King, Richard Ashe (1839–1932), clergyman and writer, was born 9 November 1839 in Ennis, Co. Clare, son of Dr Luke White King, an ordained protestant minister who ran the endowed Erasmus Smith College in Ennis. Richard was educated at his father's school and at TCD, where he graduated BA (1862) and MA (1865). In 1862 he was ordained deacon by Dr John Graham, bishop of Chester, and priest by the bishop of Cork, Dr John Gregg (qv). After a period as curate in Bradford, he was appointed in 1867 vicar of St Mark's, Low Moor, Bradford, and remained in this position till 1881, when he retired from the church, possibly due to a crisis of faith; he later wrote that in the Tale of a tub Jonathan Swift (qv) had dug the foundations of the church away. As vicar he was so well loved that forty-four years after he had left St Mark's his former parishioners, learning from the papers that he was celebrating his silver wedding, sent him a wedding cake, a cheque, and a letter of appreciation.
Settling in London, he determined on a literary career, which he conducted under a variety of pseudonyms. As ‘Basil’ he wrote a number of novels. The first, Love, the debt, was serialized in the Cornhill Magazine (January 1881–March 1882). It was situated in England but subsequent novels used Irish settings and characters. The wearing of the green (1884) deals with a love triangle between an Englishman, a west of Ireland girl, and a Land League activist, who finally gets the girl. It is sympathetic towards the aims of the league. His best-known contemporary work was Bell Barry (1891), a story of shipboard romance featuring a gallery of racy Irish types; however, his fiction lacked drama and has been largely forgotten.
In 1883 he was appointed literary editor of Henry Labouchere's Truth, a popular weekly which mixed celebrity gossip with political satire and irreverent arts reviews. For thirty-eight years, under the pseudonym ‘Desmond O'Brien’, King wrote an influential weekly column, showing his wide-ranging taste in literature. Claiming to have no judgment of poetry, he allowed his friend Katharine Tynan (qv) to use the column to pronounce (anonymously) on poets.
From about 1886 he made prolonged visits to Dublin and was a key member of the Irish cultural revival group centred round W. B. Yeats (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv). He took a house at 11 Waltham Terrace, Blackrock, where he entertained frequently. Tynan wrote of these gatherings: ‘He used to have much fruit, many sweets, cigarettes and curaçao . . . we would arrive for lunch and remain till the evening shades were falling . . . I remember the happy intimacy of it. We used to bristle with jokes' (Tynan, 283). Under the pseudonym ‘Fergus’ he wrote a regular literary column, ‘In bookland’, for the Freeman's Journal, and was involved in the foundation of the Irish Literary Society in London in April 1892 and of the National Literary Society in Dublin a few months later. Among the products of this society was the New Irish Library series, the content of which Yeats and Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) quarrelled over, with Duffy emerging victorious. Yeats retaliated with scathing reviews of the New Irish Library books; however, when in 1895 King published his Swift in Ireland under this imprint, Yeats gave it a highly favourable review, praising its ‘unfailing witty and wise comment’ (Yeats, Uncollected prose, ii, 407). His later poems on Swift show the influence of King's central thesis that Swift's work in Ireland ‘against cant, baseness, injustice, and oppression’ was his supreme achievement.
King's biography of Oliver Goldsmith (qv), published 1910, was similarly praised, with Stephen Gwynn (qv) calling it ‘by far the best life of Goldsmith that has been written’ (IBL, xvii, 53), and it is for these cogent, witty, interpretative biographies, published under his own name, that King is best remembered.
His urbanity, erudition, good humour, and charm informed his widely admired lectures. Hyde described his talk on Irish industries at the Workingman's Club in Wellington Quay (16 October 1889) as the best he had ever heard, a view echoed by Yeats of a later lecture to the National Literary Society, 8 December 1893, on ‘The Celt: the silenced sister’. United Ireland took issue with King's central argument that partisan politics had laid waste the Irish intellect; Yeats wrote two letters in his defence, and in 1925, when he dedicated Early poems and stories to King he remembered the incident. About 1900, when he was living chiefly in London, King was engaged by John Marriot, director of the extension movement at Oxford, as an associate lecturer in English literature, a position he held for twenty-five years. Marriott echoed other listeners in calling these lectures the most brilliant he had ever heard; ‘unaided by notes . . . freely illustrated by anecdote, but never by an anecdote which did not point a literary moral’ (Times, 31 Mar. 1932). A motor accident in 1921 virtually deprived the octogenarian of his sight, so he had to give up reviewing, but was able to continue lecturing. In 1925 he was elected president of the Irish Literary Society in London, a position he held until his death, aged 92, at home in 22 Warwick Avenue, Maida Hill, London, on 27 May 1932. He married (c.1898) Miss Jacob, sister of Field-marshal Sir Claud Jacob, and daughter of a general; they had no children. His portrait, painted by his wife, was presented to the Irish Literary Society in 1930.