The night of November 1, 1920, All Souls Night, was extremely cold in the west of County Waterford. The members of the West Waterford Volunteers flying column huddled along the road at Piltown Cross were not only shivering because of the temperature. Most of them were also trembling slightly as they tensely awaited their baptism of fire in Ireland’s War of Independence.
In the distance to the west, British Verey flares were burning brightly in the sky over Ardmore. The flares were a call for help from nearby military and RIC barracks from the RIC barracks in Ardmore. Column C/O George Lennon, who was just 20 years old, watched the flares going up with satisfaction. Their target that night was not the Ardmore barracks. They wanted to ambush the support column from Youghal that those flares would hopefully summon.
Lennon’s flying column was woefully underarmed, having just two Enfield rifles, one of Boer War vintage, one German Mauser, one single shot police carbine, about 20 shotguns, and a few revolvers. The expected military coming out of Youghal would all be armed with Enfield rifles, arguably the best infantry rifle in the world. The Volunteers would be outgunned in any extended firefight. It was essential that they use the element of surprise to overwhelm them quickly.
(Below: an early 20th-century pump-action shotgun.)
It was nearly midnight when the word was passed down the line from the scouts … “Here they come.” Volunteer Michael Curran recalled that he could “hear my heart beating a tattoo against my ribs.” Those to his left and right surely felt the same.
There was one truck. The driver slammed on his brakes as he came up to the trench blocking the road. It was the last thing he ever saw. The shotguns of the column reverberated like thunder, an explosion of sound that was clearly heard in Youghal, two miles away. The first major attack of George Lennon’s West Waterford Active Service Unit (flying column) was underway.
George Lennon (right) is one of the most fascinating and intriguing leaders of the Irish War of Independence. Not only was he the youngest commander of a flying column, but he also had one of the most wide-ranging experiences of any major figure in the Volunteers organization. By his own count, he participated in 17 engagements with Crown forces. George also came in contact with many of the most famous leaders in the fight for Irish freedom before and during the war.
George Gerard Lennon was born to George Crolly Lennon and Ellen Shanahan Lennon in Dungarvan, County Waterford on May 25, 1900. His father died when George was just 14 years old. He was involved with the Republican movement early in life, joining the Na Fianna Eireann. Before he turned 16, George had joined the Irish Volunteers.
He and the commander of the West Waterford Volunteers, Pax Whelan, actually took an active part in the Easter Rising in 1916. They used a stone barricade on the railroad tracks near Dungarvan to stop what they believed was a munitions train headed for Dublin, but it turned out to have no munitions onboard. George now totally dedicated himself to the cause of Irish freedom. He left Abbeyside Boys National School after the Easter Rising and spent the next two years “organizing, training and securing arms.” Securing arms would be a vital activity for the poorly armed Volunteers for their entire existence, but especially early on.
Many of the arms they obtained early on came from the homes of the “gentry” around the island or others who might have them. Often these were shotguns or small-caliber hunting rifles. One such operation to obtain arms would land George in prison on January 12, 1918. Amazingly, at that time some serving in the British army brought their rifles home with them on leave. The British Army’s .303 Lee-Enfield rifle (below) was the most coveted rifle on the battlefield of the Irish War of Independence. Along with Pax Whelan, George stole one such rifle from a soldier on leave. It would one day be the first military-grade rifle of their flying column. The British would change their policy of allowing soldiers to return to their homes after this theft.
However, Whelan and Lennon were arrested for the theft three days later. As they were marched to the train station in Dungarvan to be transported to Waterford, a crowd of several hundred supporters followed them, cheering and encouraging them. It was indicative of the rising Republican feelings around the island.
George would be released on bail in February for lack of evidence. He was given a hero’s welcome in Dungarvan. He had not yet reached his 18th birthday and he had already “attained” one of the rites of passage for Irish revolutionaries, being a “guest of the Empire” in a British jail.
Michael Walsh (“Poet of the Comeraghs”) published a poem about Lennon in the Dungarvan Observer. It ended:
As our Captain has told us – Fall in today!
Nor think ‘tis a time for idle play
Yet be sure victory shall yet be won
If you play a man’s part as George Lennon has done
Pax Whelan had been made commander of the 2nd (West) Waterford Brigade in January and, remarkably, the 17-year-old George Lennon was named Vice Commander. The brigade had four battalions: Dungarvan (1st Battalion), Lismore (2nd Battalion), Ardmore / Old Parish (3rd Battalion) and Kilrossanty (4th Battalion).
When Lennon was put on trial, his mother swore that her “delicate boy” (he stood 5’8 ½” and weighed just 112 lbs) had been at home the night of the theft of the Enfield. When he was let out on bail in February, Volunteers and Cumann na mBan formed up at the Town Hall in Dungarvan and marched to the railway station to greet him. In March, when he was acquitted, he was met by another large crowd at the station and gave a Republican-themed speech to the admiring crowd. At just 17, he had become a well-known Republican figure in Waterford.
(Right: A post-Easter Rising Republican poster.)
Lennon showed he was a man to be reckoned with again that month during the parliamentary elections. While in a group of Volunteers campaigning for the Sinn Féin candidate in Waterford, they were confronted by a larger group of supporters of the Redmondite candidate. Just as it appeared they might all be beaten, he pulled out his revolver and fired it in the air, and the hostile mob melted away.
Being a well known Republican had its drawbacks, however. In April he was charged with drilling the men and wearing a Volunteer uniform, violating one of the new laws the British had put in place to control the Republican movement. And so, the teenager was forced to go on the run.
When World War I ended, many returning Irish men who fought in it joined the Volunteers and helped give them valuable training. The most famous of those was Tom Barry in Cork, but the West Waterford Brigade also was fortunate enough to have veteran John Riordan of Dungarvan serve as their training officer. He had served with the 18th Royal Irish at Mons and Ypres. He was wounded in Belgium and after recovering served with the regiment in Egypt. There he was ironically engaged in helping to put down a rebellion against the British, but it may have given him some insights about the mindset of occupying troops.
“During the remainder of the year 1919 and the greater part of 1920, all my time was taken up in training work with the various companies in the brigade,” Riordan said, “I helped in drilling, field manoeuvres, and taught methods of attack and defense.” He had the West Waterford Brigade well prepared for the escalation of the war that came about in late 1920.
Lennon would be captured in March 1919 and served another short term in prison, this time in Cork Male Prison. There, Republican prisoners were held in “solitary confinement,” but all their cells were on the same side of the prison building, allowing them to talk to each other. As part of their continued resistance to Crown rule, and to keep up morale, they would have nightly “shows” in which new arrivals were introduced and then songs and recitations would fill the still air outside the walls. As is often the case during revolutions, incarcerating rebels only intensified their camaraderie and devotion to their cause.
(Left: Cork Male Prison)
During this incarceration, however, Mrs. Lennon’s “delicate boy” did suffer health problems after enduring a few months of poor food and spartan conditions inside the prison. He may have contracted the Spanish flu, which eventually killed between 50 million and 100 million people. In late May the prison doctor had him released. Two months later, he had recovered and ready to begin his full-part fighting that was now starting to spread around the island.
From September 1919 through to the truce, George Lennon would have one of the most interesting and varied careers of any soldier or leader of the Irish War of Independence. On September 7th, he and Mick Mansfield, also from Dungarvan, went to Fermoy, County Cork, and participated in an operation with Cork's 2nd Brigade under the command of Liam Lynch.
Catching a group of British soldiers of the Royal Shropshire Light Infantry by surprise on their way to church, they overwhelmed them after a brief firefight. Fifteen rifles were captured, with one soldier dying and Liam Lynch being slightly wounded in the shoulder.
Lennon and Mansfield had a harrowing trip back to Waterford. Mansfield recalled that at one point, “we hastily took off our coats and got into a cornfield and proceeded to make up stalks of corn. We were seen by the military who took us to be men engaged in harvesting work; they passed us by without suspecting a thing.”
(Right: Mick Mansfield)
In January 1920, Lennon was involved with an unsuccessful attack on the Ardmore RIC barracks. Though the barracks had not been taken, it marked the first large-scale action by the West Waterford Brigade, putting the Crown forces on notice that resistance was building in the region. Several outlying RIC barracks were closed in the next few months. In March, the first Black & Tans arrived in the area.
In late May, at the suggestion of Liam Lynch, Lennon began what would be an amazing personal military expedition into counties Limerick, Clare and Cork. Word had gone out that the East Limerick Brigade was going to attack the Kilmallock RIC barracks and was requesting help. It would end up being one of the largest and most famous barracks attacks of the war. The barracks held great symbolism, as it had been unsuccessfully attacked by the Fenians in 1867.
Though the barracks was not captured, it was completely destroyed. The Volunteers lost just one man killed, and Lennon was right next to him when he was hit. He later recalled, “Near daybreak, I descended into the street and, with a young man named Liam Scully (Glencar, County Kerry), stood watching the now almost-consumed buildings. Suddenly my companion dropped to the ground, shot through the throat.”
After the attack, one of the surviving RIC men, Sgt. Tobias O’Sullivan, posted a list of members of the East Limerick Brigade that he believed were in the attack. O'Sullivan was killed in Listowel, County Kerry, on Jan. 20, 1921, by the Volunteers for posting that list. The publishing of the list caused them to go “on the run” as a group, remaining armed, in what would come to be the first “Flying Column” of the war. George Lennon did not immediately return to Waterford; he stayed with this first flying column.
(Left: RIC Sgt. Tobias O’Sullivan)
They marched north and crossed the Shannon River, intending to attack the RIC barracks at Sixmilebridge. While there, Lennon met Ernie O'Malley, from Volunteer headquarters, who trained units around the island, and Seumas Robinson, commander of the South Tipperary Brigade. Trouble with their explosives caused them to abort that effort and they recrossed the Shannon and marched 30 miles south under arms in broad daylight.
The march north and back had no tangible results regarding war effort, yet it was one of the most important marches of the war. As Donnchadh O'Hannigan, commander of the East Limerick Brigade, later said of the ability for that armed force to move through the countryside over a number of days without being detected, “It occurred to us that since we had successfully done so, there was no reason why a larger number of men, organized and equipped as a unit, could not do likewise. Thus was conceived the idea of an Active Service Unit.” The ASU came to be known as a Flying Column.
The column continued south, having a few small encounters with British military and RIC patrols where they obtained more rifles. Moving into Cork, they were reinforced by some local Volunteers to get their column up over 20 men. After an ambush of a 6-man RIC patrol in Kildorrery on August 7th, Lennon cradled the head of a wounded Black & Tan, Ernest Watkins, in his arms. He told Lennon he had a wife and child in Liverpool as he slowly bled to death. This may have been one of the experiences that slowly evolved into the strident anti-war sentiment of his later life.
Lennon returned to the West Limerick Brigade following this nearly three-month “road trip” that provided him with invaluable experience of guerrilla war and the operation of the flying column that would become the Volunteer's most effective tactic in the coming months.
In early September Lennon and his boyhood friend, Pat Keating, went to Dublin to show to Michael Collins an ingenious idea Keating had for a “mud bomb” that would stick to the side of a building. It sounds much like a form of the “sticky bomb” that would later be used in World War II. Collins, however, was apparently not impressed.
(Right: Ernie O'Malley after his arrest by the British in 1921.)
In mid-September, Lennon attended a training camp led by Ernie O’Malley at Glenville, County Cork. It was like a who’s who of Volunteer leaders in Cork, with Tom Barry, Sean Moylan, and Liam Lynch all there as the plan to start flying columns around the island began to be implemented. When he returned to Waterford, between his long stay in the field with the East Limerick group and this training in Cork, George Lennon had prepared himself well to confront the Crown forces in Waterford.
(Below: Members of West Waterford flying column in the field.)
When he got back, in spite of his youth, Lennon was chosen to lead the brigade’s newly formed flying column. Like many other brigades, West Waterford’s column was mainly made up of men whom the government had charged with crimes and were thus, “on the run.” The first West Waterford column included, besides Lennon, Pat Keating, Paddy Cullinan, Jim Prendergast, Pakeen Whelan, “Nipper” McCarthy, Paddy Joe Power, Bill Foley, George Kiely, Paddy Lynch, Eddie Kirby, Mick Mansfield, Jim Bagnall, Jim Longergan, and John Riordan.
The column had their weapons cache in the Comeragh Mountains. The column itself often hid out there, or the Knockmealdown Mountains. When on the move, like other columns around the island, they found widespread support from the population. The West Waterford column often found food and shelter with the Walshes of Ballyduff, Cullenanes of Kilmac, Walshes of Ballymullagh, Mansfields of Crowbally, Powers of Glen and Powers of Garryduff.
Regardless of how well-prepared Lennon may have been to lead a flying column, the brigade still had a severe problem when it came to their firearms. Most of the few rifles they had were obsolete, while the British military and the RIC usually traveled around armed with the latest Enfield rifles. That was both a problem, if engaged with them, and presented them with what was their only chance to obtain them. This was the goal of the Piltown ambush November 1, 1920.
The plan for the Piltown ambush had its genesis in the unsuccessful attack on the Ardmore RIC barracks in January. It had been noticed that a relief column had left Youghal that night, crossing the Blackwater bridge and heading west on the main road to Ardmore. George Lennon, Mick Mansfield, and Pat Keating held a conference at the house of Mrs. Pottle, Ballymacart, Old Parish, Dungarvan, and put a plan in motion to attack the Admore barracks to entice the Youghal forces out to ambush them. Lennon and John Riordan scouted the road and found a good location at the Piltown Cross intersection in Kinsalebeg. It was not far from the bridge, leaving little chance of them choosing any other route.
According to Riordan, “thick hedges bounded the main road here and the ground inside the hedges was slightly higher than the road. At the cross itself was a field which sloped up from the cross and had also cover for a firing party to engage the enemy in the front as he came along the road from Youghal.”
This would be a large operation, using many of the local volunteers in addition to the flying column. The roads to Dungarvan and Cappoquin were blocked that night to prevent reinforcements from arriving from the east and north. Men under Bill Kiely set explosives at the Geosh Bridge on the road to Cappoquin, ready to blow the bridge if a large force approached from there. Communications lines were cut to everywhere but Youghal.
A group was even sent to Ferrypoint, across the Blackwater from Youghal, to guard against any relief force coming from there by ferryboat. At the Youghal bridge, Willie Doyle commanded a group of men who were to open the navigational section of the bridge after the British lorries had crossed over. There were up to 80 Volunteers involved in the blocking forces, though some were unarmed and a few actually carried hurley sticks. It was a complicated military operation.
Jim Mansfield, Pat Keating and Pakeen Whelan from the column went to Ardmore to help with the assault on the barracks around 7 p.m. The column set up their ambush around 8:30. Early in the evening Norah Shea, the sub postmistress at Piltown Post Office, who lived just west of the ambush site, and her sister Mary Anne brought “the boys” a bucket of tea with bread and jam. It was another example of the strong support for revolution among the civilian population.
Riordan recalled “the placings of our men that night were as follows: about a dozen men with four or five rifles and the remainder with shotguns occupied the high ground overlooking Piltown Cross and facing westwards to Youghal. About ten shotgun men were inside the hedge on the west side of the road and about twenty to forty yards from the cross on the Youghal side.” Mick Mansfield said he, “handed two cartridges to each shotgun man to supplement whatever small supply he already had,” indicating how vital it was for them to win a quick victory.
When the Verey flares started going off in Ardmore, Jim Mansfield, Pat Keating, and Pakeen Whelan considered their job done and returned by bicycle to the ambush site, leaving the local Volunteers to keep the barracks under fire. They got back to Piltown Cross around 10. Michael Curran, from Ring, recalled that, “the suspense was now beginning to get on the nerves of our men.” Sometime after 11, the alarm was given that the enemy was on the way by a Volunteer of the Kinsalebeg company who signaled from atop a telegraph pole to the west.
(Left: Jim Mansfield)
As the truck, which was a civilian vehicle they had commandeered from a Mr. Farrell, a coal merchant in Youghal, stopped at the trench it was carrying between 18 and 24 soldiers of the 2nd Hampshire Regiment and 2 RIC constables. Some of the Volunteers later said they had a felled tree as well as the trench, but most said it was just a trench. The first volley hit the driver, and the lorry came to a halt. Most of the Volunteers said the British got off some return fire, but that was short-lived.
James Mansfield, of Dungarvan, said that the officer in charge of the troops, Lieutenant Griffin, jumped from the lorry and through the hedge, into the position occupied by himself and some men armed with shotguns. He was immediately captured and disarmed. With the officer in charge out of the action so suddenly, Riordan said the demoralized Tommies showed "no stomach" for a fight.
Many recalled a terrible wailing of wounded men coming from the lorry. Some believed a few of the soldiers managed to move into the field to the south and escape. The small amount of return fire shortly ended and Lennon ordered his men to rush the vehicle, shouting for the British to surrender. With the Volunteers shotguns now in the faces of the dozen or so unwounded soldiers, they threw down the rifles and cried out “we surrender!” Volunteer Dick Morrison recalled that on the road the crisp November air was filled with the "smell of burnt candle grease from the home-made shotgun cartridges."
Earlier that day Kevin Barry was hanged at Mountjoy Jail in Dublin. The men of the column had vowed that if Barry was executed, they would hang any British officer they captured. Luckily for Lieutenant Griffin, whom Riordan said looked like a boy, news of Barry’s death had not yet been confirmed, so he was spared. Though the Volunteers all claimed two soldiers were killed and about half a dozen were wounded, the Hampshire Regiment records say just one man died that day, 23-year-old Private Albert Leigh.
RIC Constables Prendiville and O’Neill were walked away from the group. There was talk of shooting them, as they were considered “spies” for the military. Instead, they were released after promising to resign from the RIC. Several months later, at the Burgery ambush, Lennon would make the opposite decision and change the course of his life.
The truck sustained too much damage in the fight to restart and was burned by the Volunteers. So poor Mr. Farrell's lorry became a casualty of the war. Jack 'Skins' Whelan was seen lifting the dying Pvt. Leigh's head to whisper a prayer into his ear The wounded British soldiers were ministered to as best as they could before acquiring a donkey and cart to get them back to Youghal.
(Right: The Blackwater River bridge, looking east from the Youghal side during the war.)
The war would never get quite as brutal in West Waterford as it did just west of there, in County Cork. Constable O’Neill left the RIC as soon as he got back to Youghal, but Prendiville reneged on his promise. He would be killed by a Volunteer sniper on the Blackwater Bridge on December 3rd. On November 5th there was some rioting by members of the 2nd Hampshire in Youghal which was minor by later standards. It was not minor for Private W.G. King, however, as he was shot and killed while breaking into a house by an armed civilian.
The victory would change everything for the West Waterford flying column. The number of Enfield rifles captured was at least 18, and perhaps close to 30, depending on which witness statement you read. And they captured over a thousand rounds of ammo as well and a large number of grenades. They could arm an entire flying column with a modern firearm that was effective at long ranges. They were now a modern, viable, fighting force with the enhanced morale that comes along with a significant victory.
Lennon would continue to lead the column through to the truce. In March 1921 he led a large ambush at the Burgury, near Dungavan, which would leave him traumatized for life. His boyhood friend, Pat Keating, was killed during that ambush and he ordered the execution of RIC Sergeant Michael Hickey.
Lennon would fight on the anti-treaty side in the Civil War and then spend most of the rest of his life in the United States. His war experiences would cause him to become a strident anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and eventually to become a Buddhist.
For many years, probably because of things he did and said in the years after the war, and because he emigrated to the U.S., Lennon himself was never mentioned in any list of the leading commanders of the Irish War of Independence. Irish military historian Terence O'Reilly noted that "incredibly, George Lennon has until recently been effectively airbrushed from Irish history, meriting only fleeting references in a few accounts of the time.” He dedicated his life to Irish freedom at a very young age and deserves better.
You can read more about Lennon at the Burgury ambush and some of his other experiences during the war, and his life after the war here:
"Rebel Heart: George Lennon: Flying Column Commander" by Terence O'Reilly (Book)
"Cry of the Curlew: A history of the West Waterford, Déise Brigade IRA during the Irish War of Independence" by Tommy Mooney and Paul McLoughlin (book)
George Lennon from TG-4: part 1 - 3 parts (Parts 2 and 3 will load automatically)
The Cross of Old Piltown (song video) Martin ó Domhnaill singing "The Cross of Old Piltown," written by Pat Keating, at the unveiling a monument in memory of the Piltown Cross Ambush in 1920.
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