W F Marshall: The Bard of Tyrone

Author: Gordon Lucy

Date: 2010

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 11 Ware 2010

Gordon Lucy

Ulster Sails West

The year 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of William Forbes Marshall. Marshall, who was born in 1888, is best remembered as ‘The Bard of Tyrone’ and the author of ‘Me an’ Me Da’ (often inaccurately referred to as ‘Livin’ in Drumlister’); but there was so much more to him. Marshall was simultaneously a Presbyterian minister, a poet, a pioneer in the study of Ulster’s language and dialect (a contribution recognised by his election to the Royal Irish Academy in 1942), a playwright and novelist, the chronicler (in Ulster Sails West) of Ulster’s links with America, and a convinced unionist and an enthusiastic, if somewhat unorthodox, Orangeman.

Marshall was no ordinary man, and yet he was ordinary in the sense that he was genuinely a man of the people who could relate to the experiences of his fellow men and women. What made Marshall truly extraordinary was the sheer range of his gifts and talents and the breadth of his interests.

In March 1992 Alex Blair, the Ballymoney historian, told the Presbyterian Historical Society that W F Marshall ‘virtually single-handedly … created a culture and heritage for the Ulsterman of which he could be proud. He gave him a distinctive consciousness which enabled him to have an identity of his own’. W F was, in effect, a one-man cultural organisation, and a very successful one too.

The Man

Marshall was born on 8 May 1888 at Drumragh, Omagh. He was the second of the three sons of Charles Marshall, who for the greater part of his teaching career was principal of Sixmilecross National School, and his wife, the former Miss Mary Forbes.

After the daunting experience of attending his father’s school at Sixmilecross, the young W F continued his education at the Royal School, Dungannon. His poem, ‘R.S.D.’, has been adopted as the school song and is sung on speech day and other special occasions. Three other poems, at least, have a connection with the establishment where he learned ‘the holy Latin’: ‘The Royal School Dungannon’, ‘The Royal School Dungannon, 1914-18’ and ‘Goordaspore’.

‘Goordaspore’ is the ballad of Brigadier General John Nicholson, who died at the age of 35 storming Delhi’s Kashmir Gate during the suppression of the Indian mutiny. Indian tribesmen had worshipped the fearless Nicholson (or ‘Nicul-Sayn’) as a god, offending his evangelical sensibilities and earning for themselves repeated floggings for their idolatrous devotion. As one of Dungannon Royal’s most distinguished old boys, he is commemorated by a statue in the grounds of the school. Another may be found in Market Square in Lisburn.

After the Royal School Dungannon, Marshall in those pre-partition days attended Queen’s College, Galway, an associate college of the Royal University of Ireland, from which he graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in 1908. It was in Galway he apparently wrote his first poetry. At least two poems — ‘D’Arcy’s Point’ and ‘Alma Mater’ — celebrate his years ‘Beside the Western Sea’.

In the autumn of 1908, he and his elder brother, R L, began their theological course at the Presbyterian College in Botanic Avenue in Belfast — familiarly known as Assembly College. Their fellow students referred to W F as ‘Wee Marshall’ and to R L as ‘Big Marshall’. R L went on to become the minister of Maghera Presbyterian Church and later Professor of English and lecturer in Catechetics at Magee University College, Londonderry. Although W F was not above the odd student prank, his application to study can be assessed by the fact that during his theological course he read law in preparation for an extern degree, graduating LLB from the Royal University of Ireland in 1910.

W F was licensed as a probationer for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church by the Presbytery of Omagh in 1912, and became assistant to the Very Rev. Dr William McKean in First Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church in East Belfast. W F’s poem, ‘The Minister’, is an elegiac tribute to Dr McKean. W F also formed a lifelong friendship with Dr McKean’s son, John, and together they were to spend many happy hours in a boat fishing Lough Melvin.

On 26 June 1913 W F was ordained by Clogher Presbytery and installed in Aughnacloy. Shortly after arriving in the town, he was invited to preach at an open-air service. The hymns were chosen from an inter-denominational hymn book. Marshall announced the first hymn, ‘Hymn number nine’, whereupon he was interrupted by a strident protester who objected to the singing of ‘them human hymns’ (i.e. non-biblical hymns). In silent anticipation, the crowd waited to see how the new minister would respond to this open challenge to his authority. ‘I announced hymn number nine’, Marshall recalled, and proceeded to read the first line, ‘All people that on earth do dwell …’. This crushed Marshall’s critic and greatly amused and impressed his congregation because the ‘hymn’ was, of course, Psalm 100.

Three years later he accepted a call from his home congregation, Sixmilecross, where he was installed on 20 April 1916. Later that year he married Miss Susan McKee of Belfast. His friends believed him settled in Sixmilecross, but it was not a wealthy congregation and Marshall’s responsibilities were increasing with his family. His friend, Rev. Robert Moore, persuaded him to accept a call from Castlerock, where he was installed on 4 May 1928 by the Presbytery of Coleraine. There he was to remain for the rest of his life.

W F appears to have done most of his writing in circumstances which most people would scarcely consider conducive to clear thinking, let alone writing. His normal practice was to write on a pad set on the arm of his chair, radio or gramophone switched on and young people playing games around him.

The Presbyterian Minister

Marshall’s Presbyterianism was central to his life and work. Not surprisingly, he was an accomplished preacher. His beautifully-crafted sermons were normally written late on a Saturday evening. He was also the author of His Charger White (1939), a very fine collection of children’s addresses. Of these, the author, playwright and critic St John Ervine observed: ‘He speaks to children exactly as a kindly and understanding and instructive man should speak, neither condescending to his audience nor rising above its head’.

On one occasion a visitor to Castlerock Church, who knew of W F’s passion for fishing, said after the service: ‘Mr Marshall, if you can fish as well as you can preach, God help the fish!’. W F was delighted with the compliment.

During his years of service to the Presbyterian Church he served as Moderator of the Presbytery of Coleraine and Moderator of the Synod of Coleraine and Ballymena. His contribution to the life of the church was recognised when the Presbyterian Theological Faculty conferred the degree of D. D. (Honoris Causa) upon him in 1954.

His poetry bears witness to his Christian ministry. Obvious examples are ‘The Way’ and ‘Immanuel’. ‘St Peter’ is probably more about the therapeutic value of fishing but perhaps not wholly so.

The Poet

W F has been described as ‘The Bard of Tyrone’. Although he went to live in Castlerock in 1928 he never ceased to be a Tyrone man. He was a Tyrone man in exile in Co. Londonderry. A high proportion of his poetic output is contained in collections entitled Verses from Tyrone (1922), Ballads and Verses from Tyrone (1929), Ballads from Tyrone (1939) and Tyrone Ballads (1943). In his preface to his Ballads and Verses from Tyrone Marshall noted that:

Many of the ballads and verses which make up this book have been published in various journals: The Spectator, The Poetry Review, The Irish Presbyterian and the Magazine of Dungannon Royal School. Ten of them are reprinted from Verses from Tyrone.

Marshall also explained:

The dialect in many of the ballads is from my own county of Tyrone. I do not conceive that any apology is necessary for the inclusion of such ballads. In past days this dialect was something which the schoolmaster ‘lenged’ out of us with a cane. Nowadays the cane is laid aside. The dialect is no longer begging at the back door. We have looked a little more closely at Shakespeare and Milton.

Among the many poems inspired by Tyrone’s landscape are ‘Dunmullan’ (his father’s townland), ‘Shore Mill’ and ‘Purple and Gold’. ‘The Hills of Home’ reflects his deep affection for the county. Marshall loved the very names of Tyrone’s townlands, his enjoyment of these being evident in ‘Tyrone Jigs’. Recited properly, ‘Tyrone Jigs’ conveys the rhythm of a jig.

As you might expect, many of the fascinating characters that populate Marshall’s wonderful poems were drawn from life. Malcolm Duffy of Aughnacloy Historical Society claims that Sarah Ann’s father, ‘wee Robert’, in the poem entitled ‘Sarah Ann’, was based on a prominent Aughnacloy businessman who had ‘a shap an’ farm o’ lan’ and flourished in the early twentieth century in the town. If you were to encounter ‘wee Robert’, on the basis of this description, there is little doubt that you would recognize him right away and take the necessary evasive steps to avoid his disagreeable company. Happily, the main street of Aughnacloy is very wide.

Did ye iver know wee Robert? Well, he’s nothin’ but a wart,

A nearbegone oul’ divil with a wee black heart,

A crooked crabbit crathur that bees neither well or sick,

Girnin’ in the chimley corner, or goan happin’ on a stick;

Sure ye min’ the girl for hirin’ that went shoutin’ thro’ the fair,

‘I wunthered in wee Robert’s, I can summer anywhere.’

‘Sarah Ann’ has a sequel, ‘The Runaway’.

There is humour and humanity in Marshall’s poetry and an acute understanding of the human condition. Life in rural Ulster, before the vulcanized rubber Wellington boot became commonplace and rural electrification was introduced, was rather grim. W F, in recording its lighter side, laughed with those who inhabited this world and not at them.

A love and understanding of history is another theme present in W F’s poetry. In 1662 Charles II, after the restoration of the monarchy, sought to restore episcopacy to Scotland. This provoked a hostile reaction from the Scots, who were deeply wedded to Calvinism and the Presbyterian form of church government. The eviction of their resisting ministers provoked covenanting revolts in 1666, 1679 and 1685. Marshall’s poem, ‘The Flag’, expressively captures the Scots’ defiance of Mitre and Crown. Anyone who wonders why Presbyterians are not natural pillars of the establishment may discern some of the reasons why.

The siege of Derry, as Ian McBride has recently explained, is central to the Ulster Protestant experience. It too is a story of defiance and triumph against the odds. It is the subject of one of W F’s longer poems, ‘The Relief’, a poem that attracted praise from Kipling.

‘The Twain’ is a most interesting poem. English and Scottish settlers in Ulster, and their descendants, for many years were often mutually antagonistic. Pronounced differences existed on a range of issues, political, religious and socio-economic, a point fully appreciated by Marshall. In times of common adversity — such as the end of the seventeenth century in general and the siege of Derry in particular — they made common cause. But after the danger passed, mutual antipathies reasserted themselves. ‘The Twain’ celebrates the emergence of an Ulster-British community, a coming together of the descendants of the English and Scottish settlers.

W F’s passion for fishing is a recurring theme of his poetry. Every year W F and R L spent a week fishing Lough Melvin, the subject of one of his poems. ‘The Big Trout’ is perhaps the fishing poem par excellence. ‘Barelegged Joe’ is a portrait of W F’s childhood friend in Sixmilecross.

He also wrote very personal poems to amuse and entertain friends and mark family occasions.

Student of Language and Dialect

In 1932 Marshall was appointed Lecturer in Elocution at Magee University College in Londonderry. With his genuine love of language and his facility for expression, it was a post for which he was ideally suited. Today there is an increasing interest and awareness of language and dialect. In this, as in a number of areas, Marshall was a pioneer.

In 1935 Marshall gave a series of talks broadcast by the BBC and entitled ‘Ulster Speaks’. The following year they were published with an introduction contributed by Viscount Charlemont, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Education.

It was Marshall’s firm contention that ‘dialects are not corruptions of English, as so many people seem to think … They are the roots of something that has taken centuries to grow and come to flower, and even that’s not saying enough. They are the museum … of the most useful language in the world’.

Marshall was a voracious reader. In his study of the literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, he noted that much of the style, word order, vocabulary and grammar of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was preserved in Ulster speech.

Marshall produced an Ulster dialect version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which was broadcast by the BBC.

Marshall hoped eventually to produce an Ulster dialect dictionary, having previously contributed part of the introduction to Grant’s Scottish National Dictionary. In 1947 his aim of an Ulster dictionary was frustrated by a playful Golden Retriever pup mauling the manuscript, according to some accounts, on the eve of its dispatch to the publisher. However, there are rumours that the damage was not irreparable as Marshall initially believed or feared. Apparently the destruction was confined to a portion of the first and last letters of the alphabet. A manuscript, possibly not complete or as polished as Marshall would have wished, does exist and may yet be published.

It was his research into language and dialect that prompted his election to the membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1942.

Playwright and Novelist

In addition to his Ulster dialect version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Marshall wrote a three-act country kitchen comedy entitled ‘The Corduroy Bag’. Although the text is available, it has not yet been published. He also wrote a one-act play for incorporation in a Presbyterian pageant on eighteenth-century emigration from Co. Londonderry and the foundation of New Londonderry, New Hampshire.

1948 saw the publication of Planted by a River, Marshall’s only novel. Two thousand copies were printed, of which 1,700 were sold within seven weeks. The novel is set in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), an era when the Siege of Derry was still recent history. The events recounted take place in the environs of Omagh and the Sperrins and concern Alick Cunningham, a young man who sets out on a dangerous journey which brings him adventure and romance. There is duelling and bare-fisted fighting, there is an ambush in Gortin Gap, there are close escapes and raparees and all sorts of excitements, as well as a love story. It was a historical novel reminiscent of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and it attracted favourable review from St John Ervine. Marshall the novelist and playwright is not as familiar as the poet. However, this is a deficiency which may in time be put right.

The Chronicler of Ulster-American Links

Marshall’s one-act play on eighteenth century Presbyterian emigration from Co. Londonderry may have stimulated his interest in the connections between Ulster and America; but it is more likely to have been prompted by the build-up of American troops in Ulster prior to the liberation of continental Europe. In 1943 Marshall published Ulster Sails West. The book’s sub-title — ‘The story of the great emigration from Ulster to North America in the 18th century, with an outline of the part played by Ulstermen in building the United States’ — accurately conveys its subject matter. It is clearly a pioneering work and the product of much painstaking research. The plethora of similar publications which have appeared over the years all stand enormously in Marshall’s debt.

Marshall’s book reveals the extensive influence of the Ulster Scots in ecclesiastical, educational, legal, political and agricultural spheres. Among those identified are Rev. Francis Makemie, ‘the father of American Presbyterianism’; Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaping machine; and Samuel Morse, the pioneer of the electro-magnetic telegraph and the code which bears his name. Pre-eminent in the world of politics were Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, 7th and 18th Presidents of the United States respectively.

Ulster Sails West’s publication coincided with the arrival of thousands of GIs in Ulster as part of the preparations for the invasion of Europe. Eire was endeavouring to exploit its close links with the United States — the result of the great post-Famine emigration — in order to undo partition. Marshall’s contention was that the southern Irish made no significant contribution to the struggle for American independence for the simple reason that they were not there in the 1770s and 1780s to make it. Save for the most modest of trickles, there was no emigration from the south prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Marshall’s plea was that the attitude of Americans towards partition should be the product of sound historical knowledge and understanding rather than mythology.

Ulster Sails West did much for the unionist cause in America and gave many Ulster people their first intimation of how significant a role people of their stock had played in the growth and formation of the American republic which was on the threshold of becoming one of two global superpowers.

Unionist and Patriot

Marshall was born almost exactly two years after the defeat of Gladstone’s first Home Rule bill in June 1886. He was only a child when Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill met with defeat in the House of Lords in September 1893; but he was a young man embarking upon his ministry at the time of the third Home Rule crisis.

Like many Ulster Presbyterians, then and now, Marshall gloried in the name of the United Irishmen and the ’98 rebellion, but he had little sympathy with the Irish nationalism of the early twentieth century. Like most people, Marshall was a product of his time. The 1880s and 1890s were an era when the Gaelic language and culture became politicised by the ‘New Nationalism’ and when ‘Irishness’ came to be defined in increasingly narrow and exclusive terms. This was a process which comprehensively alienated most Ulster Protestants, people like Ernest Blythe (1889-1975) and Alice Milligan (1865-1953) being conspicuous exceptions. Thus, Marshall opposed Home Rule and signed the Ulster Covenant.

After the Great War Marshall resented being called ‘the mad Orangeman from Sixmilecross’ and ‘Craigavon’s strongest supporter in Tyrone’.

A T Q Stewart has written that the Presbyterian is happiest when he is being a radical and that his natural instinct is to distrust government. Stewart’s observation has special force with relevance to Marshall. In 1933, in a letter to Louis Walsh, Marshall wrote:

‘On every possible occasion, public and private, in the pulpit and on the platform, I gloried in the men of ’98. I did it in Orange halls and in sermons to Orangemen. In all official circles my name was mud. But from 1923 I stopped making political speeches. There was no alternative to the Craig Government, and I had no admiration for Independents who went into the lobby with [Joe] Devlin [leader of the Nationalist Party] 95 times out of a hundred.’

He also wrote:

‘Craig’s people can’t understand folk like my brother and myself. They think we’re Home Rulers in disguise … They’re very far mistaken. I do wish we were a Dominion. But into the Free State — never, never, never, while there is a breath in our bodies. I feel convinced that you’ll swamp us yet. Your people breed and ours don’t. Anyone who thinks we’ll be got any other way is a fool!’.

Marshall and his brother may not have been conventional unionists but W F was nevertheless a committed unionist. He was a member of Mid and West Tyrone Unionist Association, a delegate to the Fermanagh and Tyrone Association and a member of the Ulster Unionist Council.

He may not have been an orthodox Orangeman either, but he was Past Master of Sixmilecross LOL 406 and a Deputy Grand Chaplain of Ireland.

Marshall’s correspondence with Louis Walsh, one-time Sinn Fein candidate and Free State judge, reveals him to be a broad-minded Unionist and Orangeman.

As to his enthusiasm for Dominion status — later to be advocated by the South Tyrone MP W F McCoy — and his concern at demographic trends, no comment should be necessary.

Death and Funeral

Marshall died on 25 January 1959, the bicentenary of Robert Burns’ birth. He had been in failing health for some time. Marshall had retired from active ministry on 31 December 1954, but he was still Senior Minister of Castlerock Presbyterian Church at the time of his death.

The obituaries in the News Letter, the Northern Whig and the Belfast Telegraph provided only the bare detail of the man’s life, while the Omagh-based Tyrone Constitution and the Coleraine Chronicle managed to convey a stronger sense of the passing of a great man. Many of the strands of his life came together in the funeral service, which took place in Castlerock Presbyterian Church and was conducted by the Rev. W J Vance, Moderator of the Coleraine Presbytery. The Moderator of the General Assembly and Marshall’s successor as Minister of Casderock both also took part in the service. The Rev. Robert Moore, the Minister of Agriculture, a fellow Presbyterian Minister and lifelong friend of Marshall’s, brought together the world of politics and Presbyterianism. Moore described his old friend as a ‘scholar, patriot and a preacher’.

The funeral cortege, on its arrival in Sixmilecross, was met by 300 Orangemen in regalia, who escorted Marshall on his final journey to the old ‘meeting house’ and the adjoining graveyard. Orangemen formed a guard of honour and the coffin was borne to the graveside by members of the Institution in full regalia. The committal service was conducted by the Moderator, assisted by the Minister of Castlerock, and the Rev. H Patterson, Minister of Sixmilecross, carried out the ritual of the Orange Institution. James Robinson, Worshipful Master of Castlerock LOL 141, paid tribute to W F’s outstanding service to the Order.


Perhaps we have dwelt at too great length on W F’s funeral but it does bring together many of the strands of his life. No doubt some would feel that the detailed account of the funeral places him firmly in one community rather than the other. This is unavoidable. However, it is not necessary to be a Tyrone person, a Presbyterian or a Unionist to enjoy, experience and be enriched by W F Marshall’s legacy. Happily, Marshall is already enjoyed and appreciated by people who are Roman Catholic and nationalist — and probably by atheists and agnostics as well. His poetry is recited with gusto and enthusiasm at GAA clubs and other gatherings. There is an inclusivity in Marshall’s work that allows him to transcend the religious and political divide. In his marvellous poem ‘Tullyneil’ the dying poet contemplates the rich and diverse strands of Tyrone’s history and then casts his mind back to the old village school, where his father taught, and to the ‘Plain old house of God’ beside which he and his are laid to rest.

Of old were often posted here

Men swift to bare the steel,

In belted gown and fighting gear —

The swordsmen of O’Neill.

But that was long and long ago

Ere Hugh left land and home

To break his heart in exile slow

And die in distant Rome.

The memory is misted now

Of Con and Hugh and Shane,

For strangers came to speed the plough

Across their great domain.

And yet, while Tullyneil is named

Here in my countryside,

Something of what was feared and famed

Abides, and will abide.

Marshall’s appeal is not confined to his native Tyrone. His humour and humanity give him a wider, almost universal, appeal.



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