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Intransigent militarist or republican icon? Conor Lenihan reviews ‘Liam Lynch: To Declare a Republic’ by Gerard Shannon.

Liam Lynch, a republican martyr-ic0n, is the subject of a timely new biography in this, the hundredth anniversary of the ending of Ireland’s civil war.

Lynch’s first biography by Florrie O’Donoghue is lyrical and incisive, being the work of a friend and comrade. Gerard Shannon, with wider access to archival material, has revealed the complexity of Lynch and is not bound to declamation as perhaps are his colleague fighters. Nevertheless in this new bookLynch’s heroism and commitment are not under question. 

Lynch, though a strong militarist, was not an extremist in spite of the fact that he is cherished as such by romantic nationalists. The irony is that Lynch only took over as Chief of Staff of the anti-treaty IRA when hardliners like Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows had been executed. His military leadership and political acumen has been severely criticised, but Lynch was dealt a bad hand of cards.

Lynch was at his best as a local commander, something he himself recognised when offered a promotion to a senior position in the GHQ Staff of the IRA – by rightly refusing it. He got on well with both Collins and Mulcahy but knew his limitations.

It was Lynch’s military mindset, as well as that of others, and the execution of anti-treaty fighters that spiralled the conflict into a bitter dispute of recrimination and tit-for-tat atrocities

His leadership in the War of Independence was spectacular. The highlights include a raid for arms on Fermoy barracks and the high-profile kidnap of General Lucas at the height of the disturbances in 1920. Lucas paid the rare compliment to Lynch and his men on his release stating he had been “treated as a gentleman by gentlemen”. The propaganda value to the IRA was enormous and greatly resented by Lucas’ superiors.

The picture of Lynch that emerges throughout is one of deep asceticism, ruthlessness and a military disregard for civil authority. Similar to other IRA men like Todd Andrews, he saw the actions of Sinn Féin and the Dáil as “ancillary” to the military campaign and taking the fight to the enemy. Lynch was a strong advocate of reprisal and the simple but effective strategy of burning the big homes of the Anglo-Irish unionists when the humble shops and cottages of his own were destroyed by the British military. 

It was Lynch’s military mindset, as well as others, and the execution of anti-treaty fighters that spiralled the conflict into a bitter dispute of recrimination and tit-for-tat atrocities. Luminaries like Collins, Brugha, Harry Boland and Lynch made the ultimate sacrifice. The bitterness engendered left a long legacy in the country’s political system.

None of this can be laid at Lynch’s door. In fact, it was British insistence on implementation of the letter of the treaty and the suppression of the Four Courts garrison that drove the sides apart. Intemperate language from De Valera escalated the debate at the beginning but, for the most part, he was marginal in the civil war campaign, his advice largely ignored while the army types retained control. 

The death of Lynch allowed De Valera to wind down the conflict through his ally and proxy Frank Aiken who issued the IRA order to “dump” arms. This was only done when it became clear that the Free State government was not going to offer peace terms. 

Viewed from the current day distance the whole episode looks like pointless and prolonged violence, despite the efforts by Florrie O’Donoghue and IRA Commander Tom Barry to broker peace. It seems a miracle, even today, that the British did not re-enter the country and impose order. That they didn’t is testimony to the guerilla fighters like Lynch and Barry who inflicted brutal blows on their British adversaries. 

The lesson from the life of Lynch is the perils of setting off a violent conflict where there is no clear political imperative and where due political authority is not in charge. Thankfully this was a lesson learnt by Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams in their own efforts to reach both a ceasefire in IRA activity and a workable settlement.

The parallels between Michael Collins and Martin McGuinness are striking. Both were militarists who were prepared to reach a settlement that fell far short of their strategic goals or ideal. Both saw the deals they signed as transitionary in character rather than a final settlement. McGuinness and the later Sinn Féin leadership had time and scope to ensure that they did not fall foul of a republican backlash from within their own ranks. 

The picture of Lynch that emerges throughout is one of deep asceticism, ruthlessness and a military disregard for civil authority

Collins and Lynch were fighting a much more potent enemy – a British Empire still at its military and diplomatic height. The electoral mandate given to Collins proved decisive from a moral perspective during the civil war. Martin McGuinness benefitted from an extreme war weariness on the British side and a catastrophic shrinkage of British influence on the world stage. 

If ever there is proof that peace is always better than war, the tragedy and circumstances of the Irish Civil War is a glaring example. If the commemorations and ceremonies on the centenary seem subdued and without satisfaction there is good reason for it. It was a nadir in Irish history.

Conor Lenihan is a former Fianna Fáil Minister