Posted by: the watchmen | October 3, 2007

WF Marshall—Poet and Patriot


WF Marshall
The Bard of Tyrone 1888 – 1959
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 went down to 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, Marshall gloried in the name of the United Irishmen and ’98 but 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 Gaelic language and culture became politicised by the New Nationalism and ‘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 and Alice Milligan being conspicuous exceptions. Marshall opposed Home Rule, signed the Ulster Covenant and joined the Ulster Volunteer Force in Sixmilecross. He was on an IRB death list and when he became the Minster of Aughnacloy he was elected ‘Half-Company Officer’ of the South Tyrone UVF. Of this period he recalled one specially significant episode:
“I have never passed the white gate of Aughnacloy manse that I have not thought of the night when I sank down on the grass inside it, laden with one thousand rounds of Mauser cartridges. It seems almost incredible to me now, but I carried these for more than a quarter of a mile. The ammunition was being distributed, and I offered to take charge of a full box. I was just able to lift the box, but to carry it without help was beyond my power. I filled every pocket on my person with cartridges, including the large pockets in my overcoat, and in that way I disposed of hundreds of rounds. The box was then sufficiently lightened to enable me to carry it in my arms. I had frequent rests by the wayside. I was so hard put to it that I thought of hiding the box, and returning for it later, but just then, when I was about half-way from the town, I met two policemen! I stopped still nursing the ‘baby’ and spoke to them, for I thought the best of my bargain to let them know who I was. They stopped for a few moments and then passed on. The excitement of this lightened the burden and brought me as far as the gate. I dropped the box roughly enough, and as the overcoat was cutting into my neck, I slipped out of it. I might as well have come out of the Blackwater, and the perspiration splashed down from my nose and chin onto thelid of the box. I think the old proverb is entirely wrong. There is no fool like a young fool. I smashed the shelves of a perfectly good book-case and buried rifles in it. But all in all, I wouldn’t like to swear that I wouldn’t do it again.”
Marshall joined the Ulster Special Constabulary (or B Specials) in the 1920s and became a district commandant but he resented being called ‘the mad Orangeman from Sixmilecross’ and ‘Craigavon’s strongest supporter in Tyrone’.
ATQ 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 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 their 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 WF 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, reveal 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 WF McCoy – and his concern at demographic trends, I propose to

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