Richard Rowley

The popular poet who wrote in the dialect of Belfast’s working class

Richard Valentine Williams, who wrote poetry and other works as Richard Rowley, was born in 1877 in Belfast at what is now 79 Dublin Road.

At the age of 16 he entered the the family firm McBride and Williams, which manufactured cotton handkerchiefs. Later he became its managing director. After the firm’s collapse in 1931 he was appointed chairman of the Northern Ireland Unemployment Assistance Board.

His early poems from The City of Refuge (1917) are mostly rhetorical celebrations of industry. 'Reticence’, written in the dialect of the Mourne country where Rowley spent his holidays and lived in later life, is an admirable exception.

City Songs and Others, published in the following year, is regarded as containing his most original work – Browning-like monologues straight from the mouths of Belfast’s working-class (‘The Stitcher’, ‘The Clerk’) and Mourne country folk (‘Thinkin’ Long’, ‘Witchcraft’).

‘The Islandmen’ is considered one of his best poems in standard English:

Terrible as an army with banners
Through the dusk of a winter’s eve,
Over the bridge
The thousand tramp.

More of his Belfast monologues surfaced in Workers (1923), including ‘Oul’ Jane’ and ‘Machinery’:

I hate machines, the way ye hate the thing
That ye’re most feared of. Silent, cruel, cold,
They strike, but are never angered.

Rowley also wrote one notable play, Apollo in Mourne, in which the Greek god, banished from Olympus, comes to earth in the Mourne country to devastating effect. During the second world war he founded and ran the short-lived Mourne Press. He died at Drumilly, County Armagh, in 1947.

Further reading
Apollo in Mourne: Poems, Plays and Stories (1978) by Richard Rowley, edited by Victor Price; City Songs and Others (1918) by Richard Rowley; The City of Refuge and Other Poems (1917) by Richard Rowley.