Michael Lonergan was one of the pioneering founders of Na Fianna Eireann in 1909 and played a crucial part in the success of the Fianna in Dublin, and indeed in Ireland, in its early days.
When Michael’s family emigrated from Tipperary to New York, USA in 1907 Lonergan made the shorter move from Tipperary to Dublin to take up work as a clerk at Clery’s department store on O’Connell Street. He joined An Cead Sluagh (1st Company/Branch) on its formation on August 16th 1909 at 34 Lower Camden Street and, according to Padraig O’Riain, within six months his “military genius became obvious”.
Eamon Martin, future Fianna Chief of Staff, also recalled his first impressions of Lonergan, saying that:
“…it was soon discovered we had a natural instructor in the person of Michael Lonergan from Tipperary. Michael had the figure and walk, the dapper style of dress, the typical crisp voice of command, and all the mannerisms, without the slightest sign of embarrassment, which add up to the making of the perfect officer”.
Garry Holohan, later Fianna QMG, remembers Lonergan being a:
“very competent drill instructor, and succeeded in bringing us up to a very high standard of efficiency”.
Lonergan was appointed as the first ‘leader’ of An Cead Sluagh shortly after he joined. With the subsequent expansion of the Fianna, he left An Cead Sluagh in the capable hands of those who he had personally trained and, as Captain, took charge of the 3rd Dublin Company, known as Sluagh Emmet.
As a member, and assistant secretary, of the Dublin District Council he led efforts to establish other Fianna branches across the Dublin region. He soon stepped up his energies to include the rest of Ireland and became relentless in his pursuit of new recruits and demanded perfection and discipline from existing scouts. He stated that until:
“we have every boy in the country in our organization, can we consider our task completed. When every county has its Battalions, every townland has its Companies, every village and hamlet its Sections, then can we turn our hands to something more…..”
Sean Prendergast, Fianna officer and future O/C of ‘C’ Company, 1st Battalion, Irish Volunteers, offered his memories of Lonergan:
“Our Captain [Lonergan] seemed to be the best placed of the lot and apparently living comfortably. He was so neatly, so tidily dressed, indeed he was outstanding, not so much because of his dress but because of his military bearing and generally good form and make up. He was a very active dashing type of character, especially when he was dressed in his neat and evenly fitting uniform – so distinctive, so elegant, and so truly military. A fine genuine, manly type was Micheál. On or off parade he was still the same; or rather should I say, on parade he was the real officer type, who knew his work and knew how to get others to learn theirs. He was our senior in age, in position and presumably in intellectual, gifts.
Yet his general behaviour and conduct towards us never showed the strain of being high-headed or hard-hearted, but on the contrary consideration and regard of a very high order. Not only was he impressive, but he gave every example of kindness, consideration and nobility. His very presence acted as a tonic to us, inspired us and made us feel a certain kinship to him.
Mick Lonergan was known to be a keen student of American military training, the American army and the American Boy Scout movement. Indeed, the impression one got of him was that he modelled himself on those patterns.
We could always feel proud to acclaim him as “Our Captain”. Though older than most of us he had a heart as young and gay as any; yet one could ever look up to him because of his talents, ant the interest he took in us, his boys, and also because of his eminently commanding ways. He set many examples, taught many lessons, in cleanliness, in discipline and attention to detail. His was a keen, practical, military mind that soon mastered the technique of drill. It was his pet hobby which he had learned from A to Z”
In Michael Lonergan’s witness statement to the Bureau of Military History in 1948, he recalled being “the first man in Ireland who taught Patrick Pearse to form fours”.
As the Boy Scout organisation grew, Lonergan was promoted to ‘Major’ commanding the entire Dublin Fianna.
In the spring of 1912 he designed the new Fianna uniform and based it on a type of American military uniform. Through his job at Clery’s department store he was able to obtain suitable material and came up with a new style of uniform of a double breasted shirt with brass buttons. He availed of the services of a dressmaker from Marlborough Street in Dublin who agreed to put them together. The uniform was endorsed by the Fianna Ard Fheis at the Mansion House in July of that year.
1912 was a busy period for Michael Lonergan as it was also the year he joined the secret Fenian organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He was sworn in by Con Colbert and became a member of the exclusive Fianna circle called the “John Mitchell Literary and Debating Society”.
In July of 1913 the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided to begin the process of military training in anticipation of the founding of a Volunteer force. This decision was taken with the objective of training the members of the I.R.B. to make sure that they would be ready to take a leading and prominent role in the new movement. Michael Lonergan and three other Fianna Eireann officers, Eamon Martin, Cornelius Colbert and Padraig O’Riain, were chosen to conduct the training. These four young Fianna/IRB men were chosen for their competency in military procedures and drilling.
When the Irish Volunteers were eventually formed in November of 1913, Lonergan was appointed to the first committee, which became known as the “Provisional Committee”. Joining Lonergan on that Irish Volunteers committee were, among others, Patrick Pearse, Sean MacDermott, Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill, Eamonn Ceannt, Piaras Beaslai, Tomas MacDonagh and Liam Mellows.
Around this time, preparations were underway for the publishing of an official Fianna handbook. Michael had an influential role in planning for the content and layout of the book, in particular the drilling, signaling and scouting section and contributed several of the book’s illustrations.
Throughout these early pioneering years of the Fianna, Lonergan’s family frequently asked him to join them in the United States; despite his love of Ireland and his passion for the Fianna and the newly founded Irish Volunteers, these constant appeals eventually persuaded him in 1914 to ‘up sticks’ and leave his homeland to be re-united with his family in New York City.
A statement was released by the Fianna Central Council wishing Michael well and the best of luck in his new life. They commented that he was:
“one of the most energetic workers in the Fianna, and his loss will be felt profoundly by the movement. Men may be divided into two classes – those who do things and those who make excuses. Certainly the Major is one of the former”.
The officers and members of the Dublin Battalion arranged a memorable ‘send off’ and a special presentation to Major Lonergan.
Michael settled down to life in America and worked in a bank in New York’s financial district however moving from Ireland didn’t mean the end of his ideals and dreams for the ‘old country’ and he soon joined Irish-American organizations whose aims were to further the cause of Irish Independence.
In a letter sent to his old comrades on the Fianna executive he told of being inspired by watching the annual Bodenstown pilgrimage in 1914 on a newsreel in a movie theatre and he recalled that “the Fianna got a good cheer as they marched past on the screen”. He went on to say that their “kinsfolk in America have learned of our doings in connection with the Howth gun-runnings, and immediately the value of our organization jumped in their estimation”.
With this momentum, he set about establishing an honorary Fianna organization to be known as “The Fianna League of America”. He contacted as many prominent Irish-Americans as he could to assist in this new movement. Among those who he contacted, and who eventually agreed to help, were John Kenny, President of the Irish Volunteers committee in New York, Joseph McGarrity of Clan na Gael, P.J. Conway President of the Irish American Athletic Club, Patrick Kavanagh, President of the New York Gaelic League, Michael Murray, President of the Shamrock Club, John Carroll, President of the Irish Republican Veteran’s association, and a host of other well connected Irish Americans. The League was successful in fundraising for the movement. The Fianna back in Ireland were glad to hear that “their lone scout [in America] had not been idle”.
In later years Michael went on to become executive secretary of the American Irish Association.
Given Michael Lonergan’s role and standing in both Na Fianna Eireann and the newly formed Irish Volunteers it is likely he would have went on to play a pivotal role in the 1916 Rising and subsequent War of Independence had he remained in Ireland. However despite leaving in 1914, Michael still played an important part in the movement through his efforts to increase the awareness of what was happening back home and his dedicated and valuable fundraising initiatives. A true unsung hero of the Fianna, and of Ireland.
Article by Eamon Murphy
One of the victims of the Bachelor’s Walk massacre in 1914 was Sylvester Pidgeon. He died on September 24th from wounds he received on July 26th. He was a printer by trade and operated a business on Merchant’s Quay in Dublin. He was a nationalist, a fluent Irish speaker and most likely a member of the Gaelic League.
He was married with five children however two daughters, Eileen and Elizabeth had died before him, one of those sadly died two days earlier on 22nd September; the other a year before. His three surviving children were John, Mary and Sylvester Jr.
John went on to join the Fianna after 1916 and became 2nd Lieutenant of ‘A’ Company of the South Dublin Fianna Battalion from 1918 -1920 (at that stage there were North and South Dublin battalions). Following the re-organization of the Fianna Battalion in late 1920/early 1921 into five Battalion areas, John was transferred to the Irish Volunteers/IRA.
Here is a letter from John to Eamon Martin applying for a Fianna medal and Certificate.
“The Fianna of today are the third heroic comradeship that has borne that name. The first Fianna, the Fianna of Fionn, have been dead for nearly 2,000 years. A few old grey-haired men, the veterans of the second Fianna, are still with us. The lads of the third Fianna, the familiar green-shirted, bare-kneed young soldiers who have prepared the way for our Irish Volunteers inherit the gallant name and tradition of the ancient Fianna and the mighty purpose of the modern Fenians. Were ever boys heirs to such a great inheritance?” – Patrick Pearse 1914
Seamus Courtney was born in Cork City in 1897. His father Daniel, a blacksmith, was originally from Passage West. His mother Kate was from the Gortatlea area in Kerry. The Courtney’s lived in a small one bedroomed terraced house in the Hibernian Buildings just off Albert Road in Cork. The Courtney family home was right in the heart of Cork’s Jewish quarter, or ‘Jewtown’ as it was known to the locals, and at its height in 1910 had about 350 Jews living there, a good deal originating from Lithuania, mostly all congregating in or around the Hibernian Buildings. Despite the large Jewish community living around the Hibernian Buildings, a significant proportion of the local families were also Irish Catholics. Many of these were staunch nationalists, including the Courtneys. Others of note were the Smyths, Cotters, Mulcahys, Fitzgerald, and the Riordans; all of whom participated in the upcoming Independence movement in one way or another.
In 1912 when Seamus was fifteen years old, and having only just left school, he joined the Cork branch of the Irish National Boy Scouts, otherwise known as Na Fianna Eireann, which at that early stage held meetings at the Gaelic League headquarters An Dún in Queen Street. The Cork City Fianna branch had only been in existence for about a year but Seamus’ leadership qualities soon became apparent and he quickly rose up through the ranks and became leader of the Cork City Sluagh shortly after he joined. His leadership skills were also recognized beyond Cork City and he was soon in command of the Cork County Fianna by 1914. At that time there were branches throughout the county in places such as Blarney, Cobh, Douglas, Blackrock and Youghal. Courtney also represented Cork on the Munster Fianna Council, which had delegates from Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick and Kerry.
By this stage Seamus also became associated with the Irish Volunteers (IV) which had been founded in late 1913 and while he devoted the greater part of his time organizing, recruiting and training the Fianna, he was also regarded as an experienced and valuable officer by the Volunteer hierarchy in Cork, and he assisted in training of new Volunteer recruits.
At the Munster Fianna Convention held in Limerick in the summer of 1915 Courtney was appointed Commandant or O/C of the entire Munster Fianna organization. He delegated his previous role as head of the Cork Fianna to his able deputy and close friend Sean Healy.
In January 1916 Seamus took part in a week long ‘Officers Course’ held at Irish Volunteers HQ in Sheares Street, Cork City. Following orders received from IV Cork City Battalion O/C Sean O’Sullivan, in the days leading up to the Easter Rising, Seamus Courtney and Sean Healy mobilized about 20 senior Fianna Eireann officers at the Volunteers Hall in Sheares Street. On Easter Sunday morning the Fianna paraded in the Hall and several of them remained at Sheares Street for the rest of the week on standby.
Following the Rising the Fianna and Irish Volunteers were re-organised in Cork. In March 1917 a meeting of Fianna and Volunteer officers at Sheares Street was raided by the police and the names of those present, including Seamus Courtney and Sean Healy of the Fianna, were recorded. A week later, during the night Seamus and Sean were both arrested at their homes. The other officers had been tipped off about the imminent arrests but Courtney and Healy were not told as it was felt that they would not be arrested as they were too young. They were brought to the Bridewell detention centre in the city. They were charged with illegal drilling at the hall in Sheares Street, when they were clearly not doing anything of the sort and, despite their protests, were sentenced to eighteen months hard labour. It was subsequently reduced to three months on account of their age. They were sent to Cork Gaol. They served the full three months in harsh conditions and were released.
The Fianna organized a large welcome reception for Seamus and Sean the night of their release and the following Saturday another function was held where a presentation was made to each of them in the form of specially made inscribed Fianna wallets with ten pounds inside.
Once settled back into the regular routine of work and the movement, Seamus suggested to Sean and the other officers, about the possibility of inviting Countess Markievicz down from Dublin on behalf of the local branch of Fianna Eireann. Markievicz was only recently released from prison herself, and Seamus felt it would be a boost for the movement in Cork, a tribute to her and an honour for the Cork Fianna to have her as a guest in the city. Markievicz accepted the invite and Seamus began making plans for her stay. He booked City Hall for the occasion and arranged a full concert programme complete with a céilidh afterwards. He placed an advert in the local newspaper announcing her visit and arranged a horse drawn open carriage to collect her from the train station. The visit was a tremendous success and the streets were thronged with thousands of Corkonians hoping to catch a glimpse of this famous rebel woman. The concert itself was another triumph and Markievicz received a standing ovation when she took to the stage. Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney were so impressed with Seamus taking the initiative of organising the whole event and his tireless efforts with the Fianna, that they co-opted him onto the Battalion Council of the Irish Volunteers.
In October of that year (1917) another round up of senior Cork Volunteer and Fianna officers took place, this time there was no tip off and in total about 60 senior Republicans, including Seamus, found themselves behind bars. Following sentencing, they all received various terms of hard labour. A meeting of the prisoners was held and it was decided to start a hunger strike. Four days later they were all released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ act.
Towards the end of spring, 1918, Seamus’ health rapidly deteriorated, due to ill treatment he received, and the hard labour conditions, during his two prison stays and the brief hunger strike. He gave up his job as secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and also found himself unable to devote his time to Fianna activities. He went to stay with his Aunt on their farm near Ballymacelligott in Kerry. It was hoped the fresh air and a well needed rest would help Seamus back to his feet however about five weeks later word was sent to his comrades in Cork that he was in a bad way and was not expected to pull through. He requested to see his old friend Sean Healy and following a visit Sean remarked that he was “shocked at the change in him in such a short time”. Two weeks after Sean’s visit to Kerry, on the 22nd of July 1918, Seamus passed away aged only 21 years old.
Seamus’ coffin was sent from Kerry to Cork by train and was draped with a tricolour by the Kerry Fianna. A huge crowd met the train and followed the Fianna guard of honour through the streets of Cork to the South Parish Church. A large crowd attended his funeral the next day, which was organized by Sean Healy and the Cork Fianna. The burial took place at Passage West.
In the years following Seamus’ sad passing, his resting place was devotedly tended to by two local men, former Fianna members, George Hurley and Charlie Meaney. As time went on and these two men passed away themselves, the grave at Passage West became neglected. Recently the Irish Volunteers Commemorative Organization (IVCO), a national organization but based in Cork, decided that it was now time that Seamus’ grave was once again given the attention and care it deserves. Credit must go to all the local Cork members of the IVCO who have ensured that Seamus and his brave deeds will not be forgotten.
By Eamon Murphy
Na Fianna Eireann recruitment poster from Belfast, 1914.
Note the addresses listed at the bottom – the girls branch which was called “The Betsy Gray” Sluagh met weekly at Berry Street on Tuesday nights.
This branch formed in 1911 and was the first ‘female’ branch in Ireland (and subsequently the only one). It only had about 20 members initially but rose to about 50 girls at its height. Ina and Nora Connolly were ‘officers’ in the Sluagh; Annie O’Boyle was its O/C. The girls from ‘Betsy Gray’ Sluagh attended the national Fianna Ard Fheis in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Their first appearance at the national congress in 1912 caused a bit of controversy amongst the boys in Dublin and prompted a heated debate amongst delegates on whether girls should be admitted to the organisation. The ‘Betsy Gray’ Sluagh remained in operation until about 1915 when most of the girls joined Cumann na mBan.