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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of William Lawless, Officer in Napoleon’s Irish Legion

General William Lawless, surgeon, revolutionary, and officer in Napoleon‘s Irish Legion, is born in Dublin on April 20, 1772. He is also an important member of the Society of the United Irishmen, a revolutionary republican organisation in late 18th century Ireland.

Lawless, a Catholic, is the confidant of Lord Edward FitzGerald, and Professor of Anatomy and Physiology in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin. Closely connected with John Sheares in the direction of affairs in the spring of 1798, a warrant for his arrest is issued on May 20 with a reward of £300. Timely notice is, however, given him of the fact by Mr. Stewart, the Surgeon-General, and he escapes to France, where his abilities and spirit recommend him to the special favour of Napoleon. While in Paris, he spends time with other United Irishmen in exile, including Myles Byrne and William James MacNeven.

Lawless is placed on half-pay in 1800, but in 1803 is appointed captain of the Irish Legion, and in July 1806 is ordered to Vlissingen, then besieged by the English, to command the Irish battalion. To reach his post he has to pass in a small open boat through the English fleet. He is dangerously wounded in a sortie, and when General Monet capitulates without stipulating for the treatment of the Irish as prisoners of war, Lawless escapes from the town with the eagle of his regiment, conceals himself for two months in a doctor’s house, and at length finds an opportunity of getting to Antwerp by night in a fishing boat. Marshall Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte welcomes him, extols him in general orders, and reports his exploits to Napoleon, who summons him to Paris, decorates him with the Legion of Honour, and promotes him to be lieutenant-colonel. In 1812 he gains a colonelcy, and on August 21, 1813 he loses a leg at the Battle of Dresden. He retires to his country house in Tours.

After the restoration of the Bourbons, Lawless is returned, in October 1814, to half-pay with the rank of brigadier-general. He dies in Paris at the age of 52 on December 25, 1824. His remains are buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He is one of the best officers of the last large French unit of The Wild Geese. Thomas Moore describes him as “a person of that mild and quiet exterior which is usually found to accompany the most determined spirit.”

(Pictured: Gravesite of General William Lawless in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France)


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Birth of Henry Joy McCracken, Irish Republican

henry-joy-mccracken

Henry Joy McCracken, Irish Republican and industrialist, is born in Belfast on August 31, 1767. He is a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen.

McCracken is born into two of the city’s most prominent Presbyterian industrial families. He was the son of a shipowner, Captain John McCracken and Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, of French Huguenot descent. The Joy family made their money in linen manufacture and founded the Belfast News Letter. He is the older brother of political activist and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken, with whom he shares an interest in Irish traditional culture.

In 1792, McCracken helps organise the Belfast Harp Festival which gathers aged harpists from around Ireland, and helps preserve the Irish airs by having them transcribed by Edward Bunting. Bunting, who lodges in the McCracken’s Rosemary Lane home, is a classically trained musician.

McCracken becomes interested in republican politics from an early age and along with other Protestants forms the Society of the United Irishmen in 1795 which quickly makes him a target of the authorities. He regularly travels throughout the country using his business as a cover for organising other United Irish societies, but is arrested in October 1796 and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. While imprisoned with other leaders of the United Irishmen, he falls seriously ill and is released on bail in December 1797.

Following the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in Leinster in May 1798, the County Antrim organisation meets on 3 June to decide on their response. The meeting ends inconclusively with a vote to wait for French aid being passed by a narrow margin. A new meeting of delegates is held in Templepatrick on June 5 where McCracken is elected general for Antrim and he quickly begins planning military operations.

McCracken formulates a plan for all small towns in Antrim to be seized after which rebels will converge upon Antrim town on June 7 where the county’s magistrates are to hold a crisis meeting. Although the plan meets initial success and McCracken leads the rebels in the attack on Antrim, the Catholic Defenders group whom he expects assistance from are conspicuous by their absence. The mainly Ulster Scots rebels led by McCracken are defeated by the English forces and his army melts away.

Although McCracken initially escapes with James Hope, James Orr, and James Dickey and is supported in his month long period of hiding by his sister Mary Ann, a chance encounter with men who recognize him from his cotton business leads to his arrest. He is offered clemency if he testifies against other United Irishmen leaders but he refuses to turn on his compatriots.

McCracken is court martialed and hanged at Corn Market, Belfast, on land his grandfather had donated to the city, on July 17, 1798. According to historian Guy Beiner, his corpse is spared the indignity of decapitation in order not to provoke renewed agitation. He is buried in the Parish Church of St. George in Belfast, but a few years later the grave is demolished.

McCracken’s remains are believed to have been re-interred by Francis Joseph Bigger in 1909 at Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast, alongside his sister Mary Ann. His illegitimate daughter Maria, whose mother is speculated to have been Mary Bodell, is raised by her aunt Mary Ann McCracken.