The Bard of Tyrone 1888 - 1959
I', livin in Drumlister,
An' I'm gettin' very oul'
I have to wear an Indian bag
To save me from the coul'.
The deil man in this townlan'
Wos claner raired nor me,
But I'm livin' in Drumlister
In Clabber to the knee.
(from 'Me An' Me Da')
In 1983 Blackstaff Press published Livin' in Drumlister: The Collected Ballads and Verses of W F Marshall. Blackstaff claimed that few poets have been so loved by the ordinary people as Marshall. Within three years the book sold 11,000 copies - unprecendented for a locally published book of poetry. The book had to be reprinted twice in 1983 and its subsequent printing history bears further eloquent testimony to the validity of Blackstaff's assertion.
Marshall has long had an appreciative audience among the older generation, many of whom can recite 'Me An' Me Da' and other poems at the drop of a hat. Over the last two decades Blackstaff has succeeded in engaging the interest the interest of a new generation of readers.
William Forbes Marshall born on 8 May 1888 at Drumragh, Omagh County Tyrone. 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.
The young Marshall had the daunting experience of attending his father's school at Sixmilecross and continues 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.
'Goordaspore' is the ballad of Brigadier General John Nicholson who died at the young age of 35 storming Delhi's Kashmir Gate during the suppression of the Indian mutiny. The fearless Nicholson, who as Nicul-Sayn was worshipped as a god by Indian tribesmen who were repeatedly flogged by the evangelical Nicholson for their idolatrous devotion, was one of Dungannon Royal's most distinguished old boys. His statue stands 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, RL, began their theological course at the Presbyterian College in Botanic Avenue in Belfast - familiarly known as Assemblies College. Their fellow students referred to WF as 'Wee Marshall' and to RL as 'Big Marshall'. RL went on to become the minister of Maghera Presbyterian Church and later Professor of English and lecturer in Catechetics at Magee University College, Londonderry. WF recalling some of his impish escapades at Assembly College, recorded, 'There were earnest youths in the class who disapproved of these activities, and declared them unethical which, to my mind, is not so good a term for them as childish. At the same time, for us to concern ourselves with notes would have been idiotic, seeing as Big Marshall was there to look after that end of it, and seemed to get some relish of doing so.
While Marshall may have been full of mischief and possessed of a childish sense of fun, it would be a serious error to assume that he wasted his time. On the contrary, during his theological course he read law in preparation for an extern degree and graduated with a LLB from the Royal University of Ireland in 1910.
WF 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 Ballymacarret Presbyterian Church in East Belfast. WF's poem, 'The Minister' is an elegaic tribute to Dr McKean. WF also formed a life-long friendship with Dr McKean's son, John, who followed his fathers' footsteps not only by entering the ministry but also by eventually becoming Moderator of the General Assembly. Together, John and WF Marshall were to spend many happy hours in a boat fishing on Lough Melvin.
On 26 June 1913 WF was ordained and installed in Aughnacloy.
Three years later a call was accepted from his home congregation, Sixmilecross, and there he was installed on 20 April 1916. Later that year he married Miss Susan McKee of Belfast.
Most people believed that he would never leave Sixmilecross but he had a wife and family to provide for and the Sixmilecross congregation could not afford to give him any increase in salary. His friend, Rev Robert Moore, persuaded him to accept a call from Castlerock where he was installed on 4 May 1928. There he was to remain for the rest of his life.
It was in Castlerock that Marshall appears to have done most of his writing. Almost invariably he chose to write 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.
WF Marshall was no ordinary man. Yet, he was ordinary in the sense that he was a man of the people who could relate to the experiences of his fellow man and express them through his poetry, to the delight of all who read his verses.