What price freedom? Some people could answer that better than others. When it comes to Irish freedom that price was paid in 1916 in the stonebreakers’ yard of Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the insurrection were executed. It was also paid throughout the War of Independence and the subsequent civil war. They were times that defined a nation.
My grandfather fought in those times… killed people for a cause and suffered for it, too. I have often thought of how he was tortured by the Black and Tans and of the day he threw a hand grenade into a British armoured truck. I have thought, too, of the firing squad he was part of and the man that he killed. They were bloody times… times that must have left their mark on his psyche in the years that followed.
My grandfather was just one ordinary man who did some extraordinary things in the name of freedom. There were plenty more like him – and there were those who continued to pay the price for their actions long after the last bullet had been fired.
George Lennon was one such man. His war of freedom began at the ripe age of 16 when he helped hold up a military train on Easter Monday, 1916. He served a jail term for robbing a British soldier of his rifle, and another term – three months in solitary confinement – led to him being hospitalised suffering from consumption. He came out of prison in a state of physical breakdown.
But George was tough. He recuperated over that summer and was soon back in the fight. By the time he was 20, George Lennon was commanding his own Flying Column – a guerrilla active service unit – in Waterford.
Those were heady times for a young man… dangerous ones, too. George spent his days seizing weapons and holding up troop trains. His role as a commander meant he also made life and death decisions – decisions that would have a profound impact on him in the years ahead. One of those decisions involved the capture of a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary during an ambush at The Burgery, outside Dungarvan.
The RIC man – Sergeant Michael Hickey – was a childhood acquaintance of George’s. But there is little room for sentiment in war, and George ordered that Hickey be executed.
Hickey was Catholic and Irish, but that wouldn’t save him. The fact was that he could identify several of the attackers and they couldn’t risk letting him go. Before he was shot, Sergeant Hickey pleaded for his life, as George recalled in his memoir, Trauma in Time.
“I knew you as a child,” the policeman said. “… You are the only person in the world that can save me.”
“I would give anything in the world to save you,” Lennon replied. “But I cannot.”
As George Lennon later recalled, the two men exchanged a “glance of understanding.”
Hickey, who had turned 36 the day before and was soon to wed, squared his shoulders. Lennon blindfolded the RIC man and ordered the executioners to fire. Shots rang out. Hickey slumped to the ground, dead.
Lennon walked over to his body and fired one shot into Hickey’s head, before having a tag placed on his body that said “Police Spy.”
It was a brutal act, but war breeds brutality.
The blood-letting wouldn’t end there. Crown forces later attacked George’s IRA party, killing two Volunteers and losing one of their own in the process. Shortly after this George and other IRA members were ambushed by soldiers from the Devon Regiment. He received several blows to the head from rifle butts and, though initially captured, he somehow managed to escape, reaching a farmhouse in “a dazed and shaken condition” as he later wrote. It “shook me badly and my health began to decline”.
By 1921, at the age of 20, George had already lived a life – and he had the physical and mental scars to prove it. His health would suffer even further in the years to come.
When the treaty ending the War of Independence was signed it lead to civil war. George fought with the anti-treaty side. Between March and August 1922, he led three hundred IRA men in the occupation of Waterford city. During this time he was so sick he had to be confined to bed for two weeks.
Free State soldiers bombarded the city defences with artillery fire, eventually forcing George and his men to retreat. At this point he suffered a complete breakdown and had to resign from the army.
It was only after the war that the full effects of George’s traumatic experiences became clear. There followed a series of jobs and a sad but predictable pattern. In 1923, he secured a temporary job as a County Council clerk. A year later, his mother died, which only added to what George’s doctor described as his ‘debility and progressive neurasthenia’ (post-traumatic stress in today’s language).
Not only did George have to contend with his mental frailty, he also had to look after his three younger siblings, all of whom eventually emigrated to America. He joined them there in 1927.
The following year found him promoted to a “responsible position” in Prudential Insurance, in Newark, New Jersey. Almost at once he had a nervous breakdown, leading him to give up the post. He refused further offers of promotion for fear of how he might react.
In 1928, George had another breakdown, on top of which he suffered insomnia and gastric problems. These led to him taking a three-week stay in the New England Rest Haven.
He left Prudential at the end of that year and took an ‘easier job’ in January, 1929 as night auditor in a large hotel. He was working well until a promotion resulted in him having another breakdown. “Lack of concentration, memory lapses and an intense desire to escape” were how he described his symptoms. George took time off in health resorts and was treated by various doctors between 1930 and 1931. By 1935, he was chief cashier at the hotel. His doctor advised three months leave of absence due to his frail state.
Sick “from intense nervous irritation and exhaustion”, he resigned from the job and returned to Ireland where he was treated for neurasthenia and tuberculosis. Despite his ailments, he did find time for love and, in 1939, George Lennon married May Sibbald.
He clearly had ability, despite his sickness, and in 1940 he headed the Topographical Survey of Ireland. In 1943, May gave birth to their son Ivan. The same year, George was appointed Acting Secretary to the National Planning Conference. Unfortunately, this triggered another bout of anxiety.
In early 1946, he returned to the US, followed soon after by a reluctant May and Ivan. George got work in the Lexington hotel but was fired in 1948 for union activities. He then worked as a machine operator but left that position after a few months and took a janitor job with the Kodak Company.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he wrote a play (Down by The Glen Side) and his memoir, Trauma in Time, but the trauma of those early years stayed with him. So painful were the memories that George sometimes resorted to drink to alleviate them. He did find peace eventually when he adopted Zen Buddhism and became one of the founders of the Rochester Zen Center.
There’s no doubt that George Lennon walked a hard road… a road that would eventually leave him feeling disillusioned with the whole journey. He would later recall his freedom-fighting days as a “tuppence ha’penny revolution’. One that was best consigned to the “dustbin of history”.
Thankfully, he is beginning to get some recognition for his important role in Ireland’s past, with the publication of Rebel Heart: George Lennon Flying Column Commander, by Terence O’Reilly and with Ulster to the Deise: Lennons in Time, by his son, Ivan. There has even been a TV documentary chronicling George’s role in the War of Independence.
It has all come late in the day but, hopefully, other historians will also acknowledge his service to the country.
This post isn’t just about one of our forgotten heroes, it’s about the cost of war – and about all those other George Lennon’s out there who lived fractured lives once the dust had settled… men who, along with their families, paid the toll, day in, day out.
I never knew my grandfather, but I’ve thought of him and I’ve wondered how I would have fared had I been in his shoes. I’ve wondered how he coped in the aftermath of war and whether he was haunted by his actions.
What price freedom? Philosophers, historians and academics could give all sorts of nuanced answers to that question, but I think the best answer – the most real – would come from those who actually fought for it in the first place.
George Lennon died in 1991. His wife, May, passed away eight years earlier. Their son, Ivan, lives in New York.
To read more about George…