Lawless, John (1780?–1837), lawyer, journalist, and political agitator, was the eldest son among twenty-one children of Philip Lawless, brewer, of Warren Mount, Mill St., Dublin, and his wife Bridget (née Savage). Philip's younger brother, Barry, of Cherrywood, near Bray, was a delegate to the Catholic Convention; through their father, John Lawless (1729?–1790), they were related to Nicholas Lawless, 1st Baron Cloncurry (qv), both being descendants of an earlier John Lawless of Shankill. After attending the school in Arran Quay kept by Lewis Alexander Lyons, an early United Irishmen and a delegate to the Catholic Convention, John entered TCD aged fourteen (4 July 1794). Though he never graduated, he became an associate of Robert Emmet (qv), a fellow student; he may well have played some part in the rebellion of 1798; shortly before that of 1803 (which was headed by Emmet) he was among thirty-nine persons listed by the under-secretary as to be ‘detained on suspicion’ (10 June 1803). Whether he was arrested has not been ascertained. The statement in an obituary in the Morning Advertiser (reproduced in the Freeman's Journal and often repeated), that because of his association with Emmet he was prevented by the earl of Clare (qv) from entering a legal career and so worked in his father's brewery before turning to journalism, must be treated with caution. In Wilson's Dublin Directory, John Lawless is listed as an attorney at 9 William St., Dublin (1803–15), 1 Dame St. (1816–22), and 82 Grafton St. (1823–30) before being called to the Irish bar (1834), after which his address is given as 4 Russell St.; the words ‘and Son’ do not appear after Philip Lawless's name until five years after Clare's death (1807).
Whatever his occupation, Lawless befriended Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Harriet on their first visit to Ireland (February–April 1812); he was, to the young poet's mind, ‘a republican’; but during their second visit (March–April 1813) he antagonised them in some way. A month or two later Lawless was in prison for debt. Taking up journalism, he edited the Ulster Recorder (Newry), a twice-weekly newspaper, from its inauguration (17 March 1814) until its suppression for unpaid stamp duty (September 1815); he then founded the Ulster Register (Belfast), a political and literary magazine (August 1816). Known as ‘Honest Jack’ for his forthright opinions and defence of democratic ideals, Lawless brought out a hundred issues of the magazine, which had an average circulation of 2,500 copies; but in the final number conceded that his attempts to make it a success had failed and that he must ‘turn to some other road where the anxieties of mental exertion may meet with a more suitable remuneration’ (Ulster Register, 25 Sept. 1818). Prosecuted for infringing the stamp acts, Lawless managed to evade conviction. Undeterred, he published, from 2 Pottinger's Entry, Belfast, another weekly newspaper, the Irishman (4 June 1819–20 May 1825); its political tendency was liberal, its appeal to presbyterians as well as catholics; Lawless was named as proprietor and printer as well as publisher. By 1812 he was associated with the Catholic Committee; soon he was the most prominent catholic in Belfast politics and was conspicuous for his part in a large liberal meeting there which called for unqualified ‘catholic emancipation’ (7 December 1818). After the Catholic Association was formed (1823) he became a key figure but often came into conflict with Daniel O'Connell (qv), sometimes revelling in his self-appointed role as voice of the people. During O'Connell's visit to London at the head of a delegation (February–May 1825) Lawless went there independently and criticised O'Connell intemperately in a public letter on the grounds that he had accepted ‘wings’ or ‘securities’ – disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders and state provision for the catholic clergy – as conditions for catholic emancipation; but reconciliation soon followed. When O'Connell stood as a candidate at the Clare by-election (June–July 1828), Lawless campaigned for him tirelessly.
O'Connell's election caused a political crisis. In carrying out the instructions of the Catholic Association to tour Ulster to organise the collection of catholic ‘rent’, Lawless took his followers into Co. Monaghan but was forced back from Ballybay, after they were intercepted by armed Orangemen (23 September 1828). Lawless's ‘invasion of Ulster’ heightened the crisis. Though the prime minister, the duke of Wellington (qv), at first wanted Lawless arrested, he promoted in parliament a catholic relief bill. With other members of the New Catholic Association, Lawless accompanied O'Connell to London to influence public opinion over the bill; Lawless supported O'Connell in a disagreement there over the forty-shilling freeholders (February–March 1829). But when a general election occurred (August 1830) O'Connell objected to Lawless standing as a candidate. ‘I cannot say’, he told a correspondent (31 Aug. 1830; O'Connell, Corr., viii, 277), ‘that Lawless ever satisfied me of the soundness of his views or the perfect integrity of his purposes. He was almost always a nuisance to be managed and it was difficult to manage him.’ After O'Connell began campaigning for repeal of the union between Ireland and Great Britain (October 1830), Lawless supported him, which brought about his arrest with O'Connell and four others on thirty-one charges connected with the campaign (18 January 1831). They were immediately released on bail, and five months later the charges were dropped. But because O'Connell objected to his standing as repeal candidate in Co. Meath, Lawless resigned from O'Connell's movement (5 April 1832).
The absence of Lawless's name from O'Connell's correspondence after 1831 suggests disengagement from the political movement; his call to the Irish bar in 1834 (when in his mid fifties) indicates a belated attempt to begin a new career. John Lawless died 8 August 1837 in London at his lodgings, 19 Cecil St., the Strand, eight days after speaking in favour of Joseph Hume at the Middlesex election and shortly after undergoing a surgical operation to correct a ‘strangulated hernia’. He was buried (17 August) in the vault of Moorfields catholic chapel in the city of London. It was stated by an obituarist that he had recently ‘obtained some small appointment in Ireland’ (Gent. Mag.). By his wife Helen (née Caulfield) he had four children, one of whom, Philip (1810?–1872), became a barrister. William Trant Fagan (1801–59), O'Connell's biographer, who knew John Lawless well, described him as ‘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, i, 393). In writing his popular A compendium of the history of Ireland (1814; 3rd ed., 1823), Lawless is said by McCartney to have been ‘greatly indebted’ to Denis Taaffe (qv), who ‘leaned upon’ Francis Plowden (qv). Similarly his The Belfast politics enlarged (Belfast, 1818) was derivative. Lawless was the author of several political pamphlets, the most effective of which, published when he and O'Connell were in London, was An address to the catholics of Ireland (1825), a contribution to the ‘wings’ controversy.
A younger brother, Luke Lawless (1781?–1846), second son of Philip Lawless, was said to have ‘gone through a complete course of classical education and served for some time in H.M. navy’ when admitted to the King's Inns (28 October 1802). Though he entered Lincoln's Inn (26 April 1803), was called to the Irish bar (1805), and was still in Dublin as late as 25 June 1810, he was commissioned in 1810 (exact date not ascertained) as a lieutenant in the Irish legion of the French army. On 11 September 1811 he left France on a secret mission to Ireland to ascertain the political dispositions of the people and to identify the leaders of any party still seeking independence from England. Arriving in Dublin (24 September), he stayed with his brother John, who introduced him to James Ryan (qv), Thomas Dromgoole (qv), and Archibald Hamilton Rowan (qv), who proved helpful. In a fifty-three-page report on his mission Lawless stated that though there were widespread grievances in Ireland there was a fear of further disorder and disinclination to rebellion unless a large French force should land. The report provides ‘the only real insight’ into revolutionary sentiment in Ireland after 1803 and reveals ‘the knife-edge course between constitutionalism and treason followed by many reformers’ (Elliott). After his return to France and the submission of his report to Napoleon (23 November) Lawless was promoted captain (26 November). Later he joined the staff of the minister of war, the duc de Feltre (who was of Irish descent), but, being too fervent a Bonapartist, was obliged to leave France after the Hundred Days (September 1815). He emigrated to America, took up law again and became a judge at St Louis, Missouri, where he is remembered for a perverse instruction to the jury in a case involving the lynching of a free black man, Francis L. McIntosh (April–May 1835). Luke Lawless's age was given as twenty-four on 20 July 1805; he died 3 September 1846. Curiously, he is listed continuously as a barrister in Wilson's Dublin Directory (1809–36), first at 29 French St., Dublin, later (from 1819) without an address, possibly at the instance of his brother John or of another brother, Barry Lawless (b. 1785), who was an attorney at 24 French St., Dublin (1809–23), then at 13 Harcourt St. (1824–44), and was said by Fitzpatrick to be still living in the 1850s. A portrait of Luke Lawless is held by the Missouri Historical Society.