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Transcript of MICHAEL LAWLOR
HIS WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
Michael Lawlor was born on August 8, 1901. According to the 1911 Census, Michael (then aged nine) was one of eight children born to Elizabeth Lawlor (38) and Thomas Lawlor (36). His siblings were: Thomas (13); Bridget (seven); Mary Anne (six); Elizabeth (five) and John Joseph (one). Thomas and Elizabeth had been married 14 years by then and in that time Elizabeth had given birth to eight children. Two others died before the Census was taken. At the time, the family lived in 11.4 Francis Street (Merchants Quay, Dublin). Thomas Lawlor Snr ran a hairdresser business in The Coombe.
The previous Census of 1901 shows the family living in 129.4 Francis Street, with Thomas (25), Elizabeth (28) and sons Thomas (3) and James (1). James was one of the two children not alive when the 1911 Census was taken.
After their father died, Thomas and Michael were sent to the Artane Industrial School, where Michael learned his trade of hairdressing. All that can be said of his time there was that it was not a happy experience.
Once out, he apprenticed as a hairdresser in Patrick Power, Barber, 170 Phibsboro Road. On August 16, 1917, it was noted in the Artane register that he 'likes his place well'. Michael was doing well in Phibsboro up to July 20, 1920. On December 9 of that year it was noted that he was 'working as a journeyman'.
From April 1, 1919 to March 31, 1920, during the War of Independence, Michael Lawlor (aged just 17) was on active service with E Company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade. He operated in the city centre, specifically Dorset Street, Bolton Street, Capel Street and Parnell Street. His commanding officers were Capt P. Garland, Capt W. Corry and Capt C. Byrne. According to his pension application, at this time he took part in parades, mobilisations, armed patrols, and “was always ready for emergencies, ambushes etc”.
Michael’s service would see him start as a private and end his military career as a Sergeant Major in the National Army (service number 12784). Along the way he would transfer to The Special Infantry Corps. He served in Beggars Bush Barracks (he was one of those who took it over from the departing British troops) and in Keogh Barracks (also called Richmond Barracks), Dublin. After his service, he lived at both 130 Francis Street and 32 Little Denmark Street.
Knowles was a fruit & veg shop on Grafton Street. Michael was imprisoned in Arbour Hill for five weeks at some stage between 1919 and 1921 (possibly for the action mentioned above). Not mentioned, though, is that, during that time, he was interrogated and tortured, even having one of his fingernails pulled out. One can only imagine the trauma that such an experience would have on mind and body.
“Acted on Intelligence staff, procuring information, notably concerning a Lieut Maj of the Welch Fusiliers, who was stationed in Moria Hotel, and who afterwards was executed.”
Michael spied on Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith (2nd Welch Fusiliers). It is possible that the hotel referred to is actually the Moira Hotel, which was located at 15, Trinity Street.
Compton-Smith was actually abducted on April 16, 1921, while disembarking from a train in Blarney. In May, he was found with a bullet in his forehead, wearing plus-fours and in his stocking feet. It was an ignominious end for a very brave man.
Like every good Intelligence operative, Michael followed his orders and procured what information he could. He may not have known how illustrious a military career the Englishman had. Compton-Smith commanded the 10th Royal Fusiliers at the battle of Scarpe in 1917, during World War One. He was wounded twice, mentioned in dispatches six times, and won the Distinguished Service Order and the Legion of Honour. A hint at his calibre can be seen in his final letter, below.
“Had access to Dublin Castle delivering goods to H Coy B&T’s officers mess, and there secured information which was duly passed on to our i o’s [Intelligence officer’s] staff.”
Michael certainly had guts. That other Michael (the Collins fellow) once got in to Dublin Castle and spent several hours perusing British Intelligence files on himself and other key players in the independence movement. Michael Lawlor did one better – actually stealing information from under the noses of notorious Black and Tan officers in the very room where they felt safest, and in the most guarded building in Ireland.
It had been decided to start a national boycott of English goods, as English suppliers were refusing to give credit in every district in Ireland. Collins felt it was essential that home industries should be supported and that British ones be deterred. With that in mind, troops were ordered to hamper the trade of these companies as much as possible. Stationed at Fowler Hall (10, Parnell Square), Michael was one of the many men tasked with this mission. Murray and Sons was a tobacco manufacturing company based in Belfast. Their top brands were Craven and Dunhill cigarettes.
WHAT THE PENSION APPLICATION FORM
DOESN'T TELL US
From the above, it’s clear that Michael had a very active service. Aside from his torture in Arbour Hill, there are other events that go unmentioned. They are, in the main, just lines of information, with no background, but they do offer a glimpse into his life and the dangers he faced.
THE ATTACK ON THE CUSTOMS HOUSE
Michael mentioned that he had been involved in the Customs House attack. This would make sense because it was only the Dublin Brigade which took part in that action. In May, 1921 – the same month Compton-Smith’s body was recovered – Michael took part in what was probably the most disastrous raid in IRA history. On May 25, Dublin IRA units occupied and burned the Customs House. No sooner were they in than Auxiliaries and several hundred British troops surrounded the building. In the gunfight that followed, five Volunteers were killed, as were three civilians. The British forces suffered four wounded. The greatest loss, though, was in the capture of 80 Volunteers at the scene. It was a stunt that the hard-pressed IRA, struggling in terms of manpower and resources, could ill afford. Michael was lucky to get out of there in one piece. Here is a statement issued by Dublin Castle the day after the attack.
On one occasion Michael and his future wife Bridget were walking down O’Connell Street when he was stopped and questioned by Black and Tans. In his pocket he had a piece of paper with Intelligence information on it. Michael scrunched up the paper and casually dropped it into a shore that he was standing beside. One of the Black and Tans didn’t take too kindly to that and struck Michael in the face with the butt of his rifle.
As referred to above, Michael took part in many ambushes. There’s one small snippet concerning one, which took place in Parnell Street. Michael threw a hand grenade into either a British armoured car or a Crossley tender (a truck used to transport the Black and Tans around the city). The Tans tried to combat this kind of attack by covering their trucks in wire mesh. The IRA had a solution to that – they placed hooks on the grenades so that they would attach to the wire when they landed.
During the War of Independence, Michael was walking home from leaving Bridget back to her house when he was fired upon by British soldiers who were stationed on the rooftops of several buildings. Bullets hit the ground on either side of him, but Michael managed to make his escape.
At one stage during the Civil War, Michael was stationed in Kilkenny. He was out in a boat with other soldiers when it capsized, causing them to have to swim ashore. When or why Michael was in Kilkenny is unclear. However, prior to the start of the Civil War, in May 1922, anti-treaty forces occupied the centre of Kilkenny city, and 200 pro-treaty troops were sent from Dublin to disperse them. In a bid to avoid all-out civil war, both sides agreed to a truce on May 3, 1922. Perhaps, Michael was one of these troops sent from Dublin.
One little anecdote shows the precarious nature of life in Dublin in these years. In those days, pubs sold some groceries as well as alcohol. Michael’s mother Elizabeth was shopping in the pub across from her house when the publican enquired ’how Mick was’. Elizabeth knew this man to be a distrustful sort, and replied: ‘Well, your bullet didn’t get him anyway.’
THE DUBLIN GUARD
One photocopied piece of paper lists Michael as being a Sergeant in the Dublin Guard. Unfortunately, the date on the register page is illegible. The Dublin Guard was something of a specialist unit. They had their own dark-green uniform, a different shade to that of other troops. The Dublin Guard was formed when the active service unit of the Dublin Brigade and The Squad (Collins’s assassination unit) were amalgamated in May 1921. In January 1922, the Guard ’s leader was Brigadier Tom Daly (former head of The Squad). Once it became part of the Free State Army, the Guard was expanded and later became a brigade. The Dublin Guard provided most of the ceremonial parties that took over barracks and installations from the British. This would tie-in with the fact that Michael was present when Beggars Bush Barracks was taken over from the British.
The Guard was at the forefront of the Free State fighting of July-August 1922. They also landed by boat at Fenit, Co Kerry, in August and quickly took Tralee from anti-treaty forces. Over the next few days it supported other troop landings at Tarbert, and captured the towns of Killarney and Castleisland.
The Guard had something of a notorious reputation amongst anti-treaty fighters, who referred to it as the ‘Green and Tans’. In March, 1923, the Guard was involved in some quite appalling atrocities in Kerry, which saw anti-treaty men tied to landmines, which were then exploded.
I’m not at all suggesting that Michael was involved in these things. I’m merely giving the background to the unit in which he served. A reorganisation of the Free State Army started in February 1923, and the Dublin Guard was later disbanded as part of that process.
BOMBARDING THE FOUR COURTS
The siege at the Four Courts was one of the most seismic actions during the Civil War. Future Taoiseach Sean Lemass, Ernie O’Malley and 180 anti-treaty men took over the building. Michael Collins looked on in horror, but did nothing for several weeks. Pressure from the British government eventually forced him to act.
Collins had been given an ultimatum – either sort out the mess at the Four Courts or the British forces still in Ireland would do the job for him. Collins couldn’t allow that to happen. If he did, the whole country would turn against him, so with the help of a few heavy artillery pieces, loaned by the British Army, he set about ending the Four Courts siege.
One of those tasked with manning the guns and firing them on the fine building was none other than our Michael. Apparently, many of the shells fired on the Four Courts actually went overhead and landed in the Phoenix Park. They did get the range right eventually, though, leading to fires throughout the building.
According to Ernie O’Malley, the anti-treaty men’s store of ammunition ignited in the blaze, causing a massive explosion and the destruction of 800 years’ worth of historic documents. Michael certainly made his mark on history...
THE FIRING SQUAD
The darkest duty Michael probably ever performed was during the Civil War when he formed part of the firing squad that executed Erskine Childers. It was Childers who had been at the helm of the Asgard during the Howth gun running; Childers had also acted as secretary to the plenipotentiaries sent over by De Valera to negotiate a treaty with Lloyd George.
Childers was a gentleman in every sense of that word. He was also a fine writer (his book The Riddle of the Sands is a great adventure story). In the wake of Michael Collins’s death, the lust for vengeance ran deep. Brutal laws were enacted. Anyone found in possession of an unauthorised weapon would be executed. Erskine Childers would fall victim to this law – he had in his possession a gun gifted to him by Michael Collins. For this, he was to be killed. But, Childers himself wasn’t one for revenge. On the eve of his death he asked to speak to his 16 year-old son (also Erskine, who would one day become President of Ireland).
Erskine senior made his son promise that he would seek out every one who had signed his death warrant… and shake their hands. The following day he was shot at the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, he said one more thing to Michael and the other men about to kill him.
“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”
And then they executed him.
Here’s a little twist, though. I mentioned this story in an article I wrote for my history blog. A man by the name of Victor contacted me to say that he had more information about the execution. Even stranger was the fact that Victor lived just a few minutes’ walk from my own house in Greystones. He had done very serious research on the execution because his own father had also been in that firing squad.
The execution site was in a long shed-like building, of (I think) corrugated iron. Some sheets of iron had been removed from the roof to allow the sunlight through to highlight Childers, who stood in front of a sandbagged wall quite a distance from the firing party.
Victor showed me pages upon pages of research he had compiled on the subject, and then he asked me some questions about Michael. What rank was he? I said Sergeant Major. Victor seemed satisfied with that (the entire firing party consisted of Non-Commissioned Officers). Then he asked whether Michael had ever served in the British Army. I said ‘no’. He then told me that the customary practice at the time was to issue live rounds to those who had served with the British Army and to issue blanks to the rest of the firing party. So, it would seem Michael got a blank for his rifle.
It was scant consolation. Apparently, he was unhappy with the whole business. Executions are brutal affairs, but Michael gritted his teeth and followed his orders, no matter how unpleasant the task.
The Civil War ended on May 24, 1923. Michael Lawlor and Bridget Power got married just over a month later, on June 27, 1923. By then, most of the killing was over with, however the dust hadn’t quite settled on the Civil War. Less than a week after Michael and Bridget got married, Noel Lemass – anti-treaty IRA officer and the brother of future Taoiseach Sean Lemass – was abducted by plainclothes policemen and killed. His body was later found in the Wicklow Mountains. In August, Eamon De Valera was finally arrested in Ennis, and sentenced to a year in Arbour Hill Prison.
Michael returned to hairdressing, working at various barber shops, including Tierney’s on Henry Street and at an up-market establishment in Stephen’s Green, where Count John McCormack would regularly frequent.
Michael once recalled that McCormack was tight when it came to tips. He was known for leaving a measly three pence gratuity. One of the barber’s in the shop was given this small sum and deliberately let it drop to the ground so that all could see what a skinflint the great Count really was.
He also worked at a shop on O’Connell Street, close to the Savoy Cinema. Every Monday, he would have a half day and would use the time to pop around to Marlborough Street, where his children were in school. Michael would take them out of class and treat them to a cake in a nearby creamery.
Michael was prone to epilepsy – said to be a result of the beatings he received during his military service. Whether it was some sort of fit or not that led to his death is not known, but Michael died on Christmas Day, 1953. He was just 52 years of age.
Michael Lawlor did his best to perform his military duties, without regard to his own safety. In fact, he put his life on the line more than once and he did so because he believed in something… something that, perhaps, has been lost in these hi-tech, high-stress days in which we live. Patriotism is an old-fashioned concept that has become somewhat eroded, but it is one that should be nurtured; how better to do that than by remembering our ancestor, Michael, who risked all in the cause of freedom.