GEORGE LENNON: WATERFORD REBEL
Dungarvan’s George Gerard Lennon (1900-1991) of O’Connell Street, Western Terrace (circa 1915) and Mitchell Terrace (1936) had a noteworthy revolutionary career encompassing some 17 engagements against enemy forces in Waterford, Limerick and Cork: a 14 year old “adjutant” in the newly formed Dungarvan Volunteers; as a Fianna he won a national essay contest (on Sarsfield at Ballyneety) and, with Barney Dalton, the developer of a successful early 20th Century I.E.D.; teenaged member of the minority “physical force” Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.); Easter Week 1916 he and Pax Whelan stopped a goods train in a futile search for arms; the January 1918 theft, again with Pax Whelan, of a soldier’s rifle which led to incarceration at Ballybricken Prison; per the IRISH TIMES, he was met, upon being bailed, by 400 Volunteers at the Dungarvan train station; this was followed by a short speech at the Town Hall on St. Augustine Street; a poem written in his honour by “the poet of the Comeraghs;” “on the run” as an 18 year old for nearly a year; after capture and sentencing, an eventful send off to Cork at the Lismore Train Station; likely suffering from “Spanish Influenza,” after solitary confinement in Cork Male Gaol (where he turned age nineteen), he was prematurely released; an early exponent of guerrilla warfare; under Liam Lynch, he and Mick Mansfield participated in the first attack (Fermoy) since Easter Week 1916 on British military forces; seconded to the first ASUs formed in East and West Limerick he assisted in the summer 1920 formation of the famed North Cork Flying Column (“Men of the South” as portrayed by Sean Keating RHA); Vice Commanding Officer of the West Waterford Brigade; the youngest (with Belfast’s Roger McCorley) commanding officer of a Flying Column; a prototype “mud bomb” developed with Pat Keating of Comeragh; some 8 narrow escapes from enemy forces; serving, post July 1921 Truce, as a paid County Waterford I.R.A. Liaison Officer and, under Pax Whelan in March 1922, he led his men into Waterford City – for the first time in some 750 years part of “a nation once again.”
It has only been of late that he has acquired a measure of recognition arguably denied him during the twentieth century. To wit: numerous exhibitions/presentations in New York State and the Deise; the family history, LENNONS IN TIME; Terence O’Reilly’s REBEL HEART: GEORGE LENNON FLYING COLUMN COMMANDER; Tommy Mooney’s CRY OF THE CURLEW; Muiris O’Keeffe’s play DAYS OF OUR YOUTH; Cormac Morel’s Nemeton documentary, FROM WAR TO PEACE: THE LIFE OF GEORGE LENNON; Eamon Cowan’s SIEGE OF WATERFORD and Dr. Pat McCarthy’s WATERFORD.
Accounting for his initially forgotten role in Ireland involves unproductive conjecture. More relevant is an investigation into how positions he took were shaped by his family’s history, the revolutionary events of 1913-1923 and the ensuing Irish theocracy.
Unlike many of his na Fianna Eireann, I.R.B. and Oglaigh na hEireann comrades, George was born into an upper bourgeoisie family (Lennon/Crolly/Shanahan/Power/Walsh ) in Dungarvan. He was cosseted from the rougher “corner boy” element by his mother “Nellie” Shanahan Lennon and private tutor(s). A voracious reader, raised on tales of the Red Branch Knights and Sarsfield he was an award winning Fianna boy whose “patriotism arose with … puberty.”
There were a few family ancestors of a military caste – most notably at the Boyne; more numerous, however, were antecedents of a priestly and intellectual hue. O Leannains and O Luinins served as erenaghs at monasteries along the Erne in County Fermanagh. Others served as writers and historians at Maynooth (George Crolly) and to the Maguires.
An apotheosis of sorts was reached with a partially Unitarian educated great-uncle, Roman Catholic Archbishop Primate of Ireland Dr. William Crolly who supported, to a degree, nearly 200 years ago, non-denominational education. During An Gorta Mor he attributed the 1847 assassination of Anglo-Irish landlord Denis Mahon to the “harshness of the owners of the soil and…their evicted tenants.” Crolly’s liberal views did not sit well with Rome who denied him a cardinal’s cap. The Church, upon Crolly’s 1849 death (cholera), took a different direction with his conservative successor, Cardinal Paul Cullen.
George exhibited a measure of skepticism regarding some members of the clergy, most notably the hierarchy. This no doubt traced to his widowed mother who, faced with priestly excoriation of her Rebel son from the pulpit of the Lennon’s parish church, chose to walk out of Sunday mass in early 1921. Noting the Church as better than its parish priests, she continued her weekly devotions at the nearby Friary Church.
In 1924 her remains were conveyed to the family plot.
Regretfully, unknown to the emigrated Lennon/Shanahan families, the St. Mary’s gravesite was sold some sixty years later.
George’s patriotism reflected, in part, that of Pearse, MacSwiney, Lynch, O’Malley and deValera; one that rejected the perceived materialism found on the “mainland.”
His observation regarding I.R.A. chief of staff Liam Lynch might very well have described George himself: well suited to be the “superior of a …religious order.”
His Republican idealism, however, suffered grievous blows in 1921 and 1922. Moving through West Waterford with a mobile and effective force of some 40 trained guerrillas, he was faced with what he regarded as the “grave error” of the “premature” 11 July Truce of 1921. Lacking civic training (having left school at age fifteen during Easter Week 1916) he became the twenty one year old “effective military governor” of a less than receptive Redmondite Waterford City in March, 1922.
The ensuing “unmentionable” (his word) civil war saw him taking up arms against former comrades. With the first and last shots fired from his Ballybricken Prison redoubt he was forced to retreat westward to Mt. Congreve demesne where, over a period of three days and nights, they “drank… out completely” the “well stocked wine cellar.” Feeling “disgusted” he resigned as Vice Commanding Officer effective 1 August 1922, noting “we were not going to live off the good country people again.”
“Sleeping rough”with confinement in unheated jails led to a relatively mild bout of consumption (TB). 1918-1922 experiences resulted in “neurasthenia”/anxiety (PTSD) compounded by a manageable alcoholism he eventually emigrated in early 1927. This made possible by the sale of the Lennon/Shanahan interest in the Town Park at the Lookout.
With former Sinn Fein organiser and Northern poet Joseph Campbell (“My Lagan Love”) he published in New York City a short lived and before its time (1934) “magazine of Irish expression,” THE IRISH REVIEW. Friendships maintained in the States included former Free State military foes General Prout and East Waterford Brigade O/C Paddy Paul.
A work related breakdown in the States and a newly granted Military Service Pension led him to return to Ireland in August 1936. In Dublin he became a leading member of Liam Deasy’s Old I.R.A. Men’s Organisation which included members from both sides of the 1922-1923 divide.
Recognising the Fascist threat, he criticised, in a letter to the IRISH TIMES, the Roman Catholic Church for supporting Spanish dictator Franco. He noted that the Church “cannot serve God and mammon.”
Una Troy Walsh (sister in law of painter Sean Keating) fictionalized his return in a largely forgotten 1938 novel DEAD STAR’S LIGHT. She echoed George’s position that the Church was “the best run and most powerful business institution in the country.” Few indeed were those who dared speak out about the depredations of the Church and its support of Franco.
The Walshes, Una, Joe and daughter Janet (Helleris), were expunged from the roles of their Clonmel church after a letter from their parish priest observed that Una “had endangered her immortal soul” for espousing allegedly communist views.
George’s employment prospects were further clouded by lack of a modicum of Irish (in all likelihood he was privately tutored at home with only 6 months in Abbeyside National School in 1915-1916) and a 1939 Dun Laoghaire “mixed” Presbyterian marriage, conceivably in violation of the Ne Temere decree.
Friendships flourished with those in the largely leftist political, artistic and intellectual community. Most noteworthy were relationships with U.S.A. “Minister to Ireland” David Gray, AN PHOBLACHT deputy editor and brother in law Geoffrey Coulter, painters Charles Lamb, Harry Kernoff and Sean Keating RHA (Rathfarnham neighbour and father of “humanist” Justin).
There was a “productive” Dublin lunch during the
“Emergency” with alleged English spy and poet laureate to be John Betjeman. A reported I.R.A. “to kill” order was rescinded.
With the assistance of sympathetic Republican colleagues he secured a responsible position with the Irish Tourist Association (or Board later known as Bord Failte), guiding the publication of the hailed ITA Topographical Survey. He formulated what were to be largely ignored plans for developing the nascent tourism industry. Due to wartime exigencies he, along with others, was made redundant but then quickly secured a temporary position as Secretary to the National Planning Conference. Plans for post World War II economic development in Ireland were not well received by Taoiseach de Valera and government minister Sean MacEntee, for whom wife May Sibbald had, in the 1930’s, served as secretary.
“Disillusioned” and unemployed from the summer of 1944, he re-emigrated in February 1946 on a very expensive flight out of the newly opened Shannon Aeroport; transatlantic service having commenced some three months earlier. He noted “it was mid winter but I could not help feeling jubilant.”
Less exultant was his Kingstown born spouse who was relatively isolated, with a rambunctious two year old, near the Dublin Mountains in Rathfarnham during the ‘Big Freeze” of early 1947. Female spousal employment not being an option in the Irish theocracy of deValera and Archbishop McQuaid. May and son Ivan relied upon George’s Military Service (1935) and Disability Pension (1944). They lived, post Freeze, in the basement flat of May’s mother and sister at 8 Tivoli Terrace South, Dun Laoghaire.
In May 1947 an Abbey Theatre play (THE DARK ROAD based upon Troy’s DEAD STAR’S LIGHT) described the Lennon protagonist (“John Davern”) as “a communist, an anti
cleric, an agitator, a gun man.” Some five months later, mother and four year old son reluctantly left Dun Laoghaire via the mailboat and, departing Southampton, joined George in New York City. He later noted his wife as “never having left Ireland, save in the physical sense.” She lies buried in Rochester’s historic Mt. Hope Cemetery.
In Rochester he involved himself in a personal religious quest encompassing, at various times, the Quakers, Unitarians and the writings of Ouspenski, Gurdjieff, the Berrigans and Martin Buber. With “Xerography” inventor Chet Carlson he became a founding member of one of the earliest Zen communities (Rochester Zen Center) in the Eastern United States.
In the 1950’s he continued the Lennon/Crolly/Shanahan tradition of outspokenness. Forthright on civil rights he also became an early critic of French and U.S. involvement in Indo-China; equating British involvement in Ireland with that of the Americans and French in Asia. A 1967 Rochester newspaper article was headlined “Ex Rebel Holds Viet War Futile.” While a committed pacifist he did acknowledge the right of all people to free themselves from colonial domination. “Informed” on once again, his views led to an early 1960’s FBI investigation into alleged Communist Party membership.
Apparently not choosing to file a witness statement with the Irish Bureau of Military History, he unsuccessfully sought an outlet for his short remembrance TRAUMA IN TIME and a play DOWN BY THE GLEN SIDE.
George Lennon passed away, largely unnoticed, in 1991 with his ashes placed at Zen locales in Maine and Rochester. His arguably prescient positions seemingly no longer outside the mainstream in his native land.
Shown is a mid 1960’s portrait (exhibited at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery) of George by Ruth Carver. A family memorial plaque, denoting the nearby presence of George’s parents and grandparents, was mounted on the wall at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in 2014.