Liam Lynch was one of the most important figures of the Irish revolutionary period from 1916-23 but despite this, many people don’t know of his fascinating man. Irish historian Gerard Shannon has aimed to highlight his history by documenting his legacy in what is only the third book written on Lynch.
But where did Gerard’s interest stem from? The Dublin historian tells me all, starting with his “enormous obsession with Spider-Man comics and Star Wars” from his pre-teens.
Gerard Shannon grew up in Skerries and describes himself as a huge nerd in his youth.
“I often think because both are rooted in fictional universes with their own detailed continuity and histories it definitely contributed to my enjoyment of and appreciation for understanding actual history – which is a lot more exciting!” he muses.
Gerard was a keen history student through secondary school, but never considered it as something that he could do. But then he learned of his family’s involvement in the early 20th-century revolutionary period during college and was never the same after that.
Gerard’s Dad, who he partly dedicates the book, ingrained in him an appreciation and love for Irish culture and history from a young age. It was he who brought Gerard to museums and educated him on his great-grandfather Séamus Hennessy being involved in the Clare IRA during both the War of Independence and Civil War.
“I’ll never forget seeing that surreal image of him in his Volunteer uniform,” Gerard tells me.
Gerard Shannon says that he’s made great friends with people who are also amazing historians of the period, such as Liz Gillis and the late Shane Kenna.
I often feel like how in Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope gets very awkward and nerdy around obscure park officials, that is me around certain Irish historians who are utter unknowns to most people when I first meet them. Though I’ve learned to control it a bit better! Just a bit.Gerard Shannon
“Others who have been a big influence on me in terms of their research and how they write about Irish history are Anne Dolan, Michael Hopkinson and Brian Hanley,” he adds.
Gerard’s journey with Liam Lynch
Liam Lynch was commander of the Cork No. 2 Brigade during the War of Independence and the leader of the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War until his death on 10th April 1923. The centenary was this year.
“I felt Liam was so much interesting to understand as a person beyond the celebrated leader of the IRA as revealed through these contemporary documents and accounts,” Gerard says. “So there was an irresistible opportunity for a new biography of his life.”
Gerard pitched the idea to Merrion Press in early 2020, and the rest is history.
Liam Lynch is also one of the most commemorated individuals from the period. He’s more well known in the south-west, and he has faded from national memory, until recent times.
“I looked at Liam Lynch’s role as the IRA Chief of Staff through my thesis I did in DCU,” Gerard explains.
“What struck me during that thesis was the sheer scope of material that has come in the decades since the last biography of Liam’s life came out in 1986 and incidentally, the year I was born!”
“For instance, we have the personal papers of Liam’s contemporaries with letters from the time as well as recent archival material, such as the military pensions and the witness statements of those who lived through the period. Ireland must have the most documented revolution, it’s extraordinary!”
When it came to actually writing the book, Gerard explains that he had a broad outline in mind for telling the story of Liam’s life initially, and then from the time of the thesis (2018-19), and from signing the book contract (2020) until publication, it truly was all about research.
This involved regularly visiting several archival institutions, such as UCD and the National Library.
“I also, particularly in-between lockdowns, visited the areas associated with Liam across Cork, Limerick and Tipperary – where he grew up, he fought, and of course, died,” he says.
“I spoke to relatives both of Liam and of his contemporaries. All of this was so important to understanding Liam Lynch, which is in some ways a process that still continues even with the book done.”
The Liam Lynch memorial tower in the Knockmealdown mountains marks where he was shot.
Gerard tells me that at times it could be overwhelming accumulating all this information, and deciding what best conveyed the beats of Liam’s life and helping to understand him. He admits that the sheer abundance of material available it was heart-breaking cutting out some material but that “maybe my publisher will let me do an expanded edition someday!”
“But it makes me also very excited to see what other historians may write about Liam Lynch someday, there’s scope there for some very interesting and different perspectives with what’s out there,” he adds.
“I claim no ownership over Liam or other figures I write about, you have to leave your ego at the door in this historian game. Anyone can access most of the material available, and come with their own take on telling his extraordinary story.”
Gerard explains though that at times it was necessary to get away from writing about it as even though he was writing about a time of heroism and high idealism, it was also a very violent and sad period to be exploring, particularly once he was exploring the Civil War.
“Liam Lynch loomed large in my mind and heart over these last few years, a constant companion, I shared in his victories and failures, enjoyed getting to know him and sometimes got quite frustrated with him.”
In my own downtime to take a break from writing, I went for walks, met with friends, and of course, binged a lot of light-hearted fares, Seinfeld, Cobra Kai or Superstore. I got lost in certain artists and soundtracks too, for the longest time I ridiculously obsessed listening to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album in particular, an unlikely soundtrack for Liam Lynch!Gerard Shannon
Gerard also had to balance his civil service job and had to put his social life on the back burner for the longest time. All that on top of living alone whilst writing the book he admits that sometimes it made it feel like a lonely experience.
“Even if you can’t meet people, it’s good to break it up with phone calls and even just text exchanges too,” he says of ways to keep the balance.
“Treat yourself to one evening a week, or one weekend day to meeting someone and venturing further afield to a green area to walk around or something you haven’t seen before. It breaks up to the process nicely, and helps give you the energy to keep going.”
Gerard tells me that there were so many surprising things that he discovered about Liam in his research.
“I think above all, for someone who utilised the means of revolutionary violence to achieve his goal of an Irish Republic – he seemed as a person a kindly and sensitive soul,” Gerard says.
“I’m always struck the amount of people he met and worked with who just really liked him, and I think that contributed to the intense loyalty he had from those under his command. I was also struck again and again by his genuine bravery, he carefully planned several important guerilla actions against British forces during the War of Independence, but he also directly took part in them.”
“He never asked his officers to do anything he was not willing to do himself, again, this is what contributes to the esteem he is held in by his peers. Even those he later opposed during the Civil War admitted their admiration for him.”
If there was one thing Gerard thinks that the people should know about Liam Lynch’s legacy, is that he was a stellar example of the dedication and bravery of that generation who sought to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
There is nothing in Liam’s early life that suggested he would elevate to such a role during the War of Independence, and be a prime mover of events during the Irish Civil War.
Depictions of his early life talk of him as a shy, somewhat socially awkward and studious type. Yet, he found himself an extraordinary sense of belief and dedication to the republican cause, he was compelled to change the society he lived in for the better.
As Gerard says, “his life, and story, is quite remarkable.”
“But I think that reveals itself more when you look at him first as a normal man caught up in an extraordinary time in Irish history, he had his positives and foibles as we all do. He was dedicated to the cause of Irish freedom first and foremost, but he yearned for a normal life with his fiancee when the fighting would stop.”
For Gerard, the reaction to his book has been extraordinary.
“I honestly never imagined – or even hoped – I’d make the bestseller lists, as I did for three weeks in a row on the top ten Irish non-fiction titles,” he says.
“It’s been wonderful that people who admire and revere him tell me they learned a lot and understand him more, and even people that don’t like Lynch have told me the same!”
“The fact that people who have diverse views on him have said very similar shows I have succeeded in what I hoped to do, create a very human, three dimensional portrait of Liam Lynch – this very important figure in early 20th-century Irish history.”
Gerard tells me that he would love to look at other figures who were active in the early 20th-century Irish revolutionary period.
“I know who the next book will be, someone who (as of now) has never had a book about them before. So I’m quite excited about it.”
You can find Liam Lynch: To Declare a Republic here.