He was educated at the Christian Brothers’ College and the Catholic University, where he was Auditor of the Literary and Historical Society 1867-8, became a member of the Dublin Corporation in 1874, was MP for Carlow between 1880 and 1885 and Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1882 to 1883. During his term he had the honour of unveiling the O’Connell Monument and of opening the National Exhibition. At that time Punch, in “Essence of Parliament extracted from the diary of Toby, M.P.”, punned: “But Charles Dawson is better bread” (Punch, vol. 84, p. 184). When his business declined he became a corporation official (Comptroller of Rates and later Collector General of Rates) in 1891. Constantine Curran describes him in his memoir Under the Receding Wave (1970):
Alert and spruce, impeccably dressed, flower in button-hole, the elder Dawson delighted in old-fashioned eloquence and in his own. (p. 136)
His son Willie, who wrote for St Stephen's and Moran's The Leader was Joyce's age and befriended Arthur Clery, Tom Kettle and Curran.
So far, documentary evidence of the public perception of him as an “inflated windbag” or “Bladderbags” has not been forthcoming, but an obituary the Freeman's Journal of 19 March 1917 refers to his "wonderful gift of eloquence" (and notes his passion for Irish forestry). However, a contribution to a regular feature called “Letters to prominent individuals” in The Jarvey, a short-lived humorous paper that called itself the Irish Punch, suggests that Dawson’s reputation as a public speaker seems to have been at least for some people not all that different from Joyce’s presentation of it. The column with the portrait below is headed:
To CHARLES DAWSON, ESQ.,
Lecturer on Talking about Everything in
General and Doing Nothing in Particular.
Dear Sir – Were you expecting this epistle? No! Well, really I am astonished at that, because you are certainly one of the most prominent individuals I have the honour of being acquainted with. There is hardly a sheet published upon which I do not find your name. The Freeman’s Journal in particular seems utterly unable to make up its columns without Mr. Dawson on this or Mr. Dawson on that. One day it is Mr. Dawson lecturing in a Club, the next Mr. Dawson holds forth from a public platform. One day it’s politics, and the next day industry, and not the least surprising part of the business is that you seem to be quite at home on every subject, from the depth of our mines to the height of our aims. Whether it is a Loaf or a Sunburst, the darning of stockings or the freedom of a nation, Mr. Dawson is semper paratus. Sir, I cannot help admiring your industry, your omniscience, your ubiquity. Nobody could.
Do not take umbrage, Sir, if I venture to say that notwithstanding your very eloquent exordiums and your coruscating perorations, I sometimes fail to follow your reasoning. […]
The Jarvey (1889), 23 March p. 182