GEORGE LENNON: WATERFORD  REBEL

By

Ivan Lennon

 

 

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.