O'Dwyer, Edward Thomas (1842–1917), catholic bishop of Limerick, was born 25 January 1842 at Holy Cross, Co. Tipperary, into a family with antecedents that included landowners, army officers, and prominent clergymen. The sense of family fostered self-confidence in the young Edward Thomas. His father, John Keating-O'Dwyer, was an excise officer and had previously studied for the priesthood. His mother, Anne Quinlivan, came from a prominent Limerick milling family. There were two other children: Kate, who died early, and Annie, who became a religious sister. Shortly after Edward's birth, the family moved to Limerick. He received his primary education from the Christian Brothers, his secondary at Doon, Co. Limerick, and at St Munchin's diocesan college, Limerick, then run by the Jesuits. In 1860 he entered Maynooth College where, without extending himself, he came in the first three or four places in each subject. Ordained in 1867, he served in eight different parishes in eight years. His exuberant zeal appears not to have been adapted to the priests and situation in which he worked. During those years he became friendly with Isaac Butt (qv) and stood in the hustings with him in 1871. His appointment (1874) to St Michael's parish, Limerick, marked a turning point in his career. His eloquent sermons were appreciated; he agitated successfully for better working and living conditions for the working people, vigorously championed the spread of temperance, and established an institute for young people where they could read, study, and have opportunities for relaxation.
While still a curate, O'Dwyer was the first choice of the clergy of Limerick to succeed the late Bishop George Butler (1815–86). Appointed in May 1886, he soon made his mark. He gave much attention to conferences of the clergy, and was punctilious in his visitation of parishes and religious houses and institutions in his diocese. He particularly involved himself in educational matters: promoting opportunities for his people, and insisting that catholics be treated fairly in the allocation of public funds for education. But his impetuous, autocratic manner and attitude, augmented by his deafness, led to collisions with other educational bodies. There was a prolonged dispute with protestant clergy about two schools, an unsuccessful controversy with the Jesuits at Mungret College that went to Rome, and a clash with the Christian Brothers that led to their withdrawal from a school in Bruff, Co. Limerick.
A supporter of home rule, O'Dwyer was angered by the supplanting of Isaac Butt by John Dillon (qv) and C. S. Parnell (qv). The fact that Dillon, and by implication Parnell, were supporters of the Plan of Campaign added to the moral objections he experienced at the boycotting, violence, and widespread intimidation associated with the agrarian policy. He, and Co-adjutor Bishop John Healy (qv) of Clonfert, complained to Rome. Mgr Persico, sent by Pope Leo XIII to examine the situation, was much impressed by O'Dwyer, and remained a friend and supporter at the Vatican. The papal rescript of 1887 condemning the Plan was bitterly criticised across the country, but O'Dwyer defied all opposition and insisted it was binding on priests and laity alike. By the end of 1890 the Irish party was split as a result of the Parnell–O'Shea divorce case, and the Plan of Campaign had collapsed. O'Dwyer had been aware since 1888 that Parnell was guilty of adultery and of lying, yet he refused to sign the hierarchy's denunciation of the Irish leader. He explained that Parnell was preferable to another blackguard such as Dillon or William O'Brien (qv).
In the 1890s O'Dwyer improved the educational facilities in his diocese, especially by bringing about the establishment of Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College, formally opened in 1901. He promoted the Irish language and Irish dancing at the college. He continued to urge temperance and to demand better housing for the working population. A friend to Horace Plunkett (qv) and the co-operative movement, he was gratified to have the first co-operative creamery and the first co-operative society in his diocese. A writer whose ‘prose marches’, in the words of Augustine Birrell (qv), he wrote in the public press and in periodicals and pamphlets, mainly on educational matters. He had contributed to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, however, on a range of subjects, and he frequently corresponded with Walter MacDonald (qv) and Wilfrid Ward on theological questions. A student of the writings of John Henry Newman (qv), ever since his apprenticeship as curate in Adare to Fr John Stanislaus Flanagan (d. 1905), a former Oratorian, O'Dwyer defended Newman against charges of modernism. His defence was published under the title ‘Newman and the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis’ (Pius X's condemnation of modernism). An Italian translation of the pamphlet evoked a personal letter of congratulation from the pope. One of his greatest achievements, however, was his work for the solution of the university question. In writing and public lectures, and especially by his evidence before the Robertson commission, he presented a powerful case for equal educational opportunity for the catholic majority. It was characteristic of him that, when most bishops were following the lead of Archbishop William Walsh (qv) of Dublin in seeking a college in Dublin University, he followed a different line.
In his final years, O'Dwyer seemed to find renewed energy. He urged that Ireland remain neutral during the first world war, and he devoted two pastoral letters to supporting the pope's call for peace, a stance that was much appreciated at Rome. He criticised the pro-British policy of the Irish party. When Irish emigrant workers were attacked in Liverpool as they embarked for America, he wrote to the newspapers attacking John Redmond (qv) for apologising for them, pointing out that ‘their crime is they are not ready to die for England’ (Munster News, 10 Nov. 1915). His letter brought a flood of supporting correspondence. In 1916 came his celebrated letter to Gen. Sir John Maxwell (qv), which denounced the shooting of the insurgency leaders ‘in cold blood’ and the deporting of thousands without trial, and declared Maxwell's regime ‘one of the worst and blackest chapters in the history of the misgovernment of this country’ (Evening Mail, 30 May 1916). The letter had an enormous impact at home and overseas. In Rome, besides, Mgr Michael O'Riordan (qv) (1857–1919), rector of the Irish College and a member of Limerick diocese, joined with him then and later in keeping to the forefront the aims and motives of the rebellion leaders in the face of strong British pressure. Conferred with the freedom of Limerick in September 1916, O'Dwyer, carried away by his own ardent nationalism, uttered unepiscopal lines to be quoted again and again in subsequent months and years. By the end of the year, he was a national hero, with a stanza to himself in ballads devoted to the men of Easter week. His pastoral letter for 1917 was greeted with queues of purchasers.
In July 1917 he suffered a heart attack while holidaying in Kilkee, Co. Clare, a favourite resort. A recurrence led to his death on 19 August 1917. The shock and sense of loss felt in Rome by his friend and admirer, Michael O'Riordan, evoked the elaborate tribute: ‘He has, after many strifes, gone out in a blaze of glory. He has been, beyond question, the first bishop in Ireland these last years, and . . . in the mind of the highest ecclesiastics here he is one of the first bishops in Europe’ (22 Aug. 1917, Limerick diocesan archives). With his many faults, he had a magnetic, star quality that, at best, exuded vitality and a liberty of spirit and courage that lifted hearts and challenged listeners and readers.