[From Manx Yarns, 1905]
" Hail, Isle of Man,
Sweet ocean lan,
I love thy sea-girt border."
" Oh, its a snug little Island; a ;right snug, tight little, Island."DIBDIN.
A WISE King once said, " Of the making of many books there is no end." And Solomon knew a thing or two.
In these days of multiplicity of publications, of literary activity and progress ; in the rushing life we now live, where there is so much to be done and so little time to do it in, and restlessness is the keynote of the times, it is pleasant to be able to relieve the monotony of hours spent perforce in transit by land or sea, on steamer, train, waggonette, or coach. " For this relief, much thanks," as Shakespeare has it, should be due to anyone who modestly provides the moans.
Many people having a few hours respite from the rush and worry of business feel the need of a readable book, which the~y can open with interest anywhere. One into which they can plunge and at once forget " dull care," or, it may be, the rattle of the train, or throb of the ships engines. It appears to me that witty anecdotes, humorous paragraphs, short stories with a good seasoning of folk-lore, all concerning the Isle of Man, should very pleasantly beguile the tedium of, say, the sea passage to and from our little Island and the mother-country. Such a volume it has been my endeavour to provide.
I feel, also, to touch on deeper ground, that, as the many peculiarities and characteristics of former life in Man are quickly becoming obsolete, the examples I am about to give of our national sayings, anecdotes, modes and habits of life, etc., are heir-looms that ought not to be entirely bat to posterity. We are fast becoming Anglicised, owing to the great influx and rush of English visitors, and the too little care bestowed on retaining our language and traditions by our pedagogues Let us, therefore, by all means in our power, endeavour to record and preserve them on the printed page, or they may be lost to us for ever ; and let the parents repeat the old tales and folk-lore to their children, so that they may live from generation to generation.
My Yarns are various ; good, bad, and some, perhaps, indifferent ; but they all distinctly smack of the soil that gave them birth, and, believe me, they are full of native interest and local colourverily, a store of good stories and bright sayings
It is generally admitted that truth is positively stranger than fiction. True history or romance must, therefore, be more interesting than any effort of mere imagination ; and, in this fertile garden of native growth, I will touch but lightly upon myths, legends, superstitions, witchcraft, fairies and familiar spirits, but will deal at great length with treasures from simple hearts and old-world waysmanners, prèmions, and storieswhich will all tend to illustrate Manx life and character in its quaintest and most effective ~fopma. Metaphorically speaking, I search not for exotic plants, but rather seek, in a wilderness. of heather and gorse, to find bluebell and wild rose for my reminiscences. I wish to explore untrodden ground, not pleasure gardens.
What first prompted me to entertain the idea of this compilation, was the fact that, some time ago, before the Young Mens Church Society in Peel, I read a paper on English and Manx wit and humour, which met with such kindly approval that I was induced to publish it. Moreover, in perusing a little volume on the folk-lore of the Isle of Man, by Mr A. W. Moore, M.A., the thought occurred to me : As we have our myths and legends, why should we not also have a collection of genuine stories of Manx wit and humour, qualities hitherto so little known of by the general public ? I am strongly of the opinion that such a volume should come in appropriately as, say, a prose sequel to our recently published Manx National Song Book, or to the Rev. T. E. Brown " Focsle Yarns."
My aim and desire is not only to rescue from oblivion our past national social history, but to embody further materials for elucidating and preserving the manners, habits, sayings, and customs of our grandfathers. What Dean Ramsey did for Scotland I should like to do for Manxland, no matter how feebly or indifferently it be carried out.
Let me here quote from one of our greatest Manxmen, the late T. E.. Brown, on the subject. Writing to a friend, he says :
" I did very well in the Isle of Man, had two good solitary walks, drank deep draughts ofI dont know bow to describe itthat social brewage which I get nowhere else Very likely other people get it in their own old habitats-That it does really seem to me as if the whole~ Island was quivering and trembling all over with storiesthey are like leaves on a tree. The people are always tolling them to one another, and any morning or evening you hear, whether you like it or not, innumerable anecdotes, sayings, tragedies, and comedies. I wonder whether they lie fearfully. They are a marvelously narrational community, and you have not been there a day before all this closes round yen with a quiet familiarity of use and custom which is most fascinating. Nothing else in the universe seems of any consequence.
And warly cares and warly me~s
May d gae tap salteerie 0!
I was startled rather to find that the Island is one moving ant-hill of story ; I believe if I were living there permanently I should get whole cart-loads of this lore. It seems splendid; the very ground teems and sparkles ; I had no idea that such a number of silk worms were there spinning their cocoons day and night. The Island seems, indeed, to do hardly anything else. The brains are always going, I almost~t heard them at it ; I didnt sleep much, and all through the night these shuttles seemed to be flying round me. It is a darling race!"
Mr Brown evidently thought that here there was abundant scope for accomplishing the particular object I have in view, and that fresh fields of enquiry might be opened. The great difficulty is, to get at, and dig up, the treasures hidden in our Island race. I have cast my net into many gulfs and hays with poor result. There must be hundreds of stories and anecdotes unknown to us ; many also known, but no persuasion will cause them to be divulged by the sons of the soil.
Let me illustrate my meaning by narrating my experiences in collecting specimens of wit and humour of home growth. In making investigations in certain country parts, I came upon a fine old specimen of a Manxman, who at once opened his heart to me and told me several amusing anecdotes and stories, chiefly about himself, one of which I will narrate
The story of his life was that he was a small farmer, and he had only one son, to whom he was devotedly attached, so much so, that they worked the farm together, sharing the one bed and board. Well, they worked harmoniously together for several years, until, in the early hours of one morning, they began to argue and quarrel about which of them owned one of the cows on the farm, and, at last, in a rage of passion, the son suddenly jumped out of bed, and left the old man, and finally emigrated to America.
The father worked the farm as best he could, but kept writing to his son to come home at once, as he was longing terribly for him, and the farm was not doing so well. The end of his story was that his son had returned, and that he was happy and content, and was taking his ease, " so thats the for I am riding in this coach!"
On calling on another old man and asking him if he would kindly tell me a few good stories of Manx wit, he stoutly realsed, repeating in a gruff voice, " Imperunce ! imperunce ! Wantin to know other peoples private affairs. Youll get no newseis urrow me Gerraway wis ye, out of my house, or else Ill put you to the door. Iss a wander youll her the face to ax me such questions, when it is none of your business. I am not storm my mind with such foolish things. Thass the way lies is gem about." I accordingly left the house, hurriedly, highly amused.
The above is an instance of Manx character and reserve with strangers. The Manxman can be garrulous enough, goodness knows, but the garrulity must be in what the people are inclined to believe the only proper quarter---amongst themselves.
As the large majority of the pages in my booklet will be taken up with recounting such instances of Manx wit and humour, I think it will not be out of place if I try to express my opinion of wit and humour, and in what they differ from one another.
First, let us ask ourselves, what is wit ? My answer is that wit is only that compressed wisdom of which brevity is said to be the soul. I liken wisdom to the shell, wit to the kernel.
Secondly, let us enquireIn what, if in anything, do wit and humour differ, or are they one and the same gift ? Are they inseparable in individuals ? Is the one a reflection or echo of the other ? Or do they stand completely apart but separate? I hold, and am of opinion, that wit and humour are altogether separate and distinct gifts and faeulties A witty man is not necessarily a humorous one, and vice versa.
To give you a comparison, wit is to humour, as cream is to milk, as sunlight to moonlight, as merry laughter to a sweet smile, or as a brilliant cut diamond is to an uncut or unpolished one.
Let me define the two faculties in this manner. Humour is colour ; wit is form. Yet humour is such an elusive quality that often what makes one man laugh may not provoke laughter in another. It depends on individual temperanient. Humour has to do with character ; wit with the head more than the heart. I hold, however, that the truest humour is not the slight mirth that comes easily from the lips, but the enpress~n of deep feeling and deep thought.
True wit is like a sparkling gem or a bubbling fountain ; it often bunsta forth unconsciously. A natural wit is always spontaneous. You will agree with me, I think, when I say that the most brilliant examples of wit will be found upon examination to have been those which were unpremeditated, and which are the result of the contact of two minds upon an unexpected subject ; whilst the best specimens of humour will also be seen to be those in which the humour is unconscious. I may remark, however, that a vast amount of whom.scious humour is always floating about us, and to those who can perceive it, the world is ever very amusing. Humour it; based on keen observation, illumined by sympathy.
Wit ought to cut like a razor, but leave no scar behind to sting, but not poison. When used in a kindly manner, it is a most agreeable faculty, but when used rashly, it often cuts like a knife, and leaves a jagged, rankling wound.
Many are the variations of wit and humour : there is the J~,un, the lowest form of wit ; the riddle ; the jokeaik creating merriment, which is the sense of the obvious comedy of life.
Religion does not destroy wit. True piety neithar cri~hes cheerfulness, nor strangles wit. Wit always ~ l?~5t against a background of seriousness. What a good, yet witty and cheerful, man Bishop Hill was. A good man ea,n 1;~o pleasant without levity, and witty without frivolity. Wit is a matter of the intellect, the instantaneous action of an elastic mind.
Aelsops Fables were the first pieces of wit or primitive i~risdom that are known to have made their appearance in the world. Christ Himself eposke in parables, because allegory aind fable appealed very deeply to the Eastern mind and do even unco this day.
I might ask : What creates Wit, or causes it to burst forth spontaneously P And my answer is, that a healthy haf~py person is likely to be witty if wit has been born in him. Wit and humour are born in a mannascitur non fit. I may assert, too, that women, as a rule, are not witty or humorous. Is there a single book written by a woman over which the world laughs ? Women lack the sense of humour to a large extent., if not altogether.
The Irish are witty and humorous, while the Scotch and Manx are humorous and droll, and often, from the two latter, gleams of dry humour flash out naturally and spontanecsusly, which are very refreshing. Irish humour is kindly and lavi,shand often has a pronounced alcoholic flavour.
There are various specimens of witty people. Some wits are brilliant and high ; others are slow and still. Some want a bridle ; others a spur. Like musical people, wits are very jealous of each other. The wit of some men glimmers, but seldom sparkles. Some are hot and fiery; others cold and dull.
A witty man is generally a great talker, and likes to monopolize all the conversation to himself in displaying his powers. Doctor Johnson, Robert Browning, and Lord Macaulay were men of this atsunp. The beauties of con-versation are displayed by gaiety without vulgarity ; a hon mob, ott- an amusing story, giving rise to outbursts of wit, and wit giving rise to outbursto of genius.
A hmaoris~, on the contrary, as a rule, is a silent man, a man of few words. Ha expresses himself more by a merry twinklo of his eye than by many words. Yet when he does speak, how he inspires his hearers ! What a world of humour is in his look and his smile, best~wing a sort of mental sunshine in which it is delicious to bask. In fact, meeting him in the street. is like passing suddenly into sunshine.
With what sweetness he talks to his audience of men and manners! What urbanity be uses in jest! How he reigns in mens affections! How he makes their minds enjoy the thing or subject he speaks or writes about! Above all, his wit and humour seldom or fever shine at the expense of another. He refuses to part with an atom of his personality ; he stamps it on whatever comes from him. A mans humour is the most individual thing about him.
I think the longer we live and the older we grow, the more we appreciate the charm of humourthat wonderful gift which does so much to sweeten and brighten our lives. Providence has bestowed upon us wit, and humour, and brightness, and laughter, to enliven and mahe glad the days of our pilgrimage upon this dark, dull earth, and to make us happier and better men and women. After all, is not laughter the most distinctive faculty of man P Tis laughter that lightens the burdens of life, and the humour that prevokes laughter is one of Gods best gifts.
I have given this volume the title of " Manx Yarns: Witty, Wise, and Whimsical " ; and my chief endeavour will be to depict Manx life, character, manners, and customs, not as they appear to the outside world to-day, but rather as they were about one hundred years ago.
Now, a subject like this can only be dealt with and illustrated by humorous and droll anecdotes, which must show forth the features of the past, which we are now fast icaing. Change is wiitten on all around us. Nothing stands still. The "everlasting hills" are continually changing. The whole worl(l is changing socially and physically. But I would rather treat of changes which appear upon the surface of our social life as well as in the deeper phases of our vational character.
Our little Man Island is unique and peculiar both in itself and its inhabitants. Let me digress, for a moment, from my subject, and, for the benefit of the " stranger ín this strange land " and the outside world, give a short account of Manxland and its peopleof this central islet. in an inland sea.
In the centre of the British Isles, midway between England, Ireland, and Scotland, dropped, as it were, in the middle of three great countries, Nature has planted the Isle of Man, which, although an integral portion of the United Kingdom, enjoying many advantages in common with the British. Empire, is yet an imperium in imperio, and cjniait; to be called an independent nation, possessing a species of Home Rule, an autonomy under the Crown, and a separate Manx Church. But it never was entirely independent.
This little Emerald Isle of the Sea, this little gem and diamond of all Isles, is merely a bit of rock in the middleo f an opal sea, and is only thirty-three miles in length, and varies from eight to twelve miles in breadth. It contains about 60,000 inhabitants It was formerly a land of many arnee and many masters, being conquered at different times by Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and finally sold to the Crown by the Duke of Atholl for a few tbousand pounds. The Stanleys held Man for many years presenting to the English King a pair of falcons on his Coronation Day. Its name " Man " is probably taken from the Saxon word " Mang " (among), as it lies equidistant from :the adjacent isles of England, Ireland, and Scotland. It was once the happy hunting ground of Vikings of the North, rovers and pirates, and, later, a safe retreat for all who wished t1o evade the law and traffic in contraband goods.
Its early history is buried in oblivion and clouded in a mystery of folk lore and tradition. It has a language of its own, and once possessed a separate coinage ; and formerly its national flag floated on its Castle walls. It was a regal kigdom many years prior to the Conquest, and even to this day has its own Legislature and makes its own laws, both spiritual and temporal. Compulsory education existed here more than. one hundred years ago. I is a land peculiar in situation, people, climate, and constitution. A land of sunshine and song ; of sweet scents and sweet sounds.
Everywhere the air is filled with the odour of the salt sea., the melancholy scream of the sea fowl, and the murmur, now gentle, now stormy, of the waves and the free winds of heaven. Truly the very air seems to breathe romance and beauty. Its scenery is charmingly varied, and pretty rather than grand. Everything is on the diminutive scale. Its hills are soft and green and wave-like. Its rivers and glens are small but sweetly pretty.
Manxland as seen from the sea is a beautiful sight. On approaching its shores, it seems like a low purple cloud rising out of the sea, with its mountain tops standing out clear, bright, and beautiful, truly a gem in mid-ocean. One usually needs to make an effort to thoroughly admire a mountain, but a wide stretch of sea has a very great charm when it can be surveyed leisurely, and when the mind is tired with the storm and stress of life. There is a music in it that makes either a sad or a gay harmony. Looking on lovely Mona, whether from sea or from land, we catch this music. Its isolation, surrounded as it is by the ever-changing sea, constitutes a great and enduring charm for visitors. Every wave that breaks upon its shores, every breene that blows over it, speaks of independence, freedom, peace, plenty, and prosperity. It is a very Lotus-land of delight, far away from the bustle and roar of British traffic I am proud of being a Manxnian, and cherish with pride all my ancestral associations and ideas. When I was a student at King Williams College, our respected Principal, Dr. Dixon, used to tell us we ought to be proud that we were Island bred, whenever the boys from the "adjacent isles" jeered at us for being natives. He declared to us. that the Manx race belonged to the aristocrats of the world.
In comparison, the Saxon and Normans were " not in it.."
The land of my birth is very dear to me. That prosperity and happiness may be ever its portion is my earnest prayer and wish.