Roots: The O’Dowd Clan
By Adam Farley, Assistant Editor
February / March 2014
In 982 the King of Connaught, Aedh Ua Dubhda (or Hugh O’Dowd), “died an untroubled death.” This note in Lebor Laignech, the medieval Irish manuscript better known as the Book of Leinster, is the first record of the O’Dowd surname, making it one of the oldest continually-used family names in Europe. It is also one of the few names that has almost universally kept the “O,” O’Dowd being far more common than Dowd (modern Irish Ó Dubhda).
Literally translated as “grandson of the Dark One,” the name derives from a 9th- century king of Connacht called Dubhda, pronounced DOO-da, from the Irish root word dubh, black. The clan lineage however, can be traced even further back to the final decades of the 4th century and the early years of the 5th to Niall of the Nine Hostages,the famed Irish King, through his nephew, Daithi. Daithi, who succeeded Niall upon his death in 402, was also notably the last pagan King of Ireland.
By 482, the antecedents of the O’Dowds had lost the throne at Tara but the clan continued to be the leading family in Connacht until the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century when they were reduced to their original territorial holdings in Sligo and Mayo.
Until the late 17th century, the O’Dowds impressively maintained hereditary historians to record the lineage of the chieftain, and there is also a highly detailed account of the clan’s inauguration ceremony recorded in the Leabhar Leacain, the Great Book of Lecan, written around the turn of the 15th century.
Apart from Hugh and his sadly normal death, one of the oldest O’Dowds of note is Sen-Bhrian O’Dowd, who for several decades in 1354 drove all of the Anglo-Norman invaders out of Tireragh, the barony straddling Sligo and Mayo on the northern coast. Today, as one might expect, the majority of O’Dowds hail from those borderlands between Sligo and Mayo, though the diaspora, as with all Irish surnames, has spread the clan globally.
In fact, only one of the three O’Dowds of greatest fame in the 19th century was born in Ireland, and he died in Montreal. Father Patrick Dowd (baptized 1813, d. 1891) was a member of the Seminaire de Saint-Sulpice and director of St. Patrick’s church in Montreal. He was highly regarded by the French and Irish Catholic populations for his charity, especially during the Famine years. In fact, he refused a Papal Bull that would have promoted him to Bishop of Toronto so that he could stay in Montreal, inciting a six-month tribunal at the Vatican.
In the United States, Charles F. Dowd (1825 – 1904) was the first person to propose time zones to ease train schedules, and though his specific plan was not adopted, the railroad industry did establish its own time zones based on the Greenwich Meridian a decade later. (Charles proposed a Washington Meridian.) The other 19th century clan member was Bernard Patrick O’Dowd (1866 – 1953), an Australian educator, publisher, politician, and poet, known primarily for keeping all those occupations separate.
Returning to American O’Dowds who invented things, Tom Dowd (1925 – 2002) was a sound engineer and the man responsible for multitrack recording while at Atlantic Records in the 1950s. In 1982, John H. Dowd (1922 – 2004) forever changed the relationship between candy and movies when he brokered the Hershey Company’s first product placement with the Reece’s Pieces tie-in for E.T. Twenty years earlier, painter and sculptor Robert Dowd (1936 – 1996) was included in the 1962 exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects” in Pasadena, which was the first institutional recognition for the Pop Art movement.
Also in the arts in the United States, we may include Maureen Dowd (b. 1952), a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and editorial writer whose critically conversational newspaper columns have been earning her praise and influence for more than three decades. Across the pond again, the 80s British pop sensation Boy George is also a member of the clan. Born George Alan O’Dowd in 1961, Boy George is responsible for pioneering a new era of androgynous glam rockers, well as that paragon of 80s songs, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
Keeping with performance, but going back (roughly) to the original Ó Dubhda territory, Chris O’Dowd (b. 1979), is the Roscommon-born actor of Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd fame, currently, and fittingly, staring in the HBO documentary-style comedy “Family Tree,” playing Tom Chadwick, a 30-something Irishman who goes to America to research his lineage.
Maintaining the theme of trans-Atlantic familial bridges, we end with Tipperary brothers Fergus and Niall O’Dowd. Fergus O’Dowd (b. 1948) is a Fine Gael politician and current Minister of State for the NewEra Project. His brother Niall O’Dowd (b. 1953) is a U.S. journalist and publisher responsible for numerous Irish American publications including, you guessed it, this one.