Dowdall, William (c.1768–1809), United Irishman, spent much of his youth in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and may have been a natural son of Hussey Burgh (qv); no further details are available of his birth, parents, or education. He strongly supported Burgh's liberal political principles and acted as secretary at meetings of the Whig Club in Dublin (1789–90). Regarded as a handsome, well educated young man with ‘good address and an interesting manner’ (Grattan, 408), he held a post under the chancellor of the exchequer, John Foster (qv), but lost it after passing some exchequer papers to Henry Grattan (qv) who used them in a commons debate. Grattan then allowed him an annuity of forty guineas a year, and later helped him financially when he was in prison.
In the mid 1790s Dowdall became a United Irishman. Around 1798 a government informant described him as 5 ft 9 in. (1.75 m) tall, with pale skin and light brown hair, ‘walks very erect seemingly to show his figure which all together is the most perfect model of a well made man than can possibly be seen . . . on ordinary subjects is modest to a degree of sheepishness, never looking the person he converses with straight in the face – but when roused speaks with much warmth [which] never happens except when speaking on politics’ (Reb. papers, 620/3/32/20). After the arrest of Arthur O'Connor (qv) in Margate (28 February 1798), Dowdall briefly edited the United Irish newspaper, the Press, in March 1798. He attended O'Connor's trial at Maidstone (21–2 May 1798) to offer testimony on his behalf, and on 29 May was arrested and sent to Newgate prison in Dublin some weeks later.
He refused to reveal any information to the government and was one of the few United Irish prisoners who refused to sign the compact with the government in August 1798 by which executions were stopped in return for general information and the prisoners’ agreement to go into exile. From prison, he attempted to reestablish contact with United Irishmen still at liberty and to revive the United organisation in late 1798 and early 1799. He was one of a group of twenty leading United Irishmen transferred to Fort George near Inverness in March 1799, to prevent any further plotting. His refusal to sign the agreement of August 1798 worked to his advantage, as he was released in December 1801 on the expiration of the suspension of habeas corpus, and was not subject to the banishment act as other United Irish leaders were.
He returned to Dublin in January 1802, injecting new life into the United Irish movement, and helped to recruit Col. Edward Marcus Despard (qv) into a conspiracy for insurrection. Grattan got wind of his activities and in March 1802 warned him to stay clear of all conspiracies as he was certain to be discovered. A key liaison figure between republicans in England and Ireland during 1802–3, Dowdall travelled to London on United Irish business in July 1802, posing as a clerk in the firm of the Dublin merchant Philip Long (qv). He then returned to Ireland in September 1802 to accelerate preparations for an Irish rising. However, it seems that he acted indiscreetly, speaking openly of Despard's insurrectionary plans at dinner to company that included government employees, and was warned about his conduct by local United Irishmen. After Robert Emmet (qv) returned to Dublin in October 1802, Dowdall joined in his plan for insurrection and in the spring of 1803 became a member of an executive committee that directed preparations from Emmet's headquarters in Butterfield Lane, Rathfarnham. Dowdall's activities included establishing hurling clubs to provide cover for United Irish units to assemble and drill. Appointed colonel by Emmet, he took part in the rising in Dublin on 23 July 1803, fleeing with Emmet when their efforts miscarried. Miles Byrne (qv), who maintained that Dowdall was Emmet's main lieutenant in Dublin, was strongly critical of his irresolute behaviour during the rising.
Dowdall escaped to Cadiz, and then travelled to France, where he received his commission to join the Irish legion at Morlaix in Brittany. He became a sub-lieutenant in the French army in December 1803 and was promoted captain 22 March 1804. Tired of the legion's inaction, in September 1805 he requested a transfer to a French regiment to take part in the European campaign, but was refused. Eventually, however, he saw action against English forces in the fighting that preceded the siege of Flushing and was badly wounded on 1 August 1809. He died some days later at a hospital in Ghent. It is not known if he ever married.