The Life and Work of Rev W F Marshall

Author: J Andrew Todd

Date: 1996

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 4 Spring 1996

The renewed interest in our Ulster-Scots heritage has focused attention again on the literary works of the Rev William Forbes Marshall BA, LLB, DD, MRIA, frequently referred to as “The Bard of Tyrone”. He was born and brought up in the heart of Tyrone, and attended Sixmilecross National School, of which his father was principal. Like other schools at that time, it accommodated Roman Catholic and Protestant pupils. There was no talk then of the “inhumanity of corporal punishment”, and the benefits of the Welfare State were minimal; but there was a real sense of communal unity in the village and its environs. The characters and the customs of the locality etched indelible memories on the young Marshall mind, which he recalled years later, in his poem “Tullyneil”:

Who learned with me in days long gone

That two and two make four,

And toed with me a chalk line drawn

Upon a schoolroom floor.

W F Marshall and his elder brother R L, who was later to become Rev Robert Lyons Marshall MA, LLD, DD, FR Hist S, JP, Professor of English and History at Magee University College, Londonderry, went to the Royal School Dungannon, as scholarship pupils. In honour of their renowned careers, the school library was named The Marshall Library in 1989, and one of W F’s poems was adopted as the School Song.

In October 1904, when W F was 16 years old, they were admitted, on matriculation, to Queen’s College Galway, an associate college of the Royal University of Ireland. There, among the placid scenes of Connemara,

When care was still to be,

when friendship made life fair

Beside the Western Sea,

he was inspired to write the earliest of his poems, which he called “Fragments in class, QCG”. Two of these are extant. One philosophises on “Sunset at Salthill”, and concludes:

So too, for the world and its strife,

Are sunset and shadows in store.

Little waves on the broad sea of life

We are broken at last on the shore.

The other is a parody on Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

These poems are omitted from publication, the first by an oversight, but the second judiciously, because the poet was not inspired by Greek mythology, as was Keats, but by the lack of “en suite” accommodation in his Galway digs.

He graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1908, and later that year commenced his theological course in the Presbyterian College, Belfast. Concurrently with this course, he read for an extern degree in Law. In two years he completed his divinity course, and also graduated LLB (RUI).

W F was licensed by the Presbytery of Omagh and became assistant to Rev Dr William McKean in First Ballymacarrett, Belfast. He was ordained one year later in Aughnacloy (1913-16) — “a three-hour journey by pony and trap from Sixmilecross”.

His next charge was his home church, Sixmilecross (1916-28). In 1916 he married Miss Susan McKee of Belfast. She was a devoted wife, a charming and accomplished hostess, and, since he never drove a car, his competent chaffeuse on all occasions. He rode a motor bike during his early ministry. On his journeys to and from Belfast he regarded any journey as good if he had fewer than three punctures.

In those early days he was a member of the Special Constabulary, and on one occasion was riding pillion, on an officer’s motor-bike, on their way to Baronscourt to train: “At Ballygawley a horse came out of a gate in a hurry, and we just passed under its neck. Near the Demesne we nearly rammed a herd of cows. After three narrow escapes, Blackwood remarked, ‘At least one of us was prepared!’”.

He accepted an unsolicited call to the Presbyterian Church in the seaside resort of Castlerock, County Londonderry, in 1928. Here, he not only continued, but increased, the scope of his literary work. Though he appreciated that “There’s splendour where the great seas roar, along a northern strand”, yet neither time nor distance could efface the memories of his enchanted youth. He thought long for “Tyrone among the bushes”. The memory of its kindly folk and rural features could

Conjure pictures of the kind

No canvass need retain,

For I can paint them in my mind

And live my youth again.

This nostalgic note is sounded in a senilic dream, “My House”, in which he is the architect of his ideal home “beside a river in Tyrone”. He planned comfortable accommodation,

Where old friends may

Stretch out their legs and want to stay.

Of course, there must be modern amenities:

Electric light — lots of plugs

And water piped, no bedrom jugs.

W F wrote, in the Preface to Ballads and Verses, “The dialect in many of the ballads is that of my own County of Tyrone … In past days that dialect was “leenged” out of us with a cane. Now-a-days the cane is laid aside. The dialect is no longer begging at the back door.” Dialect is used liberally in the poems “Me an’ me da”, “Sarah Ann”, and “The Runaway” in which he describes the amorous escapades of the ageing bachelor, driven to seek a wife by the lack of personal and household hygiene:

For the kitchen’s like a midden, an the parlour’s like a sty,

There’s half a fut of clabber on the street outby.

In that poignant poem “The Lad”, often referred to as “The dhrunken scutcher’s son”, W F evokes a variety of strong emotions, as the foster parent relates “the Lads” story. There is pity at his plight:

His clo’es were wings, an’ his cap was tore,

An’ his fire was the fire at the kill,

An’ he went to school on his wee bare feet,

An’ niver got half his fill.

There is pride at his success:

The longer he lived about the place

The less I had to fear.

There was never a word from him to me

But done me good to hear.

There is grief at his sacrifice:

He’s sleepin’ now where the poppies grow,

In the coat that the bullets tore,

An’ what’s a wheen of medals to me

When my own wee lad’s no more?

The latest edition of W F Marshall’s poems, Livin’ in Drumlister, is published by Blackstaff Press and is still available. When it was published, Tom McDevitt, alias Barney McCool, wrote in the Tyrone Constitution: “I’ve had a life-time’s ambition realised. I’ve lived long enough to see Rev W F Marshall’s poems re-published.”

In his latter years, Bill Marshall enjoyed sending his good wishes in verse to his intimate friends on notable personal events. To one, who had made a complete recovery from an operation, he wrote:

I’m told that your trouble’s behind you,

They have got to its bottom, they say,

So to offer up thanks I remind you —

Hip, Hip — two hips and hurray.

In 1932 he was appointed Lecturer in Elocution in Magee University College. His lectures were exemplary models of verbal articulation and vocal modulation, and presented with humour which, if we could not emulate, we could appreciate.

Since W F spent more than half his lifetime in and around Sixmilecross, he had access, first as a youth and later as a pastor, to “the great speech museum of farm-house, labourer’s cottage, blacksmith’s shop and the county road.” He began to collect and classify colloquial words and phrases. His historical approach to the study of dialect location led to two BBC series of broadcast talks in which the three formative elements of Ulster dialect — Elizabethan English, Lowland Scots and Ulster Gaelic — were identified and expounded. The text of these talks was later produced by the BBC in the form of a pamphlet entitled Ulster Speaks.

In his address to the Belfast Rotary Club, he describes the influences which he thought would “adversely affect the provincial dialects”, and would grow stronger and more numerous as time went on. He concluded: “I trust that dialect will live long, and that, even when it dies, it will have a long wake.”

His broadcast talk, “Tyrone among the bushes”, was one of a series on “The Six Counties”. Having described Tyrone’s geographical features and facilities, he referred to the fifteenth century, when “County Tyrone” consisted of all of County Londonderry and a large part of Co Armagh. “… The Lordship of this wide principality was in the ancient family of O’Neill. No Tyrone man, whether of planter or of native stock, can fail to be stirred by the memory and achievements of this princely house.”

The first Marshall, an immigrant from south-west Scotland, settled in Tyrone over 350 years ago, and W F’s ancestral research also revealed that some members of his family, on his mother’s side, later emigrated to America.

“The story of the Great Emigration from Ulster to North America in the 18th Century, together with an outline of the part played by Ulsterman in building the United States” was the thesis of W F’s book Ulster Sails West. The first edition was printed in 1943, and the sixth edition, the bicentennial, was printed in 1976. Its text stated that the instigation for this continuous exodus of Ulster Scots was mainly “economic pressure, religious intolerance and political disability”. Sixteen pages of appendices give indisputable proof of the impressiveness of the contribution made by Ulster Scots emigrants to the development of the emerging United Slates of America. The “half-truths” of those who decry or deny this evidence are but “covert discharges of political venom.” At the request of the BBC in 1946, W F gave eight talks in which this story was presented in factual and popular form.

“Some Tyrone Worthies” — a broadcast in which he recorded the names of many “sons of dark Tyrone” who had risen to positions of eminence in church and state — included the story of two Ulster lads, born on either side of the Foyle. Each was destined to command an army, and to oppose each other in the decisive battle for Quebec, which probably decided the future of Canada. Carleton, a native of Strabane, rose to the rank of general in the British Army and successfully defended Quebec as its Governor. The other was Montgomery, born in Convoy, Donegal, who became a general in the American Army that attacked Quebec and who died gallantly in the assault. The story ends with this comment: “The Strabane district may well be proud of the valour of Montgomery and the chivalry of Carleton.”

An in-depth article on “Witchcraft” traces the origin of the witch from the importance of the woman’s role as the creative and domestic agent in the primitive tribal life. He says: “It would be rash to assume that primitive females had no urge towards domination.” Witchcraft in its rites and religious assemblies parodied Christianity and incurred, in church and state, an enmity that ended in such savagery as has “seldom been surpassed in history.”

As might be expected from his profound interest in Ulster dialect, W F worked for years patiently recording and carefully collating dialect words and idioms to compile a dictionary. But when his work was nearing completion, misfortune struck. The family’s golden retriever pup one night entered his study and shredded several pages.

Both disappointment and declining health played a part in preventing the completion of the manuscript. However, it may be possible to reconstruct the valuable information thought to have been lost. The remains of one manuscript have been located, and the author’s son John gave me part of another. They are to some extent complementary, but much work is required before the project is completed.

The Presbyterian Theological Faculty conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity on W F Marshall in 1952, in recognition of his ministry, which was distinguished by sound learning, faithful leadership and forthright preaching.

Rev W F Marshall’s most voluminous works are, of course, his sermons, children’s talks and articles on church-related subjects. Having read a few hundred of his sermons, I am impressed by his obviously conscientious preparation, from a deep and scholarly store of knowledge and experience. I am convinced, having often heard him preach, in his own church and in mine, that to précis any of them in a short paper like this would be seriously to weaken their evangelical and evangelistic appeal. It would also detract from the combined force of his lively knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, his cogent reasoning and his personal charisma. No matter the nature of his congregation, his sermons called them to a deeper faith in God and in Jesus Christ, and challenged them to a practical application of that faith to daily life.

Oliver Goldsmith might have been describing W F when he wrote the following words:

He tried each art, reprov’d each dull delay,

Allur’d to brighter worlds, and led the way.

No wonder a visitor to Castlerock Church, who knew of Dr Marshall’s interest in fishing, in complimenting him after the service, said, “If you can fish as well as you can preach, God help the fish!”

This appraisal, brief in deference to space, of some of Dr Marshall’s miscellany of manuscripts, will hopefully herald a more inclusive publication of his various works, and will also share with his readers something of the warmth of his personality and the joy of his vibrant faith.

J Andrew Todd



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A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



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