He was formerly married to the late Irish actress, Brenda Doyle (who died in a car crash in 1981). He is the father of actress Bairbre Dowling, and the former father-in-law of Irish actor, Colm Meaney.
Dowling first came to prominence in Ireland in the 1950s for his role as Christy Kennedy in the long-running radio soap opera, The Kennedys of Castleross and as a member of the Abbey Theatre company. He served as Artistic and Producing Director of The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (now the Great Lakes Theater Festival) in Cleveland, Ohio from 1976 to 1984. During his tenure at GLSF, he directed, produced and acted in many classical works, by Shakespeare and others. He is credited with discovering award-winning actor Tom Hanks.
Dowling founded the Miniature Theatre of Chester (now the Chester Theatre Company), in Chester, Massachusetts, in 1990.
Dowling received an Emmy for producing and directing the PBS film The Playboy of the Western World, based on John Millington Synge's 1907 play of the same name.
Dowling's first autobiographical book is Astride the Moon: A Theatrical Life, ISBN 0863278280 (Wolfhound Press, 2000).
He currently resides in Massachusetts with his second wife, Olwen Patricia O'Herlihy.
Dowling's papers, from 1976 onward, are housed at the Kent State University and John Carroll University libraries.