In many ways, the Irish Civil War was all but over when 1923 began. By that time the IRA’s ability to wage the kind of war that would have been needed to topple the new Free State was all but destroyed, and what was left was more of a nuisance to be eradicated than an existential threat to the pro-Treaty side. Areas of high intensity activity remained all the way up to near Summer, but the outline of the Irish Civil War from January to that point was one of republican strength, manpower and will being slowly whittled away. In this entry, we will look at the events that led to the final end of the war, which pivoted around a fatal ambush in the Knockmealdown Mountains.
So much had come to depend on the figure of Liam Lynch, whose leadership of the movement remained untested, and whose dedication to the cause helped to carry many others along all the way to the bitter end. Lynch has been accused of being a fantasist in this period, playing up the supposed strength of the anti-Treaty cause, engaging in farcical schemes to import artillery from abroad (Lynch would at one time claim that a single artillery piece could win the war for the IRA), the possibility of bringing the war to England and the likelihood that if the effort could be maintained that the government in Dublin would soon fall. Where Lynch lacked in the specifics of strategy and military direction, he certainly did not lack for efforts to maintain morale as best he could, and to make others believe that the war was still worth fighting. But this aspect of the man was waning as time went on, and as the Civil War entered March of 1923 there were enough people with the IRA leadership who felt that the conflict was not worth continuing to put the matter to the question at the highest levels.
The genesis of the final end was, in some ways, the Neutral IRA, whose membership had persisted with efforts to arrange some manner of truce between the two warring sides. A proposal they came up with, whereby republicans guns would be dumped ahead of a new general election, got enough support from IRA commanders like Tom Barry that they pressed Lynch to engage with them. Tense exchanges took place between the two men when Barry visited Lynch in a Dublin hideout, with the Cork column leader unwilling to listen to Lynch’s criticisms of such peace moves: he allegedly told Lynch “I did more fighting in a week than you did in your whole life”. A frustrated Lynch travelled to Munster to inspect the situation there directly and to meet with the leaders of the 1st Southern Division, but this mission only increased the pressure on him: travelling essentially as a fugitive through rural areas, for weeks Lynch was out of contact with the larger command structure of the IRA.
A higher scale confrontation could not be avoided, especially when the leadership of the 1st Southern Division essentially told Lynch they were on their last legs. On the 24th March, a meeting of the IRA Executive began in the Nire valley, Co Tipperary. Such a meeting was extremely risky in the circumstances, with many of the anti-Treaty sides most senior members present, those that were left anyway. A pro-Treaty raid could have ended the war then and there, but the meeting was vital to determine the future of the republican movement and more specifically the ongoing war. Aside from Lynch, those present included Frank Aiken, Barry and Eamon de Valera, though the last was present only as a spectator, and barred from voting on any proposals: he had recently attempted to get his “Document No. 2” idea back into the discourse, to the annoyance of many Volunteers who had no time for such a compromise. Many members of the Executive were unable to attend, and the eleven men that did held things in their hands.
Lynch entered the meeting hoping to shore up support for the war effort, and knowing that he faced a big job if he was to do so: many of the key men from the Munster units especially had little hope that continued military resistance had any point, disbelieved the idea that units in the rest of the country were in better shape and had little time for Lynch’s schemes of importing artillery. The mood was further soured by the difficulty in getting to the location, with Lynch, Barry and others forced to travel on foot through mountainous areas.
For four days the Executive met and discussed, moving from house to house in the area to avoid detection. Barry emerged as the most strong-minded of the “peace” faction, insisting that the war was lost and that further elongation of the struggle had no benefit to the larger cause. Lynch disagreed, and continued to push the idea that the republicans could turn the tide against the Free State. The room was split between the two positions. A motion that de Valera should attempt peace negotiations with the Free State, with the Executive to hold veto power over any terms, failed to gain enough support. Barry then went more direct, proposing a motion that the Executive recognise “further armed operations and resistance” to the pro-Treaty side would “not further the cause of Independence”. This was defeated by six votes to five. It was a victory for Lynch and his “war” faction, but one so tight that it merely signified how divided the movement was. The war would continue, with it agreed that the Executive would meet again within three weeks to receive updates on the military situation.
The National Army was well aware, from information garnered from prisoners in Dublin, that an Executive meeting was taking place in the area, whose pro-Treaty soldiers were under the command of John T. Prout. How pro-active he was in trying to find the location of the meeting when it was happening is in question – it’s possible the Free State was happy for it to go ahead, knowing that it could result in an end to the anti-Treaty war effort – but less so is the efforts that took place afterwards, with numerous sweeps of southern Tipperary and other neighbouring areas. Many leading members of the IRA would be hoovered up by these movements of troops, with names like Austin Stack and Dan Breen all in custody before the beginning of April.
Lynch maintained his fugitive existence throughout this time, moving from safehouse to safehouse, usually at night. He and his small party were routinely exhausted by the effort. On the night of the 10th April, Lynch and six others were staying at a house near the Knockmealdown Mountains, on the border of Tipperary and Waterford, when a party of National Army soldiers was seen approaching the location. The group fled, but were caught by a different unit of soldiers coming from the other direction. A brief firefight broke out, but resistance was pointless; the IRA men only had handguns. They fled as best they could, harassed all the while. As they neared the crest of a hill, Lynch was hit. Fatally wounded, he ordered his companions to leave him, so they could protect vital documents that the group was carrying. The rest, which included Frank Aiken, scattered and avoided capture. When pro-Treaty soldiers took possession of a dying Lynch, they initially believed they had captured Eamon de Valera, owing to the resemblance; in truth they had a much bigger prize. Lynch would be taken to a hospital in Clonmel, where he would die. Among his last words were allegedly a regret that the Civil War had ever happened, and a happiness that he was now “going away from it”.
Papers found on Lynch at the time of his death, notes made in preparation for the next Executive meeting, appear to indicate that he had finally come to realise that the Civil War was no longer worth fighting, and endorsed the idea of a general election ahead of IRA disarmament. Whether the Free State would have accepted such a proposal at that stage is dubious, but it is likely that no matter what, the war was going to last only a few more weeks at most. Lynch was as responsible as anyone for the manner in which it had been dragged out though – his final message ahead of his death had been another exhortation that victory was certain if the IRA stood united – and his status as the key link in the entire anti-Treaty movement now became rapidly apparent.
It behooves me at this point to say something in terms of closing thoughts on Liam Lynch. He was a capable commander during the War of Independence, and it is doubtful that the anti-Treaty faction would have lasted as long as it did without the strong personality and uniting influence that he provided at its head. But I would deem him a poor strategic leader, one too prone to indulge in best case scenarios and fanciful schemes, and not willing to engage enough with practical long-term planning and the required political aspects of any military movement. A better General would have been more pro-active at the start of the conflict, would have attempted to undermine the provisional government in the same way the IRA had done to the British state during the previous years and, crucially, would have known better when the fight was no longer worth fighting. The Irish revolutionary period started with a hopeless cause in 1916, but one that was turned into a larger non-military victory; it ended with a hopeless cause too, but instead of it becoming the seed of future resurrections, it was instead more of a decisive conclusion. Much of that comes down to Lynch.
In essence, the anti-Treaty cause now collapsed entirely. Absent that figurehead, and with the next senior men either actively seeking to end the war or not in a position to direct the military side of things, it was the inevitable consequence of Lynch’s death. When the IRA Executive reformed on the 20th April in Poulacapple, Yipperary, with many of the voting members present different to those who had attended the March meetings, Frank Aiken was elected as the new Chief of Staff. Never especially gung-ho about the war, Aiken’s election was a sure sign of where things were headed. He proposed that peace talks with the Free State should be begun on the basis that “The sovereignty of the Irish Nation and the integrity of its territory is inalienable”. This was carried by 9 votes to 2, a huge swing from just a few weeks earlier (though proposals that all military action cease immediately were rejected).
One week later, Aiken issued an order for the IRA to suspend operations, and followed that up on the 24th May, after de Valera’s efforts of negotiating terms with Free State middle men went predictably nowhere, with an order for the IRA to end its offensive operations and to dump its arms. It is important to note that this was not a capitulation or a surrender, and it was specifically designed as such: Aiken, who had devised the wording of the order with de Valera, instead thought of it more as just ordering republicans in arms to go home and await future directives. In so doing, he was able to propagate the idea that the IRA had not been defeated. It must be recognised that this was just wordplay though: the IRA had been brought to that point by the success of the pro-Treaty side both militarily and politically, and it would be a blinkered viewpoint that would see the conclusion of the Irish Civil War as anything other than a defeat for the anti-Treaty side.
Aiken’s directive was straightforward and to the point, but de Valera decided to indulge his sense of drama in his own message, which was addressed to the “Soldiers of the Republic, Legion Of The Rearguard”. In it it stated definitely that the Republic could no longer be defended with military force, with a continuation of the struggle “prejudicial to the future of our cause” before going on to note that “Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic”. De Valera promised that the time for martial action would come again, when the people of the country were more amenable to support such a cause.
These messages are generally taken as signifying the end of the Irish Civil War, though as noted previously official executions and other violence would continue in scattered outbreaks for a while. The war had lasted less than a year, but had claimed at least 1500 lives, with just under a third of those civilians. It also brought to an end, in the eyes of most people anyway, the Irish revolutionary period (at least in military terms). In the seven years since 1916 just under 4’500 people had been killed. It’s debatable just how much Ireland was changed, with any answer to that question liable to engender controversy, but it is something that I will attempt to get into in the next few entries.
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