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