He was the military commander of the anti-Treaty forces whose death in April 1923 was the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Gerard Shannon tells the story of the last days of Liam Lynch.
On the night of 9 April 1923, from a safehouse at the base of the Knockmealdown Mountains, General Liam Lynch wrote a dispatch to ‘Pa’ Murray, O/C of the IRA in Britain. Murray was feeling enormous pressure in his command area where he had seen the arrests of over 100 IRA Volunteers by that March. Murray had offered his resignation, which Lynch, as the IRA Chief of Staff, refused to accept. Lynch replied, ‘I’m confident if we stand united, victory is certain.’
Lynch had written similar words of encouragement many times throughout the Civil War. Yet his heart was not in this conflict – so different in nature to the War of Independence against British rule. In September 1922, he wrote to his brother Tom, ‘The disaster of this war is sinking to my very bones … who could have dreamt all our hopes could have been so blighted.’ In December of that year, he wrote to his mother, ‘Would that England’s hounds had tracked me down rather than old comrades who had been false to their allegiance.’
At the IRA Convention in March 1922, Lynch was a natural choice to be elected Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty section of the IRA. He was a figure of considerable military prestige, with a strong reputation as the O/C of Cork No. 2 during the War of Independence. While opposed to the Treaty, Lynch was determined to find an accommodation with pro-Treaty figures such as Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, and felt a unified IRA was the best way to stave off civil war. Shocked at the outbreak of the conflict on the 28 June 1922, Lynch deliberately avoided any further peace efforts after a collapsed truce in Limerick about a week into the Civil War, feeling his opponents acted in bad faith in the preceding months.
Despite republican demoralisation at the lack of military success by early 1923, along with the regular spate of executions and imprisonments by the Free State authorities, the respect for Lynch by many of those under his command remained considerable. Todd Andrews later said that only Lynch’s ‘iron will’ had kept the Civil War going for republicans until the time of his death.
The IRA Executive, headed by Lynch, met at two separate locations in rural north Waterford between 23 and 26 March 1923 against the backdrop of a major sweep by National Army forces in the area. Frank Aiken, as Deputy Chief of Staff, proposed a motion that on the direction of the IRA Executive, the Republican Government ‘be empowered to enter upon negotiations’ with the government of the Irish Free State. The vote resulted in a tie, with Lynch abstaining. Tom Barry then put forward a proposal that ‘in the opinion of the Executive further armed resistance and operations against the Free State government will not further the cause of independence of the country’. The result was five votes in favour and six against. Lynch’s was the last, deciding vote.
During the lengthy discussions, mention was frequently made of the ongoing efforts by Cork IRA commandant Sean Moylan to secure ground artillery. His efforts, at the time, were focused in Germany. This was a scheme endorsed by Lynch since late 1922, because he was convinced that such weaponry would help the IRA turn the tide of the Civil War and, as he insisted to de Valera, make it ‘easy [to] make terms with the enemy.’
Lynch assured the Executive that ‘a few pieces at least would be landed before three weeks’. (Moylan’s efforts came to nothing after Lynch’s death). His confident assurance seemed to have an impact on proceedings. According to the meeting minutes, those who voted against Tom Barry’s resolution ‘stated they did so because they wished to see whether the artillery would come or not’. They also wanted to wait for the detailed reports from divisional areas which had not yet been sent to Lynch.
The Executive decided to adjourn for three weeks and to reassemble at Araglen in north-east Cork on 10 April. It seems extraordinary that the IRA leadership were seriously contemplating another meeting under such circumstances, but Lynch was determined to reconcile the diverging views of the Executive and agree a path forward.
Lynch's last hours
In the early hours of 10 April, Lynch and other members of the IRA leadership, including Frank Aiken and Seán Hyde, were alerted to a column of National Army soldiers moving up the Knockmealdown Mountains. A twenty-minute gunfight ensued during which Lynch was hit.
Realising that he was badly wounded, the IRA commander insisted that his comrades leave him and make their escape. As Frank Aiken later told Liam’s brother, ‘in the excitement of the fight we knew how terrible was the blow that had fallen on the Nation and Army on being deprived of his leadership.’ Lynch was found shortly thereafter by members of the National Army, led by Lieutenant Laurence Clancy. With some difficulty, the troops carried Lynch down the mountainside and brought him to Walshe’s public house. Clancy telephoned in a request for a military ambulance to bring Lynch to Clonmel for treatment.
The military medical officer later noted two bullet wounds in Lynch’s body – one entrance wound being somewhat behind and to the right between the lower border of the ribs and the hip. The exit wound appeared to be on the same level on the left side. Lynch was suffering severely from shock, with a considerable amount of external and internal haemorrhaging.
Killed by 'one of the old crowd'
Clancy left behind an account of his exchange with the IRA commander while they waited for the ambulance. It testified to the great tragedy of fratricidal conflict when former comrades are pitted against each other. Lynch began with a request: ‘When I die tell my people I was to be buried with Fitzgerald of Fermoy.’
The name registered with Clancy. IRA officer Michael Fitzgerald, Lynch’s close friend and comrade since 1917, had been the first Republican hunger striker to die in Cork Men's Gaol in late 1920. Clancy asked Lynch if it was the same individual. ‘Yes,’ Lynch replied. ‘The greatest friend I ever had on this Earth.’
The weakened Lynch seemed surprised that the National Army officer knew to whom he was referring. ‘Are you one of the old crowd, the IRA, I mean?’
Clancy replied that he was and told Lynch about his two brothers who, like Clancy, had served in the Tipperary IRA during the War of Independence. His brother Patrick had been unarmed when shot dead by a member of a British Army patrol near the family’s home in Ballyuskey, Drangan in November 1920. His brother Martin was shot dead during a British Army raid on a secret IRA battalion meeting in Knockroe in March 1921.
Clancy recorded that Lynch raised his right and, saying, ‘Shake hands. I’m glad one of the old crowd got me.’ Tears began to stream down Lynch’s face and Clancy realised he, too, was sobbing as the men shook hands. ‘God bless you, I will pray for you,’ Lynch continued, ‘All this is a pity, it never should have happened. I’m glad now I’m going from it all. Poor Ireland, poor Ireland!’
Lynch was conveyed to St Joseph’s Hospital where he died less than three hours later, just before 9pm on 10 April 1923. He was buried, according to his wishes, beside his former comrade, Mick Fitzgerald, in Kilcrumper cemetery outside Fermoy. In what would be the first of many graveside orations during the elaborate republican funeral, the anti-Treaty Sinn Féin T D, Professor William Stockley said:
‘Ireland should be allowed to live her own life, and it was in that hope Mr. Lynch had lived and died … ’
In the short-term, the death of General Liam Lynch marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. In the longer term, as Stockley’s words showed, Lynch’s sacrifice for the cause of Irish independence endured as a heroic example for republicans over the next century.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.