“The Most Determined Mind” – Brian Maye on William Lawless, United Irishman and French Officer

11111111A striking feature of the social upheaval generated in Ireland in the 1790s after the French Revolution was the number of young men from wealthy backgrounds who were stimulated to become involved in revolutionary politics and strike a blow at Irish independence.

One of them was the 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 (although some sources give the earlier date as 1764) on 20 April to John Lawless and Mary Beauman of Shankill, Co Dublin, and was a distant relative of Valentine Browne Lawless, 2nd Baron Cloncurry, who was prominent in the United Irishmen (but who later strayed from his youthful political enthusiasm and became a British peer).

He apprenticed to a surgeon in Dublin, graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and was appointed to the college’s School of Surgery as Superintendent of Dissections.

In 1794 he became professor of anatomy and physiology at the 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 him being elected a Fellow of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA).

Prominent future physicians were among his students, and through his work as an amateur poet he befriended notable scholars of the time, such as Thomas Moore.

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

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

During 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 constitution 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 splits in the legion and it was reorganized under a new commander who disliked Lawless and confined him to relative inactivity in Brest.

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

This proved fortunate because when Flushing fell into British hands he escaped arrest because he was being treated at the house of a doctor friend. He saved the colors of the regiment and after making his way to Paris, he was received by Napoleon, decorated with the Legion of Honor and promoted major.

Appointed in 1812 commander of the 1st battalion (it was no longer called “Irish” because the majority of the troops were now German and Polish) with the rank of colonel, he oversaw its reorganization 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. The grenadiers carried him to a nearby town gate, where Napoleon sent his personal surgeon to operate on him, but Lawless himself knew that amputation could not be avoided.

After recuperating in Leipzig, he returned to Paris and was to be rewarded for his service with a promotion to brigadier general, but Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 meant that this did not happen. Due to his injuries, he did not participate in Napoleon’s attempt to regain power (March-July 1815) and following the restoration of the Bourbons, he received the rank of brigadier general but on half pay. He lived quietly in Tours for the rest of his life and died in Paris on Christmas Day 1824 and was buried in the 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, “evidently 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 gentle, calm exterior which usually accompanies the most determined mind”.