[from W Ralph Hall Caine Isle of Man]
THE somewhat cynical observation of Dr. Johnson that ' all history, so far as it is not supplied by contemporary evidence, is romance,' derives no little confirmation from an examination of Manx histories.
The question as to the identity of Mona was responsible for some confusion. If we assume that Cæsar meant the Isle of Man and that Tacitus meant Anglesey, there were other writers who meant both, under the impression that they were one and the same.
I have not been led, however, to enter upon any purposeless discussion of a problem that was threadbare even in 1702, the date of the appearance of A Short Dissertation,' etc., by ' Mr. Thomas Brown, Address'd in a Letter to his learned friend Mr. A. Sellars,' supplementing ' An Account,' by ' Wm. Sacheverell, Esq., late Governour of Man.' We constantly speak of our land as ' Mona's Isle.' Mona is the sweetest and most acceptable name for a Manx girl. If that is not proof of identity, I can claim it as a token of affection, only to be excelled by the fact that our Manx fleet is never without a Mona, Mona's Isle, or Mona's Queen.
Joseph Train, in his ` Historical and Statistical Account' (1845), gave us, as a result of this confusion of names, an entire line of Welsh Kings to whom we have no shadow of claim. His book cannot be passed over on that account. It probably ranks as the next most considerable story of the island following upon George Waldron's scarce volume, ' A Description' (1731).
All recent historians have worked under the Buggane-ish, awe-inspiring shadow of an avenging sword wielded by the Rev. Theophilus Talbot, a close student of our history, shrewd, learned, and profoundly earnest.
Mr. Talbot began life as a Wesleyan minister. He was a hot-tempered man, and did not readily yield obedience to authority, particularly when that authority was in the hands of a man less intellectually gifted than himself. He soon broke away from his superintendent, and retired from the Connexion. Taking Orders in the Church of England, he became curate at St. Olave's in Ramsey, then a chapel of ease to the parish church of Lezayre ; but, relieved from the pressure of earning his daily bread, he erelong established himself at Douglas, devoting himself to study, chiefly of Manx history and geology. He established himself also-and this is more to my present purpose-as a veritable terror to the historian who, yielding to grievous temptation, put forth idle fable as fact.
He laboured under no illusions, and he had no fears or preferences. His knife was as keen and far-reaching as that of Father Time himself. Mere dignity could not redeem falsity. Our island story fell before the reaper like so much ripe corn. Every treasured anecdote seemed, when Mr. Talbot was done, to be founded on misconception or error, and every celebrated figure fondly linked to our history was shown never to have set foot on our isle. Indeed, the wonder is that we have any island story left at all.
Sir Spencer Walpole, who was LieutenantGovernor during the years 1882 to 1893, published in the latter year ° The Land of Home Rule: an Essay on the History and Constitution of the Isle of Man.' The object was, of course, to give a fillip to Mr. Gladstone's Irish proposals, by showing that Home Rule was not such a terrible Buggane after all, and that it represented neither a danger nor an innovation.
Mr. Gladstone's conversion to the principle of Home Rule may have been the unconscious incident of his visit in 1878, a supposition that does not necessarily rest upon extracts from public speeches. It was not political antagonism, however, that brought Mr. Talbot into the arena. He arose in his anger, and in the columns of the Manx Sun poured forth week after week the vials of his wrath. What, he asked, were we to think of Mr. Walpole's ` curious manner and method of writing history'? of ' the worse than worthless character of what he puts forth as history and historical criticism, and the utter unseemliness, on the ground of his lacking both intelligence and integrity, of his posing either as an historian or historical critic ?'
Mr. (afterwards Sir Spencer) Walpole had lamented the lack of early information and the unreliable character of much of the evidence which he could not disprove. The Rev. Theophilus Talbot regarded this as so much subterfuge, which must be promptly exposed. Documents were examined and retranslated; authorities were quoted; and, truth to say, no point was made against Mr. Walpole that was not liberally supported by evidence. Our historical fabric shows signs of crumbling at all points.
Mr. A. W. Moore has shown very praiseworthy industry in the collection of material for Manx history. He has contributed to the series of Diocesan Histories' the little volume dealing with ' Sodor and Man' (1893), the substance of which (and often the words) may be found in his larger work, ' A History of the Isle of Man' (1900). It was, however, a mere fragment of historical work that brought Mr. Talbot from his lair to speak in what he called ' restrained terms' of Mr. Moore's ` history' as ` largely consisting of guess, fable, and invention.'
A mere lecture on Peel Castle by a local divine was sufficient to stir Mr. Talbot to the very depths of his soul. His righteous anger could barely pause to find coherent expression on paper. This time, however, the old war-horse might hear the buglecall, but had not the physical strength to enter the fray.
Now that Mr. Talbot has gone, we are enabled to realize that, despite all the unmeasured and unreasonable invective which he called to his aid, he has rendered a great service to the cause of truth.
Let us not judge too harshly if a bludgeon was used where a rapier would have done as well.
Mr. Walpole received his rebukes in silence, and Mr. Moore, bearing no grudge, has opened an exhibition of the critic's literary and geological treasures! The fact is that in the Isle of Man we use hard words without always attaching to them the full significance they bear on the lips of the Englishman; that in death we forgive our worst enemy, attend his funeral, and sing hymns over his body-partly as an act of atonement for our share in the quarrel, partly as an act of pardon, gathering much flattering unction to our souls thereby. We can be very bad friends ; we are positively superb at funerals.
The pamphlets of Mr. Talbot, in which he so ruthlessly laid bare the sins of omission and commission of our historians, are now unobtainable, while the books he attacked still find a place on the booksellers' shelves. The remembrance of these old controversies reminds one that in the Isle of Man, as in England, there are depraved people who delight in reading an ill-natured review, who positively revel in the spectacle of idols in fragments at their feet. The larger public has a heart above all petty spite, and grows weary of the worker who, with all his earnestness and good intent, is always a destroying agent, and never a builder. Mr. Talbot is fairly so described, and there inevitably came a time when his violent fulminations were passed over unread.
Mr. Walpole's ' Land of Home Rule' is a sound and able piece of work, entirely worthy of a place beside his larger historical study of England. It has lucidity and decision and vigorous expression. Mr. Moore's more ambitious work is exhaustive and dry. It strikes me as a painstaking work, full of useful material, but wholly uninspired in treatment, lacking all dramatic presentment of moving scene and decision-as a work, in short, that somehow fell into the hands of the printer at the very moment the literary hand should have commenced its task.
Mr. G. W. Wood, who has already figured as a writer of a few fragments of Manx history, has made in London a collection of Manx books, manuscripts, maps, prints, etc., of unrivalled completeness. If he does not find himself positively submerged in data, we shall one day have another history, upon which even the shadow of the sword of Damocles may not fall.