In Irish the surname Dolan is O Dubhshlain, from dubh, meaning "black" and slan, meaning "challenge" or "defiance". Other anglicised versions include "Doolan" and "Dowling". It first arose as part of the Ui Maine tribal grouping in south Roscommon and east Galway, and from there spread to the north-east into counties Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh. It remains numerous in all five counties today, and is particularly common in Co. Cavan. In places it is also given as an anglicisation of O Dobhailen, probably derived from dobhail, meaning "unlucky", and more usually rendered into English as "Devlin". Many of the Dolans of Co. Sligo are of this stock.
Although it may sometimes appear as a variant of "Dolan", in most cases Dowling has a separate origin. In form the name is English, derived from the Old English dol, meaning "dull" or "stupid", but in Ireland it is generally an anglicisation of the Irish O Dunlaing. The original territory of the O Dunlaing was in the west of the present Co. Laois, along the banks of the river Barrow, which was known as Fearrann ua nDunlaing, "O'Dowling's country". The leading members of the family were transplanted to Tarbert in Co. Kerry in 1609, along with other leaders of the "Seven Septs of Laois", but the surname remained numerous in its original homeland, and spread south and west into Carlow, Kilkenny, Wicklow and Dublin, where it is now very common. As a first name Dunlang was popular in early medieval times in Leinster, where it was also anglicised as "Dudley".
109 births of the name are recorded in 1890, with 84 of these in Leinster, and most of these in Dublin. The other principal focus for the name at that time was in Co. Kilkenny. The influence of the family is recorded in the placenames of Leinster: there are three Ballydowling townlands in Wickow, as well as a Dowling townland in Kilkenny.
.There is a long tradition of literary work among the Dowlings: Thady Dowling (1544-1628) was well known as a grammarian and historian. Vincent Dowling (1787-1844) founded and edited Bell?s Life and Firstiana for almost 30 years. His work was carried on by his son Frank Lewis Dowling (1821-1867).. Bartholemew Dowling (1823-1863) and William Dowling (1828-1880) brothers from Co. Kerry, were both well-known literary men. The former wrote The Brigade of Fontenoy, while the latter emigrated to America.
Dr. Jeremiah Dowling (1830-1906) wrote The Claddagh Boatman.
Joe Dowling (1948 - ) is one of Ireland?s leading theatre directors. He was Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre from 1979 to 1985 and has worked with numerous theatre companies in North America.