Liam Lynch: To Declare a Republic, by Gerard Shannon, Merrion Press, 342 pp, €19.99, ISBN:978-1788558211
Liam Lynch was a key figure in the IRA between 1919 and 1921 and went on to become commander of the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War of 1922-23. He is perhaps most important for his central role in the development of the career of Eamon de Valera. Lynch’s death in combat enabled de Valera to end the Civil War and take the majority of the anti-Treaty side on a constitutional rather than militaristic path with Fianna Fáil. For better or worse the development of southern Ireland in the twentieth century is intrinsically linked to de Valera. And sometimes one cannot help but consider what Ireland could have been like without his semi omnipotent presence. What if, for instance, he had been killed caught in the crossfire in the early fighting in Dublin, or shot like Lynch while fleeing from a Free State raid on a meeting of anti-Treaty leaders?
Without the charisma, intelligence and genuine political skills of de Valera it is difficult to see the majority of the anti-Treaty side being able to resuscitate and ultimately gain and then successfully maintain state power with Fianna Fáil. The party certainly would not have been as successful without de Valera as its leader and architect. Of course he was assisted by the talents of MacEntee, Lemass and Aiken, but as the undisputed ‘chief’ who ultimately controlled all the levers, he was nonetheless crucial to the success and indeed the structure of Fianna Fáil. This pattern of leadership was not the culture in Labour or Fine Gael.
De Valera’s decision to set up Fianna Fáil in such a way that all control was ultimately vested in himself came from having lost control of the anti-Treaty side to Lynch and the militarist faction in the Civil War. And this is where the hypothetical questions again cannot but be mused upon.
Shortly before the founding of Fianna Fáil, de Valera sulked that it appeared that Free State politics was developing along class, or what he described as ‘sectional’, lines. He recognised Cumann na nGaedheal and the Farmers’ Party as successfully representing the upwardly mobile, landed and business interests while Labour was increasingly successful in representing agricultural labourers, small farmers and the small industrial working class. De Valera was horrified at the notion, partly because he did not fit into the equation, but also because he felt that Irish politics should still be defined by ‘the national question’ and that one group, like O’Connell’s party, the Home Rule party or Sinn Féin, should still steer the nation. His success was to overcome this left-right divide on politics by creating Fianna Fáil with a cross-sectional appeal, presenting itself as the successor to Tone and Pearse, guiding the entire nation through rough waters, with an almost hegemonic status.
However, for those for whom Fianna Fáil is anathema, the concept de Valera outlined, of politics in the 1920s and 1930s being about to develop on a left-right basis with him not featuring, is an attractive one. Perhaps if this had happened the country might have modernised sooner and been more in touch with European patterns, rather than becoming the obscurantist and isolated Catholic outpost it did.
But it also raises another question, and here we get to the focus of this truly excellent new volume by Gerard Shannon: what would have happened to Liam Lynch? What if Lynch had lived and de Valera had died? Lynch as undisputed leader of the movement might well have steered the dwindling anti-Treaty side on an increasingly dogmatic, militaristic and unrepresentative course to the point of no return. Perhaps his lack of flexibility, and the absence of any other potential leadership figure as an alternative, would have resulted in the total collapse of anti-Treatyism as a viable political or military force. The IRA might have faded into oblivion, rather than continue as a persistent element in Irish life throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps, with the IRA removed from the equation and the country moving forwards on a more standard left-right trajectory, the unresolved issues of partition and civil rights could have been addressed differently ‑ if not successfully.
One cannot help but conclude that this descent into failure and obscurity would have been Lynch’s trajectory, as despite the many talents that Shannon rightly attributes to him, on reading this volume one cannot help but conclude that his thinking was more often wrong than right, and he was not the leader the country needed, nor could he become so.
Lynch was a crucial figure in the history of revolutionary Ireland as a key co-ordinator of the IRA in Munster between 1919 and 1921, where resistance to the British state was fiercest. He was also the primary figure linking the IRA headquarters ( GHQ) in Dublin, led by Richard Mulcahy and Michael Collins, to military developments outside the capital. He attempted to create a standardised, cohesive and unified IRA. During the truce, along with Mulcahy, he continued this work, as fearing a resumption of hostilities with Britain, both men were instrumental in building up IRA capabilities and organisational cohesion. Lynch, however, unlike Mulcahy, rejected the Treaty and went on to become chief of staff of the anti-Treaty IRA and titular head of the resistance to the Free State in 1922-23.
Gerard Shannon notes the irony of Richard Mulcahy and Liam Lynch being opponents in the Civil War as their professional, determined yet austere and somewhat ascetic demeanours had made them almost perfect partners before the Treaty split. Indeed, a great strength of this volume is the humanity and pathos the author captures by examining how the figures it treats of suffered through the loss of comrades to violent deaths at the hands of the British state, followed by the trauma and anguish they suffered at having to fight friends and former partners on opposing sides in the civil war. Indeed, a key theme in Lynch’s life, particularly in the Civil War, is an almost obsessive devotion to both not letting down and living up to the standards of dead comrades.
Shannon notes that Lynch took considerable inspiration from those who had fought and died for Irish freedom before his time, but also that the death of Michael Fitzgerald was of particular importance to him. Fitzgerald was an ITGWU organiser in Fermoy, unlike Lynch, who was no trade unionist. However, with Lynch, Fitzgerald helped build up the IRA organisation in Fermoy and north Cork, where the two were involved in some of the first attacks on British forces in Ireland. Fitzgerald was captured by the British and detained without trial – which led him to go on hunger strike. He died after sixty-seven days, a death that however was eclipsed by that of Cork lord mayor and Sinn Féin TD Terence MacSwiney. MacSwiney, a cultural nationalist, was already a nationally established figure, which meant his death garnered more attention both at the time and since. Fitzgerald’s death did lay down the gauntlet for Lynch though, who seemed to vow to never let his comrade down and accept nothing less than the Republic, for which Fitzgerald had given his young life. It was a cause for which Lynch would ultimately die for too. His final wish was to buried next to Fitzgerald.
For those in sympathy with them, Lynch and Fitzgerald are the ideal of non-compromising, self-sacrificing republicans who gave everything to the cause. For Lynch, the Republic seemingly was independent in complex ways from Britain and the empire; like most Republicans of his generation he was more immediately concerned that the Free State was an abandonment of the Republic than he was about partition. Shannon notes that Lynch was devoted to his family and had a burgeoning romance with fiancée Bride Keyes, but time and again he put what he considered to be his duty to the Republic and his IRA comrades first.
This is where we return to de Valera, and the importance of Lynch not in Irish revolutionary history but broader national history. Lynch’s commitment to the Republican cause was in effect a type of dogmatism, which viewed with hostility and suspicion anything seen as too ‘political’ or removed from the military side of the republican project – indeed for Lynch the republican project seems to have fundamentally amounted to military resistance alone. By the time of the Civil War, installed as chief of staff of the IRA, he ensured that the controlling body of the whole anti-Treaty movement was the anti-Treaty IRA executive: all nonmilitary concerns were secondary.
This in effect sidelined de Valera, who became a marginalised and largely ineffective figure in the Civil War. Lynch became hostile to any move towards peace or reconciliation and increasingly suspicious of ‘politics’. Lynch’s violent death from wounds received in action in spring 1923 paved the way for de Valera to take back control of the anti-Treaty side and push it down a political rather than military path. His control would continue to grow, so that at the time of his death in 1975 he was considered ‘the father of the nation’ ‑ more so than any other figure who shaped Ireland in the twentieth century. Depending on their politics, people may see this as being for better or for worse. Crucially de Valera never wanted again to be in a situation like the Civil War, where he was sidelined and lost influence. The power that Lynch held over de Valera briefly in 1922-23 is therefore of vital historical importance not just in relation to the Civil War but in relation to understanding de Valera’s and arguably Ireland’s later political trajectory.
Shannon is aware of this significance but rightly notes in his conclusion that such issues are beyond the scope of a biography of a man who died in 1923. Nonetheless Lynch and the themes of his life echo down the decades for republicans who rejected, and indeed still reject, both the Northern and Southern states and consider armed force as both necessary and valid in the undoing of partition.
Lynch’s focus on the military struggle as paramount has a twofold significance. On the one hand such thinking also lay behind Seán Russell and the IRA of the late 1930s renouncing any type of political discussion in favour of literally declaring war on Britian in what was to be a disastrous bombing campaign in 1939. It also resurfaced in the 1950s when a revived but highly traditional IRA tried to emulate the tactics of 1919-21 with ‘flying columns’ wandering around the Northern Irish countryside seeking out armed agents of the British state. It was seen most influentially in 1972 with the founding of the Provisional IRA, who at that time considered armed action as far more necessary and urgent than engagement with politics in the interest of protecting Northern nationalists and ending partition.
Once Lynch’s influence was removed de Valera and his followers were able to abandon republican dogmatism and ultimately form Fianna Fáil and reach a compromise with the Free State. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the IRA leadership began to conceptualise their organisation as not simply an army but rather a body to produce social change. In the 1940s Clann na Poblachta was founded on the belief that change could be brought about through politics rather than violence. This rejection of militarism also lay behind the Workers Party’s decision to abandon its paramilitary roots in the Official IRA in the 1970s and 1980s. The abandonment of ‘Lynchism’ was perhaps most significantly seen in Gerry Adams and Martin MacGuinness’s shedding of provisional dogmatism along with their armed wing to bring Sinn Féin to where it is today.
It is evident that Shannon has a deep sympathy and respect for Lynch, but this is a work of controlled passion and at points the subject comes under criticism. Lynch can easily be depicted as the quintessential republican militarist or anti-Treaty dictator to the Free State democrat. Shannon rightly rejects this reductive approach, arguing that Lynch was not a dictator or anti-democratic but rather had the perhaps the more naïve notion that it was only when Ireland was entirely free that the island’s natural political structure could develop. Shannon notes that he considered the Treaty settlement a failure of politics and that in the early months of 1922 he worked in good faith to mend the growing rift between pro and anti-Treaty sections and find a mutually acceptable solution. Shannon notes that Lynch felt his efforts to achieve peace were undermined by ‘politics’, and therefore war was the only option left. This war needed to be fought until the aims of the anti-Treaty side had been achieved. Lynch’s sidelining of de Valera at this time derived from the suspicion that he would agree to a compromise or truce with the Free State that would not be acceptable. In response, he vested control of the movement in the chief of staff (himself), and in the IRA executive, of which de Valera was not a member, for fear of another compromise.
Nonetheless, this focus on authority being vested in a military body alone is troubling. The anti-Treaty IRA was a self selecting force, and the Free State, while imperfect and hardly a bastion of the rule of law, did have a popular mandate. The anti-Treaty argument that principles could not be compromised, and that the British threat of force undermined this mandate is only partially valid as the anti-Treaty side was then awash with an unthinking blind militarism and valorisation of militarism rather than careful or considered alternatives to the Treaty. During the Civil War there was a consensus on the anti-Treaty side that they did not have popular support and were actively going against the will of the people. De Valera was open about this fact, while other republican figures self-righteously saw themselves as incorruptible defenders of the nation’s honour, in the face of a fickle materialistic people they were trying to liberate. Both Frank O’Connor and Séan O’Faolain, in their memoirs, recognised the absurdity and destructive nature of their youthful anti-Treaty dogmatism.
De Valera’s most significant success was his ability to bring those who had valid criticisms of the Treaty settlement into the constitutional fold and away from dogmatism. Indeed, the success of Fianna Fáil in working with rather than undoing the Treaty settlement is the ultimate demonstration that the Civil War was unnecessary, underlining the validity of Collins’s argument that the Treaty was a stepping stone. This process of normalisation, as argued earlier, while it gave Fianna Fáil its almost hegemonic status did however cripple what might have been a more standard or healthy political trajectory.
Lynch certainly had many notable virtues. He was clearly a kind and considerate man who displayed a truly selfless sense of patriotism. Nonetheless, it is hard to see him as anything other than ‘a simple soldier’. Fundamentally political power should never be monopolised by such people. In different circumstances, if the Civil War had been avoided, he would have made an excellent chief of staff of the Army, but it is hard to see him as a government minister. As Shannon notes, he was approached with the idea of running as a Sinn Féin TD but rejected the idea.
Shannon notes that Lynch, while a high minded and principled man, did not perhaps have the talents necessary to be a truly national statesman. He was fundamentally a local leader and his focus on Cork meant, particularly in the Civil War, he could neither see nor successfully implement a larger national picture or strategy. He may indeed have inherited a situation he did not have the gifts or vision to control.
Similarly, his position on social questions was limited. His only views on the broader Sinn Féin movement were that it was simply an auxiliary to the crucial work of the IRA, while he believed the Labour movement only had value when assisting the work of the IRA. It was baffling to him – or even anathema ‑ that anyone could put the cause of Labour above the national question. It is hard to see him having particularly nuanced or well-informed views, and his entire life seems to return time and again to a focus on the army. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain if he ever thought about events outside of Ireland, except as regards arms shipments. It should of course be remembered that Lynch died very young and if he had lived his views may have matured. It also may have been that he simply did not think that deeply or consider the larger connotations of power being vested entirely in the military.
Throughout his life, however, he made rather questionable or poorly thought-out judgements. In the later stages of the conflict, in 1921, he seems to have suggested or at least endorsed the idea that in reaction to the British killing of civilians the IRA should engage in the indiscriminate shooting of civilians with unionist views and the destruction of their property. Notably, he appeared to suggest that such people should be killed for the positions they held and not necessarily because of actions that were prejudicial to the IRA. This would have resulted in a blood bath and a PR nightmare for the Dáil government which was trying desperately to maintain its position as the legitimate authority in Ireland and show that the IRA were engaged in war not murder.
Similarly, before the signing of the Treaty in December 1921, Lynch frequently called for measures that would result in a resumption of hostilities with Britain. Perhaps most strangely he also seems to have envisaged a scenario where after the Civil War anti-Treaty veterans would be rewarded with vast tracts of good farm land. He recognised that this would leave poor agricultural labourers unhappy with the new dispensation and result in an upsurge in agrarianism. Thus he considered that it would be necessary for IRA men to continue to bear arms to protect themselves from such agrarian agitation. The fact that Lynch considered such a scheme, and seemingly envisaged IRA veterans as a type of new landed elite fighting off the peasants, demonstrates a man with limited if not somewhat skewed world view.
One small criticism of this book is that such issues might have been explored in greater depth. The levels of arson and agrarian violence seen in the Civil War but not necessarily conducted by the anti-Treaty IRA, and the Free State’s adoption of a Special Infantry Column to deal with strikes and agrarian agitation, show the dynamics of the conflict were more complex than the simple pro- and anti-Treaty divide. The work of scholars such as Gemma Clark and Gavin Foster, who look beyond these traditional definitions of the civil war, is sadly not referenced. Lynch’s own views on the upsurge in agrarian unrest and labour agitation during the Civil War might have benefited from more analysis or consideration in this volume.
Similarly, in 1921 the IRA were engaging in greater levels of brutal violence and intimidation, with the execution of civilians deemed spies and informers becoming an intrinsic and controversial element of the conflict. Given that Lynch was the most influential IRA leader where such killings were most widespread, in Cork, it would have been interesting to see his own views scrutinised more closely, or for the historiography of IRA violence at this time to have received greater acknowledgement.
Nonetheless, these are brief asides and are by no means vital given that this is a not a thematic biography. Gerard Shannon’s study is an excellent and detailed work of scholarship. It is the product of diligent, painstaking research and gives us the most clear and detailed biography of Liam Lynch yet to appear. It is important to note that Lynch has already been the subject of two biographies, but it is difficult to see this volume being surpassed.
Another great strength of the book is its clarity and readability. It is at times exciting and at others deeply moving, making it a work that is fully accessible to the general reader. At the same time its level of detail and the new information it presents will make it an indispensable volume and necessary point of reference for all future historians of the 1916-23 period.
Thomas Earls FitzGerald held a Royal Irish Academy Decade of Centenaries Bursary for 2022-23 on developments in civil war politics post-1923. His first book, Combatants and Civilians in Revolutionary Ireland, was published by the Routledge Press in 2021.