[From William Cashen's Folk-Lore, 1912]
SUPERSTITIOUS as were the Manxmen whose occupations were on land, they were surpassed by the Manxmen whose occupation was on the sea. Proof of this is afforded by the following account of the superstitions of Manx fishermen
On May Eve, the crosh cuirn (rowan cross) would be put into every boat. They would travel for miles into the country to get this, and would then deposit it in some secret place in the boat, and it had to remain there until the following May Eve.
In making a start for the fishing for the first time, care must be taken (1) not to go out on Friday; (2) to turn the boat with the sun, as to turn against the sun would be unlucky ; (3) to have salt in the boat. If by any chance the boat had to turn back, it was con-sidered very unlucky, especially on the first day of going out.
No person was allowed to whistle on board the boat, as it would attract the attention of the dooinney marrey (merman), who would be sure to send more wind than was required. No person was allowed to speak of dogs, cats, rabbits, horses or mice. A horse-shoe was nailed in some place in every boat, that of a stallion being considered the best.
It was lucky to dream of a ripe cornfield, and of a high tide with an abundance of seaweed on the shore. If a man dreamed of his wife it was sure to bring fine weather ; but if he dreamed of strange women the weather would be bad. If a pair of ravens were seen to fly across the bay, creek, or harbour, it was a sign that there would be plenty of herrings caught.
If the boat was becalmed, the surest way to bring the wind in a very short time was for a man to stick a knife in the mainmast. If it blew a gale when the fishing boats were at sea, it was no unusual thing for fishermen's wives to throw handfuls of salt in the fire. They believed that would stop the wind from blowing so hard. This practice was common fifty years ago.
If a boat was unlucky, recourse was had to the herb-doctor. Many a good handful of herbs have I seen carried on board. The herbs had to be boiled in a pot, and the liquor, when mixed with rum, was divided among the crew, except a portion which was thrown upon the nets. Occasionally some of the herbs would be put in the tail buoy, and disposed of in various ways as ordered by the doctor. The whole ceremony was to be kept a secret from other people. This ritual was believed in, not only by the most ignorant, but by the most intelligent among the fishermen; class leaders and local preachers, and many of that sort believe in it to this day.
When a fisherman was leaving home to go to fish on Monday, his wife threw an old shoe after him. If it stopped mouth up with the point of the shoe pointing the way he was going, it was very lucky; but if the point showed back towards the house, he might as well go back himself, as it would be a poor week's fishing. This throwing of the shoe was also a sure indication whenever a person had any venture such as a law-suit, going to sell a cow or horse at a fair, or getting married.
If a fisherman lost the first fish as he was hauling his line in, or if the first fish was caught by the stern-most man in the boat, it was considered unlucky. If the first herring caught in the boat for the season had a roe, it was lucky; if it was a milt herring it was unlucky. To go out third boat on the first day of the season, especially, but also at any time, was unlucky. To leave home on Monday morning with the stockings, drawers, singlet, or any of the undergarments put on by mistake wrong side out, was lucky ; but they had to be left that way during the whole of the week.
There was an old law against fishing on Sunday; but, quite apart from the law, the Manx fishermen have a strongly-rooted superstition against fishing on that day. As a reason for this the following story is related :- There is a tradition that the fishing fleet out of Port Masooyl, now called The Niarbyl, once shot their nets on Sunday night, and, being overtaken by a storm from the South-East, they were obliged to anchor in under the foot of Cronk-yn-Irree-Laa, when part of the steep cliff slid down, and the surf which was caused by the rocks falling into the water swamped them all. Ever after that no boat would fish on Sunday night. There was a bardoon (lament) made for them, in which it related that they anxiously looked up for the break of day to Cronk-yn-Irree-Laa, Hill of the Rising Day, this hill being so called by the fishermen because they saw the sun rising over it. They say there was only one fisherman left alive in Dalby village after the storm, and that he lived on the farm called Ballelby. Dalby, where they also farmed, was at that time the chief place for fishermen in the Island, and the Niarbyl, close by, was their headquarters for the fishing. The place where the cliff slid down is called the Garroo Clagh, (The Rugged Stone). The place was pointed out to me when a child, more than forty years ago, by old men who were then above seventy, with the warning that I was never to fish on a Sunday night.
The merman, or dooinney-marrey, man of the sea, as he is called, was feared by the fishermen. No one on board a boat dared to whistle lest he should send more wind than was convenient, and the following shows the need there was of getting on the right side of him: There was a tradition that there was a herring fishing-boat that was manned by a crew of seven single young men; she was called Baatey ny Guillyn, The Boys' Beat. Every place that they shot their nets they got herring. They were in the habit every morning when they were hauling their nets of throwing a jystfal (dishful) of herring overboard to the dooinney-marrey, with the result that good luck followed them wherever they went. The admiral (the fisherman in charge of the fleet) saw that they had more herring than any of the others, and, not knowing how it came to be so, he had them summoned to appear on a certain day on Port Erin shore to be sworn that they would undertake to show the rest of the fleet where they were fishing. They swore that they always fished to the South of the Calf, with the result that all the fleet started for that ground. After the fleet had shot their nets some time, the night being fine and calm, the men on Baatey ny Guillyn heard the dooinney-marrey saying "Te kiuneas aalin nish agh bee sterrym cheet dygerrid" It is calm and fine now, but a storm is coming shortly. with the result that they at once put their nets on board and gained the harbour. No sooner had they arrived there than a sudden storm arose and destroyed the fleet. Only two men-brothers-were saved, and they, trying to save their father on the rugged rocks at the Calf, nearly lost their lives, but succeeded in bringing their father's corpse to land. It was given for law ever after that no crew should consist entirely of all single men. There had to beat least one married man on board. And no man was bound in his hiring to fish in the South Sea, which was called the Bloody Sea 1 ever after.
They used to say that mermaids were very fond of crabs. Once when a Dalby man, down on the Niarbyl at low water fishing for crabs among the rocks, had got a good string of crabs, up comes a mermaid to him, and says she to him in Manx
"Give us a crab, Joe Clinton, an' I'll tell your fortune."
Joe gave her one, and she made off with it, chiming out as she dived into the sea
"Choud as vees oo bio er y thalloo, cha bee oo dy bragh baiht
er y cheayn."
So long as you live on the land, you will never be drowned in the sea.
In the early part of the century the rig of the Manx herring fishing-boat was what they called 'squaresail,' i.e., one mast with square-shaped sail which reached from top to bottom of the mast. The luggers at this time were nothing more than large open yawls without cabins and the "clout," or small square sail, was the only sail which the lugger carried. Later there was a larger class of smack built at Peel which was named Dagon after the great god of the Philistines. They also had the 'wherry' rig, i.e., two masts with fore-and-aft sails. About sixty years ago, they changed the rig to the ' dandy', or what is now usually called the 'yawl' rig. When the mackerel fishing had got fairly started their attention was drawn to the want of a fast sailing class of boat to carry the fish to market, and the 'nickey' or 'lug' rig which had been first introduced about 1850, was adopted and has continued ever since. About 1850, a number of Cornish fishermen, whose boats were rigged in this way, came to the Island, and, since Nicholas or Nickey was a common name among them, it was applied to the rig of their boats. In their turn the Arklow boats which used to fish in Manx waters were called 'Tommy Artlars'-a Tommy from Arklow, so called because many of the Irishmen were named Tommy. To-day there are 'nobbies' from Nobby, and 'dougals,' from the Scotch name-a smaller class of fishing boat.
The nets used in times past by the Manx fisher-men were made by hand and made into jeebins. Each jeebin was fifty-two meshes deep and eighteen yards long. Four jeebins went to a piece, and four pieces to a net; thus sixteen jeebins formed a net, four in depth and four in length. The jeebins were joined together for the net with needle and thread, much after the fashion of sailcloth, so that if one jeebin became worn out, or torn, it could be easily and quickly taken out and another one put in its place. There were five floats to a net, a pair was that distance that extended from one float to another, thus each separate net of sixteen jeebins had five floats and five pairs. The jeebin mesh was made square by two rows of network. It was of no exact measurement, but would be made of such a size that a man's three finger tips could easily be inserted through it; if a shilling passed freely between knot and knot, the mesh was considered to be sufficiently large, if smaller than this the net would be condemned. Fifty-six years ago, the Inspector who came round to gage the nets ordered some that had the knots closer than the width of the shilling, to be burnt on Close Chiarn. The mesh was made on a gage about four inches long: it was generally rounded on one side and running out to an edge knife-blade fashion the rounded side being held towards the net-maker. There was no standard gage, the gages would be made after different patterns, according to the locality in which they were used, though all would be about the same girth. The Dalby people liked a short gage and held one end out between the finger and the thumb; in the Southside the gage was used longer, and it had a short shaped handle which came out between the thumb and over the back of the hand, and it had two sharp edges, the greatest thickness in the centre, egg-shaped. Each person in the household had his allotted task in this home net-making: none were idle. The thread of which the jeebin was made, was from the hemp grown on the homestead. The hemp being put on the quiggal (distaff) and spun by the women into thread : the old men and women threaded the needles or shuttles : the men with the needles netted the thread into jeebins. A smart man could make a jeebin of net in the day, and the slowest worker could average from three to four yards of an evening. I well remember when a child going to school, having to make so many yards of jeebin after schoolhours, and woe be to me if I failed in my task ; my ears would probably be pulled out of all proportion. The jeebin needles were generally made of trammon (elder) wood toughened and stained rust-red by being soaked for about a fortnight in the grape of the cow-house : sometimes these needles would be made of apple-wood or bone. Bone needles being smoothest were thought to be best, and many an effort would be made by the workers to secure them. Herders, two little pieces of wood with wires attached, were used to weigh down the last mesh on each side, so as to keep the work from curling up over the fingers. When the new net was finished it would be stretched out bit after bit over a table, or some boards, and well rubbed with a brush dipped into a mixture of Stockholm tar and oil. It would then be spread out on a field to dry. Care would have to be taken that the drying process was done when the sky was overcast, for bright sun-shine would burn the net. Many a time has a net been hurriedly gathered off the field, and plunged into the sea, when the sun came out too strongly : sometimes too, lads would be kept to sprinkle the nets on the field with salt water now and then for fear that they might burn. Second-hand nets would be barked.
At the Spring equinox the fishermen made their first preparation by getting their boats launched off the bank where they had been stowed during the winter from the storms. The crews would gather and each help the other in launching their boats when the tide would not be sufficiently high to float them. A jar of rum would be provided and served out among them, and they all shouted together as they pushed the boat
"Lesh ee, lesh ee, lesh ee,"
With her, with her, with her
they launched the boat by main strength and stupidness, and fortunate it was if no one was hurt.
When the crew had got fairly to work and a start made, they chose some particular public-house to start the shot, that is, the drink they got was got on credit. Every one of the crew or his wife was at liberty to go in there and have his pint of dough or glass of rum whenever he felt thirsty: the whole thing would be settled at the latter end of the season when the boat would be safely moored for the winter. In putting out to sea, once clear of the harbour, all hands on board the boat, at an intimation from the skipper, took their hats off and had silent prayer. One of their prayers was as follows
"Dy bannee Parick Noo shin as nyn maatey,"
May St. Patrick bless us and our boat ;
or "Parick Noo bannee yn Ellan ain, dy bannee eh shin as yn baatey, goll magh dy rnie, fheet stiagh ny share lesh bio as marroo 'sy vaatey,"
St. Patrick, who blessed our Island, may he bless us and our boat, going out well, coming in better with living and dead in the boat.
When shooting the nets the following was said
" Gow magh dy lhome, trooid thie dy mollagh,"
Go out bare, come home rough (or coarse).
When the land would be fairly opened out so that they could see the Calf and other headlands, a bottle of rum would be hauled out and served round on all hands in a horn measure that had probably been handed down from father to son for generations. As the fleet stood out for the fishing-ground, every man was looking out for signs of herring, perkins, gannets, gulls, fish playing on the oily surface of the water, and such like. The sun being set which was always strictly adhered to they were satisfied that the time had come for shooting their nets. If the evening was dark, so that they could not see the admiral's flag or the sun, the skipper held his arm out at full length and when it got so dark that he could not see the black under his thumb-nail, he ordered the crew to shoot the nets. The nets being shot and everything made snug for the night, the first thing that they did was to say their prayers. Every living person on board went on his knees. If there was a man on board that was considered better than the rest, he offered up a prayer, or there might be two or three of that sort, when each one offered up prayer in turn; if there was none of that kind on board then each one prayed a silent prayer for himself. Strange as it may appear, those rough men that would drink ale and rum out of all reason and fight when on shore like demons, would not on any account, blow high or low, attempt to turn in without acknowledging their Creator.
If the night was a short summer's night, a man would be placed on watch and the rest turned in until the day broke over the mountain top, when they com menced to pull in their nets; but if the season was far advanced they hauled sooner. When the nights were long they sailed to find the fish; the way they did was when it came to be so dark that the phosphorus could be seen in the water, they sailed over ground where they had suspicion there was fish, and, at intervals, they caused a sharp concussion by striking the deck with the anchor. If they were in fish it shewed by turning a milky-white, when the look-out shouted "Hoh eh, bhoy !" Here he is, boy! After they had thus proved the ground and found fish, they shot their nets; after an hour or two they would prove to see if the nets were creeping, as they expressed it. If there were any herrings they carefully counted what they pulled out of the pair. Other boats also might be sailing on the briaght (quest), when the crews would hail with the words "R'ou prowal ayns shen, bhoy ?" Were you proving there, boy ? The answer had to be a truthful one, and they would be told how many warps had been taken out of the pair. When they had hauled in their nets they would be able to realize, pretty near, how many herrings they had. Here is an account of how crews hailed each other when I was going to sea: A boat lying to, waiting for the sun to go down so as to shoot her nets foresail hauled down, leaving only the mizzen up to keep her head to the wind, would be hailed by a boat sailing on the briaght : " Have you seen the perkin?" (herring-hog a sign of herring). "Have you los' one?" would be often the taunting reply.
If the nets were shot the passing boat would hail "Hoi, the driver!" (a boat drifting or driving before the nets).
"Were you proving?" "Aye."
"What d'ye see?"
'' Ushtey." Ushtey, or water was a great word with them, or sometimes the reply was, ''Lieen doo," a black net. These words meant that they had found no fish in the pair. If they had only a trifle of fish in their nets, they replied
"Ten warpyn luck-y-pot," that is a potful of herrings sufficient for breakfast, but not enough to market poor luck.
Often the hailing would be all in Manx
"R'ou prowal?" Were you proving?
" Va !" I was.
"Quoid oo er y piyr? How much had you in the pair?
"Pohnar." A child.
"Cre'n eash dy pohnnar?" What's the age of the child?
"Dusssan ny queig-yeig." Twelve to fifteen, i.e., mease a fairish fishing.
"R'ou prowal ny smoo na keayrt?" Were you proving more than once?
"Va !" I was.
"Vel eh snaue, bhoy ?" Is he creeping, boy?
"Ta, t'eh snaue ooilley yn traa." Aye, he's creeping all the time. When the train was hauled on board at dawn the hail would be
"Cre'n sthoyr, bhoy ?" What's the store, boy ?
" Sthoyr bauk." A full boat, would be the reply after a good fishing. If a boat was taking on board a great haul of herrings the skipper was bound to blow his horn for the purpose of informing others of the fact. Any skipper who heard the horn was bound to go and offer his help, either in relieving him by taking a part of his nets, or in assisting him to get the nets on board his own boat. When they neared the port the bumming yawls or buyers would board them and he who would give the highest price was the buyer. The earnest would be passed, a shilling, which they called "a shilling for the bottle"; the bottle would be a bottleful of rum which would be totted round in a horn measure to every one on board. Each buyer would have his flag flying if he was buying, the flag would be the sign of the buyer. The fish would be run fresh to the English market in smacks which would be lying in the bay or harbour; each smack would have on board a small cask of rum, of which the fishermen would be entitled to a bottleful now and then; even when he had no fish he would be scarcely ever denied. Herrings are counted in warps and sold by the mease, that is five hundred fish, six score and four fish to the hundred. In the early part of the last century herrings were sold by the cran, but so much imposition was practised that it had to be discontinued. Now, the herrings are counted into baskets, and it always takes two men to count a basket; they commenced with "nane,jees, three, kiare, queiy," and so on, alternately, to "daa-eed" or forty warps; then one man would cast in another warp and a herring over, saying "Warp, tally." The basket is then finished. The skipper would carefully mark each tally by making a notch with his knife on a stick, every fifth notch crossed the other four, and that was a mease. And so it continued day after day, five days of the week; on Saturday, they made for the harbour and on no account would anyone attempt to go out to sea on Saturday or Sunday night; no matter how poor he might be, no person could persuade him to break the Sabbath.
Their train of nets were so joined that each net could be easily separated, and each man would undo his net, carry it home on his back, and dry it every Saturday. This was the old practice. If they had earned any money during the week they went to their usual public-house to settle or divide the money in shares. The boat would be entitled to two and a half shares, each full man to a share, and each separate net to a half-share. Within this last fifty years the provisions are paid out of the whole gross earnings; before that time each man provided his own. If it should happen that there were any odd shillings which there often was the money would be reserved for the poor, the aged, the widow or the fatherless. They believed that their luck depended upon remembering the poor. They called the odd money "GOD'S Portion," and it had to be used accordingly. It would have amused anyone to listen to a crowd of fishermen on Saturday night, each one had his own yarn and all would be speaking together, they would be all speakers and no listeners. If anyone was anxious to be heard, he struck the table with his fist, when the attention of the rest would be drawn to him; he would be a bold man who dared to strike the table in the middle, as some other man might dispute his right, but he might strike it on his own side without fear. And so week after week passed away till the end of the season. Sixty years ago there were three public-houses on the Niarbyl for the accommodation of fishermen. Forty years ago I have myself seen as many as ten fights going on at once on Peel quay. All that is changed now; the temperance party, so far as the men are concerned, has done that. If one fisherman asked another, when the season was ended, how he had done, if he had done well or fairly well, his answer would be that he would be able to keep the devil and the coroner from the door, that is, poverty and crime, the two enemies which he most dreaded. When the boats were put on the bank and all sided for that season, the final settlement would be made, that is, the nets' shares which had been left in the principal owner's hands until the season had ended would be divided among the crew as each was entitled; and at the final settlement the crew would probably be engaged for the following season. The skipper hired his crew as follows: he passed a shilling to his best man, naming the conditions, and he passed it on to the next and so it went the round of the crew; the last man put the shilling in a quart measure which he tossed and turned mouth under; if the shilling turned up heads it was considered lucky. The man handed the shilling back to the skipper, when he reminded him that he was the skipper, and that the crew expected him to conduct himself in an honest and proper manner as became a skipper towards the owners and the crew, which to my mind is a proof that in those days there was nothing low or cringing in the Manx fishermen.
It would be decided on the hiring night when to have the Shibbyr Baatey or Scoltey, the Boat Supper; it would be held some night in the Christmas, very often on old St. Stephen's night or old New Year's night. There would be provided an abundance of pies and puddings, and plenty of rum and jough, what you might call a square feed. All the crew would be present, and each man could bring his wife or sweet-heart and have an abundance for one night; that one night's spree has been known to cost from £5 to £10. There are many yet who lament that the practice has not been kept up, as they say that there is no luck since the custom was abandoned.
In the early part of this century, large quantities of herrings were cured for export, and numbers of barrels were sent to the West Indies for the plant ations, but after the slaves were freed that trade in a great measure ceased. The late Mr. Holmes, who died in 1852, used to cure for the Royal Navy and Mercantile navy. He had curing-houses in Douglas to the year of his death : large quantities also were smoked and salted in Derbyhaven. A hogshead of rum was always kept in his store, and a bottleful of his rum was part of the conditions of sale.
At a time when there were no time-tables, clocks, or watches to guide the fisherman in his calling, the breaking of the day over the hills, the passing of a particular star over a certain point, told him the time; the ebb and flow on the rocks told him whether there was water in the harbour ; the noise of the surf on certain points of the coast, and so on, told him of the probable state of the tide. Children of nature they were, and to nature and nature's GOD they looked for guidance. It is true that civilization gives a good deal to us, but it robs us also of something that we do not find in our day, and the old Manx fishermen, in their stubborn and honest independence, had something that might, in my opinion, be copied by the present generation.
1 Poyllvaish--The Pool of Death.