23. LIAM’S MOTHER HEARS THE NEWS: “THANK
GOD HE DIDN’T LET DOWN HIS COMRADES
It was a death not unexpected –and yet it was
a terrible shock to Annie and to her whole family.
They all loved Liam.(The Good, the True, the Mild.)
Liam’s mother was stoic: Stabat Mater of
Barnagurraha. [She had sensed bad news as
the bearer arrived.] She then said:”Thank God
he didn’t let down his comrades!”
It is such a curious remark!: what could have
prompted it? My sense: perhaps the “unpopular
landlord-agent connections” in the Lynch family?
Liam, respected historians claim, had, towards
the end, opted for compromise & peace. Some
say he was on his way that very day to accept
the same truce he had over-ruled time & again.
But this time, time had run out –Liam’s own time.
23A BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER – LIAM
AT THE END
We are near the end.
It is time for us to consider Liam’s state the day
he died; time to weigh the evidence, to list —
objectively, compassionately– the pressures he
faced in a situation he had created for himself.
It is our duty to get the story right: in St. Colum-
cille’s words (Druim Ceat Convention, 575 AD),
“We need enduring stories; well-made stories.”
We need the truth! Actually, no! –we need the
best truth we can muster here.The best narrative.
By 8 pm that evening Liam would be dead. Shot
as he fled; mortally wounded; carried down the
mountain; just hours to live; praying audibly,
repeatedly –an “Act of Contrition”.In the words
of the prayer, he is “heartily sorry” for his sins.
What would he have regarded as his most
grevious sin? Or his biggest “This-should-never-
have-happened” regret? Was it dying? At age
29, leaving so early? Not surviving? Not doing
the right thing? Advancing his cause, but FAIL-
ING to find a better course? Not doing all he
could to save the lives he could have saved?
Including his own?
Liam’s committment was to a full 32-County
Irish Republic: he would accept “No Other Law”.
Essentially it was his rejection of the “26-County”
Treaty that brought about the Irish Civil War.
But just months later, the war had turned into a
depressing cycle of atrocious reprisals. The death-
toll mounted: Liam’s friends were shot as prisoners.
He ordered his “frightful” reprisals –agonized over,
no doubt. The Church had called for a truce; had
outlawed Liam’s side. Months before, his cause
had been thought noble. Now he was a “stubborn
diehard”, leading other stubborn diehards.
Yet, though pressured to make a truce & end the
war, Liam –just a month before his death—cast,
5 to 4, his over-ruling vote to carry on! His trusted,
closest, pro-truce colleagues surely groaned: the
“Real Chief” saying “No!” Again. For the last time.
He insisted there still was hope: they were still
“strong enough” to force negotiation.His plan to
import German mountain artillery would turn the
tide! They all waited –& waited: but no artillery
arrived –even as doubts of its relevance grew.
Had Liam’s hope become hope-against-hope?
[An aside: how to square his final-day urging
“Vital papers must get through!” with the
indications he had decided to make a truce?]
One biographer wrote:“He never lost the old
habit of turning, in his perplexities, to Him Who
is…source of all guidance.Coming unannounced
into the room…a day…before his death, JG
found him on his knees saying his Rosary.”
Did his faith affect his decisions?(“outlawed” as
he was by his Church.)What “perplexities” did he
have? What guidance did he seek? Receive?
Religious “practice” ranges from “lukewarm” to
“extreme” to “mania”: Liam, we sense, was not
“extreme” so much as “intensely devout” (-similar,
perhaps, to his leadership style.)Two brothers &
two uncles had religious vocations –certainly, more
than the average family. And perhaps he did
(somewhat) risk his life to go to Confession the
night Annie warned him not to visit the house.
We sense, too, that his mother’s enigmatic
statement on his death –“Thank God he did not
let down his comrades”— may indicate a higher
family-level of “religious intensity”.But –for Liam
at least– NOT one of “religiosity”. Or of exerting
“holier than thou” influences on his colleagues.
Nor -by any available measure- did Liam share
the mystical, martyred, sacrificial-death-wish faith
of Padraic Pearse–whatever we make of Pearse’s
provocative & doomed role in the Easter Rising.
23A. ANNIE MARCHED TO LIAM’S MEMORIAL
EVERY YEAR : “I’M OLD IRA,” SHE WOULD SAY.
In the end, there it was –the bitter “Compromise
or be Compromised” lesson of his fatal wound
that April day came, of necessity, too late for Liam.
But it stayed with Annie all her life: 70 years is
a long meditation. Later –for 20 years, until her
own death in 1994– she walked to Liam’s
Memorial at Kilcrumper cemetery near Fermoy.
“I’m ‘Old IRA”, she would say: she was strongly
opposed to the later violence, and to what she
regarded as an exploitation of Liam’s name.
24. A GREAT VICTORY, FOLLOWED
(AND OVERSHADOWED) BY A FAILURE
There can be no doubt: without the do-or-die
commitment of men like Liam, Ireland would
not have won its independence from Britain!
Historians have pointed to the relatively
limited educational level of the Irish insurgents.
Implying what? A “better result” if Liam had
graduated from college? (Considering the
propensity of the “better-educated” to “circum-
navigate” military service, in Liam’s case that
might not have been desirable.)
Can we say that Liam’s difficulty –his inability
to stop in time, to see & accept a need for
compromise and truce– would have been
overcome with more education? Perhaps.
But –compare him to his adversary, Churchill.
His family means & educational prospects could
not have been better! But Churchill’s education
(Harrow; Sandhurst –8th out of 150!)– did not
protect him (–or us–) from the horrific & costly
mistakes that headstrong Winston incurred.
Whereas R.F Foster, in his excellent “Modern
Ireland” (16.00-1972) does convey that Math
Professor De Valera may have looked down
on Liam for his 8th grade education.
Trying to measure Liam & Annie is not an
easy exercise. The big difference would have
to be Annie’s mother –Johanna O’Neill was
larger than life, a dynamo; 9 kids; lived to
age 96; great humor, enjoyment of life; wide
interests (–widely read in Irish, English,
French & Russian literature, as was Annie
& her two sisters.) The little I know of Liam’s
mother tells me she was no Johanna.
It was a heroic achievement –the “impossible”
defeat of the military might of the Great British
Empire by a small guerilla force! Heroic, too,
because of the basic human belief in inevitable/
eventual moral victory: defenders will defeat
pre-emptive invaders –because they HAVE to!
But for the tarnish of the futile Civil War –which
Liam could have stopped, but failed to do so—
history would no doubt have agreed, eventually,
that they all were heroes –Liam & all the others.
But the Civil War was a failure. It left Ireland
bitter, divided, blaming, unforgiving. Understand-
able, perhaps –but still a failure! And one for
which nobody ever took responsibility.Did Liam
come close?There is regret, but no real owner-
ship in his “This should never have happened,”
& “All a pity.” The irony was that, having laid
down his life, Liam failed to stay alive & go on
to shape, in a democracy, the Ireland he made
possible. A tragedy –for Liam, and for Ireland.
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