Patrick Anthony Lawlor was born on 12 February 1893 in Wellington, the son of Irish-born Catholics David Roche Lawlor, a stationer and bookseller, and his wife, Margaret Dennehy. Pat initially attended Sister Francis Xavier’s Academy for young ladies, where his sisters were pupils, but after a year or two he transferred to the Marist Brothers’ School at Boulcott Street. He then went to St Patrick's College from 1908 to 1909, where he was recognised as a violinist of some competence. After leaving school Lawlor began what was to be a lifetime career in journalism, starting in April 1910 as a copyholder for the Evening Post. In October 1913 he became a junior reporter on the Dominion, but in 1914 went to Australia, where he worked as a freelance journalist for about a year.
Lawlor was rejected for military service during the First World War, but in 1915 he joined the army stores staff. In 1916 he became chief reporter on the Hawke’s Bay Herald in Napier. He returned to Wellington in 1917 to become a reporter in the parliamentary press gallery and an assistant sub-editor on the New Zealand Times. On 7 November 1917 he married Amy Martha Charlotte Lambert at St Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott Street.
From 1920 to 1922 Lawlor was chief sub-editor of New Zealand Truth, but in the latter year he went back to Australia to work for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Though he returned to Wellington in 1924, he was to remain active in promoting New Zealand writing in Australia for at least 40 years: first, from 1925, as the New Zealand editor and distributor of the journal Aussie, and from 1932 to 1965 as the New Zealand representative of the Bulletin.
In these years his reputation as a bibliophile grew as he expanded his collections of books and produced an increasing number of pamphlets and monographs on literary topics that interested him. He wrote prolifically, frequently over the pen-name Shibli Bagarag, and was to publish over 40 books and booklets. He became increasingly involved with writers’ associations and organisations, and with the political lobbies that furthered their interests, and he promoted the concerns of book collecting through his work with the New Zealand Ex Libris Society. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Centre of PEN, serving as the first secretary and later as president, treasurer, and PEN Gazette editor. In 1932 he chaired the first meeting of the New Zealand Women Writers’ and Artists’ Society (later the New Zealand Women Writers’ Society). In 1977 he became its first male vice president. He also helped to found the Friends of the Turnbull Library, later serving as president. His circle of literary friends and acquaintances included writers of the generations before and after his own, ranging from James Cowan and Johannes Andersen through Alan Mulgan, Eileen Duggan and C. A. Marris, to R. A. K. Mason, A. R. D. Fairburn and Robin Hyde, and, in his later years, James K. Baxter and Vincent O'Sullivan.
Lawlor was most comfortable with writing that reflected conventional assumptions concerning appropriate content and social morality, as well as traditional concern with narrative techniques in fiction and metrical form and rhyme in verse. His preferences are evident in the seven issues of the New Zealand Artists’ Annual, which he edited and published between 1926 and 1932, modelling the issues on the New Zealand edition of Aussie. The pictorial work was mainly contributed by cartoonists, while the written content varied between comic and middle-brow journalism, and serious literary contributions by a large number of writers, both established and emerging. In tone and subject matter the Annual reflected the social attitudes, beliefs and prejudices of New Zealanders between the wars.
For a time in 1932 penury forced Lawlor into selling model aeroplanes from his office in Nathan’s Buildings, which he had designated the Beltane Book Bureau. The office became not only his work centre, but also the nominal publishing address for many of his pamphlets and monographs, and one of the repositories for his increasing collections of manuscripts and books. In 1933 he joined the editorial staff of the New Zealand Railways Magazine as a literary columnist and advertising and sales representative. His employment was a part of the new presentation of this magazine (the organ of the New Zealand Railways publicity department) as a national monthly from April 1933. A lavish production by the standards of the time, it continued publication until 1940.
Lawlor wrote one novel, The house of Templemore, a recreation of his Wellington childhood, which was published in 1938. A sequel chapter to amplify the conclusion was published as Daniel Mahoney’s secret in 1939. Although not particularly successful, the novel pointed towards what was to become Lawlor’s best-remembered work, his autobiographical reminiscences of the Wellington of his younger years. His writings in the Evening Post collected as Old Wellington days (1959) and More Wellington days (1962) were immensely popular and remain valuable anecdotal records of the capital’s life in the first half of the twentieth century.
Lawlor’s range of writing was remarkably wide, involving not only imaginative writing and literary commentary, but also work as diverse as an attempt to locate a rumoured novel by Katherine Mansfield, devotional and theological writing, and patriotic verses published over a pseudonym during the Second World War. Though a deeply conservative man with a strong sense of the importance of domestic values, Lawlor was a congenial figure with a taste for good ale and company. In about 1936 he wrote a long treatise on beer, later to be published as The froth-blowers’ manual in 1965. He also edited Brewnews, a bi-monthly booklet on beer and brewing, from 1965 to 1971.
Through his association with PEN, Lawlor was involved in 1946 and 1947 in the establishment of the New Zealand Literary Fund and its advisory committee. He served on the committee as honorary secretary until 1955, when the duties were passed to a staff member at the Department of Internal Affairs. Lawlor’s term of office coincided with the Literary Fund’s establishing an important role in giving assistance to publishers, journal editors and individual writers.
Lawlor’s strong sense of the importance of his Catholic faith and its Irish connections was reflected in his lifelong prominence in church activities and devotions. He was active in parish affairs at St Mary of the Angels Church, and was a member of the Holy Family Confraternity of the Redemptorist community which met at St Gerard's Monastery. A diary recording his memories of sermons he had heard at the monastery was published as Gold dust: memories of St Gerard’s over the pseudonym Christopher Penn in 1959. He worked for the Catholic Writers’ Movement of New Zealand from its foundation in 1940, and was elected to the Gallery of Living Catholic Authors (USA). Perhaps his most important lay service to the church was his work as honorary organiser of the fund-raising street appeals for Our Lady’s Homes of Compassion, which were to raise almost £200,000 over the 20 years after the Second World War. The blending of literary and religious interests is most apparent in a work published shortly after his death, The two Baxters, a record of Lawlor’s meetings and growing friendship with James K. Baxter between 1951 and 1972.
Over the years Lawlor built up several specialist collections of books. These included collections of New Zealand poetry, editions of the works of the theologian Thomas à Kempis, and a collection of signatures of important nineteenth and twentieth century writers, many acquired by Lawlor through his correspondence with the writers. The collections eventually filled Lawlor’s home, his Beltane office and a beach house at Plimmerton. However, the full extent and range of his collecting enthusiasms did not become evident until he began to disperse the collections, estimated at at least 12,000 titles, to a number of public and university libraries as well as to private collectors from the mid 1960s on.
Lawlor was made an OBE in 1976. The following year failing health necessitated his moving to Auckland, where he and his wife lived with a daughter in Herne Bay. He was accorded a civic farewell by the mayor of Wellington and a small street on Mount Victoria was named Pat Lawlor Close. He died in Auckland on 19 January 1979, survived by his wife, three daughters and a son, and was buried at Karori cemetery, Wellington.