The Final IRA Executive Meeting Attended by Liam Lynch, 23-26 March 1923

The 24 May 2023 will mark 100 years since the IRA Chief of Staff Frank Aiken issued a ‘dump arms’ order to republican forces, bringing an end to the military fighting of the Irish Civil War. It also marked a seminal moment, in what Éamon de Valera (then President of the de jure Republican Government) described, an acknowledgement by their leadership that ‘military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the republic.’ This decision was indicative of the change in direction that the IRA had taken when Aiken assumed the role of Chief of Staff on 20 April 1923 – and also reflective of the realities of the war for republicans. Thousands of their number had been imprisoned in Free State jails, demoralisation was rife due to the steady rate of republican executions, and as Moss Twomey indicated in one report to the IRA leadership in early March, ‘not a decent [military] operation, whatever the cause is.’[1]

Papers of Eamon de Valera, P150/1739, UCD Archives

The meeting of the IRA Executive from 23 – 26 March 1923 was the last attended by General Liam Lynch, who had been Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty forces from the outbreak of the Civil War. A celebrated guerrilla commander during the War of Independence, Lynch refused to entertain to entreaties from within and without the IRA ranks to advocate for peace with the Free State and bring the fighting to an end. Even in the increasingly desperate military situation the anti-Treaty IRA found itself in, Lynch was still a figure of great respect, and a symbol of strength to those under his command. Todd Andrews, who travelled with him as his adjutant in his final weeks later acknowledged only Lynch’s ‘iron will’ had keep the civil war going for republicans these last few months.[2]

Lynch, however, knew he faced considerable challenges. He privately anguished over the bitter conflict – so different in nature to the War of Independence – admitting to his mother in one letter the previous December, ‘Would that English hounds had tracked me down then old comrades who had been false to their allegiance.’ He had been under pressure from those in his former command of the First Southern Division to hold the meeting. Even holding the Executive meeting was a challenge, given the enormous National Army swoop in the area, Free State intelligence having learnt the republican leadership was meeting in an area near or in the Nire Valley in rural Waterford. Indeed, the meeting had to move location twice across the 23 – 26 March.

There are two versions of minutes of this important meeting in the Papers of Éamon de Valera, UCD Archives. Both are two pages in length: one is more typical of other Executive meeting minutes, with reports by the Chief of Staff (Lynch) and Assistant Chief of Staff (Seán Hyde). Another copy of the minutes appear to be Frank Aiken’s copy, compiled during his later tenure as Chief of Staff. This is slightly shorter but does contain detail not in the earlier version. Aiken, in own handwriting writes, ‘My own draft. Not ok’d [sp] on 18-9-25’ and initials it ‘F.A. C/S’.

The listing of those present at the meeting includes Lynch, Aiken, Austin Stack (Republican Government’s Minister for Finance), Seán Dowling (IRA Director of Organisation), Humphrey Murphy (O/C, Kerry No. 1 Brigade), Seán MacSwiney (Quartermaster, Cork No. 1 Brigade), Tom Derrig (Adjutant General), Seán Hyde (Assistant Chief of Staff), Tom Crofts (O/C, First Southern Division), Bill Quirke (O/C, Second Southern Division) and Tom Barry (Operations Officer, Southern Command).

According to the agreed agenda, the meeting opens with a listing of all those present, nomination of new Executive members to replace those in prison, and one notable attendance: that of Éamon de Valera. However, as indicative of what by then was a difficult working relationship between Lynch and de Valera, by that juncture, that the ‘President attend meeting without right to vote … ’

Papers of Eamon de Valera, P150/1739, UCD Archives

Lynch then presented his report on the military situation. For reasons that somewhat bemused his senior officers, Lynch saw potential in the republican military effort in the west – perhaps trying to establish a republican base as had been the case in the south-west at the start of the Civil War. Todd Andrews recalled that in the area of the IRA’s western command ‘for some not very apparently he [Lynch] had hopes … of our making a comeback.’[3] Indeed, Lynch’s report says the entire Western Command area can ‘be generally developed’, and the 2nd Western was a ‘very strong area’ and 3rd Western a ‘very good area. Very active and well organised.’

In his memoir, Liam Deasy blamed Lynch’s Assistant Chief of Staff, Seán Hyde, for instilling Lynch with such hopes for carrying the fight in the west.[4] A cursory reading of Hyde’s report does bear this out, for example, Hyde remarked in the 3rd Western ‘Republican administration in rural areas controlled by the IRA’ both discipline and economic conditions were good. However, Lynch was mostly attune to republican failures in the field, and was otherwise hugely critical of the general republican military efforts by late March 1923, mentioning that arrests of senior officers ‘hit us hard’ and his orders were generally ‘not carried out’. As seen in his report, he was fiercely critical of reports provided by other officers, along with criticism of poor discipline, and even weak areas not making efforts to disrupt the Free State administration. 

Aiken’s copy of the minutes also refer to ‘long discussion’ on several crucial recent developments in the conflict. These chiefly involved debating the efforts of Tom Barry, the famed IRA guerrilla leader, in attempting to seek peace terms with the Free State government. The fallout from the capture of Deasy, Lynch’s former Deputy Chief of Staff in January, was also discussed. Deasy had issued a statement from captivity pleading with Lynch and other IRA leaders to surrender who demoralised Lynch’s forces, and resulted in republican prisoners similarly signing forms of undertaking vowing not to take part in further fighting.

Some accounts of the meeting indicate that there was a good deal nuanced conversation (often missed in formal minutes) at the meeting, which, as it took place over four days, must have seen lengthy exchanges. According to one such account, Bill Quirke of the 2nd Southern Division, challenged Tom Barry’s claim that the war was lost. Barry retorted ‘when did the last fighting in Kilkenny occur’, to which Quirke – in reference to the Fenian Rising – replied, ‘1867.’ Despite the seriousness of the military situation, this rare moment of levity resulted in all present having apparently ‘collapsed into laughter.’[5]

Two crucial motions of note as put forward at this meeting. The first, proposed by Aiken, was that the Republican Government, headed by de Valera, ‘be empowered to enter upon negotiations’ with the Free State government. Following the beginning of these negotiations, a report was to be presented at the next Executive meeting. A vote was taken, with Lynch not voting, with five for, and five against the motion. A second motion is then put forward by Barry, that ‘in the opinion of the Executive further armed resistance and operations’ against the Free State government ‘will not further the cause of independence of the country.’ Five, including Barry, voted for the motion with six against, Lynch voting with the latter. In Aiken’s own copy, he stressed the reasoning behind the Barry’s motion being defeated, (Aiken himself had voted with Lynch):

‘Several times during the meeting allusion was made to the efforts then being made to secure artillery and the Chief of Staff said that he thought a few pieces at least would be landed before three weeks. Some members who voted against Tom Barry’s resolution stated they did so because they wished to see whether the artillery would come or not, and also they wished to get a detailed report of the areas whose reports had reached the C/S in time for the meeting.’

Lynch put forward the meeting’s final motion, requesting that a further ‘Executive meeting be called in 3 weeks time.’ While it may seem extraordinary Lynch was considering a further meeting in light of the enormous National Army sweep in the area, it was indicative of the seriousness he gave the situation, that a he needed a united IRA if he was to ensure the war was to continue. The acquisition of heavy artillery was Liam Lynch’s last grand military strategy, a final attempt to bring momentum in favour of republican forces. He had dispatched one of his senior Cork commandants, Seán Moylan, to the United States and Germany, in order to acquire this material. In February, Lynch had written to one senior officer, saying if ‘we had a small piece of artillery I feel we could finish this war now very quickly … ’[6] Lynch indicated to de Valera to acquisition of this material could turn the tide and ‘it would easy to mark terms with the enemy’.[7] De Valera, in reply, worried of the logistics in terms of ‘that a piece of artillery will hamper the mobility of our columns and will be difficult to keep concealed and to retain under the conditions of the war’.[8]Ultimately, whatever such concerns, Moylan abandoned his efforts after Lynch’s death.

In Aiken’s copy of the minutes, he mentions de Valera should ‘try and find out what the chances of securing peace … ’ Not surprisingly, Aiken empowers de Valera to do just do that on assuming the role of IRA leader on 20 April, but de Valera’s efforts ultimately go nowhere.  During one of his stays in safe houses, Liam Lynch indicated to his friend and courier Kathleen Barry, three options open to him: ‘to fight on, to surrender, or a third he would not name, but did not like – which was in fact a dumping of arms.’[9] He was still prone to trying to optimism to those under his command, writing to one senior IRA officer on the night before his death, ‘I am confident that if we stand united that victory is certain …’[10]

Lynch was to never make the next Executive meeting, mortally wounded following a pursuit by National Army troops across the Knockmealdown mountains on 10 April 1923. He died later that night whilst in custody, forever celebrated in commemoration as the unbowed, unbroken Irish republican who died before having to contemplate defeat and end the military fighting of the IRA. It was to his successor, Frank Aiken, who had to make the difficult choice.

Gerard Shannon is an historian of early 20th century Ireland, and author of ‘Liam Lynch: To Declare A Republic’ (Merrion Press, 2023).

[1] Moss Twomey to Liam Lynch, 23 March 1923, UCD Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/92(19-20).

[2] See Todd Andrews, Dublin Made Me, (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 291.

[3] Ibid, p. 304.

[4] Liam Deasy, Brother Against Brother, (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 75.

[5] Michael Hopkinson, Green Against Green, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2004), p. 237.

[6] Lynch to Joseph O’Connor, 26 January 1923, UCD Archives, Moss Twomey Papers, P69/25(91).

[7] Lynch to Éamon de Valera, 6 February 1923, UCD Archives, Éamon de Valera Papers, P150/1749.

[8] De Valera to Lynch, 8 February 1923, UCDA Archives, de Valera Papers, P150/1749.

[9] Florence O’Donoghue, No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923, (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd, 1953), page 301.

[10] Lynch to Pa Murray, 9 April 1923, UCD Archives, de Valera, Papers, P150/1749. A similar statement is made by Lynch to all IRA Battalion O/Cs, 4 April 1923, UCD Archives, Ernie O’Malley Papers, P17a/25.

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