Dwyer, William James (1887–1951), industrialist and dáil deputy, was born 9 May 1887 in Cork city, second son among three sons and two daughters of Walter Dwyer of Sundays Well, Cork, merchant and later director and managing director of Dwyer & Co., and Clare Dwyer (née Downing). He was educated at Presentation College, Cork, and Downside School, Somerset, England. On finishing school (1905) he returned to Cork to join Dwyer & Co. Founded by his grandfather in the nineteenth century, the business had become a large concern involved in the manufacture of clothing for men and boys. His experience within the family business helped to educate him in all aspects of the manufacturing process, to the extent that he left the firm in 1913 and set up his own hosiery factory. Following the success of his hosiery business he founded (1928) Sunbeam Knitwear Co., which manufactured knitted underwear. In 1933 he acquired the Irish business of Wolsey Ltd (an English-based underwear manufacturer) and merged it with Sunbeam Ltd to create Sunbeam Wolsey Ltd. As chairman and managing director he oversaw the rapid expansion of the new company, based at Millfield in Blackrock, Co. Cork. Determined to achieve self-sufficiency in all aspects of production, thereby avoiding dependence on suppliers, he founded a number of companies to provide him with the raw materials necessary for his core business of manufacturing. In 1938 he founded the Cork Spinning Co. to provide yarn, and two years later (1940) he established Woolcombers Ltd to process raw wool into the finished product.
Despite his business commitments he aided the British ministry of supply during a critical period in the second world war by helping to break a bottleneck in the production of radio components, which were vital to the provision of telecommunications for the armed forces. During this period he also entered political life in Ireland. In 1943 he successfully stood as a Fine Gael candidate for Cork city in the elections to the dáil. The following year (1944) saw another general election but, having been deselected, he stood as an independent candidate for Cork city and topped the poll with more than 11,000 first-preference votes. Despite this victory he resigned his seat in 1946 because he felt that he was neglecting his continually expanding commercial concerns.
Notwithstanding the shortage of raw materials his companies had actually expanded production during the war. As a result he oversaw the construction of two new factories despite the war. Completed in 1945, Midleton Worsted Mills Ltd was based in Midleton and Seafield Fabrics Ltd., which manufactured rayon, was based in Youghal, Co. Cork. The dispersed location of these factories reflected his belief in the decentralisation of industry in order to spread wealth and employment. In 1947 he was appointed a member of the Institute for Industrial Research and Statistics. The following year (1948) he stood in the Cork East constituency for election to the dáil as an independent candidate but failed to take a seat.
A devout catholic who took a deep interest in the welfare of his workers and the working classes in general, he founded the Sunbeam Social Service Society. Partly run by the workers, the society provided free medical, dental, and marriage benefits as well as home nursing to those who required it. He also helped to organise the Marsh Building Society to build homes for the working classes. In addition to this he funded the building of a recreation hall in a housing area near Spangle Hill in Cork. His most generous benefaction was the reconstruction of the Church of the Annunciation, Blackpool, which he then donated to the cathedral parish of Blackrock. In 1950 he both organised and met half the costs of a pilgrimage to Rome for his workers. In recognition of his services to the church and charity in general he was granted a private audience with the pope in 1951. As well as his philanthropic work he devoted his energies to both the promotion of the arts and Irish culture. He donated a facsimile copy of the Book of Kells to Cork Library and insisted that all Sunbeam Wolsey factories should feature the work of Irish artists. His commitment to the arts and charity led him to establish (1947) the Kermesse entertainment festival in Cork, which raised more than £6,000 for charitable causes in its first three years. He was also a major benefactor of the sculptor Seamas Murphy (qv), whose works are to be seen in the Church of the Annunciation. He spent much of his later years between his home, ‘Sherwood’, Midleton, Co. Cork, and Rome. He died 10 May 1951 at the Bon Secours nursing home in Cork.
He married (1912) Agnes Harding; they had one son and three daughters. His portrait by Leo Whelan (qv) is in the possession of his daughter-in-law, Mrs Dorothy Dwyer. Many of his papers and family photographs are in the possession of his grandson, Robin Clapham.
His son, (William) Declan Dwyer (1914–81), industrialist and founding director of Allied Irish Banks, was born 2 June 1914 in Cork. Educated at St Gerard's preparatory school, Bray, Co. Wicklow, and Downside, he entered his father's business, Sunbeam Wolsey Ltd, immediately on finishing school (1931). After four years of learning the business, at the age of only 21, he became a director of the company. In 1942 he became joint managing director with his father and was instrumental in founding Midleton Worsted Mills Ltd and Seafield Fabrics. He was also behind the decision of the company to become the first Irish manufacturer to produce (1947) nylon stockings, a rare item during the war. Towards the end of his father's life he took over the day-to-day management of Sunbeam Wolsey and expanded it further with the founding of Blackwater Cotton Mills in 1949. A year later (1950) he founded Dunmere Carpets. Following the death of his father in 1951 he became sole managing director and chairman of the Sunbeam Wolsey group. At that time the company employed more than 2,000 people. In 1960 he became a director of the Munster & Leinster Bank. By the time he retired as chairman and managing director of Sunbeam Wolsey in 1965 it had become the largest employer in the Republic of Ireland with a workforce of more than 6,000 people. He remained a director of Sunbeam Wolsey and its subsidiaries until he died. After retirement from the family business he became a major driving force behind the merger of the Munster & Leinster Bank, the Provincial Bank, and the Royal Bank into Allied Irish Banks. He was deputy chairman of the new group from 1976 to 1980.
Apart from his success in business he was a talented musician. He won his first award at the Feis Ceoil at the age of 12 and during his initial years working with Sunbeam Wolsey (1930s) he played first violin for the Cork chamber orchestra under Professor Aloys Fleischmann (qv). Like his father he gave much of his time to charity and was vice-president of the Irish Heart Foundation for a number of years. Having had a sister who died from polio, he also became a trustee of the Cork Polio and General Aftercare Association from its inception in 1959 until his death. In conjunction with this he played a substantial role in the foundation of the sheltered workshops that provided work for polio sufferers in Cork city. He also became the first local industrialist to sub-contract work out to these workshops. A keen all-round sportsman, he had a pioneer pilot's licence during the 1930s and was a former chairman of the United Hunt Club as well as a past captain and a past president of Cork Golf Club. He was also a member of Portmarnock Golf Club, Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, and the Royal Cork Yacht Club. In 1958 he was awarded an hon. LLD from the NUI for his services to industrial development in Cork. He died 10 May 1981.
He married (14 July 1937) Dorothy Mary (‘Dodo’), daughter of Dr J. B. Horgan of Cork. They had three sons (one dying in infancy) and two daughters and lived at ‘Glenkeen’, Glanmire, Co. Cork. His portrait is in the possession of his wife, Mrs Dorothy Dwyer. Many of the papers relating to Sunbeam Wolsey are held in Cork county library.