by Shelley Germeaux
Fans of the Beatles know that all four lads were from Liverpool, England, but not as many are aware of the deep Irish heritage that three of them — John, Paul, and George — share. As the world celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, if you get misty-eyed over Ireland while singing along to “Oh Danny Boy”, you might enjoy a bit of Beatles Irish history.
Liverpool has been called the “Capital of Ireland” because an estimated three-quarters of its people have Irish roots. Irish immigrants poured into Liverpool after the 1798 rebellion as well as the Great Famine of the 1840s, greatly impacting its demographic make-up. Three-quarters of the Beatles also have Irish roots– Ringo Starr is the only Beatle with no trace of Irish background.
John Lennon – The Lennon name is an anglicized derivative of the Irish O’Lennon, which is a descendant of the ancient Gaelic Ó Leannáin septs. In ancient Celtic legends, the stag in the crest (here shown as the anglicized “Lennon”) implies spiritual guides or priests. The Gaelic meaning of Ó Leannáin is “love”; ironic considering the message of love that John delivered to the world through songs like “All You Need is Love.”
John, searching for information about his family history, looked up the name “Lennon” in the book Irish Families, Their Names, Arms and Origins by E. MacLysaght in 1974 and found the name “(O’Lennon)”. He quoted from its passages on the booklet included inside his Walls and Bridges album, which reads, “No person of the name Lennon has distinguished himself in the political, military or cultural life of Ireland (or England for that matter).”
John was so amused he included a handwritten quip, “Oh yeh?” underneath the passage. The book has since been updated to say “John Lennon, an outstanding member of the Beatles group, assassinated in 1980, has become well known outside Ireland not only as a talented musician but also for his connection with the Peace Movement.”
During his solo career, John was active in his support of the Irish people, and wrote two songs, “Luck of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (both featured on his 1972 album, Sometime in New York City), in regards to the Northern Ireland conflict as well as the 1972 massacre.
John’s direct ancestral line was misstated for many years due to a mistake that got republished a countless number of times in many books. Most fans know his father was Alfred Lennon (1912-1976) and his grandfather was “Jack” Lennon (1855-1921), born in Liverpool. Newer research clarifies that his great-grandfather was James Lennon, born in County Down, south of Belfast in Northern Ireland, and that James’ father was Patrick Lennon, an Irish farmer.
When the Great Potato Famine ravaged Ireland (also known as the “Irish Potato Famine”), James moved to Liverpool with his future wife Jane McConville and her family before 1849. They lived on Saltney Street, where poverty reigned.
Julia Stanley, John’s mother, was a combination of Irish, British and Welsh on her father’s side. While the Stanley family is British, Julia’s grandmother Elizabeth Gildea was born in 1851 in Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland. (A bit of trivia: Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain’s great grandparents lived just twelve miles east of the Gildea family in Carrickmore, County Tyrone. Interestingly, Kurt always felt a deep admiration for the Beatles and especially John Lennon, sparking his interest in guitar playing from the time he was a child.)
George Harrison – George’s Irish ancestors were from his mother’s French family from County Wexford. According to The Beatles Ireland website, his line traces back to 13th century Norman knights with the name of Ffrench, (with a second f, later dropped) who settled in County Wexford at the time of William the Conqueror. They owned significant landholdings, but when Oliver Cromwell came to power, they were stripped of all their land when they refused to renounce their Catholic beliefs. From then on they lived in poverty, struggling to stay alive on their tiny farm at Corah, County Wexford, which was finally sold by the family in 1911. George maintained strong connections to his Irish cousins. As late as 2001, just before his death, he visited them in Drumcondra, near Dublin (see photo below).
George’s grandfather, John French, moved to Liverpool around the time the farm was sold in the early 1900s, and he and his wife Louise Woollam lived at 9 Arnold Grove and had seven children, including George’s mum Louise. George would later be born at 12 Arnold Grove on February 25, 1943 to Harry and Louise Harrison.
Paul McCartney does have Irish roots on his paternal side, but it’s unclear exactly where they were from. More is known about his mother, Mary Mohin. Mary’s father, Owen Mohin, was from Tullynamalroe in County Monaghan. He changed his surname to ‘Mohan’ and moved to Liverpool, where he worked as a coal-man.
In February 1972, Paul released a single called “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” with his band Wings. It was a response to the events of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland. The song was banned by the BBC for its anti-Unionist political stance, but still managed to reach No. 16 in the UK, and No. 1 in Ireland.
In summary, as we raise our glasses to Ireland this weekend, we can also toast to John, Paul and George’s ancestral homes, which are located up and down the eastern coast of Ireland. John Lennon’s Irish ancestors, from both the Lennon and Gildea lines were the furthest north, in Northern Ireland south of Belfast. Paul McCartney’s Mohin ancestors from Tullynamalroe were 50 miles southwest of Lennon’s ancestral home of County Down. George’s French ancestors lived the furthest south along the eastern coast, 150 miles south of Paul’s in Corah, Wexford.
Shelley Germeaux is the former John Lennon Examiner and former National Music columnist for Examiner.com, and a contributor to Daytrippin’ Magazine. She can be reached here.