Peter Lennon: Film-maker and journalist whose film 'Rocky Road to Dublin' was effectively banned in Ireland for 35 years

Peter Lennon used to say of his documentary Rocky Road to Dublin that "the French saw it as a film, the Irish as an insult." Lennon was one of those absentee Irishmen obsessed by their native country. The stylish wit, film-maker ahead of his time, observant and iconoclastic journalist, started out on a rocky road of his own.

His father had inherited a Dublin wine merchant business only to drink it into bankruptcy, leaving the family dependent on his uncertain commissions as a second-hand furniture salesman. Peter would wait outside the pub hoping to get money off his dad. The pious mother held the family together. He recalled "indulging on our knees, in sweet, deeply emotional recitation of the rosary on bad nights and [had] frothy cream buns to celebrate good days." He liked to describe himself as "shabby genteel".

After school with the Christian Brothers he joined the Dublin Savings Bank on the site of the old city morgue. One of the cashiers doubled as music critic for the Irish Press. The man was terrified of putting his observations into words, and persuaded the young Lennon, who couldn't strum a guitar, to write the reviews for him. Lennon extended his freelance work and departed the world of finance.

The greenhorn was offered theeditorship of a new weekly in Longford, only for the proprietor to lose his nerve on the eve of the first edition. Paid off with five weeks' wages, he fled to Paris, then in its post-war existentialist heyday. When the money ran out, the adventure seemed over. But his train home, which was carrying a group of Irishwomen returning from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, struck a lorry at a level crossing.

The next day his report on their escape was splashed across the Irish press. He returned to France, freelancing for The Guardian, writing features on a tipsy Eugene Ionesco, Salvador Dali attired in woollen pyjamas, and a clandestine meeting with Algerian freedom fighters. The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly bought his short stories.

He and Samuel Beckett met regularly in the Closerie de Lilas to reminisce about the old country over a brace or three of whiskeys. Lennon idolised him, though in his memoir Foreign Correspondent, Paris in the Sixties, he recalls the day he confided to the Nobel laureate that he might be marrying Eeva, his Finnish girl friend. "You're about to take the plunge, then," Beckett observed. Lennon was disappointed. "You would think that a great literary genius might have offered a more stylish comment on such a hazardous undertaking."

Film, however, was his driving passion. He had managed a fleeting appearance in Jacques Tati's Playtime. Now he decided to make a documentary that would expose the failings of the new republic of Ireland. The coup was to persuade Raoul Coutard, the cameraman who had worked with the Nouvelle Vague director François Truffaut, to shoot the film in Ireland. Coutard helped turn Rocky Road to Dublin into a rollicking, devastating critique of the "revolution betrayed". The style anticipated Michael Moore by a generation and remains riveting viewing to this day.

Lennon took on the Catholic clergy and the educational system it controlled, the anti-cricket-football-rugby Gaelic sporting establishment and, of course, the censor – who admitted, sadly, he couldn't ban Rocky Road as there was no sex in it. No need; after a brief run in an obscure Dublin cinema, the establishment made sure it waited another 35 years to be seen again in Ireland.

Ironically, it was shown at the 1968 Cannes film critics' week, as the official Irish entry, after which Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard suspended the festival in solidarity with the striking Paris students. Footage of the event shows a furious Lennon standing up in the audience to berate this arbitrary behaviour. First, thwarted by the right, now by the left. At least Rocky Road was seen by the Paris students, who sympathised with its strident take on the revolution that went wrong.

Soon afterwards The Guardian withdrew his retainer. Incensed that after freelancing for 10 years he was not even offered a severance payment, he consulted a lawyer, who threatened to have every copy of the newspaper in France seized. The paper duly paid up and Lennon, with Eeva and their children Suzanne and Sam, moved to London, where he was hired by Harry Evans to write features for The Sunday Times.

I first met him in the paper's Belfast office, where he offered his workmates an insider view of the Northern Ireland troubles. At the dinner table, over Eeva's hotpot of reindeer bought from the Finnish mission for seamen, he would regale guests with the absurdities of pettifogging officialdom, clergy, government or (often) the builder who almost brought his house down. Later he returned to The Guardian, to the dismay of those who thought they'd seen the last of him. He was always first in the queue when a feature piece on his beloved France was on offer. On his retirement, the paper held an exhibition of his photography.

In 2004, Paul Duane's short documentary, The Making of the Rocky Road to Dublin, revived interest in the original, which had been restored by the Irish Film Board, no less. Lennon chuckled at the revelation that the priest offered to him by the Bishop of Dublin as an example of the model modern clergy had all the time enjoyed the favours of a lady friend on the side. It wasn't schadenfreude; he was too generous for that.

Denis Herbstein

Peter Gerard Lennon, film-maker and journalist: born Dublin 28 February 1930; married 1962 Eeva Karikoski (one daughter, one son); died London 18 March 2011.

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