At the age of 16 he entered the family firm, McBride and Williams, which manufactured cotton handkerchiefs and eventually became its managing director. After the collapse of the company in 1931 he was Chairman of the Northern Ireland Unemployment Assistance Board. His early poems, in The City of Refuge (1917), were rhetorical celebrations of industry. His next volume, City Songs and Others (1918), included 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.
He moved to Newcastle, County Down. He also wrote short stories: Tales of Mourne (1937), as well as at least one highly successful play, Apollo In Mourne (1926). During World War II, Rowley founded, and ran from his Newcastle home, the short-lived Mourne Press. He published first collections of Sam Hanna Bell and Michael McLaverty, but the press failed in 1942. He died at Drumilly, County Armagh, in 1947. The poet's Newcastle home, Brook Cottage, has been demolished. In Newcastle his name is remembered through the Rowley Meadows housing development and the Rowley Path, which runs along the southern boundary of the Islands Park.
- The City of Refuge and Other Poems (1917)
- City Songs and Others (1918)
- Workers (1923)
- County Down Songs (1924)
- The Old Gods and Other Poems (1925)
- Apollo In Mourne (1926) (play)
- Selected Poems (1931)
- Tales of Mourne (1937) (short stories)
- Ballads of Mourne (1940)
- One Cure for Sorrow and Other One-Act Plays (1942)
- Sonnets for Felicity (1942)
- The Piper of Mourne (1944)
- Final Harvest (1951)