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Who Shot Frank Lawlor? – Encounters with the Irish Civil War

John Dorney tries to make sense of a killing in December 1922 during the Irish Civil War

The Irish Civil War was a murky little affair, a dirty, vicious, half-remembered little conflict. Its name often rattles through the air in Irish politics, but only as a ghost.

It’s something that happened, that’s true, most people know that. But, at least in mainstream discourse, it is little mentioned. Certainly, the ins and outs of who did what to whom are but dimly remembered. The firmer, more corporeal memories of it have faded, forgotten by all those except the few, now very few, militant republicans with an interest in preserving it.

A nation, like a person, remembers what it wants to.  The past changes, to suit what the present can imagine and understand and also live with

A nation, like a person, remembers what it wants to. And memory is alive, the past changes, not so much to suit the present, but in accordance with what the present can imagine and understand and also live with. But just like a person, a nation’s past traumas mark it and trouble it, even when forgotten. The very act of forgetting can tell us that the event is too painful, or even worse, too incomprehensible, to remember.

This piece is about two things, therefore. Some incidents from the civil war that have surfaced in my life many years after the war’s end, and secondly, the memory of these things.

Ambush corner 

I grew up along the river Dodder, where Rathfarnham meets Terenure in south Dublin. If you follow the river past my house, along the green and leafy riverbank, and go past a triumphal arch, once erected as an entrance to Rathfarnham Castle, and walk up the hill onto Orwell road, you will find yourself on what still has the feel of a country lane. A golf course and the Russian embassy, with its extensive grounds, have preserved the trees and hedgerows that enclose the road.

About halfway down, the road swings sharply to the right and at this corner, there is a little monument to a dead IRA man, Frank Lawlor, no more than knee high, written in Irish in the old Gaelic script.

As I was growing up, my father used to call this, “ambush corner”. He used to tell us that the IRA man had died in an ambush, fighting the British at this corner in the War of Independence. He would surmise, logically enough, that the corner was an ideal spot for an ambush.

It had plenty of cover, and a lorry full of British soldiers or Black and Tans or Auxiliaries would have had to slow down as it turned the corner, allowing someone to throw a grenade at it.

He used to tell us how he admired the “bravery, or stupidity, or whatever it was”, that led the young IRA man into the laneway where he died. Wise or unwise, he had died for Irish freedom, fighting bravely against the British. When, in the early 1990s, the original monument was destroyed in a car crash, he contacted the National Graves Association (which maintains monuments to dead Republican fighters from the 19th century up to the present) to get it repaired. And so it was, complete with its Irish dedication and script.


“In memory of Frank Lawlor, 1st Company, 3rd Dublin Brigade of the Army of the Republic, who was murdered on this spot on the 29th of December 1922”.

“In memory of Frank Lawlor, 1st company, 3rd Dublin Brigade of the Army of the Republic, who was murdered on this spot on the 29th of December 1922”.

But Frank Lawlor did not die in action confronting the British Empire in pursuit of Irish freedom. My father must never have looked closely at the memorial, because if he had, he would have noticed at least the date, 29th of December 1922, by which time Lawlor, “of the Third Dublin Brigade in the Army of the Republic”, according to the inscription, would have been fighting not British troops, but those of the newly created Irish Free State, in the Civil War.

I noticed this when I was in university but for several years still imagined that Lawlor had died in a gun battle, during an ambush of Irish soldiers.

Frank Lawlor did not die in an ambush, a close look at the inscription will tell you he was ‘murdered at this spot’

In those years, when I passed, I used to wonder at the futility of it. Gunned down in an attempt to kill Irish soldiers for a cause that seemed obscure, almost indecipherable.

But again, my imagination was mistaken, for Frank Lawlor did not die in an ambush at all. A closer look at the inscription, and perhaps an Irish dictionary, will tell you that, ‘Francis O Labhlar’, “a dunmaruscaid ar an laithir seo.” (“who was murdered at this spot”). Part of the confusion lies in the Irish word ‘dunmaruscaid’, (was murdered) bearing a passing resemblance to the English word, ‘ambush’. Another reason, of course is that ‘ambush’ was what I had expected to see.

 What really happened to Frank Lawlor?

The story of Frank Lawlor had suddenly got much darker than I had imagined. The perpetrator, Lawlor, was now the victim. The righteous, the Free State soldiers, were now the murderers. The ‘fair fight’, I’d had in my mind, with grenades flying and shots exchanged had become an execution.

Still, for a while afterwards, I had no details. It was not until a few years later that I found some, on the internet. I had searched many times for an ambush on Orwell road and then for a killing of any kind there during the civil war, when finally I found a small mention, in a column of An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper, devoted to the ‘the cause’ and its many martyrs. [1]

Frank Lawlor, it told me, was abducted from his home in the city centre, shortly after Christmas 1922, shot and dumped at the bend in Orwell Road. One can imagine Lawlor being bundled out of  a troop lorry or car in the dark, perhaps still addled by sleep, perhaps beaten, perhaps pleading for his life, pushed to his knees and shot in the head. The story of “ambush corner” had come a long way from its origins.

How did this happen? How could Frank Lawlor have been killed so coldly, perhaps by his former comrades in the pre-split IRA?

Answering this question requires a digression away from personal recollection and into the history of the Civil War in Dublin. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 and its approval by the Dail in January 1922, ca

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