Lennon, Peter Gerard (1930–2011), journalist, documentary film-maker and social critic, was born on 28 February 1930 at 30 North Frederick Street, Dublin, the eldest of three sons of Peter Joseph Lennon and his wife Delia (née Fenton). His mother was a former post office worker descended from Tipperary small farmers, who had been involved in the IRA intelligence network during the war of independence. His father was an alcoholic who dissipated the family's house properties and wine merchant business before spending the remainder of his life as a freelance furniture salesman. Lennon described his background as 'shoddy genteel'.
Educated at Synge Street CBS, Dublin, he recalled his schooldays with considerable bitterness, as being dominated by religious brainwashing, corporal punishment, and the instillation of sexual disgust and shame. At age 17 he left school to become a clerk in the Dublin Savings Bank, but found the work boring and disliked the concept of identifying with the bank (he speculated that his instinctive resistance to official authority derived from his mother's republican background). He frequented Dublin's down-at-heel literary pubs, and read James Joyce (qv) and The Bell, the literary/cultural monthly founded by Sean O'Faolain (qv). With the aid of journalist friends, he managed to establish a niche presence on the Dublin papers, ghosting articles for the Irish Press music critic, then doing freelance work for the Press group and some sub-editing at the Irish Times before persuading the latter's editor, R. M. Smyllie (qv), to let him write humorous courtroom sketches in 1954. These came to an end after an offended party sued the paper.
Shortly afterwards, with the assistance of Jack White (qv) (1920–80), Lennon was recruited as editor for a planned local paper in Longford; when the proprietors decided not to proceed, he received five months' severance pay, which he spent on a lengthy visit to Paris. Despite his ignorance of French (he blamed compulsory Irish), he fell in love with the city and moved there in 1955. Securing a residence permit with (exiguous) credentials from the Times and Press as a correspondent, he later supplemented his earnings from this freelance work by teaching English in state schools, and supplied his Dublin papers with a combination of celebrity interviews and human interest stories gleaned from French newspapers. Lennon developed a distaste for the habitual violence of the Parisian police, and strong political sympathies for the Algerian independence struggle; he secured a scoop for the Irish Times by interviewing underground representatives of the Algerian nationalist organisation, the FLN. This caught the attention of the Guardian newspaper, and throughout the 1960s he worked for it as a freelance and contributed a monthly column on Parisian artistic life.
Becoming increasingly familiar with the cultural life of Paris at a time when the city was still regarded as the centre of global culture, he was admitted to the inner circle of Samuel Beckett (qv) (though he regarded their friendship as private and only wrote of it after Beckett's death). Lennon also pursued a number of casual sexual relationships, which he saw as part of his emancipation from Irish provincialism. In 1962 he married Eeva Karikosi, a Finnish student whom he met in Paris; they had a son and a daughter, both born in Paris.
In 1963 Lennon revisited Dublin to report on a festival, and received with scepticism assurances that censorship and the clergy no longer had much influence. This scepticism was confirmed when, after further investigation, he found that no Dublin newspaper would publish his views. The Guardian published four articles (8–11 January 1964) by Lennon under the heading 'Censorship in Ireland'. These covered a much broader range than the title might suggest, including the educational system (which he accused of teaching pupils not to think for themselves), the autocratic rule of Michael Tierney (qv) over UCD, and the influence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv), portrayed as a 'despot' promoting 'a climate of repression' while encouraging the poor to acquiesce in their poverty. The articles caused a considerable stir in Dublin circles, and some journalistic debate, but the only Irish paper to reprint them was the Southern Star of Skibbereen, Co. Cork. McQuaid's surveillance activities had not previously been discussed in print, and Lennon's articles set the tone for a new era of public criticism that lasted for the remainder of the archbishop's life.
Becoming a regular contributor to the Irish newspapers on related matters, Lennon took a leading role in publicising the dismissal of John McGahern (qv) from his teaching position. He argued in the columns of the Irish Times that sexual repression had profoundly damaged the Irish psyche, that extramarital sexual exploration should be treated as a purely private matter, and that the education system should be secularised. His writings were strongly influenced in style and tone by those of O'Faolain (who intervened in these controversies on Lennon's side) and in their central argument that an Irish revolution intended to establish republican social and intellectual equality had been usurped by elites who presented themselves as unchallengeable, God-given authorities and who, by promoting an unreal, idealised image of the country, had blocked the discussion of grievous social problems.
Lennon thought that his own generation, brought up in wartime isolation and provincialism, had been even more conformist than their predecessors, but that the impact of the second Vatican council and of the economic and cultural opening-up that Ireland was experiencing meant that the new generation would no longer tolerate such 'ignorant repression'. In the course of these controversies, he established contact with some TCD students and with Liam Ó Briain (qv), who as a member of the censorship appeals board had upheld the ban on McGahern's novel The dark (1965), but whom Lennon recognised as open to dialogue and refreshingly unpredictable in his views.
Out of these debates emerged the achievement for which Lennon is chiefly remembered: the documentary film Rocky road to Dublin (1968), which he scripted and directed. Although Lennon had followed his hero O'Faolain in contributing short stories to the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Texas Quarterly, his creative ambitions increasingly centred on the cinema. One of the central themes of 1960s French culture was the development of the French nouvelle vague (new wave) cinema, less studio-bound and more populist and technically innovative than its predecessors; Lennon had interviewed many of its leading figures, and listed among the damaging effects of Irish censorship that 'it also strangled at birth a possible [Irish] film industry, since, finicky about “sex”, we sacrificed the vast majority of films which could have demonstrated to us how the cinema can be a valuable medium for reflecting the life of our times' (Ir. Times, 31 October 1966). Lennon's ability to make Rocky road to Dublin (with financing from an Irish-American businessman) centred on his recruitment of the cinematographer Raoul Coutard (1924–2016), who had worked with the major new wave directors.
The film, shot in black and white (mostly for technical reasons, but reinforcing the portrayal of a monochrome society), combines the genres of cinéma-vérité (social realism) and cinéma-stylo (film as personal statement by the director). It features interviews with a variety of individuals. Some, including O'Faolain and a group of Trinity students, discourse on the shortcomings of Irish society (as does Lennon's sardonic voiceover). Others, including a GAA official who defends the ban on 'foreign games', and a group of confirmation students at Synge Street who try to explain catechism formulae that they clearly do not understand, unconsciously illustrate these shortcomings. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is Fr Michael Cleary (qv) – supplied by the Dublin archdiocese as exemplifying the 'go-ahead' younger clergy – whose intrusive showmanship was noted disapprovingly even by contemporary critics, and whose unconscious role in the film was later described by Lennon: 'Fr Cleary gave a perfect illustration of how Ireland's KGB – the clergy – operated. They were your father, your brother, your non-drinking drinking pal; they would sing “The Chattanooga shoe shine boy” for you if you were dying in hospital. They were there to remind you, in the friendliest way, of your inherent tendency to evil and extol the virtues of celibacy' (Guardian, 11 October 2004). Interviews were interspersed with scenes of a younger generation at play in the streets, at dances, and in pubs, their life spirit symbolised by the folk music of the Dubliners.
The film was criticised by Irish commentators on its release. (Lennon noted that some privately admitted they had not seen it, while others criticised the public expression of attitudes they maintained in private.) Selected for presentation at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, it was screened immediately before the festival was closed down by the nationwide French protests of May 1968. Lennon responded to les événements with enthusiasm, assisting the impromptu showing of his film to Parisian audiences of students and workers, who identified with its theme of a revolution betrayed. Proud to have been a soixante-huitard, he believed that although the protests fizzled out, their long-term effect was a healthy dispelling of deference.
The film later received a commercial release in France to widespread critical acclaim, was shown at the Cork film festival, and played for several weeks to packed houses at a Dublin cinema. It then largely dropped from view, but from the 1980s was hailed by Irish film critics such as Kevin Rockett as a pioneering work of social exploration. In 2004 a fully restored version was released, together with a documentary directed by Paul Duane, The making of Rocky road to Dublin; both were included on a DVD released in 2005. The film is now generally recognised as a classic, though some critics think it patronising towards its subjects and that Lennon's overuse of irony sometimes blurs his message. Although he told a New York Times interviewer in 1968 that it would take 'ten more movies' to get Ireland out of his system, he never directed another film.
In 1970, having been laid off by the Guardian owing to declining interest in French events (he successfully sued for severance pay), Lennon moved with his family to London, where he spent ten years as a features writer on the Sunday Times. He was heavily involved in that paper's coverage of the Northern Ireland troubles, taking a generally pro-nationalist but not pro-paramilitary standpoint. Moving to the Listener magazine in 1980, he provoked controversy in 1983 by publicising the dominance of Northern Ireland film and television by protestant executives, who he suggested meant well but could not fully grasp the nationalist standpoint. In 1985 he returned to the Guardian, becoming a contracted staff member in 1989. He wrote extensively on film, travel, France, and the Northern Ireland peace process, and commented sardonically on the waves of clerical abuse scandals that swamped the catholic church in Ireland from the early 1990s, seeing these revelations as vindicating his earlier criticisms. (Rocky road had a notable stylistic influence on the socially critical documentaries of Mary Raftery (1957–2012)). In 1994 Lennon published a memoir of his Parisian experiences, containing some material on his early life and the making of Rocky road. He finally retired in 2005, and died in London on 18 March 2011.
Lennon's reputation has been dominated by Rocky road to Dublin, often seen purely in the context of cinema history. A comprehensive study of his journalism, however, reveals him as a significant social critic in the tradition of O'Faolain as well as an example of the opening-up of Irish social debate from the 1960s and the increasing transition of Irish culture from the literary to the audio-visual realm.