Rowan has worked as a farmhand, teacher, freelance writer, and for the trade union movement as a publicist, historian, and rank and file activist. He was born in 1945 and raised with his older sister and younger brother in Sydney during the Cold War. He was educated in the state school system and went to Sydney University in 1964, the first in his family to attend university. Completing a BA (Hons), and a Diploma in Education from Sydney Teachers College (1969), he later graduated from the universities of New England (M Ed Hons), and Wollongong (PhD).
During 1964, ahead of Australia’s significant involvement in the Vietnam War, the conservative and anti-communist government of Prime Minister RG Menzies introduced a selective system of military conscription for young men before they had the right to vote. Selection was by the draw of marbles, representing birthdates, from a lottery barrel. Military service went for two years. In 1965 in the first of these draws, Rowan’s birthday marble came out.
Destroying his call-up papers, Rowan subsequently refused to attend compulsory medical examinations, and when imprisonment was imminent, registered as a conscientious objector. Prominence in the anti-conscription, anti-Vietnam War, student, and New Left movements led to the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) opening a file on him on in 1967. Variously arrested and charged during the 1960s and 1970s, Rowan avoided prison courtesy of pro-bono and civil liberties lawyers.
Formative journalistic experiences during the 60s were gained working on the Sydney University student paper Honi Soit under the leftist editorships of Hall Greenland and Keith Windschuttle, and as a contributor to the Communist Party of Australia’s (CPA) newspaper Tribune.
In 1967 Rowan was a founder of the radical and innovative Sydney Free University (1967-1972), and began a lifelong intellectual friendship with fellow Free U founder, historian Terry Irving. Between 1969-1973, he was a member of the editorial board of Australian Left Review (ALR), a bi-monthly journal of theory and practice published by the CPA. During this period, ALR had a pioneering role in introducing the work of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci to Australian intellectual and political audiences.
With Terry Irving and fellow activists outside the recently established Free U, Sydney, 1967, for a Sydney Morning Herald story.
ASIO surveillance photo, Sydney early 1970s. Rowan Cahill (ASIO collar tag 2 in photo) with Russell Darnley (future innovative educationist, author, and OAM recipient for his voluntary work following the Bali bombings of 2002), outside a leftist conference.
Rowan Cahill (centre) with Hall Greenland (future pioneer Green activist, author, and Walkley Award journalist) and ubiquitous megaphone, leading large student and staff contingent from Sydney University to Sydney Town Hall, May 1970 Moratorium.
In 1969 Rowan married Pam Dick (1948-2015), a future high school teacher of English and Drama. Their long relationship produced three children, and six grandchildren.
From 1970 to 1972, Rowan was employed by the militant Seamen's Union of Australia (SUA) as a journalist and historian. Here he was influenced by its leader E V Elliott, and by SUA journalist Della Elliott. This was the beginning of a long relationship with Australian maritime unions, and as an historian working outside of the academy.
Rowan has published extensively in labour movement, radical, and academic publications. As a classroom teacher, he was a prolific contributor to education debate via contributions to non-academic publications, particularly Education, journal of the NSW Teachers Federation. Between 2001 and its final issue in December 2006, he was a regular contributor to, and ‘Picket Line Correspondent’ for, the innovative Sydney based labour movement e-weekly Workers Online.
In 2013 Rowan was awarded a doctorate by the University of Wollongong (NSW) for his dissertation "Rupert Lockwood (1908-1997): Journalist, Communist, Intellectual". Rowan first met Lockwood in 1969, when the journalist and historian was editing the Maritime Worker, journal of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Subsequently Lockwood became a significant influence on Rowan’s approach to journalism and to history.
Rowan’s books include, as co-author, A History of the Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1872-1972; Twentieth Century Australia: Conflict and Consensus; Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes; The Barber Who Read History; and as co-editor, A Turbulent Decade: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975.
In 2001 Rowan reunited with old friend Terry Irving and renewed a writing partnership commenced in the New Left days of the 1960s and 70s. Radical Sydney (2010) and The Barber Who Read History (2021) were results of this. On their blog Radical Sydney/ Radical History they explore their conceptions of radical history. Currently Rowan is an Honorary Fellow with the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Wollongong.