Dawson, Charles (1842–1917), businessman, MP and civic reformer, was born in Limerick city, son of Michael Dawson, baker and long-serving Limerick alderman, and his wife Maryanne (née Clarke), also of Limerick. Dawson's father appears to have been responsible for the foundation of the family business, the Limerick Bakery (described in an 1865 advertisement as having existed for 'over forty years' (Freeman's Journal, 9 January 1865)) and its extension to Dublin, where by 1868 it had a bakery at Lower Stephen Street (near St Stephen's Green) and branch shops at Great Britain Street (later Parnell Street) and Pill Lane (near the Four Courts). Dawson still owned a bakery in Limerick in the early 1880s; for a time he was secretary to Limerick chamber of commerce, and he was high sheriff of Limerick (1876–7), but his interests and activities centred on Dublin, where he resided.
The family were sufficiently prosperous to allow the young Charles to travel extensively on the Continent, and he often referred to personal observations of continental examples when advocating various civic reforms. Charles was educated at Belvedere College and the Catholic University of Ireland, where he was auditor of the College Literary and Historical Society (1867–8). He remained strongly connected to both institutions, regularly speaking at L & H meetings and attending the Belvedere Union, and was a member of an alumni club called the 'Cui Bono?' (a pun on the CUI's initials). After the establishment in 1880 of the Royal University of Ireland he continued to campaign for a catholic university on a par with TCD, and in March 1915 the NUI awarded him an honorary LLD for his work on the university question.
Businessman and philanthropist
Dawson took charge of the family bakery (c.1864), expanding it further. By 1870 he had six shops and a bakery in Dublin, and also ran an extensive van delivery service across the city, particularly in the southern suburbs (with provincial deliveries by rail). He made considerable efforts to establish a brand name, initially issuing suppliers with a display card bearing his name and later having his name baked into each loaf. The construction of an enlarged bakery to meet increased demand in 1872 led to a brief industrial dispute, which was resolved by arbitration, but in general he was on good terms with the Dublin trades; he prided himself on being an employer who allowed his workmen to take Christmas day off, and in 1876 he was elected president of the Purveyors' Assistants Association. By the early 1880s he emphasised that his second-class bread was made from 'finest Irish flour' (the first-class being made from Italian and American) and that he also offered a variety of 'fancy breads'.
Dawson's prominence and affluence as a businessman made him an attractive recruit for a wide number of Dublin civic organisations. Some of these were specifically catholic (such as the National Association of Denominational Education, the Metropolitan Parish Coal Fund, the St Kevin's parish branch of the Irish Catholic Union, and, more exotically, the Association of St Sebastian, a body operating across the English-speaking world in the early 1870s to campaign for the restoration of the temporal power of the pope). Others were more specifically cultural-nationalist; he was a treasurer of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, secretary of a fund to endow two scholarships in Irish language and literature at the Catholic University in memory of Eugene O'Curry (qv), and joint treasurer of the Denis Florence MacCarthy [(qv)] Memorial Fund.
Dawson's activities, however, were not confined to the Catholic and nationalist milieu. He was associated with business and professional municipal reformers such as Charles Cameron and Thomas Haslam (qv), many of whom were protestants and unionists (though this did not necessarily keep them from supporting catholic charities which they considered beneficial; for example, when Dawson raised funds to establish a catholic newsboys' home in Middle Abbey Street (1887–8), Cameron and other protestant philanthropists spoke in support of it as a worthy cause). Dawson in turn was responsible for organising the committee that in the late 1880s erected a statue to the philanthropist (and unionist) Lord Ardilaun (qv) in St Stephen's Green. In later years Dawson was active in the Dublin Philanthropic Reform Association founded by Lord Meath (qv), which tried to coordinate Dublin's disparate social reformers.
Dawson regularly gave papers on social conditions in Dublin to the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, of which he was a member. Particularly concerned with the housing question, he gave lectures to bodies including the RDS and the Dublin Sanitary Association (serving on its executive committee), and was a prominent promoter of the Dublin Artisans' Dwellings Society, which tried to redevelop slums by building new houses to be rented to the working classes at affordable rates while returning a small profit. This model of philanthropy (copied from similar associations in London and other British cities) did little to address the problem, since the rents could only be afforded by the respectable working classes while the poorer residents displaced by slum clearance moved off to slums elsewhere. By the late 1890s Dawson himself appears to have realised this. From 1897 he was active in the Housing of the Very Poor Society, which tried to establish a company which would refurbish existing tenements to a higher standard and let them out at a rent of one shilling or one-and-sixpence a week to poor labourers. Dawson was among the section of the promoters who argued (realistically) that this was unlikely to pay a dividend (as projected by more optimistic supporters) and should be seen primarily as a charitable endeavour. A paper on housing which he gave to the Statistical Society shortly before the 1913 lockout and which characteristically advocates a mixture of philanthropy and state actions to remedy slum conditions, is often cited as summarising the living conditions against which the Larkinites rebelled.
Nationalist politics and lord mayor
Dawson was active in the national-clericalist National Association founded by Cardinal Cullen (qv) and became a member of the ruling council the Home Rule League of Isaac Butt (qv) almost from its inception in 1873 (though he was also a member of the Dublin United Liberal Club – membership of the two bodies not then being seen as mutually exclusive – and on election to parliament in 1880 described himself as a Liberal as well as a home ruler). In 1875 he published an official report for the Home Rule League exposing the relatively limited nature of Irish municipal parliamentary franchises when compared with British boroughs of equivalent size. In 1875 he was one of the executive committee who attempted – first in Limerick and then nationwide – to raise an 'Isaac Butt tribute' to underwrite Butt's political activities (as had been done with Daniel O'Connell (qv)). In the late 1870s he appears to have developed a certain identification with Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), objecting to Parnell's exclusion from the O'Connell centenary committee in November 1875 by the clericalist Peter Paul McSwiney (qv).
Dawson was a Dublin Corporation alderman for Arran Quay ward (1877–84) and home rule MP for Carlow borough (1880–85), often speaking at Land League and National League meetings around the country. His prominence within the Irish party was reinforced by his service as lord mayor of Dublin (1882–3), in which he went to unprecedented lengths in using the office as a platform for nationalist politics. In October 1881 he used his position as lord mayor-elect to convene a protest meeting over Parnell's internment in Kilmainham jail. A proposal to confer the freedom of Dublin on Parnell had been defeated by the casting vote of the outgoing lord mayor, the Conservative George Moyers; the 1881 corporation elections, in which the refusal became an issue, saw significant Parnellite gains. Dawson oversaw the reversal of the decision (3 January 1882) and the formal conferral of the freedom after Parnell's release from Kilmainham. Dawson also refused to invite the lord lieutenant to the annual lord mayor's banquet as had been the custom. Unionists complained that Dawson was excessively politicising the mayoralty (Dawson replied that the mayor's duties included guarding the liberty of the citizens) and stinting on the usual mayoral hospitality, while nationalists complained that Dawson was being cold-shouldered by the 'snobocracy'. Dawson's commemoration of the centenary of Grattan's parliament (see Henry Grattan (qv)) by unveiling the Daniel O'Connell monument in Sackville Street (15 August 1882) and opening the Dublin National Exhibition at the Rotunda on the same day, followed by the formal conferral of the freedom of the city on Parnell (16 August), can be seen as the high point of his political career. His re-election for 1883 marked the formal repudiation by the nationalist corporation majority of the long-standing arrangement whereby the mayoralty was alternated with the Conservative minority; in his second term he was a leading organiser of the 'Parnell tribute' and formally presented a cheque for the amount raised to Parnell (who interrupted Dawson's speech by asking whether the cheque was payable in cash). A visit to Derry city in 1883 provoked a riot; unionists (including Lord Ernest Hamilton (qv)) occupied the Guildhall to prevent Dawson speaking there and a man standing next to him was shot dead. The Dalkey branch of the Irish National Foresters (Dawson was living in Killiney at the time) and an Edinburgh branch of the Irish National League were named after him at this time. Dawson resigned as alderman for Arran Quay soon after the completion of his second mayoral term, but remained a corporation member until 1890. In 1884 he was made a freeman of Limerick.
National and international exhibitions; business decline
Dawson was one of the leading promoters of the Dublin National Exhibition of Irish Manufactures, Arts, Products and Industries (1882), serving as a director of the limited company set up to promote it and a guarantor of the exhibition's expenses; he himself won an exhibition medal for his plain and fancy bread. The exhibition was seen as a nationalist rebuttal to the free-trade universalism associated with international exhibitions (such as the London Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Dublin Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853 promoted by William Dargan (qv)). Its association with nationalism at a time of high political tension led many unionist businessmen and conservative catholics to avoid it, and it also suffered from a dispute over labour representation on the committee (leading Dawson to declare that he himself would represent the working classes). The exhibition was unable to secure the Earlsfort Terrace site of the Dargan exhibition, and obliged to rent the Rotunda in what is now Parnell Square and to erect a temporary building at considerable expense. After its conclusion on 6 January 1883 a proposal by Dawson and Edmund Dwyer Gray (qv), with whom Dawson had a long-standing association, to follow up the exhibition by the creation of an Irish industrial association and an industrial bank on the German model to promote investment in Irish industries, was stillborn.
Although Dawson always maintained that the exhibition had been successful because it brought a significant number of visitors to spend money in Dublin ('£100,000 in a few months') and led to a discernable increase in the output and marketing of Irish woollens, in more conventional business terms it was a disaster (shareholders lost 13s.11d of every pound subscribed) and its losses probably contributed significantly to Dawson's subsequent business difficulties. The 1885 Dublin Artisans' Exhibition, in which Dawson was a main mover, was similarly a financial disappointment but conferred ancillary benefits by highlighting the need to improve Irish design and technical education; Dawson praised it as showing what artisans themselves could do without assistance. In 1889 he organised subscriptions to send a delegation of Dublin artisans to the Paris exhibition to study new techniques, and he regularly advocated greater emphasis on technical education in Dublin schools. His prominent role as an MP in lobbying for the completion of the Kildare Street national museum and national library, and for their establishment as separate Irish-run institutions rather than as offshoots of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) also reflected his interest in technical education as well as his wider cultural nationalism.
The Carlow borough seat was abolished in 1885 and Dawson chose to leave parliament to concentrate on reviving his business (which may also have been undercut by increased competition; in 1884 a high-profile controversy, in which critics, including Sir John Arnott (qv), accused Dublin bakers of price fixing, led to a significant reduction in bread and flour prices). He remained politically active (taking a prominent role in an 1888 Catholic indignation meeting against the rescript of Pope Leo XIII condemning the Plan of Campaign) and active in civic matters (in June 1889 he was one of the speakers at the inaugural meeting of the Irish branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). His business, however, failed to improve, and he undertook a change of career.
In February 1891 Dawson was appointed to the newly created position of comptroller of rates for Dublin Corporation at a salary of £850 p.a., with support from both unionists and nationalists. He appears to have been highly efficient in this position; in 1898 a unionist councillor stated that since a change in the rates collection system in 1892 the Corporation had succeeded in collecting 98.5 per cent of rates due as compared to 82 per cent previously 'due solely to the exertions of Mr Charles Dawson' (Ir. Times, 17 March 1898). Despite some protests (particularly from Sinn Féin councillors) he was granted a salary increase of £100 a year in 1909.
Despite his experiences with the 1883 national exhibition, Dawson continued to maintain that a similar event would benefit Irish industry in general and Dublin in particular. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Dublin business community to hold another exhibition in 1898 (claiming, not entirely convincingly, that the date was not chosen for political reasons). Dawson took a leading role on a Dublin committee in support of the Cork International Exhibition of 1902–3. He initially supported the plans of William Martin Murphy (qv) and his associates for a Dublin international exhibition (which eventually took place in 1907), but after complaining that Irish products were not being assigned a sufficiently prominent role he resigned in 1904 and took a leading role in the loose coalition of nationalists and Irish Irelanders advocating a national exhibition confined to Irish goods (held in Dublin in 1908) and boycotting Murphy's project.
Dawson was a strong advocate of hydroelectricity, which he believed had the potential to revolutionise the Irish economy and improve the living conditions of the Dublin working classes. One of the major causes of his later years was Irish reafforestation; he was a longstanding committee member of the Irish Forestry Society, promoting tree planting by publicising a 'national arbour day' in late October/early November and campaigning to establish a department of forestry. As a civil servant he took no further part in politics though his sympathies in the IPP split appear to have been Parnellite.
In 1873 Dawson married Katherine Carroll of Limerick city; they had four sons, of whom the third, Michael (d. 1932), was a prominent Dublin solicitor, while the youngest, John (d. 1954), joined the Marist order and became provincial for Britain and Ireland (1926–31) and president of the Catholic University School (1921–35), as well as a contributor to catholic periodicals and author of several books and pamphlets on religious subjects.
Charles Dawson died at his residence, 'Malabar', in Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 17 March 1917 after contracting a chill which developed into bronchitis and led to heart failure. The 'Hades' section of Ulysses by James Joyce (qv) includes a reference to a highly inflated and sentimental speech by 'Dan Dawson' appearing in that morning's Freeman's Journal. In the 'Aeolus' section the same speech is ridiculed by journalists in the Freeman offices and its author is described thus: 'He was in the bakery line, too, wasn't he? Why, they call him Doughy Daw. Feathered his nest well enough.' This is almost certainly a highly garbled (more likely by the journalists, who are shown to be unreliable on matters of fact, than by Joyce) reference to Charles Dawson (the journalists also refer to 'Doughy Daw' as having a daughter, which Charles Dawson did not). It is an unfortunate and misleading epitaph for a generous and committed civic reformer. Under slightly different circumstances Charles Dawson might have been another William Martin Murphy or John Dillon (qv), and his career is a reminder of the precariousness of the rising Victorian catholic professional classes.
His second son, William Dawson (1877–1934), journalist, critic and broadcaster, born 5 November 1877 in Dublin, was educated at Belvedere (he was a long-serving committee member of the Belvedere Union) and UCD, where he was auditor of the Literary and Historical Society (1902–3) and reported L & H proceedings (as 'Auditor Tantum') for the student magazine St Stephen's; in later years he reminisced in the Belvederian and the National Student. (Although Dawson never attended the Catholic University School, his two youngest brothers did, and he regularly participated in CUS events, wrote for the CUS Annual and was treated as an honorary alumnus.) William was a university contemporary of James Joyce and a member of the Cui Bono dining club (a revival of that to which his father belonged), whose principal members were Thomas Kettle (qv) and Arthur Clery (qv), the latter a cousin who had been partly brought up in the Dawson family and who was William's closest friend.
Dawson joined the Congested Districts Board in 1895 and transferred in 1909 to the legal staff of the Land Commission where he rose to the rank of examiner of title, supplementing his income by journalism. He was called to the bar in 1904 but never practised.
Dawson was familiar in Dublin literary and artistic circles as a wit and composer of jokes, parodies and humorous ballads, many of which are preserved in the Leader. (Celebrated examples include a 1914 ballad mocking the Woodenbridge recruiting speech of John Redmond (qv) in a parody of 'The croppy boy' – it entered the oral repertoire after its publication by Arthur Griffith (qv) in Sinn Féin, and a ballad singer was prosecuted for singing it – and a mock lament in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan over the removal of the statue of William III (qv) from College Green (Leader, 15 December 1928).) He was a self-consciously urbane Dubliner, sceptical of those who exalted the peasant; like his father, he was something of a dandy and in later life he wore an eyeglass. From 1904 he was a regular contributor to the Leader of D. P. Moran (qv) under the pen name 'Avis' (possibly to evade restrictions on expression of political opinions by civil servants); in later years he also wrote a satirical column for the Leader, 'As others see us', supposedly by 'John Bull junior', an arrogant, blustering and cowardly Englishman living in Dublin, who regularly expresses contempt for the Irish around him and such phenomena as 'Ann Doyle' (An Dáil).
Avis's regular themes include comments on the changing customs and streetscapes of Dublin, and reflections on the Parnell era from the rueful perspective of a man assessing the limitations of his childhood heroes and regularly recalling their heyday for a generation too young to remember it at all. He wrote obituaries for several prominent veterans of the home rule movement, including Thomas Sexton (qv) and Joseph Devlin (qv). (While he thought the contribution of the old Irish party unfairly neglected, Dawson believed the failure to achieve home rule before 1914 had been a blessing in disguise since it might have blocked further advances towards self-government; he supported Sinn Féin in 1918 and was a pro-treatyite from 1922. He admired Lord Aberdeen (qv) and Lady Aberdeen (qv) and was active in their Women's National Health Association.)
Dawson also commented on current affairs under his own name for the New Ireland Review and its successor, Studies, and towards the end of his life gave regular broadcast talks (on Dublin and on humorous subjects) from the radio station 2RN.
Together with Arthur Clery, Dawson reviewed the early productions of the Abbey Theatre for the Leader. (As an altar boy in Rathgar he had been directed by Frank Fay (qv), then principal acolyte.) Dawson was initially more sympathetic to the plays of J. M. Synge (qv) than was Clery, and was accordingly assigned to review the first production of 'The playboy of the western world', but was scandalised by the play and reviewed it accordingly. Despite this controversy, Dawson remained a regular at Dublin theatrical and artistic first nights; in later life he admired the works of Denis Johnston (qv), though he was displeased by the presence in 'Storm song' of 'a certain amount of Bolshie talk' and a character who 'adopts a mode of living in accordance with the anti-marriage theories generally understood to be popular in Moscow to-day' (Leader, 10 February 1934).
Dawson was a regular presence at catholic literary society meetings (serving on the council of the Central Catholic Library in the 1930s) and addressed various local literary societies (he was a treasurer of the National Literary Society in the early 1920s). He complained that catholics who attended Trinity College and implied one religion was as good as another were betraying the historic struggle for catholic university education, though he thought the anti-jazz campaign narrow-minded and provincial.
For some years Dawson was secretary to the Dublin United Arts Club, whose dinners he regularly enlivened with conversational exchanges with Francis Cruise O'Brien (qv) and satirical recitations; the best-remembered of these, 'The ballad of Oliver St John Gogarty', burlesques the kidnapping of Gogarty (qv) by republicans during the civil war and insinuates that the whole thing was staged. This was a retaliation for Gogarty's mockery after Dawson incautiously boasted that his father regularly read 'chapters' of the Greek poet Sappho (whose works are classified in 'fragments', not chapters).
William Dawson died in Dublin in September 1934. A series of long illnesses left him in reduced circumstances and his friends organised a subscription for the benefit of his widow (Mary McDonnell, whom he married in 1908) and three children. He inhabited the social world of his father, now more sophisticated but losing something in vigour and forcefulness; his catholic flâneur's view of Dublin and the Parnellite legacy forms an interesting contrast with that of his contemporary and erstwhile L & H rival James Joyce.