Richard Valentine Williams, who writes poetry, plays and stories under the pseudonym of Richard Rowley, is born on April 2, 1877, at 79 Dublin Road in Belfast, in what is now Northern Ireland.
At the age of sixteen, Rowley enters the family firm, McBride and Williams, which manufactures cotton handkerchiefs and eventually becomes its managing director. After the collapse of the company in 1931 he is Chairman of the Northern Ireland Unemployment Assistance Board. His early poems, in The City of Refuge and Other Poems (1917), are rhetorical celebrations of industry. His next volume, City Songs and Others (1918), includes his most quoted poem, The Islandmen, and is regarded as containing his most original work: “Browning-like monologues straight from the mouths of Belfast’s working-class.”
In 1918, Rowley goes to live in the Mourne country, residing in Brook Cottage, Bryansford Rd., Newcastle, County Down. He writes short stories, including Tales of Mourne (1937), as well as at least one highly successful play, Apollo In Mourne (1926). During World War II, he founds, and runs from his Newcastle home, the short-lived Mourne Press. He publishes first collections of Sam Hanna Bell and Michael McLaverty, but the press fails in 1942.
With Bell, Rowley is one of a set of Linen Hall Library members who retires regularly to Campbell’s Cafe. The regulars, at various points, include writers John Boyd and Denis Ireland, actors Joseph Tomelty, Jack Loudon and J. G. Devlin, poets John Hewitt and Robert Greacen, artists Padraic Woods, Gerard Dillon, and William Conor and the Rev. Arthur Agnew, an outspoken opponent of sectarianism. The ebullient atmosphere the circle creates is a backdrop for the appearance of Campbell’s Cafe in Brian Moore‘s wartime Bildungsroman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream.
In 1946, Rowley sells Brook Cottage, which has since been demolished, and moves with his wife, the former Margaret Pollock, to Drumilly, Loughgall, County Armagh, as paying guests of their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Cope. He dies there on April 25, 1947.
George MacCann and Jack Loudan presents a commemoration of Rowley’s life on the radio in 1952. The programme uses recordings of his friends Lady Mabel Annesley, who illustrated several of his publications, along with the poet John Irvine, the playwright Thomas Carnduff and William Conor. In Newcastle, Rowley’s name is remembered through the Rowley Meadows housing development and the Rowley Path, which runs along the southern boundary of the Islands Park.
(Pictured: Blue plaque at Richard Rowley’s birthplace in Belfast, Northern Ireland)