout 1933 and 1934 there was widespread street violence between fascist Blueshirts and republicans.
Bob Doyle played his part in stemming the rise of the fascist Blueshirt movement and was actively involved in many of the street battles between republicans and fascists. He was to lose an eye in the process. Bob recounted in his autobiography that while attempting to block a Blueshirt march in the city he was struck in the face with a knuckleduster, causing him to permanently lose the sight in his left eye.
An Irish Independent report from 22nd October 1934 gives a flavour of this battle for the streets of Dublin. On this particular occasion Blueshirt members selling Fine Gael flags on O’Connell Street were attacked by a large crowd of republicans. Two Blueshirts, a man and a woman, were rescued by baton wielding Gardaí who proceeded to escort the pair to the Blueshirt head office at 5 Parnell Square. They were followed by the crowd and the man was struck several times in the head and face. The report continues:
The Guards drew their batons but were helpless to stop the crowd, which held up the party at the Gate Theatre and demanded that the Blueshirt take off his shirt. This he did and it was seized by the crowd, who set it on fire. Outside 5 Parnell Square they waved the burning shirt, amid shouts of “Up the Republic”.
Through his experience in fighting the Blueshirts on the streets of Dublin and his friendship with Tipperary IRA legend Kit Conway, with whom he shared a flat on Capel Street, Bob joined the IRA. In his autobiography he recalled going on IRA training camps in Cabra and Rathfarnham, where he was trained in the use of weapons and explosives. Later he said he was involved in blowing up British imperial statues in Dublin and in the Boycott Bass campaign.
Republican Congress and the International Brigade
Following a split at the IRA General Army Convention in March 1934 senior officers Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and Peadar O’Donnell left to form the Republican Congress. The Congress was an explicitly left-wing organisation which pledged that “a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots capitalism on its way.”
This was a form of politics that appealed to Bob. He left the IRA and joined the Republican Congress along with his friend and comrade Kit Conway. The Congress campaigned tirelessly for the clearing of the slums and for decent housing and jobs for the working class of Dublin. They also engaged in trade union struggles and continued the antifascist fight both domestically and internationally.
Following the 1936 fascist coup in Spain an international call went out to support the Spanish Republic. Bob joined thousands of international fighters, including two hundred from Ireland, who formed the ranks of the International Brigades to fight Franco’s fascists. By the time Bob reached Spain in December 1937 his dear friend Kit Conway had already been killed at the Battle of Jarama.
In March 1938 following a vain attempt by the 15th International Brigade to defend the town of Belchite in the northeast of Spain, Bob was captured and interned at the notorious San Pedro de Cardena concentration camp south of Burgos. The former monastery at San Pedro held thousands of republican internees, including Frank Ryan and had a fearsome reputation.
The camp was chronically overcrowded with little by way of food, bedding or sanitation. Republican prisoners suffered vicious daily beatings and interrogations, many of which were conducted by the German Gestapo. Having endured this brutal regime for almost a year Bob was released in February 1939 as part of a prisoner exchange programme.
Following his release from prison Bob settled in London where he met his wife Lola. At the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the British merchant navy. He remained a life-long communist, anti-fascist, and trade union activist, clandestinely travelling to organise trade unions in fascist Spain. Back in Britain Bob was a shop steward with the print workers union Sogat, and led a strike of workers in 1959.
He enjoyed riding a motorbike, which he continued to do into his 80s, and campaigned against the hated Poll Tax in Britain and for the legalisation of cannabis. In 2006 Bob published his biography, Brigadista — An Irishman’s Fight Against Fascism in association with Harry Owens, who lives locally.
At the launch of his book in Belfast Bob made a short speech demonstrating all of the passion and conviction of the street fighter who took on the fascists in Dublin in the 1930s and which drove him to join the international fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. In the course of his speech he said:
“In 1936 there were many apologists for racism and oppression who did not want to see fascism for what it was. Today the fight against those who put profit before people is just as intense, and the stakes are higher than ever. We must make common cause with those in the third world who are now in the front line, as Spain once was.”
Bob died in January 2009 aged 92. On 6th July 2019, ten years after his death, the Stoneybatter and Smithfield People’s History erected a plaque in his memory at The Cobblestone Pub, in Smithfield in the neighbourhood where Bob was born.
Stewart Reddin is a member of the Stoneybatter & Smithfield People’s History Project. An edited version of this article appeared in its publication Bob Doyle: From Smithfield to the Battlefields of Spain. Copies of the publication are available at The Cobblestone Bar in Smithfield.
Posted on July 24, 2019, in 1930s and 1940s, British state repression (general), Counter-revolution/civil war period, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Housing, Imperialism (generally), Internationalism, Irish Citizen Army, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Public events - Ireland, Repression in 26-county state, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions, The road to the Easter Rising, War for Independence period, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.