‘Most determined spirit’ – Brian Maye on William Lawless, United Irishman and French officer

An Irishman’s Diary

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A striking feature of the social upheaval generated in

Ireland

in the 1790s following the French Revolution was the number of young men from well-to-do backgrounds who were stimulated to become involved in revolutionary politics and strike a blow for Irish independence.

One such was Dublin surgeon William Lawless who joined the United Irishmen, was forced into exile and became a high-ranking officer in the French army.

He was born 250 years ago (though some sources give the earlier date of 1764) on April 20th to John Lawless and Mary Beauman of Shankill, Co Dublin, and was distantly related to Valentine Browne Lawless, second Baron Cloncurry, who was prominent in the United Irishmen (but who later moved away from his youthful political enthusiasm and became a British peer).

He became apprenticed to a Dublin surgeon, qualified through the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and was appointed to the college's surgical school as superintendent of dissections.

In 1794, he became professor of anatomy and physiology at RCSI and two years later co-published The Syllabus of Lectures in Anatomy and Physiology under the auspices of the college. The well-received work led to his being elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA).

Future eminent doctors were among his students and, through his work as an amateur poet, he was friendly with notable literati of the day, such as Thomas Moore.

He became a dedicated member of the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791, and was close to Lord Edward Fitzgerald and John Sheares (both of whom perished in the 1798 Rising).

Thanks to a warning, Lawless went into hiding after the rising and spent a period in Dublin avoiding government agents before escaping to France. Because of his revolutionary activities, he was expelled from the RCSI and had his membership of the RIA revoked. He became active in the Irish emigrant community in Paris and helped less well-off compatriots who had fled there.

In the French campaign against the British in Holland in 1799, he served as a volunteer officer on the staff of a French general. Following the setting up of the Irish Legion in 1803, he was appointed captain and trained in Brittany.

The failure of Robert Emmet’s rebellion in Dublin led to divisions in the legion and it was reorganised under a new commander who disliked Lawless and confined him to relative inactivity in Brest.

He rejoined the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Foreign Regiment (Irish) in 1809 and played a leading role defending Flushing (now Vlissingen) against the British, where he was wounded.

This proved fortunate because when Flushing fell to the British, he evaded arrest because he was being treated in the house of a doctor friend. He saved the regimental colours and after he made his way to Paris, he was received by Napoleon, given the Legion of Honour and promoted to major.

Appointed commander of the 1st Battalion (it was no longer called “Irish” as the majority of the rank and file were now German and Polish) in 1812 with the rank of colonel, he oversaw its reorganisation and led it during the Silesian campaign. While leading a charge of his troops at the Battle of Löwenberg, his leg was shattered by a cannonball. Grenadiers carried him on a door to the nearest town, where Napoleon sent his personal surgeon to operate on him, but Lawless himself knew that amputation couldn’t be avoided.

After recuperating at Leipzig, he returned to Paris and was to be rewarded for his services by promotion to general of brigade but Napoleon's abdication in 1814 meant that didn't happen. Because of his injuries, he didn't participate in Napoleon's attempt to regain power (March-July 1815) and following the Bourbon restoration, he was awarded the rank of brigadier-general but on half-pay. He lived quietly at Tours for the rest of his life and died in Paris on Christmas Day 1824 and was buried at Père-Lachaise cemetery.

He had married Mary Evans, daughter of Hampden Evans, a wealthy United Irishman from Portrane, Co Dublin, and they had children. She was, according to David Murphy who wrote the Lawless entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, "by all accounts a woman of considerable intelligence and character". She died in August 1854 in Paris and was buried with her husband.

William Lawless, a man of great courage who lived an extraordinary life, was described by Thomas Moore as “a person of that mild and quiet exterior which is usually found to accompany the most determined spirit”.