How I learned that grandad executed Erskine Childers

Do you know where you’ll be on census day? Maybe not, but chances are you might just find yourself huddled over a form, answering innumerable questions about your personal life. Filling in the census may not be the most exciting of pastimes, but it sure is important. Without all those statistics it generates, we’d be lost in terms of planning for the future. Just as importantly, though, we’d be all at sea when it comes to the past, too.

The census proved invaluable when it came to discovering more about my grandfather, Michael Lawlor, as part of a family history project looking at his role during the War of Independence and Civil War.

Michael full image 2

Michael Lawlor

I’d heard some snippets of stories about Michael, but not much of substance, so I decided to do some digging. I started my research with the national archives, specifically the census figures for 1901 and 1911, and I hit pay dirt.

Michael 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).

He had seven siblings (the eldest just 13). 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 showed 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, I knew that Michael had been sent to the Artane Industrial School. So, my next stop was to contact the Dept of Education. I gave them Michael’s details and they said they’d be back in touch. The lady I spoke to also pointed me towards Barnardos children’s charity, which also kept records of those who’d spent time in the industrial schools.

A few weeks later, I got a result –Barnardos had a record of Michael’s time at Artane. It turned out that a Judge MacInerney had ordered that Michael be detained there on July 24, 1913, for “wandering and not having any visible means of subsistence”.

There was no record of his years within the school, but there was other information. Once he’d left, according to the industrial school register, he followed his father’s trade and apprenticed as a hairdresser. The register noted on August 16, 1917, that he “likes his place well”. On December 9, 1920, it recorded that he was “working as a journeyman”.

The date is intriguing because Michael was certainly doing more than journeyman work at that time; he was also a soldier in the IRA, engaged in intelligence work – spying against the British army – for E Company, 1st Battalion, of the Dublin Brigade during the War of Independence.

That information came courtesy of Michael’s military pension application form, which was supplied to my father as far back as 2004 by the Department of Defence. Every former soldier from those times would have filled in this form, detailing their service history, in order to obtain a pension.

According to Michael’s form, he had operated in the city centre, taking part in, mobilisations, armed patrols, and “was always ready for emergencies, ambushes etc”. He states: “On Friday, March 25th, 1921, captured books and documents from B&T [Black and Tan] private car outside Knowles, Grafton Street, being employed there as a store man.”

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, according to what he told my father, he was interrogated and tortured, even having a fingernail pulled out.

Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith

His application form also states: “Acted on Intelligence staff, procuring information, notably concerning a Lieut Maj of the Welch Fusiliers, who was stationed in Moira Hotel, and who afterwards was executed.”

A little online research soon showed that the man Michael spied on was Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith (2nd Welch Fusiliers). The hotel referred to was located at 15, Trinity Street.

Compton-Smith was actually abducted on April 16, 1921, in Blarney. He was later found with a bullet in his forehead, wearing plus-fours and in his stocking feet. He was a hero from the war – wounded twice, mentioned in dispatches six times, and won the Distinguished Service Order and the Legion of Honour.

Of course, Michael knew none of that. Nor, I suspect, did he know that moments before he was killed, the Major wrote a poignant letter of farewell to his wife and daughter, and even managed to bequeath his watch to the IRA officer who was about to execute him.

It was rewarding to find such information and being able to link it to my grandfather. It somehow made his military service more real.

One final piece from his application form: “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.”

Reading those words made me so proud of Michael. 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… that took some guts.

My father told me that Michael had taken part in the disastrous attack on the Customs House in which almost a hundred IRA men were captured. Later, Michael was one of those who fired the artillery on the Four Courts during the Civil War. The shells fired there led to a massive explosion and the destruction of 800 years’ worth of historic documents.  Grandad certainly made his mark on history…

His darkest time, though, came when he formed part of a firing squad to execute none other than Erskine Childers (author, Irish patriot, gun-runner and director of propaganda for the anti-treaty side).

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, Childers spoke to Michael and the other men about to kill him.

“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

Then they executed him.

I mentioned this fact on my history blog and was contacted by a man, who had done much research on the subject. His father had also formed part of that firing squad. He showed me photocopies of army registers for the Dublin Guard with his father’s name and, just a few lines below, that of my own grandfather Michael.

He asked what rank Michael was. I told him Sergeant Major. He seemed satisfied with this (only NCOs formed the firing party). He then asked if Michael had ever served in the British Army. I said no. I was then informed that the practice at the time was to give live rounds to those men who had once been British soldiers and to give blanks to those who hadn’t. So, maybe Michael didn’t actually kill Childers with his bullet.

My grandfather was prone to epilepsy – said to be due to beating he received during his military service. He died on Christmas Day, 1953, aged just 52.

His story is like that of many young men of his generation, who risked all in the name of freedom. Were it not for the bureaucracy of pension and census forms, though, much of his story would have remained untold.

So, come April 24, remember that although filling in the census may be a bit of a chore, do it anyway – for future generations it is a vital link in their understanding of who we once were and how they came to be.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

If you’d like your ancestor’s story brought to life, contact me at historiesinthemaking@gmail.com or check out historiesinthemaking.ie (site currently under construction).

Michael pages

The brochure I put together on my grandfather

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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47 Responses to How I learned that grandad executed Erskine Childers

  1. roberthorvat says:

    Thank you David. A brave account. I hope one day with a little more investigation to tell my family war history. My father’s father fought in WW1 in the Croatian guard for Austria and two brothers in the next war died fighting for the Ustaša. On my mother’s side, my grandfather fought in WW2 and after the war spent a year in one of Tito’s political camps.

    • Thanks Robert. By the sound of things you’ve got some story to tell your relatives. That all sounds like it will be packed with action and hugely fascinating history. Don’t let all that slip away.

  2. John L. Monk says:

    So cool that you’ve researched all this. I’d like to know more about my family, but with my luck none of them killed anyone 😦 Sigh.

  3. John Savage says:

    Great reading, as usual, David. One thing I’ve picked up on several times, including at Kilmainham, is the blank round in the firing squad rifles. The SMLE and equivalent weapons of the time had a fierce kick when fired and this only happens with a live round in the chamber. A blank round does not make the weapon “kick” when fired so anyone firing their weapon would know instantly if the round was live or not. I’ve fired the WW2 version of the SMLE, The Mark IV, many times and I can testify to the power of the kick. Modern semi and full automatic rifles kick as well but they tend to go upwards as opposed to directly backwards.

    • Great piece of information there, John. I’ve never fired a weapon, but would love to try. THose soldiers must have had quite bruised shoulders when involved in sustained military engagements. Presumeably, from what you’ve siad, all members of a firing squad would know from the kick if they’d fired a live round, which kind of defeats the purpose of issuing blannk rounds in the first place.

      • John Savage says:

        Yes I think that the blank round is a bit of a sop to human nature David. First time I fired the Mk IV it nearly broke my shoulder but we were shown the correct way to hold and use the weapon (Army Cadets mid 1970’s) It did hurt a bit but we got used to it. A bit like firing a 12 bore shot gun. I’ve used quite a few weapons over the years but never really bought into it. Only interest now is from a historical point of view and laughing at all the “John Wayne” methods of firing. If memory serves the programmes featuring the leaders of the Rising (Gaelic channel) showed the MK IV being used which was not introduced until WW2. The SMLE WW1 version has a flush barrel with the woodwork whereas the MK IV has a slightly protruding barrel. The Wind That Shakes The Barley had the correct weapons, unless I missed some. I get pelters at home watching historical dramas and picking up on incorrect uniforms, weapons, etc. Sad I know.

      • If I knew as much as you, I’d probably be the same. But there’s no fear of that happening…

  4. Riveting account. I, too, as with Robert, have some interesting stories to tell from my family history. It’s finding the time!

  5. What an amazing story. Aren’t you fortunate to have been able to unearth that sort of information!

  6. Great story, David. I’m a big fan of getting the ‘story behind the story.’ Often we have birth and death dates of ancestors and a few other facts – where they lived and their main occupation – but little else. Those old records – census forms, probate records, military records, county histories – can be a gold mine for those willing to search them out.

    • They caertainly can, Carol. Luckily, for me, my grandad’s pension application form was lurking in a cupboard somewhere, so it didn’t require too much searching for other information

  7. What an amazing post. I’ve done all my family history and know the digging you can do to come up empty handed. This was obviously begging to be told.

  8. Cracking story, Dave, watching the revelations of research, unfold. I attended the launch of The Splendid Years in the Abbey last night. Bring on the centenaries, they stir up the ghosts

  9. Intriguing and entertaining, as are all of your well- written posts!

  10. Pingback: How I learned that grandad executed Erskine Childers | First Night History

  11. Another very interesting post, David. You look a lot like your grandfather. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog it. I was in Bray, when the funeral cortege of Erskin Hamilton Childers passed through the main street on it’s way to Roundwood.

  12. Reblogged this on Jean Reinhardt and commented:
    August 24th 2016 is not only the centenary anniversary of the Easter Rising but it is also the day that the people of Ireland will fill in their census forms. David Lawlor’s post shows the importance of this task as a record for future generations.

  13. Wow. That’s some history! My Mom has always been into our Family History and taught me early on that filling out our countries Census is important to maintaining the family tree. I fill in the circles and answer the question every 10 years.

    I don’t have the Genealogy Bug like my Mom and Sister do to dig into the massive files, and records from cities, towns, and churches across the globe, but I do enjoy reading the historical accounts of the ancestors that they find. Yeah, I like the stories, and history, but am not keen to do the hard work it takes to find it, but am thankful for people like my Mom and Sister that are!
    Looking back helps us find ourselves and helps those that look and recognize how to see not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

    My Mom and Sister send me the Pedigree charts and bits of information they glean from their searches and I eat it up, and tuck the precious charts and notes away for my children, but share the information straight-away so it’s in their minds and part of their story.

    Keeping a record of the family is important. I think we all want to know who came before us to pave the way.

  14. snapsfromjim says:

    Absolutely fascinating stuff. Thank you David and thank you Jean for reblogging.

  15. It is indeed a small world. Forgive my sloppy typing, Jim.

  16. inesephoto says:

    Thank you for sharing! I am doing my family history and I can appreciate such a find! Some of my family members were executed in the 1920s, and I feel sorry for the people in the firing squad.

  17. Wow, such an interesting heritage.

  18. Brian Benson says:

    Hi, my Grandfather Francis Benson was one of (Over the next two days (14–15 May) the IRA killed fifteen policemen – from Timeline.) those 15 policemen.
    Unarmed but shot to death by two gunmen in Pembroke St Tralee 14 May 1921. A published transcript (which I have from historic church records notes that 1000 local people attended his funeral – which speaks volumes. Sad days when brother fought brother and son against father. I will be in Ireland (from Australia) in 2 weeks time and will meet relations from about Ireland.
    My second trip and looking forward to it
    Great website you have. All best for your books.
    Cheers, bb

    • They were, indeed, terrible times Brian. It’s a tribute to your grandfather that so many turned out for his funeral – and it is fascinating, too, because it shows that not everyone was as fervently opposed to the RIC as one would imagine in the middle of such a conflict. The motivations behind many actions are complex; things are never quite black and qhite (or tan) as is evidenced by that funeral turnout.
      Now, we celebrate the centenary of 1916. People argue about the wisdom of the rebel leaders in taking a stand. Those types of discussions are fairly straightforward, but when it comes to the War of Independence and, particularly, the Civil War, the dark underbelly of our history will be studied. SOme of it will be laid bare, and won’t make for edifying viewing. Wars are ugly, no matter what ideal fuels them. Glad you like my website.I hope you have a great visit. – David

  19. Brian Benson says:

    Thanks for your kind comments and response David. I am not sure about how your website works , but if you want to drop me an email to my bigpond address brianbenson@bigpond.com.au I could send you that transcript it is fantastic that it was available and sent to me. (I cant cut and paste into this email it wont allow it)
    I stumbled across a John Coleman of Ballymote Heritage Group who I have found is my cousin! And there are more as well. And it has been rather amazing. Dad was born in Cahersiveen Nov 1917. I did get my Irish passport of which I am very proud to hold.
    Any way I will be over in less than 2 weeks if you want to keep in touch drop me an email.
    PS. I may well be looking for your book to buy whilst over!
    Cheers, Brian Benson (and yes Dad named me after Boru!)

  20. jazzfeathers says:

    I’m coming to this article so late, but I’m happy I’ve read it.
    I know many bloggers who research their own family history. I tried to do the same, but I just don’t have it in me. I’m a different kind of researcher, I suppose. But I find the reseach you people are doing so fascinating.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  21. Pingback: Gang Roundup - October 2016 - The Old Shelter

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