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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Major General. James Lillis

(1897-1988)

Soldier

Source: Carloviana - December, 1998 No. 46. Pages 86- 87.


Major General. James Lillis.

Born Tullow, Co. Carlow

Service Corps -Supply and Transport

Senior appointments held:
Commanding Officer Military College 1950-51
GOC. Curragh Command 1951-52
Assistant Chief-of-Staff 1952-55
Quartermaster General 1955-58.

Written for Carloviana by Martin J. Lynch

In Ireland's long history, heroic times never lacked like-minded men and women to answer the call. In the case-file of such remarkable men under 'L' one will readily find the name of Jim Lillis, patriot, volunteer and late Major General of the Anny.

Coming from a very Nationalist family on both sides gave some indication of the revolutionary, organiser and artificer of a fledgling Nation who was born in the year 1897. On the baby's mother side there were links to James Roche (1772-1863), father of William Roche, an insurgent at Vinegar Hill. The birth took place at 41 Dublin Street Tullow.

His mother, Elizabeth Roche, daughter of a well-known family had met his father, Thomas Lillis, a Clareman, when he had taken up the post of teacher to the Carlow workhouse (where the Vocational School now stands). Thomas went on to found the Carlow Branch of the Gaelic League, with the help of the 1916 patriot, Michael O'Hanrahan.

His comfortable stimulating environment must have changed dramatically when his father died prematurely in 1909. Two years later Jim and his brother (who was ultimately to survive him) Thomas were sent to his father's native place, Cooraclare, Co. Clare to be reared by an aunt. He is fondly remembered there today. A sister Anna had meanwhile died; further trying his young mother in those improvised pensionless times.

Jim returned to Carlow's CBS and progressed onward to the De la Salle Teacher Training College, in Waterford, where he was distinguished by being a prize-winner in, not surprisingly maths! Jim's first and only job as a teacher was in Brownstown NS where his excursions into academia ended for good after a mere three years. Active service beckoned - Jim had been among the first to enlist when the Volunteers were formed in Dublin's Rotunda Concert Rooms (later the Ambassador Cinema) in 1913 in reaction to Carson's Oath of Blood.

By 1920 the Tans and Auxiliaries were on the rampage. Lillis joined 'C' Company, 6~' Carlow Battalion with Pie Rank of Volunteer; within weeks he was promoted to Adjutant under Liam Stack (Sept. Oct. 1920). He served a mere two months in this position, forerunner of his future life, before he was forced to take over as temporary-Officer Commanding between October and December, 1920.

Jim Lillis was obviously one of Collin's trusted 'outer' circle of rural (the inner circle were the 'Twelve Apostles' of Dublin) disciples. As such, around the time of the relentless raids on the British G-men, which culminated in the Croke Park Bloody Sunday atrocity, the Big Fellow gave him a personal job, He was ordered to execute a G-man who had been uncovered living with his wife in Athy. Lillis with his squad broke into the agent's house but the heart-rendering pleas of the man's spouse altered the adamant resolve of the 23 year old IRA Officer and Lillis gave the British operative till night fall to be on the mailboat. Holyhead saw an unexpected visitor the next dawn!

A factor of those stirring times often forgotten about was the fear, danger and discomfort to the local uninvolved populace. This is vividly portrayed in Isabel Lacky-Watson's Diary of an Irish Country Gentlewoman (quoted in Carlow Gentry). Briefly, a gang ransacked the newly-delivered mother's house and made off with their booty. Lillis was very likely 'the IRA captain' (there were only two in the Carlow Brigade area) who under this captain's own oath of protection for the family, arranged a 'parade' of the perpetrators. The stolen items were returned one-by-one. All the captain asked was a notice in the paper to the effect the IRA had righted the wrong! It was to deter other such malefactors attempting a repeat. Tipped-off in April 1921, Lillis left Ducketts Grove IRA HQ and went on the run, hiding in his old haunt, the workhouse. It was here, that he and Dr. Paddy Dundon (grandfather of broadcaster, Olivia O'Leary) were betrayed and he was interned in the Rath Camp, the Curragh, along with 1,200 others. Under the cover of a strike among the internees, the guard-tower sentry, fearing a false alarm, failed to fire, the escapees vanished in the mist. The Headmaster of his old school, Brownstown, sheltered him.

He was to act as Brigade Adj., at Carlow from October 1921 till he marched in to take over command of the British barracks on February. 9th 1922. He had previously selected men from the various Carlow battalions to form the 'Old Twenty' for this express purpose. Despite six weeks drilling and preparation it was a very motley crew who eventually marched in to the cheers of the small crowd. 'Up the Volunteers, three cheers for the Volunteers'. Dressed in civilian clothes with a few Sam Brownes thrown in, the 'Old Twenty's' arms matched the ensembles! There were Short and Long Lee Enfields. 'Peter the Painter' Mausers and Danny Dobbyn sported a pre-Boer war le Henry! The 'Twenty' were made up of such men as 'Skinner Foley', Tom Nolan (Ballitore). Larry Byrne, Peter Gorman (Castledermot) and Michael Grogan of Carlow (later to also achieve high Army rank). The popular 'character’ Parky Fitzpatrick was the other officer. The Union flag was hauled down, arms were presented and the British marched out, headed by Major Dorman-Smith (subject of my previous article) who had his own rendezvous with destiny and literature.

Like many of that heroic generation, Jim was to find time to court and win a bride, Gabrielle, somewhere between being on the run and planning mayhem against the Crown! Gabrielle was to loyally support him till her death 43 years later in 1965. An infant daughter, Una, died, but the young couple produced their first son, Seamus by 1923. Seamus was to rise from the rank of private to that of Captain. Daughters Maureen, Mona, Gay, Von, and Rita (O'Quigley of Kilmeany) soon followed.

Seeing the democratic will of the people made manifest in the divisive but decisive vote of the Dail. Lillis took the pro-Treaty side. On this principle, he and others were to metamorphose their revolutionary irregular anny into a loyal martial arm of the Legislature. No mean feat, when across the world fascism and communism were the inevitable outcome of such struggles in the troubled Twenties.

Jim met his mentor, Michael Collins, around this time. He thought the Big Fellow a 'determined man with outstanding leadership qualities, a straight man'.

He was to sit on the court-martial boards of many of his former brethren-in-arms as the Free State sought to gain the upper hand. The most noteworthy of these was that of Erskine Childers. the ex-British Navy aviator and journalist ('Riddle of the Sand's’), who was also father of the future President. He was to say little, not surprisingly, of these happenings in later life.

His intelligence gathering experience was put to immediate good use by the Government when he successfully (as a countryman, probably unknown to Dublin republicans!) infiltrated a meeting of the Anti-Treaty side in Moran's Hotel, in Dublin's Talbot Street on 29 March 1922 headed by the future Franco-supporter and then Chief of Staff of the IRA, Boin O'Duffy. At this a 'dictatorship' was in effect declared, whereby all officers were freed of their obedience to the lawful Free State Government and were to answer directly to O'Duffy. All undertakings to other Governments were also abrogated. This was how close our country- came to fascism and anarchy but for the tenacity and loyalty to the people of such servants as Lillis. The following day a detailed report, including the names, of the proceedings appeared in The Freeman's Journal' to the obvious chagrin of certain parties. Jim's most 'public' contribution to the Civil War was the probable result when, that very night the unfortunate and famous newspaper was torched to the ground!

Lillis' solid pro-Government stance was emphasized during the second Curragh Mutiny, which occurred in 1924. Something like 50,000 men were being mustered out of the Army perforce of straiteneci economic circumstances and for obvious strategic reasons. The desperation of men who had fought for Ireland and were being turned out with no prospects must have been heart wrenching but with the help of steady cool heads such as his a peaceful ending was achieved.

He was sent on a Staff course to Aldershot in 1930 and it was here he was to experience the second thing he was to hold in common with his picturesque and colourful predecessor at Carlow Barracks, the British Officer. Dorman-Smith. He had a clash with the future Montgomery of Alemein! Lillis was in charge of a convoy. One of his trucks collided with the infantry while he was overseeing proceedings from a motorcycle sidecar. Monty approached in a fury and despite being an Antrim man himself refused to recognise Lillis' Irish commission. Jim's unit officer received the official complaint but instantly tore it up; stating Monty was 'a source of trouble'. This was something that was never to desert the egocentric pompous Monty in subsequent clashes with Dorman-Smith. Eisenhower and Patron.

Returning to Ireland Jim laid the foundations of the Supply and Transport corps as it transformed itself from British-inherited hardware and horsepower to a modern motorised force. He was made its first Director in 1935. After the outbreak of the Second World War he procured new vehicles and a logistic back up for the rapid expansion of the 'Emergency Defence Forces. He was to act as Director until his appointment as OC. the Curragh Military College in 1950.

In his remaining eight years of active service he was to be OC. the Curragh and Asst. Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces while also being Quarter-Master General.

He was somewhat prematurely, by his reckoning, retired at the age of 61 in 1958. His only health problem, apart from an old wound, was a slight touch of sciatica! In all he had served his country on 'active service' for 41 of his years (i.e. since 1917) as his Active Service Medal (1917-1921) with bar attested.

On his retirement his pace never slackened. Unfortunately, in 1965 his loyal and never flagging wife was to go to her reward. He became, remarkably 'house-trained' even if he had been a young man of those pre-liberation days! Scones and home baked cakes were the order of the day for visitors to his comfortable Blackrock home.

He was the founding President of the Supply and Transport Corps Officers Club wherein he served for 10 years until succeeded by his Deputy-, one Liam Cosgrave,T.D.! An indication of the small intimate community that Ireland was during those early years of retirement was a letter of his adventures on his first visit to America to visit his daughter. In it he expresses surprise he doesn't knew the stewardesses! He, in the same letter, showed himself in no little way an excellent judge of character and men. He was 'honoured' by being brought to meet the (in)famous Mayor, 'Boss' Daly (he of the Chicago Democratic Convention baton-charge) and was not impressed by what he calls the 'great man'. He took a keen interest in the setting up of the Carlow Museum and contributed personal items to it.

He was to, surprisingly, survive his wife by a quarter of a century and when he succumbed to take his well-earned rest at Blackrock Clinic on Stephen's Day, 1988 he had lived alone in a most active and satisfying retirement for 30 years. He had been able to enjoy an extended family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had seen his own son. Seamus, like him, rise from the ranks to retire early as Captain. His son-in-law, Aidan Lenihan, succeed to his old post of Director of Supply and Transport, He was one of four Carlow men to reach the rank of Major General in the modem army, but none had his astonishing record of fully active service to his country.

Source: Carloviana - December, 1998 No. 46. Pages 86- 87.


Burrin Street Bridge 1923

Plate 55: - In 1923 soldiers of the newly-established Free State Army marched across Burrin Bridge to take possession of the Old Union Workhouse on the Kilkenny Road. The move had aroused controversy, the old and infirm had to he moved to the former British military barracks in Barrack Street. The Free State commanding officer had stated that if the Union was still occupied he would remove all occupants, inmates and staff.

Source: Michael Purcell & "Carlow in old picture postcards"