ISLE OF MAN NATURAL HISTORY AND ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY,
1983-1984 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS
Rev. Reginald Kissack
It is the privilege of a Presidential Address to take the Society itself for its subject. And I would begin with gratitude to Mrs. Flanagan for her recent paper on the Society's Centenary. She painted a graphic picture of the past glories of bustles, parasols, top hats and frock-coats, taking delicate or dignified steps through the fields, to the awe of our more lowly grandparents; not above using an occasional trowel, or hiring a local labourer to put a spade into a tempting tumulus. Those were the days when a Saturday afternoon might lead to one's name being immortalised by science (is not the Nassa Kermodei part of our seal? and there is the Discites Kissacki, identified in Billown Quarries.) Mrs. Flanagan sketched again our founder-personalities, H. B. Jeffcott, and the giant P. M. C. Kermode himself, and showed us how ultimately they realised their visions of a Museum and a Marine Biology Station; and saw their studies in print in the natural-history and antiquarian publications both of our own Society and of the more prestigious of mainland societies.
As she revealed the How? of our Society's life, she inspired me to
ask the Why? of it, and to measure our present activities against the
intentions of our :founders.
Why, for instance did our Society even happen at all? What were the historical forces that brought it to birth?
The modern epoch of Manx history begins in 1830 with the formation of I.O.M.S.P.Co., which established a regular and reliable link with the mainland, thereby exposing our native culture to a persistent reaction with the outside world. Trade and Tourism made the Island the stage on which Manxman and Englishmen met in dialogue, and inevitably revealed to the Manx that their culture has its own recognisable characteristics.
Fittingly enough 1830 also saw the birth of the man who was to articulate supremely our Manx self-consciousness. T. E. Brown's(+) Spes Altera(+) is a spiritual charter of Manx nationalism, but the mood of all his poetry was the love-hate emotion that the English normally arouse in the Manx. Because it was his destiny to live in England, he was even more acutely aware of this psychological tension. On the Island itself, by the mid-century, the combination of external cultural influences and increasing internal affluence began to suggest that our new Manx self-understanding might aspire to expressing itself in institutional forms.
This process manifests itself first in the formation of the Manx Society in 1858 'for the publication of National Documents of the I.O.M.' Its secretary was Paul Bridson, whose other concern was the establishment of a hospital. Then in Governor Loch the Island gained a leader who fully entered into this new mood. In 1865 he had the Cambrian Society visit the Island, to demonstrate what might be done by way of institutionalising a cultural heritage. Out of this came a Government Commission, set up in 1876, 'to enquire into the nature and state of the Monuments and Antiquities of the Isle, and the desirability of a Museum.' It reported in 1878.
Speaking in 1929 at the Jubilee of our Society, P. M. C. Kermode recalled how he and half a dozen fellow-spirits had been interested in forming a Natural History Society, after the analogy of one in the Midlands, which he had known through visits to an uncle, a keen naturalist. These had expected the members of the Government Commission to follow up its official ad-hoc duties by assuming a permanent existence as an Antiquarian Society, to promote the on-going tasks of study and research. Finding this was not contemplated, Kermode encouraged its individual members to join with the Naturalists, and form a Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society. And this was done and our Society came into being on Dec 23 1879.
Kermode concluded his Jubilee retrospection by saying: 'We have done something, but very little real work,' and left the Society with the question: 'Have we justified the existence of the I.O.M.N.H. & A.S.?'
Such is duly reported in Vol. III of the Proceedings, p 383 ff. However, a few months later he again addressed the Society, and answers his own question with a most impressive list of what had been done. The Antiquities had been listed, as had Flora, Fauna, Minerals, etc., even Lichens and algae. The Society's pressures had helped the passing of the Wild Birds Protection Act, 1887, and the Act that established the Museum in 1886 and imaginatively made the Trustees also the official Guardians of Ancient Monuments. In 1897 they had sought for and recovered the Megaceros from a marlpit near St. John's. In fact there are 11 pages packed with achievements, chiefly geological, and this time his curtain-line was:
'If we have done nothing to boast about, we have prepared the way
for others to make a complete account of the Natural History and
Antiquities of the Island.'
Our Society was 10 years old when the President, J. W. Clinch, gave something of a Jeremaid for his Address. The average attendance at monthly meetings had been 12 and 2 visitors. There were 17 at the Douglas A.G.M., and the same at Ramsey. He did not hide his feelings. He regretted that membership was low (107),and attendance so small, and that it rarely included any of the few experts in the Society's fields of interest who lived on the Island. He said: 'Other societies besides this are in existence among us,whose endeavours run on parallel lines with our own, and it is, I submit, a matter for us all seriously to consider whether there is anything either in the constitution of our Society, or in its methods either of working or management which actually causes, or at any rate does not prevent, the disunion which I venture to assert is evil.'
We can understand what he meant by 'disunion', when we realise that there were 9 Sections in this society of 107 members (almost as many as the attendance at the main monthly meetings of the full society). These were: Archaeological, Anthropological Geological Botanical, Zoological, Entomological, Microscopical, Photographical and Meterological. ~ On the surface support and interest were being channelled off into the Sections, yet these were the Back-Rooms which were responsible for the long lists of achievements that P. M. C. Kermode was to list 40 years on.
A backward glance then at our Society reveals significant tensions which make for what Clinch called disunion, present in it from the outset, and which we can trace up to today. We came about through an almost chance coincidence of concerns, those of the Naturalist and of the Antiquarian. How then could our consistency be other than fissiparous? True this alliance made P. M. C.Kermode the Naturalist into P. M. C. Kermode the author of Manx Crosses, and at the other end of the scale, members who have joined through one interest have come to appreciate very different ones. But on the whole the specialist interests have proved the strongest, and birds of a feather have flocked according to expertise. Your Committee has been acutely conscious in recent years that though they bear responsibility for a title combining both naturalist and antiquarian interests, our lecture programme has been heavily weighted on the latter side. It is also noticeable that the personnel of meetings tends to differ according to the slant of the topic, naturalist or historical. Ought we frankly to recognise that we are becoming in essence just the Manx Historical Society?
Nor have we solved Mr. Clinch's problem of disunion. Indeed if we examine those specialist sections of his day, we find that many of them have developed into societies in their own right, whilst it would hardly occur to us that Meteorology, Microscopy or Photography shall fall under our aegis at all.
Again, if we look at contemporary independent societies that have developed since, we can see that many of them could well have been fittingly accommodated in our scheme of Sections. The concern for Conservation is a recent one. It has both a naturalist side and an architectural. Both these interests have produced flourishing societies of their own. The same is true of Genealogy. The Family History Society is of even more recent foundation. Yet it might have found its place among us. Indeed in The Sun for 1859 Paul Bridson advertises himself as Correspondent in the Island of the National Genealogical Society. True he is at pains to say that that Society consisted for the most part of members of the Nobility, Gentry and Clergy. So it is not surprising that seemingly it evoked no ripple of response in Manx self-consciousness. But since then the interest of the Manx expatriate in his own genealogy has given the subject an ever increasing importance in Manx self-consciousness. I have a letter written by W. C. Cubbon in June 1954, a few months before his death, to a member of my own family in the United States, with the PS: 'My greatest desire is that we should have an official genealogist attached to the Government, appointed by Tynwald. More of that later.' But he died on January 1 1955.
A second tension has been between the Elite and the Hoi Polloi. Our Society was elitist at the outset. It declared its wish to avoid advertisement (and so it remains today). However, it welcomed the interest of J. A. Brown of the Times, and he gave it notice enough, which it even came to rue. Our first excursion was to Peel on May 24 1880. Its interest was in Natural History. The lowers and birds of the district were noted. There was a talk on entomology, which climaxed on the Aegida Philantheformis, whose caterpillar had a special predilection for sea-pinks. Alas, Mr. Brown's notice led to progressive raids on the rare species, and hastened its extinction.
An interesting light is thrown on the progress of the Elite and the Many tension by Mrs. Flanagan's membership statistics, which run: 1881 17 members; 1889, 145: 1961, 502; 1976, 1,021; In 1879, very few of our population had the education to appreciate the Society's work. Tom Cashen has said with insight, that popular education in the Island only truly began about 1890 when free education was introduced. Since then successive Education Acts have levelled off the sad lag between Manx and English, so that for quite 40 years now every Manxman has been able to appreciate his culture, and our membership figures have been indicative of a growing interest.
But the tension has remained, even if its nature has changed. Even if it is no longer between the educationally privileged and underprivileged, it is between what I would call the Periti and the Dilettanti the trained expertise of the professional specialist, and the man who makes a. private study of his hobby. Once, every summer excursion was a piece of Field-work. Now archaeological sites are kept out of sight of profane eyes. The mystique of investigation and handling of the antique is reserved for the technician with the jealous care of the mysteries of the medieval Gild. Mr. Clinch in 1889 had already noticed this. Though the objectives of the Society included the dissemination of knowledge and the encouragement of research, the few real experts of the day were not using the Society as the instrument of meeting and helping aspirants after the knowledge they disposed of.
In the face of these tensions and the highly fissile nature of our Society, it must be one of the wonders of the world of social geology that we have not long since disintegrated into slivers of Manx slate, instead of holding together over the century. The explanation must surely be that despite all we have proved ourselves as the comprehensive society which has drawn together those who have cared for and wished to understand more about what can only be described by a word like Manxness. Perhaps we should not be overmuch disturbed if our society has settled steadily on the historical side. It is a psychological truth that if we lack a sense of the dimension of the Past of what we care for, we can never appreciate all the variety of its present manifestations. Through our comprehensiveness and inclusiveness, what J. W.Clinch feared as disunion has itself developed into a kind of unity.
Our Society is, and has always been, at its best under a
summer-sky on our hills, the fact that our Island is the supreme
unity somehow satisfying every separate special interest of each and
all of us. Here is our authentic unity. And it is not only that our
different naturalist or archaeological interests are satisfied, but
in latter years our Society has in this way become the place where
old and new residents of the Island could draw closer to each other
in mutual interest in Manxness. I have often wanted to say on our
outings: 'Don't go home until you have spoken to at least three
people you have never spoken to before. And if you are too shy to
speak, see what a smile might start.' I wonder if a cup of tea on a
winter Saturday lecture might also help?
* * *
But this paper is entitled Antiquarian Tomorrow, and its purpose is to stimulate thinking on what, in the light of our past and of our present context, must be the role to play tomorrow.
The present context presents many features reminiscent of the 1850s - '60s. Then it was the Manx way of life that promoted the search for Manxness. Today the particular stimuli are political or constitutional pressures (that might be labelled Kerruishism when seen from the Establishment angle, or Mec Vannin from anon-Establishment.) Under the name of the Manx Heritage Fund a somewhat amorphous bundle of pressure groups are groping again for a new expression perhaps in bricks and mortar of Manx particular culture. Just now, our Cultural and Political Masters are quietly assessing the various currents of the movement, and are holding a series of meetings with representatives of the varied societies through which the Manx heritage is kept alive. One was of those interested in language and crafts; a second with arts and music; and on February 29 one will deal with societies concerned with the historical dimension. Here we shall be represented. We must participate whole-heartedly, however confused issues may turn out to be. indeed our own history seems to indicate that we have developed qualities uniquely relevant to this new upsurge.
1. There will be need of that Comprehensiveness which has been our strength, for we can stress the importance of an over-all organisation that maintains fellowship among the Special interest groups. We have recently introduced into our Society programme meetings analogous to the Social Evenings, once fashionable in the Society, but since lapsed. These are under the joint direction of the co-ordinators of our Field Sections, and are for members who wish to be more actively engaged in research and study. Out of these encounters suggestions may well emerge of use of those shaping the future of the Heritage Fund.
2. Our Society can bear witness to the importance not only of Comprehensiveness, but also of Balance. It is likely that many extreme suggestions may be pressed about what constitutes the essence of the true Manx Heritage. For example, there is sure to be controversy about how largely the use of the Manx language is to bulk. Who better than our Society to insist that Manx Heritage means something much wider and more complex? It is not enough to plaster our urban road-intersections with street-names in a dubious Manx translation; nor to achieve individually the Manx equivalent of the ability to write a washing list in Babylonic cuneiform.
It is interesting to note what the introduction to the 2nd
volume (published in 1860) of the Manx Society (Kelly's Manx
Dictionary) said on the matter :
'The object of reprint is not to uphold the Manx as a spoken language that were a hopeless attempt, were the end ever so desirable; but to afford some assistance to the student of this interesting branch of ancient Celtic, and to obtain for it, when its lifetime has gone by, a place among the records of the dead languages of Europe.'
Today's Manx Nationalists may find those pioneers of 1859 very much Wets, when they read: 'Manx is a doomed language 'an iceberg floating in Southern latitudes.'
The tragedy of our Manx tongue is that it is neither a living language, nor (in the classical sense) a dead one. George Borrow came to our Island to prove his point that 'The Manx have a literature. This proof was the Carvals, the Historic Ballad, Illiam Dhone, Molley Charaine, and the Sheep under the Snow. He could have made a better case if he had included our collections of proverbs and adages that make up our Wisdom Literature. Preserved from oral transmission into written form by Cregeen, Charles Roeder, and in a brief book form by Sophia Morrison these do form a worn-down remnant of a literature. I would welcome a study of the psychology of the Manx character as revealed in these adages.
But we have no written literature in the way Scots and Irish Gaelic has. So Manx will never take a place among the dead languages of Europe, because of the sad paradox that to be a Dead Language, it must have produced a written heritage before it died.
I have often pondered why the Manx never developed any written literature, and I have concluded that, paradoxically, one fatal factor was latent in the enlightened and well-meaning projects of Bishops Barrow and Wilson for education itself. For their concern was to have a population that could speak and read English, and their schools were patterned to that end. Yet a school system which seeks to teach reading and writing in a foreign tongue to people who have not previously been taught to read and write in the language in which they naturally think and speak was doomed to failure. It could only seem irrelevant to the pupils. I can even conceive that it could have a confusing, even retarding effect on their thinking. Certainly it could never stimulate the production of any sort of indigenous literature. In the mid-19th century, Ireland had its hedge-schools which could link their native Gaelic with the Latin classics. Is there any known parallel to that in Mann? Rather a general and total illiteracy in our Island lasted at least two generations longer than in England and Scotland.
The natural focus of a national culture is its historic language, and the natural stem around which its various other characteristics group themselves is its written literature. The slenderness not to say the virtual non-existence of our Manx heritage in this respect creates inevitably problems of coherence in our own context, which an over-simplistic preoccupation with Gaelic alone will not solve,but which can be confronted more positively from a wider viewpoint.
I believe the real intellectual awakening of the Manx people came with their spiritual awakening through the publication of the Manx Bible. The clergy at last had an incentive for education in the native tongue. Manx laity have testified how they had never understood what the Christian religion really was till they could read the Scriptures in their own tongue. Reading opened their minds to mature Christianity, and also to a desire for more and more knowledge.
It is here that I find the nub of our linguistic problem. The thirst for knowledge could never be satisfied through books in Manx. The name of John Wesley is anathematised by our Gaelic enthusiasts because of his negative attitude to the request of Island Methodists for Manx translations of Methodist works. From the wider English viewpoint, he realised the sheer impossibility of any significant supply of this kind. Only through reading English could the thirst for wider knowledge be met. So he said, perhaps intemperately, that his Preachers should do their best to banish the barbarous tongue from the face of the earth. But at the same time Wesley was publishing that section of his journal in which he described his impression of the 20 or 30 Local Preachers he met in 1781. The best body he had ever met; and their strength lay in their ability to 'preach in both Manx and English'.
Barrow in the 17th, Wesley in the 18th and the Manx Society in the 19th century all stood for the same conviction Manx alone is inadequate. Our people need two languages one to communicate with themselves and their past; another to communicate with the contemporary world. The tragedy of our history is that the necessity of bilingual education was so ill-understood so long
From the outset, P. M. C. Kermode intended our Society to be the cultural expression of this. It is not enough to define our specific Manxness; we were to ensure that we maintained the dialogue with contemporary culture of the widest scale. One of the first things he did was to register us with the British Association and to see our Proceedings had a place on the shelves with those of the learned societies of the world.
And it is the strange irony of our Manx literary history that after all those centuries barren of any literature in the native Gaelic, the mid-19th century brought us a remarkable recompense. As soon as this bilingual need was realised, a new language began to appear, and even to create a written literature that had immediate impact on the wider literary world. The dialect poems of T. E. Brown are in a genuine living Manx language. Tom Baynes in the Foc'sle and the Man in the Coach speak what could be called Pigeon Manx (or Pigeon English). Old Manx words and speech structures fuse with contemporary English to form something linguistically quite unique. It is a phenomenon found when two cultures and languages meet. It is a transient thing, lasting only a generation, or perhaps two, during which, inevitably, the stronger, wider culture takes over the smaller and weaker. Time, I believe, will show that here we have a literature to share with the world,and that the Manx need never feel a linguistic inferiority complex.
3. If it has been our duty to maintain contact between our Manx culture and its contemporary counterparts, I fear that in the field of Art, concern for our past may have lost us touch with our present. Tomorrow will itself one day be part of our past. I sometimes wonder whether concern for Heritage has not led us in Mann into the Gilbertian situation or behaving as if 'art stopped short at the cultivated court of the Empress Josephine'. What has our Island been doing to encourage its contemporary artists, sculptors and musicians? Are they not part of our on-going heritage?
Our Society was one of the main pressure-groups for a Museum, and it joined with a call for a Museum, a call for a School of Art. The resultant building is called The Manx Museum and Art Gallery. Yet in that building today, I get the feeling that if Art of the Island did not stop short with Josephine, it hardly got beyond Edward VII. There are signs that those who guide the Heritage Fund are aware of this. It would, however, be a fit concern for us.
4. I should like to think of our Society playing its part in testifying to the importance of lessening the tension between the Periti and the Dilettanti, and this particularly in the field closest to our heart that of archaeology, and again particularly with a contemporary concern that the Manx youth of today be stimulated and equipped to become the Antiquarians of Tomorrow.
Two recent events have vividly called the attention of our generation to the archaeological potentialities of our Island. An Aerial Survey has shown the existence of a multitude of unexplored sites especially in the north of the Island. The Peel Castle Dig has revealed both the dependence of the Island on the erudition and skills of across-the-water schools of Archaeology, and the eagerness of unskilled but enthusiastic Manx residents to share in the work.
If we are to be true to our objectives of promoting understanding of our past, and encouraging original research, we should be concerned that the youngsters of our schools and colleges might develop this sort of archaeological interest. Perhaps through the agency of our own relevant Field Section they could be offered courses of instruction in the expertise of a Dig. Then the Island could mobilise its own local force, and under its resident Periti form indigenous teams which could lessen our dependence on English Rescue Teams. If the Tomorrow of the culture of our British Islands is to mean more leisure for all, any in whom antiquarian interests and archaeological skills have been developed will be better-fitted to serve their own selves and our Island's culture.
5. But let me bring this paper to an end where it began in the concern of our fathers in the 1850s that the documents of our culture should be available in contemporary book form. How could study and research of the past be encouraged unless the records of previous research were kept well at hand?
But I wonder where a young student of today could go to find easily the records of those researchers that Kermode listed in 1929? Most of that scholarship is in the form of articles in our own or similar Proceedings. Rare indeed were the Moores and Kermodes who were able to systematise their work in book-form. Mostly the scattered findings are in volumes long out of print. The publications of the Manx Society have themselves become Collectors' items, as indeed have Yn Lioar Manninagh and our own Proceedings. For most of us the Museum Library is the sole depository of these books and information has to be mined in fragments out of their pages. This is not to belittle the excellent catalogue at the Museum or their most valuable occasional booklets. But it is a sad fact for a Society that promotes research to realise that there must be almost as many treasures of a century of research buried in our archives, as there are undiscovered and unresearched treasures buried still under our soil. If our heritage is to become open and of easy access to all, there is need for a vast literary enterprise to rescue our antiquarian findings from themselves becoming recondite antiques.
I would like then our Society in faithfulness to its own heritage to put upon the Agenda of its Tomorrow the updating of its written heritage, and the facilitating of access for the dilettante. What about a Manx Encyclopaedia, co-ordinating the scattered scholarship of a century, with full references to our fathers' labours in the field.