Moylan, Sean (1889–1957), IRA officer and politician, was born 19 November 1889 at Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, eldest among five children of Richard Moylan, building contractor, and Nora Moylan (née O'Rahilly). He was educated locally at Kilmallock before becoming a carpenter's apprentice in 1905. Encouraged by his maternal grandfather, Edmund O'Rahilly, an IRB member, he became involved in the GAA and Gaelic League. His nationalism was further radicalised when he moved to Dublin in 1909 to work for Batt O'Connor (qv), a building contractor and IRB member. He returned to Kilmallock in 1914 and joined the local Volunteer company, later moving to Newmarket, Co. Cork, to set up a construction business and found a new Volunteer company of which he was elected captain. He mobilised his men for the 1916 rising but stood down on the countermanding orders of Eoin MacNeill (qv), much to his later regret. He avoided arrest after the rising and threw himself into the reorganisation of the Volunteers and Sinn Féin after 1916. Impatient for action, he led his company on a raid for arms on an RIC patrol in March 1918 but was arrested a month later and sentenced to one year's imprisonment for sedition. He immediately went on hunger strike and then escaped from custody on his transfer to hospital. He remained on the run until 1921, losing his business in the process. In early 1919 he became seriously ill with influenza but remained active as an organiser for Sinn Féin, particularly in relation to the dáil loan and arbitration courts in Cork.
As his health improved in late 1919 he began to take a more active role in the developing campaign against the RIC, stressing the need for intelligence-gathering and careful preparation, while developing a reputation for extreme courage. In early 1920 he was made commanding officer of the Newmarket battalion and was also commander of the second Cork flying column. He went on to become one of the most effective of the IRA's guerrilla leaders and masterminded the raid on Mallow barracks (September 1920) and the ambushes at Tureengariffe (28 January 1921) and Clonbanin (5 March 1921). Although promoted again (April 1921) to command of Cork's No. 2 Brigade, he was unimpressed by the IRA's central command and political leadership, and constantly complained of their inability to support the Cork fighters while wasting their time with administration. Exhausted by the demands on the column and in poor health, he was captured by British troops (16 May 1921) and sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. In the uncontested general election of May 1921 he was elected to the second dáil for the eight-seat Cork Mid, North, South, South-East and West constituency, but he continued to think of himself primarily as a soldier rather than a politician until after the civil war.
Convinced that the IRA could have continued the war successfully, he was deeply concerned by the truce, and aghast at the terms of the treaty when they emerged. He spoke strongly against the treaty in the dáil debates, arguing that the IRA had won the war and should thus decide whether or not to accept the treaty, and was one of the few TDs to actively object to partition, claiming that it would create a ‘new pale’ in Ireland. He also responded directly to Lloyd George's threat of total war by suggesting that no Cork loyalists would survive such a war, although he had avoided targeting unionists during the war of independence. In the months following the dáil's acceptance of the treaty he remained hopeful that conflict could be averted and worked closely with Liam Lynch (qv) in an attempt to maintain IRA unity and reach a compromise with the pro-treaty side. Although deeply troubled by the prospect of fighting against his former comrades, he reluctantly entered the conflict after the shelling of the Four Courts on 28 June 1922. In July he led 230 men on a failed expedition to Wexford before moving back to Limerick, where he unsuccessfully urged Lynch to adopt a more aggressive policy against the pro-treaty forces. After the fall of Limerick and Cork he acted as director of operations for the anti-treaty army, with Éamon de Valera (qv) as his nominal assistant, although Moylan's effectiveness in this role was greatly hindered by poor communications and organisation on the anti-treaty side, and he generally concentrated on his own guerrilla activities in Cork. In December 1922 Lynch sent him to the USA to raise money and purchase much-needed artillery, although the latter task proved impossible, while the former was ill suited to the blunt and impatient Moylan. In October 1922 he had been appointed to the anti-treaty council of state by de Valera, but remained in the USA for the rest of the war, with the exception of a brief period in February 1923.
Returning to Ireland, he restarted his business as a building contractor in Newmarket in 1924 but moved to St Lawrence's Road, Clontarf, Co. Dublin, in the 1930s. He continued to support Sinn Féin after the civil war and, although initially reluctant, joined Fianna Fáil shortly after its formation in 1926, winning a seat for the party in Cork North in 1932 and retaining it at every election until 1957. An unorthodox parliamentarian, he could be abrupt to the point of rudeness but often praised the ideas of opposition members, much to the bemusement of his more partisan colleagues. He was parliamentary secretary to the ministers for finance (1937–9) and defence (1939–43). In the latter position he sent a detailed memorandum to de Valera in March 1941 suggesting that the government should pay farmers for all the food they produced and provide them with up-front payments to increase tillage. Becoming minister for lands (1943–8), he stressed agricultural efficiency as the sole criterion for land redistribution, arguing against de Valera's desire for more small farms.
In his later life Moylan developed a passion for literature and history and spent much of his spare time reading; he was an advocate in the 1950s of the establishment of a dictionary of Irish biography. He was appointed minister for education when Fianna Fáil returned to power (1951–54), and concentrated on the improvement of school facilities at the expense of teachers’ wages. Wary of conflict with the church, he refused to remove the ban on married women teachers, but did introduce several innovations such as the expansion of vocational education at secondary level and the enterprise half-day at primary level, which allowed teachers to dedicate one half-day per week to a subject of their choice. He took a strong interest in agricultural matters, and in February 1953 presented the cabinet with a memorandum criticising the lack of innovation in Irish agriculture and proposing investment in the country's dairy industry to enable it to compete internationally. In May 1953 he advocated the development of an autonomous agricultural, educational and development board, to be responsible for agricultural research and training, farm advisory services, and advising the government of agricultural policy, but the Fianna Fáil government's fall from power in June 1954 stalled any such developments.
He lost his seat in Cork North to Batt Donegan of Fianna Fáil in the 1957 election but was immediately nominated to the seanad by de Valera and on 16 May was appointed to the cabinet as minister for agriculture (only one other senator, Joseph Connolly (qv), had previously held a ministerial post). Soon after his appointment, he carried a bill to prevent the spread of bovine TB. A strong advocate of state aid for agriculture, Moylan proposed that farmers should be given interest-free loans to buy fertiliser. However, before he could see through any major changes, he died suddenly 16 November 1957 at home in Clontarf, Dublin. He was buried with full military honours at Kiskeam cemetery, Co. Cork.
He married (1922) Nora Murphy of Newmarket; they had one son and four daughters. His son-in-law Jack O'Brien was a noted author and historian.