William Thomas Quirk, poet, composer, artist, preacher, and teacher
William Thomas Quirk (1908-1977) was gifted with creativity in various spheres of the arts. Poetry flowed from his pen throughout the phases of his life, inspired chiefly by the love WT had for his family and friends, the beauty, folklore and culture of the Isle of Man, and his deep Christian faith.
He was the eldest of four children and the only boy. He and his family lived in Ridgeway Street above the grocery shop owned by his father, opposite the Town Hall. William loved both his parents and his sisters wholeheartedly, and was much loved in his turn. They wanted for very little, and he enjoyed a blissful childhood.
With his sisters and their friends he spent hours in the attic of the house devising theatrical performances and staging them for their own pleasure and any available audience. They were allowed free rein to transform the attic space according to their own inventiveness. As a result a cinema, dark room, and theatre evolved, not to mention a primitive tram system equipped with ropes and pulleys.
Among the amateur company of players (the self-styled Ridgeway Theatrical Society), was a beautiful, vivacious young woman with striking auburn hair, who later became WT’s wife.
The children spent idyllic weeks of their school holiday at the farm of their aunt at Aerystain in the south of the island. The farm was situated in a remote but beautiful location and in later years WT often wrote yearningly of the unspoilt, uncomplicated, halcyon days he whiled away there with sisters, cousins and friends. Times at Aerystain come to symbolize his own personal Garden of Eden.
As his father’s business grew the family were able to afford a new home in Selbourne Drive, Douglas. William James named his house Treljah after the Quirk family farm in Glen Maye.
WT was educated at Hanover Street and Douglas High Schools and then left the Island to complete his education at Westminster College, London. He completed the requisite two years for a degree in Science, then appealed to his father for further financial support while he studied the arts for a further two years. William (also known as Willie) was a capable pianist and at college he and other musicians provided entertainment playing at concerts and dances: he was pianist in at least two groups, the West Minstrels and the Syncho Six. WT drew many pen-and-ink sketches of the group, caricatures poking fun at himself and his friends. You can see him in the sketch of his friendship group the Four Fifths below playing piano bottom right:
Marriage and children
On his return to the island WT began his teaching career at Demesne Road School in Douglas, then moved on to Onchan. He and Gertrude Cowell got engaged and two years later in April 1935 they were married at Bucks Road Methodist Church, Douglas. Gertrude was the youngest of five children born to Douglas furniture remover James Cowell and his wife Mary Helen. In 1938 Willie and Gertie’s only child, daughter Heather, was born.
Willie was an exceptionally devoted parent and grandparent. His series of nine Fairy Tales for Heather contain words and music composed for his young daughter, all artistically hand-written and accompanied by coloured illustrations which are both imaginative and proficient. He wrote a series of Poems for Heather, and also Twenty Carols for Heather.
Throughout their childhood he wrote funny, colourfully illustrated letters to his two eldest grandchildren. His 42 Unposted Letters to my Granddaughter, written during the two years prior to his death for reading after he had died, were started when she was almost 11 years old. They laid bare his deep Christian faith. Through them he passed on his cherished beliefs, along with memories of the past, wisdom for life, forty-two new poems – one for each letter – and his poetic mantle: Tina had shown an early love of writing in common with her grandfather.
During World War II William served in the RAF, and trained as a radar mechanic. To his great surprise and relief he was posted twice during his four years of service (he was called up in 1942) to the radar station near Port St Mary, Isle of Man. Other postings included Cranwell, Chigwell, Winter Hill, North Wales, and Belgium. He whiled away the hours in his billet writing to Heather, and devising carols, poems and operettas to make up for his absence from home during her childhood.
After the war he returned to Onchan Primary School, but later taught at both Ballakermeen and Douglas High Schools.
Towards the end of 1948 he was appointed headmaster of Foxdale School and took up residence with his family in the then school house opposite St Paul’s Church. Foxdale was an isolated village with few amenities. WT set up a youth club for the local children, ‘Sunshine Corner’, which met under the Methodist Chapel, and started a village choir. Gertie established the Methodist Women’s Fellowship meeting, organizing a programme of speakers and soloists, and was one of the founder members of Foxdale Women’s Institute.
Six years later he was appointed headmaster of the much larger Victoria Road School in Castletown, where he remained until he retired in 1971. Those who still remember him as their headmaster speak very fondly of him and of the time they spent there while he was in charge. Not least his own love of the arts made the school a colourful and exciting place to study.
Interest and involvement in Manx culture
Willie was interested in all aspects of Manx culture and served on various committees, including the Manx Music Festival, Isle of Man Council of Churches and the Manx Radio religious broadcasts sub-committee; he regularly broadcast on the latter’s morning topic feature. For a short period he was accompanist for the Douglas Choral Union. He was a particular devotee of the Island’s national poet, T E Brown; for many years he organized the Revd Thomas Edward Brown concerts at his schools on Brown’s birthday and throughout the island at other times.
William started penning poetry about life in Douglas soon after he could read and write. His mature poetry is classical in form and timeless in content. Influenced by the romantic Victorian writers, he favoured the sonnet form, but explored various freer forms including Manx dialect monologues on specific features of Manx life (the TT, the Steam Packet, the steam railway and Manx Radio to name a few). These can be found in the book, ‘The Gaffer’s Tales’, currently on sale via Amazon (link on this website). The book includes a CD, with all the poems read aloud by notable Manx dialect speakers known to the family.
Willie was a prolific writer, producing literally hundreds of sonnets and other poems about the Manx glens, Manx hamlets, Manx legends and Manx inlets, coves and bays. He uses nature and place as a framework to explore and express his sense of the presence, mystery, and grace of God; to muse on life, its joys and disappointments; and to contemplate the nature of time.
WT frequently published small runs of little booklets containing mixtures of his own and others’ works. Amongst the more recent was ‘Lyrics by Lamplight’, which he published at his own cost in 1968. At times he wished for greater recognition as a poet, but also believed he could leave the future of his reputation in the hands of God. As his life unfolded it held some deep and significant sadnesses and disappointments, and his later poems (among these many in ‘Lyrics by Lamplight’) are tinged with a sense of loss and longing for the carefree spirit and hopefulness of his younger years.
WT’s poems were published regularly in the Isle of Man Weekly Times and the Mona’s Herald through the Sixties and early Seventies. They also found their way into the Cork Weekly Examiner, and This England. The very last poem he wrote (17th June 1977) ‘A Manxman’s Tribute to England’ appeared in that periodical two months after his death.
WT was such an all-rounder that his art can almost pass unnoticed. He seemed to sketch almost incidentally – to illustrate poems or journal entries, to pass the time while waiting in a picturesque spot, to render someone’s likeness as he was speaking with them, his favourite medium pen-and-ink. He would sketch the picture for each annual set of Christmas cards, often of familiar Manx scenes, though sometimes also of famous spots in other towns or cities. He produced a number of oil paintings. The majority of these are slowly making their way back to the home of Willie’s daughter, and much loved by the family. Some of them we have been able to reproduce here.
WT’s first operetta was The King of Bumblesting, written in 1947 on his return from the war and performed by children and adults of Bucks Road Methodist Church where he was a committed worshipper. His young daughter Heather played the part of Little Bo Beep. This was followed the year later by Fenella and the Moonflower, with Heather in the title role, and in 1949 came The Shepherdess and the Sweep.
His later operettas were written with schoolchildren in mind. They showed his belief in the capacity of children to reach high standards in speech and song and also in adaptability. On several occasions, on the day of a performance, he confronted soloists with a song written overnight which the children invariably faced with an equanimity he expected but which few adults could have achieved. Both words and music were written by Willie (by this time widely known as Bill), and children now grown-up still remember Jonah and the Big Fish, A Song of Sherwood, and many others with great affection. The melodies were ‘catchy’ even though he did resort to doggerel at times to piece a hastily constructed song together; but they all would stand repetition either now or in years to come.
WT was a popular preacher on the Methodist circuit and in great demand for anniversary and harvest festival services. He wrote hundreds of ‘Christian Viewpoint’ articles in the Manx Star in the 60s and 70s.
He also wrote settings of traditional Christian prayers and psalms – his setting ‘Cranwell’ of the Lord’s Prayer was sung at assembly in a number of Manx schools, and he also wrote another setting of the prayer whose single introductory, pitching chord was a semitone different from ‘Cranwell’. Although he expected all present immediately to recognize which version was being used that morning, he often confessed to surprise that they always did! He also wrote settings of the 23rd Psalm, of a prayer of Ignatius Loyola and one of the Lord’s Prayer with the words in Manx Gaelic, all of which were used in schools other than his own.
Willie also wrote tracts for the Methodist Missionary Society; one at least – a play entitled Chinarak – has survived.
He was a man of slight build and stature with serious beliefs and an unswerving faith, but with eclectic interests and an appreciative sense of humour. His piercing eyes were set beneath a large brow, bushy eyebrows and a permanently uncontrollable thatch of wiry hair. He was always busy and moved at a quick pace, particularly when walking school corridors to deliver some small item, such as a newspaper cutting, which he thought ought to interest his teachers or pupils.
On Sunday, 19th June 1977, after preaching at morning service in Onchan Methodist Church, he suffered heart pain, was admitted to hospital and died in the early evening. It felt a tragic loss, as members of his family were notoriously long-lived and he began his first unposted letter to his granddaughter with a jesting comment that she would open them when she was 42. In fact she was only 12 years old. Trinity Methodist Church was packed for his funeral service, which was followed by cremation.
The majority of his poems, articles and operettas – plus Manx dialect plays and monologues, and also musical compositions, including some settings of T.E. Brown’s poems – are now housed in the Manx Museum library (the accession number for his work is 09769). At the request of the Centre for Manx Studies, the English department of Liverpool University made an assessment of the poetry and judged the poems as having value, particularly in the context of Manx culture and deserving of a place in the public domain. The academics were keen that they should reach a wider audience, hence this website.
Apart from the work showcased here are tomes of journals, essays, stories, and plays dating from every year of his life from the age of ten. He could not but write. And his greatness consists in the love he has for the people in his life, for language, for the beauty of the created world and in particular the Isle of Man countryside, for Manx life, tales and language, and for God. This love oozes out of him in poetry, prose, picture, and music, and cannot be restrained even in adversity. This, taken together with his amazingly comprehensive cataloguing of so much of life in Manxland in so many media, makes him worthy of note, and a place of honour in the annals of Manx art and culture.