The name comes from Ireland at around 350 AD.
The name is a Gaelic Irish Surname that originally referred to the 'Sept' of Ui Dublhaoidh who were Lords of Fertullagh in the County of Westmeath around that time. This is in the South East of Ireland. The Topographies of O'Heeran, O'Dugan, O'Brien, O'Halloran, and others also refer to Dowlings as Chiefs of various clans in Ossory, Offaly, and Laois (or Kilkenny, King's and Queen's County).
In the ancient kingdom of Leinster (a province which covers the South-East of Ireland) were the Irish Chiefs and Septs of Hy-Kinselagh and Cualan. In their lands the Dowlings were Chiefs of Siol Elaigh and the Lagan. Siol Elaigh is now in the Barony of Shilelagh in South of County Wicklow.
The original territory of the family was at Fearann ua n-Dunlaing (O'Dowling's Country). This area covered an area along Western bank of the River Barrow. The O'Dowlings were one of the Seven Septs of Laois; these were the significant families in the County at a time when significance was more about cattle and what one was owed (a little like deserved tribute).
In the 16th and 17th centuries the family was prominent in that same locality of Laois (also called Leix, Laoghis, Leis and, when under British rule, Queen's County).
A large coersed transplantation in 1609 took many 'troublesome' Dowlings to Tarbert on the border of Limerick and Kerry where they are still prevalent today. It is believed that some who were transplanted returned to their original locations.
Whilst Dowling's can be found today in almost every county in Ireland they are still most numerous around Carlow, Kilkenny, Cork and Laois.
The true meaning of the name is somewhat lost in pre-history but is likely to be related to Middle Irish translations.
Dubh is Irish for black or dark (this could be black as in bad or dark skinned or dark featured or great, prodigious, or can mean burned). It is interesting to note here that Dublin or Dubhlinn, the capital city of Ireland, means black pool. It is near this pool that the Norsemen built their fortress in the 9th century.
Laodh is Irish for calf or cattle.
That is not to say an O'Dowling is a male descended from a black calf! The true reasons for the name are lost in time. It is more likely that the calf, however described, was a symbol to indicate the individual. Perhaps the original Dowling owned the calf or used one to mark the entrance to his territory. Perhaps the expression was used in the way today we may use the expression 'black sheep of the family' to describe an outcast. It should be noted that it is very rare in Ireland, as opposed to England, to call people after places so it is unlikely to refer to someone from a particular place.
The variation Dubhshlain means challenge.
The prefix o' or ui and ua means, in simple terms, 'of an ancestor'. 'Mac' or 'Mc', not found with Dowling, generally means 'son of' but o', ui and ua are generally accepted as 'grandson of'. Ui and ua is historically found used interchangeably but the terms have a specified definition, if only by some modern academics. Ui appears to be descended from a maternal grandfather whereas, ua appears to be descended from a paternal grandfather. In more ancient Ireland, inheritance was not dominated by a purely male line and one could make a claim on a name on the basis of decent from a Dowling through a maternal line. In line with Europe, the Irish, who had spearheaded the use of surnames before other cultures, fell in line with the trend towards paternal descent for surnames. It is important to note that Dowling, in the very earliest context, was probably not a surname as we understand it now at all, but a reference to all-important tribal (tuatha) membership.
Now to deal with another complication you may come across, and I apologies to experts as I try to over-simplify this. When you talk about the ancestral family collectively you can talk about the ui Dunlaing and o'Dowling's but when dealing with an individual its different. O' or ua are pretty much only used for males (o'Dowling) Women would replace this with Ni (ni Dowling) for a grandaughter and Nic for a daughter. When a woman, for example Bridget Phelan, marries and changes her name to her husband's, her name becomes Bridget Bn Ui Dowling (the Bn means 'Bean' or wife).
You should probably treat the Dictionary of American Family Names (c) 2013, Oxford University Press as used by Ancestry.com with significant contempt as, at best, inaccurate. (Click here for more on this)
for more on what is NOT an origin of the Dowling name.
The Soundex code (a technical sound-a-like algorithm) for Dowling is D452. This includes: Dahling, Dahlinger, Dalianis, Dalmas, Dalmus, Delancey, Delang, Delange, Delemos, Deleon-guerrero, Delling, Dellinger, Dellums, Delmas, Delmastro, Delmus, Delnegro, Delong, Delyannis, Dilling, Dillinger, Dillingham, Dolenga, Doling, Dolinski, Dolinger, Dollins, Dooling, Dowling, and Duling. I would say that Soundex needs more work!
The common variant names Doolan, Doolin, Doulin, Dowlin and Dulin, which I have found more commonly transposed for Dowling, come within Soundex code D400
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The names in the above table are the ones I will include in my database. Those in column D450 and D452 are actively sought.