14 April 2005

Irish Democrat

The Real Chief

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews The Real Chief: Liam Lynch, Meda Ryan, Mercier Press, (new edition, 2005), ISBN 1-85635-460-1, €15.95 pbk

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LIAM LYNCH (1893-1923) from Co. Limerick, has been much overlooked by modern Irish historians and, even when noticed, he has been often scathingly dismissed as merely a `gunman'. Among republican historiographers, he has been eclipsed by the exploits of Tom Barry or Ernie O'Malley.

But Lynch, as commander of Cork No 2 Brigade, was one of the farsighted guerrilla leaders whose activities in the south-west of Ireland during the War of Independence were to force England to the negotiating table.

He is perhaps best remembered for his capture of Brigadier C.H.T. Lucas, commanding the 16th Infantry Brigade at Fermoy, and two of his colonels. The professionalism of that exploit and the courtesy with which he treated his prisoners earned praise from no less a person than General Lucas himself. The general's troops, however, ran amok in the area, destroying property and injuring innocent bystanders when news of the brigadier's capture reached them.

Lynch stood firmly for the republic. His most famous quote was: "We have declared for an Irish Republic, and will not live under any other law". Florence O'Donoghue used that for the title of his study of Lynch and the period No Other Law (1954) which remained the only work fully acknowledging Lynch until Dr Ryan.

As the country moved towards civil war in 1922, the majority of the former republican forces elected Lynch as Chief of Staff of the republican forces at a Dublin convention. When the `Provisional Government' with borrowed British artillery, opened fire on the republican positions in Dublin, and the civil war became a fact, Lynch assumed command of his old division, the 1st Southern Division.

As the new government was able to recruit and arm, not from their old comrades in the republican forces, but from the disbanded Irish regiments of the British army, it soon became clear that the republican forces, initially outnumbering the Provisional government forces, were themselves outnumbered and outgunned. As the pro-Treaty forces moved into Cork, Lynch ordered his field army to split into small irregular units or flying columns.

But the forces of the `Provisional Government' were unstoppable.

Meda Ryan's biography, with the aid of Lynch's personal letters and other documents, traces the life of one of Ireland's most devoted sons who put in abeyance his own life - he was engaged to be married and had it postponed until an end of the hostilities - to serve the country.

The author shows that Lynch was not the narrow fanatic that he has been painted by some modern commentators but that he initially sought to avoid a civil war. At the same time he was unwavering in his effort to achieve a thirty-two country republic rather than a broken, partitioned land which, he well knew, would only lead to future bloodshed through subsequent generations until the country was eventually reunified and independent.

He gave his life in that cause in April, 1923, when forces of the 'Provisional Government' shot him dead as he made his way to a meeting of the Republican executive at which a discussion to the end of the war was scheduled.

This is an essential book, one they clears up the speculation whether Lynch was assassinated by fellow republicans who wanted to surrender to the 'Provisional Government' or whether he was shot after being taken prisoner. Meda Ryan examines and presents the evidence, which should finally end such speculation.

Once again, Meda Ryan, as in her book on Tom Barry, has done a great service and secured her reputation as one of the most important historians of the turbulent years of 1916-23. She has demonstrated that there is still much we have to learn about this crucial period in Irish history.


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