[From Ellan Vannin, 1895]





In the proverbs of a people will be found much of their natural character; they suggest the maxims and ideal of their life; they are, in fact, the result of inductive observations, general conclusions drawn from many in stances for future wisdom. In this case it is the proverbs without surrounding literature.

Their general character is homely common-sense, often expressed in metaphors drawn from the ancient quiet life, and with a tone of depression and discouragement. In some there is an excess of caution bordering on want of energy, with little of the adventurous or speculative, and perhaps undue emphasis on the wisdom of making haste slowly. In some are great principles and noble thoughts, the value of learning, the beauty of benevolence, the vanity of shams ; the superiority of moral excellence to the merely intellectual, and of the real to the plausible, are enshrined in some; in others, homage is paid to wisdom, to economy, to industry, contentment, temperance, and responsibility in life, and the government of the tongue. There is nothing of the selfish, though a full share of the prudent. "Take care of number one" has no place among them. They advise against undue elation in prosperity, and urge the value of humility and reality in character; they don't omit kindness to animals. A good selection of the Manx proverbs may be gathered from the Manx Dictionary of Cregeen. It may interest some to see the original Manx with the English in a few examples:

Ta'n aghaue veg shuyr da'n aghaue vooar.
The little hemlock (evil or sin) is sister to the great hemlock.

Boght boght dy bragh.
Poor, poor for ever.

Foddee yn moddey sierree tayrtyn y mwagh.
Perhaps the last dog may catch the hare.

Ta. ynsagh coamrey stoamy yn dooinney berchagh, ast'eh berchys y dooinney boght. -
Learning is the comely clothing of the rich man, and the riches of the man who is poor.

Cha vel eh laccal gergagh ta goaill soylley jeh aigney boriagh.
He will not lack comfort who takes the enjoyment of a contented mind.

Ta dooinney creeney mennick jannoo jeh e noid.
A wise man often makes a friend of an enemy.

Foddee fastyr grennagh ve ec moghrey bodjelagh.
Perhaps there may be a sunny afternoon after a cloudy morning.

I add a few in the English translation:

A green hill when far from me bare, bare, when near.
After spring tide comes a neap.
The smaller the company, the greater the share.
Change of work is rest.
The crooked bannock straightens the body..
Don't tell me what I was; tell me what I am.
Give a piece to a raven, and he will come again.
To take is sweet; but to pay is better.

There are many more proverbs, given in various publications; and there are many sayings with much of the proverb in them, though not quite so terse as the proverb is. On the whole the Manx proverbs answer to much found in the Manx character.

4. Manx superstition is not less interesting than the Manx proverbs. It is not easy to define superstition; the term is often used so indefinitely as to include much that does not belong to the subject. Belief in the spiritual world of Scripture is not superstition, nor is belief in the relations of that world to this. Superstition is "a corrupt rite," as some writer has said. It may be taken as a system of corrupt rites. It has its primary sphere in false religions it seeks to corrupt what is true. The former is seen in heathenism, past and present; the latter in the fallen churches of Christianity. In its rites and ceremonies its range extends from the ridiculous to the terrible. It is a perverted belief in things supernatural.

Nations generally have their superstitions. Egypt had its magicians; Chaldea its astrologers and sorcerers; the Israelites were warned against using enchantments and dealing with familiar spirits. There have been forms of divination in Greece and Rome by serpents, by clouds, by the flight of birds and other ways, and elaborate systems associated full of folly and cruelty and corruption. So among the nations at large.

Take England. In one of his papers in The Spectator, Addison remarks that "there was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it; that the churchyards were haunted; that every large common had a circle for fairies belonging to it; that there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit." Carleton, in his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, does justice to the same feature in that land of the Celt. Hugh Miller, in his Schools and Schoolmasters, is equally rich in what relates to the kindred superstitions of Scotland.

The Isle of Man shares the same features, and naturally enough, for the people are of the same race and, because isolated, more liable to the full force of the system. At the same time, it seems only just to add that there has not been the extreme superstition which Waldron represents in what he wrote about the Island, and who was apparently more expert in his office in arresting smugglers than in gathering from the natives the facts of Manx superstition.

In their source some of the superstitions are Celtic, some Norwegian, some from the Romanism of the Middle Ages. I will attempt a partial enumeration of the wild ideas. To begin with, there is, according to some, the - removal of - the Island from Lough Neagh, in the north of Ireland, both still about the same size and form. Then there are the mists by which Manninan Mac Lear hid the Island from his enemies. In connection with the sea, the floating island, the mermaid, and many a mysterious scene under the ocean are mentioned. One, at least, is am phibious - the Tarroo Ushtey (water bull), who emerges occasionally from lough or river, and who used to make some timid as they passed the Lhen Mooar. The most mischievous are the Fairies, who ride on cushags at night, carry off some people for a time, are angry if they find the farm house without bread on their nightly visits, and show it by dashing the spoons and knives and forks from the box hanging up in the kitchen on to the table; and still, though the noise was heard, the knives, etc., were found in their old place in the morning. The Boganes are numerous, causing some fear in certain fields and houses, but useful in preventing people from being out too late at night. Only one moddey dhoo (black dog) has been noted, that in the Bishop's dungeon at Peel. It is difficult to describe two others - the Glashtin and the Lhiannan shee, the first a goblin, the second a familiar spirit. The giant among them all is the Phynnodderee, a hairy satyr of great strength, and of kind temper if kindly treated; one who can thresh a stack of corn (a "tooran ") in a night for the farmer. Of the unseen crowd who have sometimes embarrassed a man's movement in the dark in a lonely road on his way home, perhaps after he has had some "jough" refreshment, I am unable to speak, but I have been told of great difficulty in getting free. There are signs also - the forerunners of the wedding, the baptism, the funeral.

In a somewhat different line are the supernatural things connected with individuals. St. Patrick, in his fight with the giant at Peel, and in his service to the Island in driving every venomous creature out of it as he did to Ireland, and other wonders; and St. Maughold, manacled in his coracle, and floating from Ireland to Maughold Head, where the key to unlock the manacles was found in the mouth of a fish. There is also the roofless church of St. Trinion's, the "Keil Brish" (broken church) near Crosby, and on which somehow no roof would remain, the Phynnodderee having to do with the difficulty.

Leaving these, we come to things yet more strange; for the creatures named have not been seen in later times; but there are spells, charms, herbal manipulations, remedies for what has come from the evil eye, and from ill-will, witch craft defeated. Marvellous cures, too, are spoken of, after consultation with the wise man, and stories are told not easily explained. Worthy people will tell of things weird and far from the natural course of affairs in life; illness has followed the invasion of some ancient ruin, and has passed away after an approach to restitution, when the removed stone has been returned, and the disturbed ruin, where the plough has come too near, has been re-adjusted. For untold generations, the mound in the "Garee" has re mained unopened and covered with gorse, an unexplained mystery of the past; the cows which had strangely failed to give milk, have at length, after prescribed rites, been restored to their usual course; the churning which had failed to produce butter has succeeded after due use has been made of the dust swept from the path of the evil wisher; the disease fatal to the poultry has been arrested by mysterious methods; the bleeding which defied all effort to stop it, has yielded to the will of some one to whom the case has been stated. So some of us have been told by some of ancient Manx intelligence and belief in such affairs, and have been left almost unable to solve or deny.

How Manx life has been touched by the Manx superstition is an interesting study to one who investigates the condition of the Manx people, present and past. Within the first third of this nineteenth century the fairies had not ceased their alleged interferences ; the character of the "Qualtagh," the first you meet in the new year, was of far- reaching influence. On long winter evenings, in the semi circle fronting the kitchen fire, there has at times been a kind of rehearsal among friends and neighbours, giving a summary of the wonderful times long gone; and as each has moved nearer to the fire, with ears quick to hear any unusual sound, and with a deepening interest in the supernatural, the youngsters present have feared to go to bed in the dark, while others have not been free from apprehension as to what might happen on their lonely walk home after all the "coosh" of the evening.

In this general survey of Manx superstition, it is evidently a vanishing quantity : it resembles a decaying empire losing province after province. If in the remote times there was Druidic superstition, with its sanguinary terrors, its occult meanings from the angle at which the human victim fell at the stroke of the Druid's knife, its omens and auguries from the entrails- - this has left no vestige behind it : if the superstitions of the Romish ages once had sway, so as to demand the civil power for the suppression of some of them after the Reformation, these also are gone, whether connected with Patrick, or Maughold, or holy wells, leaving the Manx people the most Protestant of the Protestants of the British Empire, in doctrine as well as superstition. It may be added that the part of the superstition relating to the unreal hierarchy from fairy to phynnodderee has also vanished. The rest is passing, though here and there belief lingers, perhaps, in the virtue of the charm and in the midnight ritual of herbs. Of the extreme veneration for the old ruins one cannot speak severely, for it has much to do with their preservation.

The general effect of superstition does not make for dignity of character; it looks away from the divine; it holds the human as wielding a supernatural power; it glances towards the infernal ; it touches life with imaginary terrors; it leads to hope from occult powers when the refuge should be common-sense, science, and religion. The effect is the loss of dignity to the individual and the community. Other and higher influences, however, prevented the natural results.

It will be seen that my definition of the superstitious does not include belief in ghosts, though this is sometimes superstition because imaginary. 'The scepticism of the ages has ever been unwilling to admit the ghostly, because, admitted, it is logically fatal to its argument. The super stitious stands apart from the spiritual world revealed in the Scriptures, generally unseen, but with evidences of reality sometimes in startling forms, as in the scene of Endor in which Samuel appears, and as in that on the holy mount where Moses and Elias were seen by the disciples. To accept the reality of ghostly appearances, with the marks of accustomed authenticity, is not superstition. Baxter, Wesley, and other great writers of the Christian past have held to that position. Hugh Miller was no enthusiast, and those who have read his Schools and Schoolmasters, and his work on the English people, will remember, among other admissions, his assent to the ghost story in the time of the second Lord Littleton, in 1779, at Hagley. One of the most gifted ministers I ever knew, and author of one of the grandest theological works of the age, once told me of his refusal to lodge in a certain room allotted to him in his first Circuit, because of what he held to be a well authenticated story from the lips of his friend who had been an eye witness. On the other hand, there has been, no doubt, undue belief in this sphere among the Manx people, and with comic effects. I know a churchyard in the north of the Island where occurred a scene like the following: A man of the parish, when not quite sober, was apt to call at night at the grave of a former debtor with the request that the debt might be paid. A wag of the village adjacent, and whose name I could give, hid himself one night in the church porch, ready with his white sheet to make a ghostly appearance if the creditor came; on arrival, somewhat "fresh," the being in white emerged, but the creditor would not wait for his money, and escaping over the stile, sought refuge in the village, where it was found that fright had made him sober.

There are great abiding characteristics, amid the lesser features mentioned, arising from the historic past. One of these is a robust Protestantism with a broad toleration. The idea of the Popish past and the strong position of evangelical religion are the explanation. Anglican tendencies have little Manx sympathy. High Church ideals do not succeed [? Taggart's at St Matthew's ]. The same prevalence of evangelical light will account for the absence of popular scepticism, whether in the form of the old infidelity, or Darwinian evolution, or the so-called Higher Criticism. Between the Evangelical Churches and the Sunday-schools of the Island and the sound principles generally held by the population, the truths - to which England owes its greatness and freedom prevail.

The loyalty to the British throne of the Manx people is equally conspicuous. There is something of local government in the functions of Tynwald, but it exists under a reserve of supreme power which fails to strike attention because of the wise moderation of both the government and the governed. It is nothing like the Home Rule proposed for Ireland. In contrast to that country, the diffused ownership of the land has much power. Few areas of thirty miles by twelve in the United Kingdom can show so many freeholds, and these, for the most part, continued by inheritance. The kind of social distress which is often revolutionary does not exist. There is no overcrowding of the population as in the Scotch Highlands and the West of Ireland. There has long been the emigration which comes from enterprise to the United Kingdom and its colonies and the United States of America. There is no undue pressure of population upon resources. The loyalty is firm in its basis in the Manx character which is not given to change, and offers the fewest chances to the anarchist. The spirit that does homage to just law has had its life in the influence of Manx Christianity. Even under the old system of tithes, I have seen parson and farmer on the best terms in the harvest field, when each tenth "stook" of the crop was marked off for the church, and the trying law obeyed. The rebellion against the revival of tithes in the potato and green crop in the time of Bishop Murray was an exception in Manx temper; the claim had been generously given up by Bishop Wilson, and ceased from his time. Loyal submission to the law of the land has been, and is, a chief feature.


Back index next

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001