O'Dwyer, Paul (1907–98), lawyer, activist, and politician in the USA, was born 29 June 1907 in Lismirrane (Lismiraun), Bohola, Swinford, Co. Mayo, youngest of eleven children (of whom six sons and four daughters survived infancy) of Patrick O'Dwyer, native of Tullylease, Co. Cork, national school teacher, and Bridget O'Dwyer (née McNicholas) of Lismirrane, assistant teacher. From his father, an organiser for the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, he derived pro-trade-union and anti-clerical attitudes. His witnessing of Black-and-Tan activities during the war of independence and his family's anti-treaty position in the civil war were also formative influences. Educated at Bohola national school and St Nathy's college, Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, he attended UCD for one year before following four elder brothers by emigrating to the USA, settling in New York city (1925). He worked successively as stock clerk in an automobile garage, elevator operator, and shipping clerk in a textile factory, and studied in the Fordham University evening pre-law course (1925–6). While attending evening classes in St John's College law school, Brooklyn (1926–9), he worked as a checker on the Brooklyn docks and as a seaman on summer runs to Latin America; he held a longshoreman's union card for the remainder of his life. After successfully sitting the New York state bar examination on special petition (owing to his status as an alien), he worked as a legal clerk (1929–31). Naturalised a US citizen and admitted to the bar (1931), he entered a Brooklyn law firm, becoming a partner in 1934. While participating in all aspects of the firm's general practice, he was deeply involved in cases concerning trade-union organising rights, defending strikers and pickets against court injunctions, and opposing deportation orders against foreign-born activists.
Becoming in time senior partner of the firm (O'Dwyer and Bernstein), which moved in 1939 to offices on Wall Street, Manhattan, over the next half-century he was one of America's leading civil-liberties and civil-rights attorneys. Asserting as fundamental the democratic principles of freedom of conscience and of political association, he was prominent in efforts of the National Lawyers’ Guild to withstand the witch-hunting red-scare hysteria of the later 1940s. Chairman of the guild's civil rights committee, president of its New York chapter (1947), and member of its national board of directors (1948–51), he defended teachers and other public employees dismissed from employment for alleged ‘disloyalty’, and represented writers, entertainers, and fellow attorneys under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He endured persistent charges of unpatriotic and communist sympathies, especially by catholic and Irish-American publications and personalities. A strenuous advocate of a Jewish state in Palestine, he arranged illegal arms shipments to the Irgun resistance movement for its armed struggle against the British mandate (which he equated with the British presence in Ireland), coordinated with Irish TD Robert Briscoe (qv) to facilitate smuggling of arms and volunteers through Irish ports, and lobbied for recognition of the state of Israel by the USA and UN. Despite criticism by several Jewish-American trade unionists opposed to the Irgun's reactionary, anti-labour policies, he welcomed Irgun leader Menachem Begin to New York (December 1948). Thereafter he distanced himself from internal Israeli politics, while remaining a conspicuous supporter of Israeli foreign policy.
Perceived as the ‘radical younger brother’ of leading New York politico William O'Dwyer (qv), he played no official role in his brother's administration as mayor of the city (1946–50). A leftist activist within the Democratic party, and prominent in the party's internal reform movement, he was co-founder with Eleanor Roosevelt and others of the Committee for Democratic Voters (1959), and was NY co-chairman of John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign (1960). He chaired local committees implementing medicare and conducting voter registration drives in low-income areas. A persistent candidate for public office, he was twice elected to the NY city council, but lost many bids for election to the US senate, US house of representatives, and the NY mayoralty. During a two-year term on the city council as Manhattan councilman-at-large (1964–5), he succeeded in raising the city's minimum wage.
O'Dwyer's litigation on behalf of tenants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance company (1951) stimulated municipal and federal legislation against racial discrimination in housing. He litigated widely in racial integration cases, represented civil-rights activists in court proceedings in hostile southern states, and successfully argued before the US supreme court for the right of citizens educated in public schools in Puerto Rico to sit the NY voter literacy test in Spanish. He worked closely with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the institutionalised exclusion of blacks from the voting register and the political process; at the 1964 Democratic national convention he was prominent in the effort to seat the MFDP on the grounds that the official all-white Mississippi delegate slate was unrepresentative and undemocratically selected. An early opponent of the Vietnam war, he helped launch the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative, through which he supported the anti-war candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. A delegate to the turbulent national convention in Chicago, he marched with anti-war demonstrators on the streets, and denounced the Johnson administration's Vietnam policy on the convention floor. He served on the legal defence team of the ‘Harrisburg seven’, an anti-war group that included Fr Philip Berrigan and other catholic religious, on trial on bizarre charges of plotting to kidnap presidential adviser Henry Kissinger and to blow up government buildings (1971–2).
O'Dwyer's tenure as president of NY city council (1974–7), elected on the ticket headed by mayoral candidate Abraham Beame, was dominated by a severe fiscal crisis threatening municipal bankruptcy. While conceding the necessity for sweeping cutbacks in expenditure to restore the city's solvency, he opposed local and state initiatives that effectively transferred dictation of social policy to non-elected officials and private institutions. He secured establishment of a records and information service to manage the city archives, and alteration of the date on the city seal from 1664 (when the Dutch colony was surrendered to British arms) to 1625 (when New Amsterdam was founded by Dutch settlers). He was appointed Manhattan borough historian (1986), and helped engineer the election of David Dinkins as New York's first African-American mayor (1989). Named city commissioner to the United Nations (1990), he boycotted the UN cafeteria for anti-union policies, and soon resigned so as not to impede his freedom to criticise human-rights abuses in member states.
Throughout his career O'Dwyer promoted numerous Irish cultural and charitable activities, and stoutly advocated the Irish nationalist interest in America. As national coordinator in the 1950s of the American League for an Undivided Ireland, he lobbied unsuccessfully for a congressional resolution urging a thirty-two-county plebiscite to determine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. He was active in founding and served as first president (1956) of the Irish Cultural Institute. A supporter of the Northern Ireland civil-rights campaign (1968–9), thereafter he consistently refused to condemn the political violence of the IRA, citing the ‘causative violence’ of sectarian discrimination, poverty, and official repression. He represented Irish defendants in political and immigration cases in American courts, including leaders of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID) jailed for contempt after refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating alleged gun-running (1972). After opposing the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement, he was instrumental in initiating and facilitating the involvement of American president Bill Clinton in the Northern Ireland issue. He lobbied to secure the granting of a USA entry visa to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, whom he welcomed on his arrival in New York (1994), and he endorsed the 1998 Good Friday agreement. A frequent visitor to Ireland, he established and funded the O'Dwyer Cheshire home for physically handicapped adults on the old family homestead in Bohola, Co. Mayo, and established the O'Dwyer Forestry Foundation.
O'Dwyer was fiercely browed and florid of face, with a dark-eyed glare under a shock of prematurely white hair. His sharp-tongued public persona was mellowed by his private warmth and tolerance of individual diversity. Described as ‘the conscience of New York politics’ (Newsday, 25 June 1998), he was courageous in his consistent commitments to freedom of conscience, and to social and racial inclusion, and in opposition to various episodes of American overseas military intervention. While situating his activism on behalf of such causes in the USA within the legal and political systems, he nonetheless refused to censure physical-force Irish republicanism or militarist aspects of the Zionist movement. Named Mayoman of the year in 1974, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by St Thomas university, Minnesota. He published an autobiography, Counsel for the defense (1979), and edited the memoirs of his brother William, Beyond the golden door (1986). He married first (1935) Kathleen Rohan (d. 1980), an Irish-American of Galway ancestry; they had three sons and one daughter. He married secondly (1984) Patricia Hanrahan, chief of the NY state women's division, who survived him; they had no children. After living at several addresses in Brooklyn before and after his first marriage, in 1939 he moved his family to 350 Central Park West, Manhattan, his residence for many years. A country retreat in Goshen, NY, overlooking the Hudson river valley forty miles from the city, became his final permanent residence. After suffering a series of strokes from 1993, he was confined to a wheelchair in his last years. He died 24 June 1998 in Goshen; his ashes were scattered at his birthplace in Bohola. His papers are deposited in St John's University, Long Island, NY.