Liam Lynch, chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army, died one hundred years ago this week. He was killed whilst trying to escape an encirclement by pro-Treaty forces in south Tipperary.
Liam Lynch was born on 9th November, 1893 in the townland of Barnagurraha, north of Mitchelstown on the Cork/Limerick border. His parents were Jeremiah and Mary Kelly Lynch. During his first 12 years of schooling he attended the Anglesboro School. At the age of 9 due to failing eyesight he went to Cork and got glasses which he wore for the rest of his life. In spite of his poor eyesight he became an avid reader of Irish history.
In 1910 at the age of 17 he started an apprenticeship in the hardware trade at Mr. P. O’Neill’s in Mitchelstown. Later he worked at Barry’s Timber Merchants in Fermoy. In Mitchelstown he joined the Gaelic League and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The nearby town of Fermoy was a large garrison town holding more British troops than any other place in Ireland, because of its strategic position in Cork. Many young men joined the British army having been told that they were fighting for the freedom of small nations, including their own. Many however, like Liam Lynch questioned the validity of a Military Power who occupied his own country. Since he was naturally a shy retiring person, who did not fully recognise his leadership abilities, he might have gone along with the status quo, had it not been for witnessing subsequent local events following the 1916 Easter Week Rising.
There were 46 organised Companies of Volunteers in Cork ready to heed the call of Michael Collins that Easter of 1916. However, they were instructed by MacNeill to cancel all parades that Easter and not participate. One notable family involved in the Volunteers was the Kent family of Bawnard House. On the 1st May, the armed police went out to arrest the Kent brothers, shooting two of them, David and Richard, and arrested the family.
Liam Lynch was standing on Fermoy Bridge that morning when he saw Thomas Kent, William and his mother being marched along between armed British soldiers followed by a horse-drawn cart carrying the mortally wounded Richard and the other wounded brother, David. Two days later Richard died in custody. Thomas and Edmond Kent were executed by a British firing squad in Cork Detention Barracks.
It stirred the young Liam Lynch into a course that was to mark the rest of his life. He vowed that he “would atone as far as possible to dedicate his life for the sacrifices of the martyred dead”. He now had only one allegiance, believing that independence could only be gained through force. The dye was cast. The year 1916 was the year of the Fermoy Flood, but a greater flood of patriotism was to sweep the heart of Liam Lynch.
General Liam Lynch is an extremely important figure in Irish history because of the part he played in trying to gain Irish Independence - first as Commandant of Cork No. 2 Brigade and later as the Commandant of the First Southern Division. The part he played with Michael Collins, Mulcahy and others in trying to avoid a Civil War and his efforts to achieve a Thirty-Two County Republic, rather than a partitioned State, should not be under-estimated.
He was elected in 1917 as First Lieutenant of the Irish Volunteer Company in Fermoy. In 1918 he left his employment to devote his full time to the Volunteers and avoided arrest and deportation to England in doing so. On 17-18 May 1918, 73 people were arrested and deported after the British authorities claimed they were involved in a mythical German plot.
On 9th April 1918 Lloyd George introduced the Military Service (No. 2) Bill. The Bill was passed on 16th April 1918 and the Irish members withdrew from the Commons and returned to Ireland where they joined forces with Sinn Féin. On 18th April the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Lawrence O’Neill, brought the leaders together at the Mansion House. Eamonn de Valera drafted the pledge to be taken all over Ireland on Sunday, 21st April 1918.
The First World War ended on November 11th. Up until then the fear of Conscription by the British of young Irish lads, filled the Volunteer army ranks. However, with this fear gone, many men pulled out of the Volunteers and for time morale declined, but not for long.
One month later in December 1918, the results of the general election boosted morale when 73 of 105 seats endorsed the actions of the 1916 Easter Rising. The Irish People wanted an Irish Republic.
From the start he always said that “we have declared for an Irish Republic and we will not live under any other law.” He was determined “that the war will go on until the independence of our country is recognised by our enemies, foreign and domestic.”
He reorganised the Cork Volunteers in 1919 and commanded an effective Brigade in the War of Independence. He was a member of the Irish Republican Army Supreme Council, Chief of Staff of the IRA, established the IRA Executive in March 1922. He was an influential opponent of the 1921 Treaty. Although he resigned over the seizure of the Four Courts, he joined its garrison in June 1922.
Commander of the first southern division of the anti-treaty forces he sought to hold the “Munster Republic” and issued the “orders of frightfulness” against the Provisional government. On an April morning in 1923, as Lynch and a small number of his comrades sat down to a cup of tea, word came from a scout that a column of free staters was coming across the Knockmealdown Mts., cutting off their only retreat from another column of free staters they knew to be in the valley below. Carrying important papers that they wished to keep safe at all costs, Lynch and six comrades began a retreat up the mountain, hoping to avoid the trap. Soon they ran into the free staters on the mountainside, and briefly exchanged fire with about fifty of them armed with rifles. Lynch and his party were armed with only pistols and at a great disadvantage; their only hope for escape was over an open expanse of mountain where they would be exposed to what they knew would be a withering fire.
Having little choice, they moved up the mountain, bullets whistled and splattered all around them; the free staters fired as fast as they could work their bolts. Finally.... inevitably, a bullet struck home. After surviving so many fights for Irish freedom, luck had finally run out for Liam Lynch.
“My God, I’m hit, lads,” his companions heard him cry out as he slumped to the ground. As they gathered around him they saw that he was badly hit through the body, a very serious wound. Who knows which free stater fired that round, was it a man Lynch commanded during the Black and Tan war? We’ll never know, but such a possibility shows the heartbreak of the Irish Civil War. Not just brother against brother, but so many former comrades in arms, killing each other on the same ground where they had stood and fought together only a short time earlier.
Lynch’s comrades tried to carry him with them up the mountain but it was impossible. He finally ordered them to leave him. “Perhaps they’ll bandage me when they come up,” he said. Knowing that the papers they carried had to be saved, and that they could never make it up the mountain carrying him, his comrades reluctantly obeyed his order and left him behind. When the free staters reached him later and asked who he was he replied, “I’m Liam Lynch, get me a priest and a doctor, I’m dying.” A priest and a doctor were called for, and at 3.15p.m. an ambulance took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Clonmel where he died at 8.45 that night. Some of his last words were “When I die tell my people I want to be buried with Fitzgerald in Fermoy.... The greatest friend I had”.
For the next few days his body rested in an uncovered coffin in St. Joseph’s Church. General Liam Lynch died as he wished, on an Irish mountain, fighting. He was 29 years of age.
Twelve years later, on 7th April 1935, on the spot where Liam Lynch fell, they dedicated a monument to him. A sixty-foot high round tower was erected on that spot, built with the volunteer labour of many of his old friends and comrades and replacing the simple wooden cross that had stood there for many years. A crowd estimated at fifteen thousand gathered that day to honour a man who had dedicated and given his life, to the cause of Irish freedom.