Historical Biographies War of Independence

Bill Lennon

bill lennon – the quiet man

i. Early Life
Born at Curragh, Ardmore in February 1896 to Timothy and Mary Lennon, Bill Lennon would become one of the most enigmatic characters of the War of Independence period in West Waterford. His early life was difficult as by 1898 his mother had died at just 36 years, leaving the children in the care of an aging father. By late 1901, it appears that Bill’s father had also died at the age of 61. The elder was a British Army veteran and had served in India in the 1870s with the Devonshire Regiment, ironically a unit which was later garrisoned at Waterford City in 1921 and one which the Waterford Brigades spent much of their efforts trying to defy. His passing had orphaned the younger children and by 1911, the 14-year old Bill appears to have been boarding with a Lombard family from the townland of Drumgullane which is located between Ardmore and Clashmore.

ii. War of Independence Period
By 1917 Bill was recorded as being an original member of the fledgling Clashmore Volunteer ‘F’ Company under Captain Hugh McGrath (This company was later considered an outpost of the Piltown ‘E’ Company). By 1921, Bill appeared to have been attached to Ballycurrane ‘G’ Company. He was a very active volunteer during this period and was an early ‘reserve’ member of the so-called ASU (Active Service Unit) under the command of George Lennon. As Youghal was a long-standing ‘garrison’ town, the operational area between Youghal and Dungarvan was strategic and a hotbed of activity throughout 1920-21.

Bill played a major part in most of the important War of Independence engagements in this area, including an early but ultimately unsuccessful attack on Ardmore Barracks in January 1920 and the much commemorated Piltown Ambush on All-Saints night of the same year, which was a strategic success for the West Waterford Brigade. Only a few weeks later he was a member of the sniping squad which ambushed an RIC Patrol at Youghal Bridge and resulted in the shooting of RIC Constable Prenderville as a reprisal for his acting as a guide for the Crown Forces in the aforementioned Piltown engagement.

The following year saw many other flashpoints occurring across West Waterford, not least of all being the Burgery Ambush in May of that year where volunteers Pat Keating & Sean Fitzgerald tragically lost their lives. Bill Lennon was one of those providing covering fire with Pax Whelan as drastic efforts were made to recover the severely wounded Keating who was stranded in open ground. His body was eventually retrieved and carted away to safety but unfortunately he died some hours later. One of Keating’s great legacies was a poem which he wrote about the Piltown Ambush called “The Cross of Old Piltown” which was later put to song and is still a common ‘noble-call’ in this part of the country.

iii. The Truce and Civil War
Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 and following in the footsteps of the Foley Brothers, Ballycurrane, amongst others, Bill Lennon travelled to Kilkenny to sign up with the Free State Army in May 1922, quite likely for economic reasons. He was immediately sent to join with the garrison at Dungarvan Barracks where he was no doubt seen as a valuable intelligence asset in the effort to suppress anti-treaty resistance. Anecdotally it was said that Bill was later shocked to his core at the treatment meted out by the Free-State side on his former comrades. The final straw for him seems to have been on the occasion of the capture of Mick Fitzgerald and Pat O’Reilly, both of Youghal, who were arrested with arms at Ballinaclash on December 6th and treated quite roughly. Lennon was a member of the arresting party and had been a close friend of O’Reilly’s when both were members of the West Waterford Flying Column. Bearing witness to this violent affray and likely being aware of the terrible fate that awaited the two men having been captured with arms certainly seems to have been a catalyst for Lennon deciding to return to the volunteer cause.

Patrick O’Reilly, Youghal

Later that same month, he and Thomas Keogh, Ardsallagh were said to have reported to the West Waterford Brigade HQ in uniform and with their National Army rifles and as much ammunition as they could carry as a ‘peace offering’ and Bill was welcomed back with open arms. Fitzgerald and O’Reilly were subsequently executed on January 25th 1923 at Ballybricken Gaol which caused widespread shock and grief. Both men are buried at the Republican plot in Youghal.

After these eventful few months, Bill was forced to go ‘underground’ for much of the remainder of the Civil War period due to the fact that he was now a ‘marked’ man since deserting the Free State side. He made use of various hiding spots such as haybarns & outhouses and under ditches on the uphills above Clashmore where the local people brought him sustenance when it was safe to do so. Stories still abide of those occasions when tip-offs from local scouts of approaching Free State search parties saved Lennon from a further arrest and it’s inevitable consequences.

Bill Lennon making a bonfire with Charlie Mansfield & the Mooneys at Ballymacart

iv. Grange Ambush and Subsequent Rescue of Lennon
In early March 1923, a dispute arose locally over a farm-holding at Crushea, Ardmore and subsequently the attached farmhouse was set alight by a party of local IRA volunteers. Repercussions for this act were swift and brutal as Free-State forces descended on the Ardmore area the next day and several suspected volunteers were badly beaten in an effort to extract information out of them regarding the fire. When the news arrived to him, this in turn led IRA Commandant Mick Shalloe to order the arrest of Michael Sheehan who was a suspected ‘guide’ or ‘informer’ to the Free-State officers, after which he would be brought before an Officer’s Court Martial to deal with him. On the evening of March 3rd, the arresting party of Mick Shalloe, Paddy Cashin, Tom Mooney, Dick Morrison and Bill Lennon had commandeered a motor car and picked up Sheehan returning to the disputed farmhouse at Crushea and sped off for Grange Cross where he would be taken towards the Slate Quarries of Knockbrack for impromptu Court Martial proceedings. Unfortunately for the parcel of volunteers, the Free-State soldiers had in the meantime encountered the man whose car had been ‘handed over’ and after some rough treatment he admitted that his car had earlier been driven towards Ardmore. They immediately headed in the direction of the village and as they took a right-hand turn at Grange Cross, they met the party of volunteers at the gates of Grange Church where Mooney slammed on the brakes and the five men attempted to escape. Shalloe and Cashin, who had been standing on the ‘running-board’ of the car, jumped off before the car even came to a stop and hence were able to sprint across the fields and evade capture. Mooney and Morrison managed to get to a small shed at the side of the church but were immediately surrounded and arrested. Lennon had been shot several times and remained in the car unable to move. He was later taken to Dungarvan Hospital with critical wounds to his torso where he lay close to death for several days before slowly recovering. Lennon’s execution order had surely already been signed as firstly he was captured with his guns on him, secondly he was in charge of a prisoner bound for execution and finally he had only recently deserted the Free-State side to throw his lot back in with the volunteer effort. It was discovered from inside the hospital that as soon as Bill was sufficiently recovered that he would be removed to Ballybricken Gaol and executed by firing squad as had been the fate of other volunteers before him.

Tribute to his rescuers by Bill Lennon

It says much for how well Lennon was regarded and respected by the West Waterford Brigade members that just over three weeks later intricate plans were formulated to effect his rescue from under the noses of the Free-State forces at Dungarvan Union Hospital. Paddy Curran, the 3rd Batallion O.C. and a small band of his men were determined to carry out this daring rescue, whatever the cost. A Nurse Guiry who was due to be on night-duty at the hospital was recruited to assist the volunteers by leaving a small light in the window of the ward where Bill was held and also to leave the window off the latch to allow entry. Initially two rescue attempts on the nights of March 26th/27th were scuppered by other activities in the area so Wednesday, March 28th was the night that the plan finally went ahead. One of Nurse Guiry’s key tasks was to add a sedative to the tea of the sentry on duty and also to a Free-State officer who was a patient in the same ward as Lennon. This plan seemed to work a treat and after scaling the considerable boundary walls, Paddy Curran and his men were able to climb up to and enter the ward undisturbed and carried the shocked Lennon back out of the window and down the ladder where they escaped unscathed across the yard and across the fields to a waiting pony and trap . When they awoke Bill in the bed, he initially thought that his rescuers had been captured themselves, but later exclaimed how surprised and supremely grateful he was that this brave band of men should go to such effort to save his life. Later in time, Lennon had a ‘tribute’ printed up which he presented to Tom Kelleher, Cappoquin (pictured) to extend his lifelong gratitude for the gallant efforts of his rescuers on that fateful Holy Thursday morning.

Lennon’s Service (1917-1921) Medal with ‘Comrac’ bar (meaning ‘Combat’)

v. Post-Civil War Wrangling
The Civil War effectively ended in May of 1923, not long after the aforementioned events. In the years following, many volunteers were eventually forced to flee their beloved country due to being socially marginalized for their hardline ‘anti-treaty’ stance. Those that did stay remained steadfast in their loyalty to De Valera and the Fianna Fáil political party which was formed in 1926. By 1932, the party had finally taken power in the country with De Valera as the new President of the Executive Council. After this time a new ‘Sluagh’ or committee was formed in Clashmore which was to pioneer a new ‘Volunteer Force’, of which Bill Lennon was a member. Drawing on the heritage of the Irish Volunteers, the Fianna Fáil government had created this Volunteer Force on April 6th 1934. This part-time militia was intended to appeal to the party’s republican supporters, and to offer them an alternative to membership of the IRA. Nationally this group would be a forerunner for the Local Security Force (LSF) which was formed in 1940, later known as the Local Defense Force (LDF) and was called into ‘active service’ during the Emergency.

Clashmore Local Defence Force (LDF), Unknown Date

It’s formation also coincided with efforts to shatter the rise of Eoin O’Duffy’s fascist-leaning National Guard or ‘Blueshirts’ who acted as a form of protection for the Cumann na nGaedheal party. The National Guard had been banned by De Valera in 1933 and O’Duffy was marginalized. Nationally and locally there was a sustained campaign from Fianna Fáil and the ‘Old IRA’ to break up meetings and rallies to crush the ‘Blueshirt’ movement once and for all. These efforts were clearly evident on July 7th 1934 at Aglish where a rowdy skirmish took place. It was reported that a large group of Fianna Fail supporters and a band of drummers from Villerstown marched through the village in defiance of a group of ‘Blueshirts’ who were gathered there and attempted to incite a reaction from them. Bill Lennon was reported to be a flag-bearer for the group which included up to 200 men, including several on horseback. The O’Duffy followers were threatened and even stormed by the horseback riders at one point and in return some of the band’s drum equipment was damaged (resulting in a subsequent court case which amounted to no convictions of note). This act of aggression certainly showed the rancour that still existed locally between the two sides of the political divide and a certain enthusiasm from some quarters to ‘stir up’ some of the residual ‘Civil War’ feeling, all of 11 years later. By the end of 1934, the National Guard had pretty much disintegrated and Eoin O’Duffy had lost much of his authority, eventually resulting in him leaving the Fine Gael party.

Bill with Volunteer Force Members c. 1930s

For the Fianna Fáil party the 30’s and 40’s were certainly its strongest period of dominance in this country’s history as they held onto power for almost 16 years. In 1938, when Waterford T.D. Michael Morrissey was returned to office for a second time, a celebration was held at Clashmore with Bill Lennon recorded as being his host as the Chairman of the local Fianna Fail Cumann. This branch maintained a strong tradition over the years, with Charlie Curran flying the flag, amongst others.

vi. Final Years
In July of 1956, Bill was overjoyed to have an opportunity to meet with his old Column Leader and rescuer Paddy Curran, New York at a Conradh na Gaeilge gathering at Ring College. Paddy had long since been a successful business owner in New York and this was the first time they had met in all of 33 years since they had served together during the Civil War period.

Former comrades Paddy Curran & Bill Lennon, Coláiste na Rinne, 1956

Bill died at a relatively young age in August 1960 at Ardkeen hospital after a short illness, leaving behind his wife and daughter. It was said that the many hardships he endured during the period of the ‘Troubles’ had caused permanent damage to his ‘robust constitution’ and that he had been in declining health for many years. With his coffin draped in the Tricolour, his former comrades of the West Waterford Brigade carried him the distance from St. Cronan’s Parish Church to his final resting place at the Old Graveyard.

Bill Lennon taken shortly before he died

Like many of his old comrades, Bill was considered a divisive character depending on which side of politics you fell on. Nonetheless, Bill was generally seen as a popular character in the community and a very large and representative attendance of the local people were present to hear the ‘Last Post’ being played as a final salute to a man who had given his all for the cause of Irish freedom.

The Rescue of Bill Lennon, Waterford County Gazette; Tom Tobin (April 29th 1953)
A Memorable Drama, Irish Weekly Examiner; Tom Tobin (March 1st 1979)

Cry of the Curlew; Tommy Mooney (2012)
The Deise Divided; Tommy Mooney (2014)

The Volunteer Force 1934–46, History Ireland Magazine (Accessed Mar 26th 2022)
The Comeraghs Refuge of Rebels; Seán & Síle Murphy (1980)

Photo Credits
Tom Tobin, Abbeyside, Dungarvan (Waterford County Gazette)
Tommy Mooney, Sean Phobal

Nioclás Ó Gríofáin, An Rinn
Brendan McGonagle, Clashmore (Grandson)
The Comeraghs Refuge of Rebels; Seán & Síle Murphy (1980)

11 replies on “Bill Lennon”

Nicely researched and written up Liam. My Dad was wounded in the thigh and Rich Morrison in the hand that night as they exited the car, otherwise they too may well have escaped. Dad told me that the Chapel Woman of the time (I’ve forgotten name now)ran and opened the Chapel gate so that they could get into the Churchyard, otherwise they would have been shot dead.

Thanks for that Tommy and thank you for much of the context from your books. Your dad and Dick Morrison were indeed very lucky that day and the Chapel woman was very brave in doing what she did…

We have heard so much about the Lennon family over the years but it was amazing to read this article. We do feel privileged to be living in this very house and always felt a very warm and strong feeling about the place.Respect due.

A great piece on the Grandfather I never had the privilege to meet. I remember the medal pictured herein from childhood which my mum (Bridie Lennon) would let us handle every now and then when the story of Bill was recalled (often with the backing track of her Wolfetones LP) Thanks for keeping this important history alive.

Liam I understand from speaking to
My mum that there will be a commemoration event for my Grandfather some time in March this year. She isn’t able to travel but I’d love to attend if a date has been finalised.

Hi Pat, thank you for your message. You are correct that his grave is unmarked, but you will be glad to hear that there are currently plans ongoing to erect a memorial for him at his grave which will be completed soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *