Lal Dowley


Elizabeth Kirwan Dowley, known as “Lal” by almost everyone and as “Dooks” by her grandchildren, died at her home on East Chop in the early hours of July 3, 2019. She had just turned 94. 

Lal was born on May 5, 1925, to Daniel and Elizabeth Kirwan in Dublin, Ireland, where she grew up happily as the third of four children. She lived in Ireland until 1947, when she married Robert Curtis Dowley, her beloved husband of 49 years, who died in 1996 in the same room as she did, in the same house on East Chop.

Lal first came to the Vineyard in 1949 as the new bride of Bob Dowley, with the first of their five children. They stayed with Bob’s parents, Marion and Leroy Dowley, in their house on the water on East Chop Drive, which remained in the family until January 2018. At the time, Bob and Lal were living outside London while Bob was director of operations for Pan American Airways in the British Isles. They moved to the States in 1950 when Bob joined the family business, retail stores for men’s and boys’ clothing: Ware Pratt in Worcester, and Wells & Coverly in Troy and Syracuse, N.Y. The family partnership included Bob’s brother George and their father, Leroy Lentell Dowley. It was Leroy’s father, George Butnam Dowley, who together with some friends founded the East Chop Tennis Club in 1910, and the East Chop Beach Club. Bob and Lal then began trips to East Chop over the next 40 summers. They raised their five children in Troy, N.Y, where Lal was an active volunteer in the Red Cross, the Junior League and the Albany Hospice. They built their first house on East Chop in 1956.

In 1990, Lal and Bob moved permanently to their most treasured spot in the world, East Chop, where they designed and built their year-round home overlooking the water. Lal was a familiar figure on the tennis courts, and with her racquet slung over her shoulder riding her bicycle to and from the East Chop Tennis Club until 2013, when health issues intervened. She loved the game, and was on the courts for over 80 years. She could also be seen in the late afternoons in summer and fall at the East Chop Beach Club, coming down to take a dip at the end of a hot day and stopping to chat with friends for a while on the porch. It’s probably fair to say that Lal was the only octogenarian riding her bicycle around East Chop. She kept this up even as she turned 90, but decided after a fall that it was time to put away the wheels.

Lal was loved by her wide circle of friends, for whom her cheerful energy and kindliness were an inspiration. She was a volunteer for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard for over 25 years, and until a few years ago, often served the needs of patients in the last stages of life during late-night vigils. She was greatly appreciated by the grieving families whom she helped through this difficult passage. They found her strong spiritual beliefs a comfort on which to rely.

She was a good bridge player, and a favorite partner in year-round games. When backgammon was an active winter activity at the Edgartown Yacht Club, she and Bob were avid players. Lal was a devoted member of the Catholic Church on the Vineyard, contributing to its long-range planning and ecumenical efforts to work with other Island denominations. She took walks on almost all the protected properties of the Land Bank and the Vineyard Conservation Society, which honored her a few years ago for being among its longest-term members. She used to say that unless she went outside for a walk every day that she felt claustrophobic. She loved walking on the East Chop Bluff during the off-season, sometimes with a friend but frequently on her own. She’d often say how lucky she was to have such a beautiful view all to herself. She only stopped her walks in May 2019 when an illness kept her housebound.

Lal is also remembered in Foynes, a village in the west of Ireland that played an important role in World War II, providing the first port of entry for planes flying from New York to Europe. Lal is featured in an exhibition in the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum celebrating Pan American Airways’ Clipper Ships and their brief spot in aviation history. She and her sister Helen Kirwan were hired by BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corp.) in March of 1944 to be their first ground hostesses. Lal greeted passengers arriving from New York via Pan American’s large flying boats when they landed and moored in the tiny deserted harbor at Foynes on the Shannon River. The massive 40-plus-ton seaplanes, Boeing 314s with four propellers and large water landing floats, carried entertainers for Allied troops, political leaders, military personnel, war journalists, and business leaders, as well as people escaping from Europe. Lal escorted them to local inns and private homes where they waited until the weather cleared for their departure from nearby Shannon Airport to destinations in Europe or back in the U.S. One of those passengers who arrived in the fall of 1944 to help manage ground operations for Pan American was Bob Dowley. 

Lal was the last of the four Kirwan siblings, and leaves behind her four children: Jennifer Dowley of Millerton, N.Y.; Gillian McNamee of Chicago, Ill.; Craig Dowley and Mary Nolan of Togher, Ireland; Christopher Dowley and Laura Freysinger of Marblehead. Her son Brian predeceased her in August 2018. Lal also leaves eight grandchildren: Addison, Marion, Malcolm, Luke, Nicole, James, Gavin, and Turlough. Her extended family network of nieces and nephews in Ireland will miss her: the Matthews, Lochrin, and Kirwan families and their children. Her nieces and nephews of the George B. Dowley and Kay Dowley Coe families, both former summer Vineyard residents, as well as the Lewis and Howell families of East Chop and Vineyard Haven, will feel her loss.

There will be a funeral service for Lal on Saturday, July 13, at 10:30 am at St Augustine Church, 56 Franklin St., Vineyard Haven, followed by a reception at the East Chop Tennis Club at noon. Lal will be buried in a private ceremony next to her beloved husband in the Dowley family plot in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven. 

In lieu of flowers, donations in Lal’s name may be made to Island Food Pantry, P.O. Box 1874, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, or VNA Hospice, 67 Ter Heun Drive, Falmouth, MA 02540.

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