O’Dowd was born at Beaufort, Victoria to Irish emigrant parents who were preoccupied with Celtic ancestry and legend. But, in the hope that he would win paid secondary school and university fees, O’Dowd was not sent to Catholic schools.
He did win the fees but was forced to leave university and earn a living after his father was kicked by a horse, and, aged just 17, became the headmaster of St Alipius’ school at Ballarat. His then secularist beliefs led to his dismissal and in 1884 he opened his own school.
In 1885 O’Dowd passed the public service examinations and entered the Crown Solicitor’s Office in Melbourne. Three years later he resumed university and got degrees in arts and law.
After initially having verse published in the Ballarat Courier, Dawnward (1903) established O’Dowd’s identity as a radical poet. He wrote several law books as well as poetry.
His religious beliefs were often in flux and in turn he joined the Theosophical Society, the Australian Church and the Free Religious Fellowship. He was also a foundation member of the Victorian Socialist Party in 1905.
In 1912 he bravely denounced the White Australia policy as “unbrotherly, undemocratic and unscientific”. In 1934 O’Dowd declined the offer of a knighthood.