In 1609, the few patrician members of the Dowling clan were transplanted from their native Laois to the border of north Kerry and west Limerick, dividing the clan’s geography. Today, the majority of Dowlings can be found still in the east of Ireland, where the new British landowners generally ignored the lay clansmen in their home territory along the western bank of the River Barrow. That region, anciently known as Fearann ua n-Dunlaing, or the Dowlings’ country, hints at the etymology of the name, which is theorized to be one of the few “residential” surnames in Irish, coming from dun, fort, and laing, possibly a corruption of the Irish long, meaning ship.
After the transplantation of the clan’s leaders, the remainders in Laois spread east and south down the River Barrow through Counties Carlow, Kilkenny, and eventually Wicklow. In fact, in the Rathdrum area of Wicklow, there are at least four townlands called Ballydowling. It is from this area that the oldest notable Dowling emerged: Thady Dowling (1544 – 1628), an annalist and Irish language grammarian.
Coming forward in the centuries and across the pond, another man of learning was Victor J. Dowling (1866 – 1934), a New York State Supreme Court Justice and an active Knight in numerous Catholic chivalric orders, including the Order of St. Gregory the Great, Papal Chamberlain of the Cape and Sword. Another law man was the London-born colonial official Sir James Dowling (1787 – 1844), whose father was from Laois. This Dowling went on to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and wrote numerous influential treatises. His brother, Vincent George Dowling (1785 – 1852), opted to stay in London and became a successful publisher of sports magazines, including Bell’s Life and Fistiana, dedicated to boxing.
Continuing with writers, the 19th-century poem “The Brigade of Fontenoy” was composed by the Kerry-born Bartholomew Dowling (1823 – 1863) in commemoration of the Irish soldiers at France’s decisive defeat of Britain in the 18th-century Battle of Fontenoy.
In service of the British Army in India, William Dowling (1825 – 1887), born in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his deeds during the 1857 Indian Mutiny at the Siege of Lucknow. In America, Richard W. Dowling (1838 – 1867) was a key Irish figure in the Confederate Army (though he was born in Galway), achieving the rank of lieutenant in a unit of primarily Houston-based Irish dockworkers.
Perhaps the oddest connection to the hard side of history is the 1910 marriage of Dubliner Bridget Dowling (1891 – 1969) to Alois Hitler, Jr., making her sister-in-law to Adolf Hitler. Alois had been working as a waiter at the Shelbourne Hotel since the late 1890s, though pretended to be a well-to-do European businessman when he met Bridget. They eloped in London and eventually moved to Liverpool, where Bridget had a son, William Patrick, in 1911. Three years later, however, Alois abandoned the family, returned to Germany, illegally remarried, and arranged for word to be sent to Bridget that he was dead. German officials eventually discovered the illegal bigamy however, and they were finally divorced in 1929.
After World War II, Bridget and William Patrick re-located to the U.S., where William had previously traveled, lecturing on his infamous uncle. They settled in Long Island and changed their last name to Stuart-Houston.
Also on Long Island is Dowling College, named for Robert W. Dowling (1895 – 1973). Born in New York, Robert was an important real-estate investor and philanthropist and had key roles in the development of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. He also won a Tony award in 1948 for his contribution to theater development (he owned or partly owned at least four theaters), and was one of the original producers for The Sound of Music.
More recently in the theater business is actor and director Vincent Dowling (1929 – 2013). The Dublin-born thespian got his start at the Abbey Theater before transplanting to Cleveland in the 1970s to head the Great Lakes Theater Festival, where he was the spur that turned Tom Hanks from a festival intern to a Cleveland Critics Circle Award-winning actor. Later, Vincent Dowling moved to Massachusetts, founded his own theater company, and won an Emmy for his production and direction of the PBS film of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
Finally, in a bit of serendipity, who would happen to have an honorary doctorate from Dowling College but this year’s Business 100 Keynote Speaker, the Limerick native Michael J. Dowling? Read more about him in his keynote interview.