It was a lovely spring morning in the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains in southern County Tipperary on April 10, 1923. Six members of the Irish Republican Army, then engaged in the Irish Civil War against the Free State forces, were scrambling up the rugged mountainside. At 8 am that morning they had been moved into the home of Bill Houlihan when word came from a sentry that a Free State force was moving in their direction. A warning then arrived that a 2nd Free State column might cut them off from escape if they didn’t move quickly.
Liam Lynch (left), Frank Aiken, Bill Quirke, Seán O’Meara, Jerry Frewen, and Seán Hyde slowly moved further up toward Crohan West, using a shallow riverbed as cover as they moved. Soon green-clad members of the Free State army came into view pursuing them. This squad of about 20 soldiers was led by Lieutenant Larry Clancy. Getting out his field glasses, Clancy saw the Republicans about 450 yards ahead, uphill from them.
The Republicans were forced to leave their cover now and move over open ground. Armed with just two pistols against the Enfield rifles carried by the Free Staters, standing to fight was not an option. They fired a few rounds downhill as they clamored over the rocky, open ground. Clancy ordered his men to open fire on the group.
With Enfield rounds pinging off the rocks all around them, the Republicans looked longingly at the cover they hoped to reach near the crest of the mountain. The fire of the Free Staters ceased for a moment, then one shot rang out. Lynch, who was trailing a bit behind, fell to the ground, crying out, “My God! I’m hit, lads!” Looking up through his glasses, Clancy saw him fall and called on his men to increase their fire.
Liam Lynch, then the Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army, was born on November 9, 1893, in the townland of Barnagurraha, Co. Limerick, five miles north of Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. His birth name was William and he was the fifth of seven children of Jeremiah Lynch and his wife, Mary, who was a Kelly. The family were very devoted Catholics. One of Liam's siblings would be a priest and the another a brother.
Liam grew up not far from Kilclonney Wood, the scene of the last action of the 1867 Fenian Rising. He heard tales of that along with stories of how his uncle, John Lynch, had attempted to take part in the assault on the Kilmallock RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks but had arrived too late. And from his mother, Mary, he heard tales of the land wars. Mary had worked at the Ballylanders Branch of the Ladies Land League.
This nationalist influence caused him to become a voracious reader of Irish history in his youth. One of his heroes was Patrick Sarsfield. A classmate recalled once being regaled by Lynch on the details of Sarsfield destruction of the Williamite siege train at Ballyneety.
At the age of seventeen, Lynch left home and apprenticed for three years to a hardware store owner named O’Neill in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. There he was exposed to and emersed in, the growing nationalist movement. He joined the Gaelic League and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
(Left: The Kent Brothers being led across the bridge in Fermoy in 1916.)
In 1913 Liam joined the Irish Volunteers, a decision that would determine the course of the remainder of his life, and its end. In 1915, Liam began work at Barry & Sons, Ltd., in Fermoy. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Liam saw William and the barefooted Thomas Kent led across the bridge over the Blackwater River. Thomas was executed shortly after that. Lynch later said this event, combined with the sacrifice of execution of the Rising leaders, caused him to vow to commit his life to the establishment of the Irish Republic. He would never break that vow. In 1917 he met Bridie Keyes during Gaelic League Irish language classes. The two would have a romantic attachment but as the country moved toward armed conflict, they agreed not to marry until the issue was settled.
In Fermoy, by 1917, Lynch was now the Lieutenant of the seventy-plus member Volunteer company. Through a study of the tactics of the Boers against the British in South Africa, he had formed some ideas on how to fight the British in Ireland. When a Volunteer Battalion was formed in their area, the light-brown haired Lynch, now 5’ 10”, with a slim but athletic build, was voted the Battalion Adjutant.
(Right: Father Tom Lynch, Brother Martin Lynch, and Liam Lynch left to right.)
When Cork was divided into three brigade areas in late 1918, Lynch was voted commandant of the Cork #2 Brigade, which encompassed the northern part of the county, extending in the east from the Cork – Waterford border near Tallow to the Kerry border at Rathmore in the west. Though he was not out-going, clearly his quiet confidence and intelligence impressed his comrades. He also became a member of the secret “Irish Republican Brotherhood” (IRB) to which many of the Republican leaders belonged.
Lynch threw himself fully into the job of organizing the #2 Brigade in early 1919, as the attack in Tipperary at Soloheadbeg on the 21st of January made armed conflict seem inevitable. Traveling tirelessly around the region, he met most of the officers and men of the #2 Brigade. Technically Lynch commanded close to four thousand Volunteers in his brigade, but they were nearly untrained and mostly unarmed and opposed by one of the best trained, most well-armed forces in the world.
In April, while Volunteer units around the island were attempting to obtain weapons, Lynch gave permission for a raid that captured 6 carbines and a pistol from the Fermoy RIC barracks. In May he took personal charge of protecting two East Limerick Volunteers, Ned O’Brien and Jim Scanlon, who had taken part in the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong, keeping them one step ahead of the British dragnet.
In September Lynch planned an ambush to capture arms from a group of soldiers from the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, stationed in Fermoy. Every Sunday they marched, fully armed, to mass at Wesleyan Church. On September 7, 1919, Lynch led an attack to capture their Enfield rifles. Though he had 25 Volunteers, only six were armed, with revolvers, while the rest had short clubs they could conceal. It would be the first attack of the war on a British military unit.
The attack was a success and began to build Lynch’s reputation within the Republican movement. Moving in on the 15 soldiers at the signal of Lynch’s whistle, only a few of them were able to offer any resistance. There was a short gunfight in which four soldiers were wounded, one of whom, Pvt William Jones, later died. Jones was the first British soldier killed in the war.
Lynch also took a bullet through the shoulder, but it luckily passed through without hitting any bones or arteries. He didn’t realize it until he was in one of the cars they had on the scene to abscond with the rifles. He joked about it with the other men in the car. Stories of that would enhance the admiration of Lynch among the Volunteers.
The escape was well planned, with a pair of trees ready to be pulled down behind the getaway cars just out of town. As they were leaving the town, the Volunteers could hear the alarms sounding in the military camp. Soon two lorries full of troops were on their trail but the felled trees worked to perfection. Now the Cork #2 Brigade was armed.
Lynch would recover, but others would suffer after the successful ambush. His friend from Fermoy, Michael FitzGerald, who took part in the ambush, would be captured in a raid. He later died on hunger strike at Cork Gaol shortly before the more famous death of Terence MacSwiney at Brixton Gaol in England. And the town of Fermoy would suffer the following night when soldiers smashed up homes and shops in town; the first such reprisal during the war. Unlike many reprisals later in the war, no one was killed.
(Right: Michael FitzGerald)
Lynch was shuffled into County Waterford where he recuperated from his wound with help from many leaders in that county, including Pax Whelan and Paddy Lynch. While there, Lynch wrote a letter to his brother, Tom, predicting that “the Republic is now within our grasp, at the most eighteen months.” The truce was nineteen months away, and it did not, of course, create a republic; still, it was an amazingly accurate prediction of how long the British could sustain the fight.
By late 1919, Lynch was fully recovered and traveled to Dublin where he spent two months. While there he had numerous discussions with G.H.Q. officers Richard Mulcahy and Mick Collins, and also with Dan Breen and Seán Treacy, who were then in the city. He was offered the position of Deputy Chief of Staff but preferred to remain in the field.
By late March, Lynch was back in Cork where he attended the funeral of his good friend, Cork Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain, who was murdered in his home by the RIC. It was an act of defiance for Lynch and others “on the run” Volunteers to attend. Following the funeral, he wrote to his mother that, “He was foully murdered by the enemy, but the hours is at hand when they shall rue the moment they did so.”
(Left: The funeral procession of Cork Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain.)
In 1920 the pace of the war dramatically increased, as the Volunteers began attacking RIC barracks around the island. The success of many of those attacks helped many units supply themselves with modern arms and ammunition. Irishmen in the RIC began to resign in large numbers and the British began recruiting replacements at home in Great Britain who became known as the “Black & Tans.”
In June, Lynch engineered one of the most famous incidents of the war. Thinking that the capture of one or more high-ranking British officers might allow them to exchange them for Volunteer prisoners, he began gathering intelligence of the movement of officers in his brigade area. Discovering that some officers were fond of fishing in the Blackwater at Kilbarry, five miles east of Fermoy, he formed a plan to capture them.
On June 26th, he put his plan into operation, assigning Seán Moylan of the Newmarket Battalion and Patrick Clancy of the Kanturk Battalion to the operation along with himself and his Brigade Vice Commandant George Power. Just before the kidnapping, they learned that Brigadier General Cuthbert Henry Tindall Lucas, commander of the 18th Brigade, was there with two other officers and Lucas’ servant. The operation went off without a hitch, and they discover the other two captured officers were Colonel Danford of the Royal Artillery and Colonel Tyrrell of the Royal Engineers.
(Right: General Lucas (seated), with members of the East Clare Brigade who were guarding him - back row left to right: Paddy Brennan and Micháel Brennan, C/O of the brigade, front row: James Brennan, Joe Keane.)
As they drove away with their prisoners in two cars, Lucas and Danford attempted to overpower Lynch and Clancy in one of the cars. The car went off the road and after successfully overpowering Lucas, Lynch was forced to shoot Danford as he was in the act of choking Clancy. Tyrrell was left with Danford and the remaining car drove off with Lucas.
(Below: Newspaper story of Lucus' "Thrilling Escape" from the Volunteers.)
About a month later, Lucas would “escape,” (he was possibly allowed to go) after the Republicans were unable to get the British to agree to any sort of prisoner exchange. Lucas later related how well he was treated during his captivity. He was lucky it had not been several months later, or he may not have survived. Still, the capture was a great boost to Republican morale. There was even a song that was sung around Cork that was written to celebrate it to the tune of “The Blarney Roses” called “Where Did General Lucas Go?” Kids were said to sometimes sing it to taunt soldiers or RIC constables.
(Left: Newspaper story of Lucas' "Thrilling Escape" from the Volunteers.)
On August 12, Lynch’s war, and probably his life, nearly came to an end when he was captured along with Terence Mac Swiney, commander of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, in a raid on the Cork City Hall. The military, not the RIC, ran that raid and if they had held onto all the men they captured that night, which included nearly every officer of the Cork No. 1 Brigade in addition to Lynch, who had given a false name, it would have done tremendous damage to the Republican cause in Cork.
(Below: Terence Mac Swiney)
Amazingly, three days later they released everyone but MacSwiney, who would later famously die on hunger strike. While the British unknowingly had Lynch in custody, Crown forces mistakenly murdered two different men named Lynch from County Limerick while searching for him.
In late August Lynch began planning the brigade’s first “Flying Column” of men from the brigade who were “on the run.” In September Ernie O’Malley arrived from the GHQ staff to undertake the training. Following that training, Lynch carried out one of his most notable actions of the war, capturing the barracks of the 17th Lancers in Mallow on September 28th. It was the only capture of a British military barracks during the war.
Two Mallow Volunteers, Richard Willis and John Bolster, were employed at the barracks and were thus able to tell Lynch when most of the garrison would be out and give them the layout of the building. The operation was pulled off like clockwork, with no casualties for the Volunteers, who were armed only with pistols, and just one soldier, Sgt. Gibbs, killed.
(Below: A Hotchkiss light machine-gun)
The haul of arms was one of the most impressive of the war. In all they came away with twenty-seven rifles, two Hotchkiss light machine-guns, about 4,000 rounds of ammunition, a Verey light pistol, a revolver, and some bayonets. The two Hotchkiss guns would prove extremely useful to the brigade in later ambushes. That night British soldiers took their revenge on the town of Mallow, burning the Town Hall, a creamery that employed 300 people, and numerous other businesses. But not everyone back in Great Britain agreed with these reprisals. A “London Times” editorial stated that, “The accounts of arson and destruction by the military at Mallow as revenge for the Sinn Fein raid which caught the 17th Lancers napping, must fill English readers with a sense of shame.”
On October 11th the flying column struck its first blow, utilizing their new weapons. The column would be ably commanded by Seán Moylan, but for this first action, Lynch and Ernie O’Malley were on the scene and commanded rather than Moylan. It was Moylan who came up with the plan, however, based on information provided by Jack O'Connell, the Newmarket intelligence officer. Their ambush of one military Crossley Tender at Ballydrocane was very successful. All the British soldiers in the lorry were wounded and one was killed.
(Above: A .303 caliber Enfield rifle, the standard British infantry weapon of the war.)
They captured 8 rifles, 2 pistols, and several hundred rounds of precious ammunition. Added to the arms captured at Mallow, they were now one of the best-armed brigades in Ireland. After starting 1920 without much other than some shotguns and a handful of rifles, they now had the two Hotchkiss machine guns from Mallow, about 85 Enfield rifles, and enough pistols for all the officers in the brigade area. They were still vastly outnumbered in men and arms by the Crown Forces, but using guerrilla tactics to always pick the time and place to fight, they were now strong enough to cause them serious problems.
The British were now realizing they were in a real fight as well. In December martial law was declared in Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary and in January 1921 martial law was extended to Clare and Waterford. Volunteer prisoners could now be executed after a quick drumhead military court-martial and reprisals against civilians after Volunteer attacks now had official government sanction.
(Left: A woman identified as Mrs. Brown looks over her salvaged belongings from her home that was destroyed during Crown forces reprisals in Meelin, Co. Cork.)
The first Volunteer executed under martial law was from Lynch’s brigade, Cornelius Murphy of Rathmore, shot on February 1st. And the first officially sanctioned reprisals were also in their area, against the town of Meelin after an ambush by Moylan’s column. The gloves were off; the war was about to get much more brutal
From the beginning of 1921, the pace of the war amplified all over the island, and Lynch’s training of his brigade, setting up of an efficient intelligence system, and their capture of arms during 1920 helped put them amongst the most active units on the island. He risked death or capture constantly throughout this period, traveling around to different battalion areas and had several close calls.
Moylan’s flying column struck a blow for the brigade on January 28th, with an ambush at Tureengarriffe, just over the Kerry border, which killed RIC Divisional Commissioner Philip Holmes.
(Right: Seán Moylan)
In March Lynch and his staff barely escaped a British operation to surround and capture them near Nadd. One of his spies, Judy O'Riordan in Buttevant, sent a warning that the British planned a large operation in the area of Nadd. Lynch did not wait for any kind of confirmation from other sources. He ordered the Charleville company out to trench several area roads to slow the British down. It saved them from disaster as they managed to slip through the net, though just barely as the group Lynch was with exchanged fire with the British before escaping.
On February 11th, the Millstreet company under Jeremiah Crowley devised an ingenious plan in which members boarded a train at night and forced the engineer to stop it in a prearranged location lit by torches, where they attacked a car occupied by 15 British soldiers. With the disadvantage of being lit up while their opponents were obscured in the dark, the British were soon overwhelmed and surrendered with one dead and many wounded. They captured 15 rifles and a large amount of ammunition and suffered no casualties.
On March 5th, an ambush at Clonbanin, once again led by Moylan, did not capture any arms but was a great victory nonetheless. The presence of an armored car in the column prevented them from full victory and the capture of any weapons, but during the firefight, they killed Brigadier General Hanway Robert Warren Cumming, commander of British troops in Kerry. This was a shock to the Crown Forces and the British government and a huge boost to Republican morale.
(Left: From the March 7, 1921, New York Times.)
On June 16th the Volunteers from the Millstreet, Kanturk, Newmarket, Charleville, and Mallow battalions under the command of Paddy O'Brien from Liscarroll ambushed four lorries of the infamous Auxilaires at Rathcoole. They utilized mines in the roadway well, something most Volunteer units seldom did successfully and thwarted several attempts to flank their positions that may have succeeded a year earlier. They handed the hated Auxiliaries a defeat, killing at least two and wounding at least ten while suffering no casualties at all. By then Lynch was no longer the commander of the No 2 Brigade, however.
In late April Lynch was appointed commander of the newly formed Southern Division, composed of nine brigades from Waterford, Cork, Kerry, and the West Limerick Brigade. There were many very capable and respected Volunteer officers in those counties. It’s a testament to the esteem in which he was held that he was selected to command it. He held that command until the truce.
(Below: An anti-treaty poster)
When the controversy over the Anglo-Irish treaty began, there was little doubt where Lynch stood. "We have declared for a Republic; We will live under no other law," he pledged. He would never deviate from that oath but he made every effort to avoid the tragic Civil War that followed.
In March 1922, Lynch helped defuse a near-violent conflict resulting from the Republican occupation of Limerick, but unlike the story of the “little Dutch Boy,” there were too many leaks in this dike for anyone to stop with a finger. In April, Lynch was voted Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army at a convention of anti-Treaty officers in Dublin.
On April 22nd, Rory O’Connor, Ernie O’Malley, and Liam Mellows led a Republican force that seized the Four Courts in Dublin. It was done without Lynch’s knowledge. “He evinced none of the fiery opposition to the Treaty,” said the “Irish Times” later, but this post-treaty quote left no doubt he was willing to fight for a Republic: “If I were to stand alone, I would not voluntarily accept being part of the British Empire.”
At 4:30 am on June 28th, the Civil War began when the Free State forces opened a bombardment of the Four Courts. Lynch and Liam Deasy, who succeed him in command of the Southern Division, were not in the Four Courts at the time of the attack and were detained by Free State officer Liam Tobin briefly, then released. Some speculated that Lynch was released in hopes that he would pressure other Republicans to end hostilities. If so that was a huge miscalculation.
Séumas Robinson, Commandant of the South Tipperary Brigade urged him to go on the offensive and march on Dublin, but Lynch refused and the garrison in the Four Courts surrendered after four days. Lynch had in mind a defensive strategy, holding a line from Limerick to the southeast through Tipperary and Clonmel to Waterford, styled as the “Munster Republic.” It was an uneven contest from the start, with the Free State forces far out-classing the Republicans in arms and equipment,
(Left: The Four Courts on fire following the Free State bombardment.)
In late July, the western stronghold of Limerick fell, with Waterford falling the same day. The only other Republican stronghold on the island, in Galway and Mayo, was overwhelmed by the end of July. In early August, Cork City fell and Lynch ordered his forces into the countryside to once more attempt to resist through guerrilla warfare. As the months went by, many Republican leaders began to realize further resistance was futile, but not Lynch. As someone said near the end of the Civil War, “He was more determined now at the end of the war than at the beginning.”
In October, the Free State government, frustrated at their inability to bring the war to a close, and with many enraged by the killing of Michael Collins in August, passed the Army Emergency Powers Resolution. It authorized the army to try people by court-martial and made possession of firearms a capital offense. Republicans called it the “Murder Bill.”
(Right: This photo claims to show the execution of Rory O'Connor by Free Staters while he "stands tall" with no blindfold, but was likely staged by Republicans.)
The Free State began executing Republicans in November and before the war was over would officially execute 80 Republicans. There were also an estimated 153 unofficial executions, including several in Kerry where prisoners were tied to land mines that were then detonated. Lynch had issued an order on September 22, 1922, prohibiting and summary execution of Free State prisoners, saying “no such acts can under any circumstances be tolerated.” That order stayed in place to the end of the war despite the numerous executions of Republicans.
(Below: Liam Mellows, left, and Rory O'Connor)
Among the well-known Republicans who were executed were Erskine Childers, famed for the Howth gun-running, Rory O'Connor, and Liam Mellows. They had been captured at the Four Courts, before the passage of the law, causing even many Free Staters to call their executions illegal. Those executions were ordered by the Provisional Government’s Minister of Justice, Kevin O’Higgins. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the horror of the Irish Civil War. O'Connor had been the best man at O'Higgins' wedding.
In November, Lynch’s Assistant Chief of Staff, Ernie O’Malley, was seriously wounded and captured. Only his grave physical condition saved him from being executed. In January 1923, Liam Deasy, commander of Lynch’s old division was captured and then released a statement calling on Republicans to give up.
Even in the face of all that, Lynch pressed on. When the military executive committee met on March 23rd, and even someone as stalwart as Tom Barry proposed that they end the war, Lynch cast the vote that defeated the proposal by one vote.
(Right: Tom Barry, the famous Flying Column commander who could not convince Lynch to cast a vote in favor of ending the war in March that might have saved Lynch's life.)
Lynch pressed on until that day in April in the Knockmealdown Mountains when a Free State bullet brought him down. “It would be impossible to describe our agony of mind in thus parting with our comrade and chief,” Frank Aiken later wrote. As Lt. Clancy knelt by him that day, Lynch told him, “ Poor Ireland! All this is a pity. It never should have happened.”
In September 1922 he had expressed similar feelings in a letter to his brother, Tom. “The disaster of this war is sinking into my very bones, when I count the loss of Irish manhood and the general havoc of the Civil War. Who could have dreamt that all our hopes could have been so blighted.”
Lynch, still just 29 years old, died about three hours later in St Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel. “It was the biggest blow by far we had received,” said Ernie O’Malley later. Lynch was the beating heart of the Republican resistance. For all practical purposes, his death ended the catastrophe that was the Irish Civil War. On May 24th, Aiken ordered all IRA units to dump their weapons, signaling the end of the Civil War at long last.
Before he died, Lynch told Lt. Clancy he wanted to be buried next to his friend Michael FitzGerald in Kilcrumper Old Cemetery in Fermoy, where he lies today. Less than two weeks before he was killed, he met with his fiancée, Bridie Keyes, at a safe house in Graigavalla, where they said what turned out to be his last goodbyes. She would never marry.
(Left: The body of Liam Lynch lying in an open casket.)
On April 7, 1935, a 60-foot-high round tower monument was built on the spot where Lynch was wounded in the Knockmealdown Mountains. It was estimated that some fifteen thousand people attended the dedication. The Irish Defense Force barracks at Kilworth, Co. Cork, is named Camp Ó Loingsigh in his honor.
At Collins Barracks in Dublin, the tunics that Lynch and Michael Collins were wearing when they were killed are displayed in two corners of a room next to each other; in opposition to each other still.
Liam Lynch, like many military and political leaders of the period, is a controversial figure. His friend, Liam Deasy, said, “He was to the very end an idealist with the highest principles as his guide.” That may have been his greatest strength, but in the end his greatest weakness as well. He could be faulted for some of his decisions, like most leaders, but no one could fault or question his absolute dedication to the cause of Irish freedom, for which he gave the last full measure of devotion.
"No Other Law (the Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923)" by Florence O’Donoghue
“Liam Lynch: The Real Chief” by Meda Ryan
“Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence & Civil War” by Padraic O'Farrell
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty (Book)
General Liam Lynch 90th Anniversary Commemoration
The Liam Lynch Memorial. Crohan Mountain, Tipperary, Ireland drone video.
‘Where Did General Lucas Go?’: The Kidnapping Of General Cuthbert Lucas
Uncivil Wars (The Irish Civil War 1922 23)-The Death of Liam Lynch Colm Keane 2002
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