Lemass, Noel Denis Joseph (1897–1923), republican, was born 15 December 1897 at 2 Capel Street, Dublin, the eldest of the seven children of John Timothy Lemass (d. 1947), draper, and his wife, Frances (née Phelan). He was educated at O'Connell's CBS, North Richmond Street, and in 1915 he joined the Irish Volunteers (A coy, 3rd bn, Dublin bde). Informed of the outbreak of the 1916 rising by Eoin MacNeill (qv), he attempted to join his battalion under the command of Éamon de Valera (qv) at Boland's Mill, but in passing the GPO he was recognised by a sentry and was called into the garrison together with his brother Seán (qv). Posted to the Imperial hotel, he was wounded in the subsequent fighting and held at the British military hospital in Dublin castle.
After three months of imprisonment he became an apprentice engineer at the Great Southern Railway, working later in Cork and finally returning to Dublin to take a position in the corporation. Remaining a member of the Volunteers, he was promoted captain in 1919 and given command of E coy, 3rd Dublin bn, which he quickly revitalised. His efficiency was admired and his reports were used by the Volunteer newspaper An t-Óglach to encourage less vigorous battalions. Sentenced for possession of arms in November 1919, he spent a year in Mountjoy, Derry and Kilkenny jails. In prison he was a persistent irritant to the authorities, embarking on brief hunger strikes on at least two occasions. After his release he was reputedly one of those whom the British forces were authorised to shoot on sight. Another order for his arrest was issued in 1921 and he was taken in a raid on E coy headquarters in May. After some time in Dublin castle, Collinstown camp and Kilmainham jail, he was moved to the Rath camp where he became officer commanding.
Rumours conflict concerning his role in the civil war. Despite his mother's conviction that ‘he refused to fight his own’ (Horgan, 26), he was an intelligence officer for the anti-treaty side. He was arrested on 14 August 1922 and sent to Gormanstown camp. He escaped one month later, but was captured again in Glencullen near the Dublin–Wicklow border. Following a second escape he spent some time in England, returning to Dublin in the summer of 1923. On 3 July 1923 he was abducted and subsequently disappeared. His body was found on Featherbed in the Dublin mountains on 12 October 1923. He had been badly beaten, his arm and jaw were broken, some fingers had been removed and he had been shot three times in the head: his clothing indicated his identity. That these events occurred after the civil war had ended on 24 May added to the controversy.
It was widely believed that the CID were responsible for his death, acting possibly on suspicions of Lemass's involvement in the death of Seán Hales (qv) or because of the belief of Hazel Lavery (qv) that he had intercepted letters to and from Michael Collins (qv). Despite an inquest, the gruesome details of which shocked the country, no one was ever charged with the crime. Many witnesses admitted to having been threatened and the coroner spoke in terms of brutal and wilful murder. His death became the focus for much republican outrage. Thousands followed his funeral to Glasnevin cemetery and he quickly became installed in the higher echelons of republican martyrology. In February 1927 Joseph McGrath (qv) won damages against Cyril Bretherton (qv), a Morning Post journalist, who had accused him in The real Ireland (1925) of being responsible for the death of Lemass.
Seán Lemass's election to the standing committee of Sinn Féin at the 1923 ard fheis was, in part at least, a direct emotional response to the discovery of his brother's body. Seán Lemass never mentioned his brother's death in public life but a photograph and a drawing by Noel had a permanent place of honour in his home. Seán's son, Noel, was given his uncle's medals. Apart from a Fianna Fáil cumann named in his honour in Dublin South Central, a monument was erected in September 1935 at the place where his body was discovered. It was vandalised, and later replaced by a Celtic cross, unveiled by the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in October 1998. Ceremonies have been conducted at this site annually since 1923. Noel Lemass was engaged to Lena Roddy for some time; she later married P. J. Ruttledge (qv), Mayo solicitor and cabinet colleague of Seán Lemass.