Hilliard, Robert (‘Bob’) Martin (1904–37), clergyman, boxer, and revolutionary, was born 7 April 1904 in New St., Killarney, Co. Kerry, one of six children of Robert M. Hilliard, a wealthy protestant draper, and Alice Hilliard (née Martin). The family subsequently resided at Moyeightragh, Killarney. Educated at Cork Grammar School and Mountjoy School, Dublin, Hilliard won a Read sizarship to study at TCD. As a student Hilliard was known for his left-wing and atheistic views and was a founder member of the republican Thomas Davis Society at Trinity College. He studied at Trinity between 1921 and 1925, apparently leaving without a degree. Despite extreme myopia Hilliard was a highly regarded amateur boxer. Representing Dublin University boxing club, he was twice Irish senior bantamweight champion (1923–4). He was the only non-military boxer selected for the Irish Olympic team for the 1924 games in Paris, but was defeated in his only bout. Around the mid 1920s he moved to England, where he married Clementine Robins of Grayshott, Surrey; they had four children. He worked as a journalist in London, where he was employed by Basil Clarke's Editorial Services and The Times. He also worked as a copywriter and is credited with coining the slogan ‘Great stuff this Bass’. Despite his left-wing atheistic background, he became involved with the Oxford Group in England, a branch of Frank Buchman's Moral Rearmament, a right-wing international evangelistic movement which strove for moral absolutes and personal religious fervour.
Hilliard returned to Ireland in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Resuming his studies at Trinity, he edited the college journal T.C.D., and re-entered the ring, winning the TCD featherweight championship (May 1931), but was defeated for the bantamweight title (November 1931). He obtained a Trinity BA (1931) and divinity testimonium (1932). Ordained in the Church of Ireland as a deacon (1931) and a priest (1932), he served as curate in Derriaghy parish near Lisburn in the diocese of Connor (1931–3), and at St Ann's cathedral mission church in an area of Belfast characterised by poverty and sectarianism (1933–4). In late 1934 or 1935, Hilliard left his wife and children, exchanging his Christian dogmatism for a return to the Marxist variety. He returned to London, where he worked in journalism and joined the Communist Party. In December 1936 he joined the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war. Hilliard joined the ‘British battalion’ of the 15th International Brigade, formed in January 1937. At the battalion's training camp in Madrigueras he was remembered by one comrade as ‘a great drinker . . . [whose] friends were of all classes’, notable for ‘his sense of humour and his consistently cheerful attitude’ and for a ‘startlingly irreverent’ Marxist ‘benediction’, delivered in ‘parsonical voice’ while miming the outline of the hammer-and-sickle (Gurney, 69). On 12 February Hilliard's battalion was deployed in fierce fighting on the Jarama front. On the third day of action at Jarama (14 February), Hilliard was among a party of four who covered a retreat by holding up advancing enemy tanks despite lacking suitable guns or grenades. The only survivor of the party, he suffered severe wounds and died three days later in a makeshift military hospital, one of nineteen Irish in the brigade to die in that battle. Notwithstanding Hilliard's renunciation of religion, the unlikely presence of a former Church of Ireland minister alongside an ex-Christian Brother (Eamonn McGrotty (qv)) in the International Brigades was emphasised in left-wing propaganda to offset the brigades' anti-clerical image. A communion chalice, paten and cruet were presented in his memory by Scottish Medical Unit veteran Joseph Boyd to Christ Church, Derriaghy, on the occasion of its centenary (1972). Hilliard, also known as ‘the boxing parson’, is also remembered in ‘Viva la quinte brigada’, Christy Moore's popular ballad about the Irishmen who fought in Spain:
Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor,
From Killarney across the Pyrenees he came.
From Derry came a brave young Christian Brother,
Side by side they fought and died in Spain.
Hilliard's nephew Stephen Hilliard (1947–90) was an Irish Times journalist, Christian socialist activist, Irish-language enthusiast, and Church of Ireland clergyman, who was killed by a burglar in his rectory in Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow.