Joe Lawrence was the youngest child of John J. MacDonald and Margaret Gillis of Rear Beaver Cove. His father was a blacksmith who moved the family into Ironville and open a new forge. Joseph's father as well as his mother's uncle, Archie Larry Gillis both composed songs. It is said that Joe Lawrence's uncle Donald John Lachlan was one of the last people to leave Rear Beaver Cove when he went to live with the family in Ironville. Joe Lawrence credits this uncle rather than his own parents with passing on a love and knowledge of Gaelic. His parents did not speak the language to their children, whereas his uncle (although able to speak English) chose to speak only Gaelic. Joe Lawrence taught himself to read and write Gaelic.
Apart from farming and a stint working at local quarries, Joe Lawrence learned the trade of blacksmithing and continued to operate the forge following his father's death. He married Mary Bell (Isabel) MacKenzie of Christmas Island and the couple went on to have 5 children.
Joe Lawrence collected extensively for Sr. Margaret Beaton and much of his material is held at the Beaton Institute. He worked tirelessly to preserve and celebrate Gaelic language and culture in Cape Breton. A founder of the Senior Citizen's Organization of Boisdale (a club that served as a gathering point for native Gaelic speakers), he also co-founded the Gaelic Society of Cape Breton.