Lawless, John (DNB00)

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LAWLESS, JOHN (1773–1837), Irish agitator, commonly known as ‘Honest Jack Lawless,’ born in 1773, was the eldest son of Philip Lawless, a respectable brewer at Warrenmount, Dublin, and a distant cousin of Valentine Browne Lawless, lord Cloncurry [q. v.] He was educated for the bar, but being refused admission by Lord Clare owing to his intimacy with the leaders of the United Irish movement, he was for some time associated with his father in the brewery. Finding the business less congenial to his tastes than literature, he was induced to take a share in the ‘Ulster Record,’ published at Newry, and afterwards went to Belfast, where he became editor of the ‘Ulster Register,’ a political and literary magazine, and subsequently of the ‘Belfast Magazine.’ He was soon known as an ardent politician, and was one of the most energetic members of the committee of the Catholic Association. In 1825 he successfully opposed O'Connell on the subject of ‘the Wings,’ as the proposal to accompany catholic emancipation with a state endowment of the catholic clergy and the disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders was called; but his attack on O'Connell's character was wholly unjustifiable. In 1828 he conducted an active agitation in the county Clare, and being deputed by the association to raise the north, he addressed meetings at Kells and Dundalk; but an attempt to hold a monster demonstration at Ballybay was defeated by the determined opposition of the Orangemen, and Lawless, perceiving that any attempt to hold a meeting would certainly be attended with bloodshed, wisely, and at some personal risk to himself, withdrew with his followers (Wyse, Catholic Association, i. 401–8). His conduct on this occasion was adverted to by the Duke of Wellington in justification of conceding catholic emancipation in the following year. Latterly Lawless became particularly obnoxious to O'Connell, who spoke of him as ‘Mad Lawless,’ and even opposed his candidature for Meath. During the operation of the ‘Algerine Act’ in 1831 he was for a short time under arrest. He died on 8 Aug. 1837, at 19 Cecil Street, Strand, London, and was buried on 17 Aug. in the vault attached to the Roman catholic chapel in Moorfields; the proximate cause of his death being strangulated hernia, aggravated by over-excitement due to frequent speaking at political meetings during the general election. He made his last speech at the Crown and Anchor Tavern eight days before his death, in support of the unsuccessful candidature of Joseph Hume [q. v.] for the county of Middlesex. He left a widow and four children. According to W. Fagan, who knew him intimately, ‘he seemed to be an honest, enthusiastic, warm-hearted man, without much grasp of mind or political foresight; but just the kind of being that would tell his thoughts without reserve, and fearlessly maintain his opinions’ (Fagan, Life of O'Connell, i. 392). As a speaker he was eloquent, forcible, and sincere.

In addition to his contributions to the public press Lawless published: 1. ‘A Compendium of the History of Ireland from the earliest period to the Reign of George I,’ Dublin, 1814, which reached its third edition in 1824, and, though displaying no original research and at times very violent, is on the whole a well-written book, inspired by an evident desire to be fair and truthful. 2. ‘The Belfast Politics enlarged: being a Compendium of the History of Ireland for the last forty years,’ Belfast, 1818. This is a reprint with very considerable additions of a work entitled ‘Belfast Politics,’ which was partly original and partly composed of extracts from ‘Baratariana’ and from the patriotic writings of Dr. Drennan (Orellana) and Joseph Pollock (Owen Roe O'Nial); the original volume was published at Belfast in 1794, and gave so much offence to government that it was ordered to be burnt, and is now a very scarce book. 3. ‘An Address to the Catholics of Ireland … on Sir F. Burdett's Bill of Emancipation,’ &c., London, 1825. 4. ‘The Speech delivered by J. Lawless … at a great Public Meeting held in the Chapel of Athboy’ (on the subject of the withdrawal of the Roman catholic children from the Glore school).

[Gent. Mag. 1837, ii. 317–18; Fitzpatrick's Life and Times of Lord Cloncurry and Correspondence of Daniel O'Connell; Wyse's Historical Sketch of the late Catholic Association; Fagan's Life of Daniel O'Connell; Morning Chronicle, August 1837; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography.]

R. D.