James Thomas Dowling: Dublin’s County Librarian and the Rising

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James Thomas DowlingA native of Dublin’s north inner city, ‘Tom’ Dowling was recruited in 1915, aged sixteen, to the Dublin Corporation Libraries as a junior library assistant, having achieved second place in the Libraries examination.  His first assignment was to Capel Street library under Tommy Gay, who by that time was Capel Street Head Librarian. Dowling later transferred to the Dublin county libraries and by 1931 had progressed to the top post of Chief Librarian for Dublin County, a role in which he served with distinction until his death in office in 1966.

Image: James Thomas Dowling (1899 to 1966)

Dowling recalled that it was ‘about’ September 1915 (then aged only 16 years) when he was enrolled in ‘C’ Company, of the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers’ Dublin Brigade, based at 41 Parnell Square. Prior to the Rising, he attended weekly arms drills, lectures and parades at that venue. He was armed by his company 1st Lieutenant Joe McGuinness who provided him with a shotgun, revolver and ammunition.

On Holy Thursday, 20 April 1916, Dowling got his first indication that a Rising was imminent, when the company was mobilised and addressed by Commandant Edward Daly, who ordered them to ‘hold themselves in readiness for further orders as they would soon have an opportunity to put their arms drills and military exercises into operation.’

While making his way to mobilise with his company at Blackhall Place on Easter Monday at 11am, Dowling was stopped at Mary’s Lane by Lieutenant Diarmuid O’Hegarty, who ordered him to join his unit who were in the process of erecting barricades in the immediate vicinity at Mary’s Lane, Church Street and Bow Lane. Dowling remained there under fire for the entire week, retreating with the remainder of the First Battalion into the Four Courts on the following Saturday.

He was then detained overnight at the Rotunda Gardens, and later Richmond Barracks where he was held for a week. He was released on 5 May due to his youth.

Dowling subsequently rejoined his company and was also highly active throughout the War of Independence, carrying out a range of activities, participating in ambushes at Granby Row and Lower Dorset Street corner, as well as armed guards and patrols and anti-conscription duties. As he went out of Dublin on holiday about a week before the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922, he did not play any part in it.

In an obituary notice following Dowling’s death on 8 December 1966, fellow librarian Dermot Foley described him as exceedingly modest and reserved. Dowling was ‘the least likely of us all ever to be remembered for a vigorous or noisy action’, and it ‘was not easy to associate this gentle man with the eager boy who saw active service as a volunteer in the Easter Rising’.  Foley further recounted Dowling’s involvement in the ‘cloak-and-dagger adventures of the War of Independence, when Tommy Gay, his librarian, operated a centre for military intelligence from the upstairs office of the library [in Capel Street], and found willing accomplices in young Tom and the rest of his staff’

A few weeks prior to his death, Dowling occasionally drove around by the Church Street area ‘to look once again at the high wall he scrambled along for dear life when his unit was at last blasted out of its positions in North King Street’. This, Foley stated, was the ‘one touch of justifiable pride’ he ever saw Dowling allow himself.

About our Guest Blogger

Evelyn Conway is Librarian at Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive.

The above is based on an essay in the book 'Dublin City Council and the 1916 Rising', published by Dublin City Council, March 2016. Evelyn is one of a number of contributors of essays exploring events of the Rising and biographies of persons involved and either employed by the Council at the time, or subsequently. Read this recent blog post for more.

Part of a series looking at Dublin City Public Libraries staff and the 1916 Rising. See also:


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