We all have stories about our ancestors, sometimes just bare fragments of tales that have been passed down through the years. As families are spread further apart, though, due to migration or emigration, these stories are being lost. The ties that bind us are being stretched; just meeting siblings or cousins becomes a rare event. These days, unfortunately, the big extended family get-together will more often than not be around a graveside.
Put plainly, the oral history of our families is being lost. With that in mind, I wanted to do something to retain some of my own family history by printing a brochure for my siblings and all my cousins – it would be a brief record of one man’s life during an extraordinary period of history. The pages below show the brochure that I put together about my grandfather’s service during the Irish War of Independence. Below that is an abridged version of the text.
If you would like an historic family album about one of your own relatives, please get in touch.
In this centenary year of 1916, Ireland looks back to the heroes and heroines who brought freedom to our land. The heroes of 1916 deserve full credit for what they started, but it would be the heroes from the War of Independence who would finish the job, albeit with six counties left behind.
My own family may not have had an ancestor who took part in Easter Week, but we certainly had one who participated for the entire War of Independence. My grandfather, Michael Lawlor, did his bit for Ireland, too.
Using Michael’s military pension application form, census information, some other sources and oral history, I’ve put together a picture of his service during the war. It’s not a definitive history by any means, but it’s a start.
Michael Lawlor was born on August 8, 1901. According to the 1911 Census, he (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 (a hairdresser) 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.
After his father died, Michael was ordered to be detained in Artane Industrial School by a Judge MacInerney for “wandering and not having any visible means of subsistence”. He was admitted on July 24, 1913. All that can be said of Michael’s time in Artane was that it was not a happy experience. Once out, he apprenticed as a hairdresser in Power’s Barber, in Dublin, where he was still recorded as working up to July, 1920.
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. According to his pension application, at this time he took part in parades, mobilisations, armed patrols, and “was always ready for emergencies, ambushes etc”. His service would see him start as a private and end his military career as a Sergeant Major in the National Army.
“I took part in all activities where our company operated and outside of company activities. I was engaged in personal work appertaining to Intelligence… 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.”
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 to his calibre can be seen in his final letter, below.
My own darling little wife
I am to be shot in an hour’s time. Dearest your hubby will die with your name on his lips, your face before his eyes, and he will die like an Englishman and a Soldier. I cannot tell you sweetheart how much it is to me to leave you alone – nor how little to me personally to die – I have no fear, only the utmost, greatest and tenderest love to you, and my sweet little Anne. I leave my cigarette case to the Regiment, my miniature medals to my father – whom I have implored to befriend you in everything – and my watch to the officer who is executing me because I believe him to be a gentleman and to mark the fact that I bear him no malice for carrying out what he sincerely believes to be his duty.
“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 about 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.
“I was in the Belfast Boycott, stationed at Fowler Hall, Parnell Square. From there, took part in burning of Pullan & Phibbs garage in Dorset Street. Took part in several raids: Marsh’s Biscuit Dept, Hawkins Street; Murray’s tobacco factory. In confiscating these goods all were transferred to Fowler Hall. Took part in several engagements in company areas, ambushes, raids etc.”
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, 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 the Dublin Brigade was the sole group which participated in that action. On May 25, 1921 – the same month Compton-Smith’s body was recovered – Michael took part in what was probably the most disastrous raid in IRA history.
That day, 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.
“Three tenders carrying Auxiliary Cadets, accompanied by an armoured car, approached the Dublin Customs House, which was occupied by a large body of Sinn Feiners. The Cadets dismounted from their tenders under heavy fire and surrounded the Customs House, which was seen to be on fire. Fire from the Auxiliaries and the machine-guns on the armoured car was poured into the windows of the Customs House, from which the rebels replied vigorously, and a series of desperate conflicts took place between Crown forces and seven or eight parties of rebels, who rushed from different doors of the building and made dashes for liberty, firing as they ran. The first party to emerge from the building consisted of three men, one of whom was killed and two wounded.
By this time smoke and flame were pouring from the building, and the official staff, including many women, who had been held prisoners by the rebels, came flocking out with their hands above their heads and waving white handkerchiefs. While these defenceless people were leaving the building the rebels continued to fire from the windows. The staff were taken to a place of safety by some of the Auxiliaries. As the staff were leaving the building the rebels made their last sortie, and of this party, consisting of seven men, only one escaped, the rest being killed or wounded. Some of the Auxiliaries then stormed the blazing building, where many of the rebels surrendered. Some of them were found to be saturated with petrol which they had been pouring over the flames, and several of them were probably burnt to death before the Crown forces entered….at the conclusion of the fighting dead and wounded rebels lay about on all sides…Four Auxiliaries were wounded, 7 civilians were killed, 11 wounded, and over 100 captured.”
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 several 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 stationed on the rooftops of several buildings. Bullets hit the ground on either side of him, but Michael managed to make his escape.
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 were some of the longest-serving and most experienced fighters, and 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 Paddy 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 re-organisation 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. The gunners 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. It was for this that he was to be executed. 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.
After the fighting…
The Civil War ended on May 24, 1923. Michael Lawlor and Bridget Power got married just over a month later, on June 27, 1923.
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. He died on Christmas Day, 1953, aged just 52 years old. An honour guard of soldiers fired a volley over his flag-draped coffin in recognition for the service he gave his country.
My grandfather 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.
Ni bheidh a leithead ann aris.