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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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