[from Manx Soc vol 16]
" Full of, wise saws."
THE REV. T. E. Brown,, during the time he was Vice-Principal of King William's College at Castletown, delivered a lecture on the proverbial literature of the Manx language ; and, although some of the proverbs belong to the wide world in general, yet they strongly appertain to the individuality of the Manx character, and as such are worthy of preservation in a record of the sayings and customs of the Manx people.
Mr. Brown said, in introducing the subject of Manx Proverbs, he must in the first place apologise to the non-native residents for the essentially native character of the subject, which he could not suppose would be so interesting to them as to Manxmen. To himself, however, the subject presented features of great interest ; and as many of those who were non-natives resided in the town, and took a continual interest in the welfare of the town, its advancement, and prosperity, he trusted they would extend their indulgence for the peculiarly native nature of the subject. An apology would also be due to the natives for having taken up the subject without, he was sorry to say, being thoroughly acquainted with the language. Nevertheless, he loved and respected his language, though it was now almost forgotten, so much so, indeed, that no doubt he would be looked upon almost as a resurrection man, for daring to disturb it, for attempting to revive it, and for introducing to their notice this ghost of a now neglected language. However, though now neglected and almost forgotten, he would boldly assert that it was a fine old language, rich and musical, full of meaning and expression. This he did not assert from his own knowledge alone, but on the authority of those more deeply versed in the language than himself. Manxmen, therefore, might be justly proud of it, and surely some respect was due from them, even to its noble remains. They should remember that in this old language their forefathers had prayed and preached, traded and bargained, bought and sold ; in this old language they had rejoiced and mourned ; in this old language the young people had made love under the trammon-tree, while the old people sat chatting in the same old language by the cosy fireside. Manxmen ought, therefore, to take a deep interest in this their native language, rendered doubly dear to them by so many happy associations ; and none could help regretting that a language so strong and forcible, so rife with living power, should now be so far dead and gone, that if it was uttered in a congregation of our townsmen, it would to a majority of them be an unintelligible jargon, an unmeaning conglomeration of sounds. In this extremity he Was happy to see that the Manx Society had come to the rescue, had stepped forward to take down its last will and testament, and with photographic apparatus, as it were, to record the likeness of the departing language, and fix its features for transmission to succeeding(y generations. Great praise was undoubtedly due to the society for every effort made in that behalf. Manxmen would remember the remark made 'by the venerable editor of Kelly's Manx Grammar (the Rev. Wm. Gell), in the preface to that work. Speaking on this subject, he said, the Manx " is a doomed language-an iceberg floating into southern latitudes ;" in that opinion they must all concur ; it was indeed an iceberg drifting into warmer climes-an iceberg gradually melting beneath the genial sun of civilisation.
Still, if it was a dying language, they should at least show some respect to it ; and, if it must be buried, they would bury it with military honours - they would fire a salute over its grave, and raise an affectionate epitaph to its memory.
As to the question of originality of Manx proverbs, it had often been denied that they possessed this quality of originality ; it had been said that they could all be found in some other tongue. The persons who made this statement were those who wished to prove that the Isle of Man had nothing of its own. They should remember, however, that getting an English or Scotch equivalent for a Manx proverb, did not prove that the Manx proverb was devoid of originality ; for the thoughts and ideas of mankind were very similar in all nations, and the expressions of those thoughts must naturally partake of the same similarity. In no department of literature was this more remarkable than in the proverbs of a people. They represented the common sense of the common people, which would be found to be something identical in every country. The middle classes, however, perhaps might differ, but if they would take either the highest class or the lowest, their thoughts and habits of expression would be found much the same every-where. This remark would apply especially to the thoughts and habits of working-men. Their desires and wants were much the same everywhere, and were worked out with very similar results. The common sense of the common people, therefore, as expressed in their proverbs, would be found to be identical in almost every country, springing as they did from identical sources in human nature. For instance the Manx proverb-
" Ta drogh hammag ny share na magher foshlit."
A miserable bush is better than the open field."
This is evidently the same as the Scotch proverb, " A wee bush is better than nae bield." Yet, notwithstanding this identity, it would be absurd to say that the one was derived from the other, and impossible to prove it. The Scotch might possibly have borrowed it from the Manx, but at least he could defy the Scotch to prove that they passed it on to the Manx. This denial of originality he strongly deprecated, and stigmatised as closely allied to that hunting for literary plagiarisms so prevalent among critics of the present day, who, seizing on the works of every poet, would endeavour to prove that his thoughts or expressions were borrowed from the works of some other poet. It should be remembered that human nature, yielding to the same gushing thoughts, would ever express itself in very similar terms ; indeed, without egotism, the majority of educated men might say, when reading over the productions of our finest poets, that the very same thoughts had frequently occurred to themselves. He would advise, therefore, all to avoid this kind of criticism, and wherever they found it they would be justified in very much suspecting it. His own opinion was, that the Manx proverbs were decidedly original; for when their importation could not be proved, it was only right to admit their originality, and consider them native proverbs.
The next point to which he wished to draw attention was the general character of the Manx proverbs, and give some general idea of what were their prevailing characteristics from the general character of the nation to whom they belonged, and whose prevailing habits of thought they undoubtedly expressed. You will find from the proverbs that a certain character was habitual to the Manx people, and if that character was, unfortunately, not so flattering as the one they had been in the habit of giving themselves, he hoped they would pardon him, as he sought only to elucidate the truth. Honesty compelled him to avow that many unfavourable features were manifested in the Manx proverbs, though not without redeeming traits of character. One unfavourable characteristic very manifest in the proverbs was extreme caution, culminating ,almost in cowardice. This was a very general characteristic of Manx proverbs, and a very general trait of Manx character. Intellectually this might be looked upon as a favourable characteristic, proving that Manxmen possessed wonderful mental powers of a practical kind, and a great ability to condense their practical knowledge in their proverbs; but morally this principle of caution could not be looked upon in a favourable light. The Manxman would see that the proverbs of his nation intellectually gave him a very high standing, but morally they depressed it.
The first of this class he would introduce was-
"Ta aile meeley jannoo bry millish."
" A slow fire makes sweet malt."
It would be obvious to all what that meant-don't be in a hurry-don't jump to a conclusion-don't be in haste to change your institution-don't be in a hurry to stir the fire take your time, man-" A slow fire makes sweet malt." This was an illustration of the conservative principle of the Manx people, for it must be admitted that they were most decidedly a conservative nation. This principle, like all others, had its good and bad sides according to the direction which was given to it, but there could be no mistake about it being a very Manx principle. They would find everywhere throughout the island that the people became more conservative just as they became more Manx. If an observer left the town and went towards the mountain, just in proportion as he advanced he would find the principles of conservatism more deeply rooted. Even if they left Douglas and went towards Castletown, they would find this principle gradually becoming more strongly developed, until they reached Castletown itself, which, he thought, might be characterised as the centre of this conservative principle.
It was impossible, he thought, to make a real Manxman into a Radical; it was beyond the power of all the agitators or all the papers in Christendom. The Manx Radical-if such a being existed-must be a heterogeneous being, a ridiculous animal, because inconsistent with his native character. A Manxman, to be true to his native character, must be a Conservative ; for even if he pretended to be a Radical, he could in reality be nothing better than a hybrid, hanging between the two. According to the few pretended specimens of the article which he had seen, he believed the Manx Radical, if he really had an existence, though he very much doubted it, would be found to be a man either five centuries behind his time or five centuries before it, and most probably not himself sure which. From his conservative principles he did not want any change. He must, however, say something on the bad side of this characteristic. One of its worst features was an opposition to necessary and salutary reforms. This has ever been an unmistakable feature of Manx character. So much so, indeed, that great difficulty was generally found in introducing even the most beneficial changes, there was always the Manx predilection to stand still as long as they could, until pushed along or shoved along in some way or another.
Another evil bred by this conservative principle was scepticism. Some would say that this would be more readily bred by radicalism, but in his opinion conservatism also might degenerate into scepticism. This was illustrated in the Manx proverb-
" Ta lane eddyr raa as jannoo."
There's much between saying and doing."
In alluding to scepticism, he did not allude to that scepticism which led to a disbelief in religious principles, but to that disposition to distrust, suspect, and doubt our. fellowmen, unfortunately too largely developed in the Manx character. For instance, a man might do much for the public benefit to the best of his ability-might spend and be spent in the service of his fellows-might devote his wealth, time, talents, and energies to the interests of his country, and then, after all, be saluted with, " Och, he's no better than others;" " He just wants to get himself into notice ;" or " He's got his own ends to serve." Manxmen, he was sorry to say, were not disposed to believe that a man might be actuated by public spirit. They were ready to exclaim-" Public spirit! it's all humbug ; don't talk such nonsense to me." If there was one disposition upon earth more vile than another, he thought this was the vilest, which sought to interpret men's actions and motives in the worst possible way. According to that principle Martin Luther was a humbug - St. Paul was a humbug-every noble-minded man who ever came forward to do the world's work was nothing better than a humbug and an impostor. This feeling, however, he did not consider to be essentially Manx, for in this particular the individuality of the national character trenched upon the general character of humanity. He did not, therefore, intend these remarks to apply to Manxmen alone, but to the natives of all countries, for it was a base tendency of human nature which they ought to endeavour to put down.
The next proverb was one which had its English equivalent almost literally-
" Ta lane caillit eddyr y lane as y veeal."
There's much lost between the hand and mouth."
In other words, " There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and lip." This was a proverb of great importance, especially to young people, and one of which they could not be too often reminded. Another truly national proverb was -
Foddee yn moddey s'jerree tayrtyn y mwaagh."
" Maybe the last dog is catching the hare."
Here, again, was strongly manifested the old national principle-" A slow fire makes sweet malt." This, the " slow and sure " principle-the " traa dy liooar " principle-the principle which so often caused the Manxman to exclaim, "Take your time, man ; take your time! Bless my heart, man, take your time!" He could well remember in his younger days, when going into the fields, hearing the men saying one to another, "Fuirree, boy, fuirree, fuirree." In his innocence he thought it meant something like, "Make haste there, bear a hand;" but on becoming better acquainted with the language and character of his countrymen, he was not surprised to find that it meant, " Easy man, easy, easy." On the whole, they must admit that this principle was a great characteristic of the Manx people ; "but it also had its good side, and often saved them from rushing headlong into difficulties. Another proverb said-
Lurg roayrt hig contraie."
After spring-tide, neap."
This was still the cautious principle-don't be in a hurry "after spring-tide, neap," don't be elevated by the present tide of good fortune, there may come a reverse, and therefore be prepared. The next proverb said-
"Boght, boght dy bragh."
Poor once, poor for ever."
This was a proverb for the rich man, urging him in his present time of fortune to cheek his expenditure, and remember he might yet become poor; but it was a very discouraging proverb for the poor man, "Poor once, poor for ever." Rather should they say to him, " Rouse yourself, and endeavour to become once more a decent and useful member of society."
Another instance of the cautiousness of the Manx people was their reluctance to give an original and decided opinion upon any subject. He was convinced that every person acquainted with the national character would bear him out in this statement. As an instance of this, an old nurse, one of the greatest scandal-mongers, perhaps, in the parish of Braddan which parish was certainly not deficient of the article in question, but who never took upon herself the responsibility of the tales she circulated, her authority and reference invariably being, "Well, the people have got it to say, and no more till that I cannot say ; truth for the man, I wouldn't belie him." He well remembered also a farmer friend of his, who would never compromise himself by expressing an original opinion, he would always delegate his opinions to others. Thus he would say, " That's a mortal big turnip, as the Irishman said ;" or, " Them's a fine pair of horses, as the Scotchman said;" it was always what some person else said; he never gave his own ipse dixit.
The most expressive word in the Manxman's vocabulary he believed to be " middling." If you said to him, " That's a fine horse you're driving," his reply would most probably be, "It's middlin." If you said to him, " That's a fine estate," still the same reply, " Och, well, it's middlin'." When two of his own brothers once came to this island on a visit from England, he had asked them when did they first realise that they were really in the Isle of Man? One replied that he knew he was in Manxland as soon as he heard the hobblers on the pier shouting " Houl' on there, houl' on!" but his other brother, penetrating more deeply, arrived at the point at once, and said he knew he was in the Isle of Man, when the porter who was lifting his box upon the coach, in reply to his remark that "it was very heavy," said, "Well, it's middlin'." From this he wished to draw a moral lesson namely, that this caution and hesitation in expressing , an opinion might be perfectly right in some matters; but there are occasions upon which a man is bound to form and express his opinion boldly in the sight of all men, This general character of Manxmen, however, in this as well as other particulars, is extreme caution, amounting almost to timidity. He would next bring before them some miscellaneous proverbs-
" Caghlaa obbyr aash."
Change of work is rest."
This is a good, sensible proverb, founded on nature and common sense. It might be profitably applied to the student who sought relaxation from his studies. To such he would say, " Above all things, do not imagine that you can relieve yourself by doing nothing." Change of work would be found to afford far more relief than its entire cessation. After hard reading, the student should never go out walking. It would be sure to do him little or no good, for he would not be resting himself, but thinking of some hard passage which he could not construe, or some difficult problem which he could not solve. Let the student rather act on the principle of the Manx proverb, " A change of work is rest," and find the rest he needed in some active employment, which would engage the faculties of both body and mind. The next proverb said-
" Ta ynsagh coamrey stoamey yn dooinney berchagh ; as t'eh berchys y dooinney boght."
" Learning is fine clothes for the rich man, and riches for the poor man."
The meaning of this proverb would be obvious to all; but to render it more plain, it might be interpreted in this way. The rich man may take his choice, he may superadd to his riches learning, or he may remain in his natural ignorance ; but the poor man cannot take his choice, he must educate one way or another-mentally or bodily,. The poor man, if he seeks to take up a higher position in society, must educate himself, and thus show cause why he aspires to that position. The condition upon which he enters a higher grade is, that he produces education to qualify him for it ; and this could not be considered a hard condition in the present day, when education could be had so cheap and good. Of even the rich man, it could not be properly said, that he had his choice, for if he would maintain and keep up the relative distance between himself and his poorer brother, he must be well educated. He would see that he was already in point of riches superior to his poor neighbour, but he could say, "I am not content with that superiority ; I will be a learned man, if need be, rather than yield the palm of superiority to my poorer brother." The rich man who neglected education, would find that he would soon be lost among the general mass of the uneducated common people. He did not mean that every rich man should be a deeply-learned scholar, but he meant that they must at least possess the common education of a gentleman, and thus be fitted to take up a high and noble position, for if they were not possessed of this education, they became nothing but decorated blockheads-a great bore and a nuisance. The next proverb he would introduce was-
" Soddag chamm bolq jeeragh."
"The crooked bannock straightens the body."
This was equivalent to saying, " It's badly made, is it? Well, never mind, it'll put some fat on your ribs, for all that -never mind its shape ; it'll stick to your ribs, I'll warrant." This reminded him of an old servant, employed by his father. She was a capital illustration of this proverb, and was in the habit of making for the children some things which she called puddings, the most vile and atrocious things, perhaps, that ever appeared upon a table under that designation. The young people of the house, possessed of high spirits, determined to revolt against this infliction, and boldly complained of this objectionable cuisine. The only redress or consolation they got was, " Och, it'll go down sweet." The two next proverbs that called for attention were-
" Myr sloo yn cheshaght share yn ayrn."
"The smaller the company the bigger the share."
They might laugh at the sounds of the Manx language, but they must remember that if the two sentences were pronounced in the hearing of a Frenchman or Italian, who would not understand either of the languages, he would laugh immoderately at the English, while, to his ear, the Manx would seem rich and musical, for it was a notorious fact that English was, as regards vocalisation, one of the most horrid languages in creation, full of s's, and spattering and sputtering, while the Manx, with its full thunder-notes from the chest, would at once strike a musical ear with admiration. The other Manx proverb to which he had alluded was-
" Cur meer da'n feeagh, as hig eh reeisht."
"Give a piece to the raven and he'll come again."
These proverbs were connected with hospitality and charity. The first might seem an inhospitable proverb, but he thought he could demonstrate the contrary. The Manx were generally so hospitable that they were frequently imposed upon, and it would be astonishing if they were not. This proverb did not manifest a boasting selfishness, but was rather the language of a bachelor lamenting his unfortunate position, and comforting himself by making the best of it-lamenting that he had no person to share his comforts, and saving himself from despair by saying, " Well, never mind, the smaller the company the bigger the share." Perhaps it might be more difficult to give a hospitable turn to the other proverb" Give a piece to the raven and he'll come again." This proverb, though not essentially a charitable one, puts a valuable guard on indiscriminate charity. Some men, the more you give them the more they want ; they would come at first and ask it with humble bows, but at last they would come and demand it as a right. There were some such people, who considered they had a right to be burdens upon other people, and it was well, therefore, that the Manx proverb should stigmatise them as ravens, and send them home to live on their own means. To prove the charity and hospitality, however, of the Manx proverbs, he would quote another-
" Tra ta un dooinney boght cooney lesh dooinney boght elley ta, Jee hene garaghtee."
" When one poor man helps another poor man, God himself laughs."
That proverb told its own tale, and needed no explanation. That was a Manx-proverb, full of Christian charity. In old times, it must be remembered, Manx hospitality, prompted by such proverbs as this, was almost unbounded, and in many districts of the island this hospitality would still be found largely developed ; and the only reason he could give for its decline in any district at the present day, was the fact that the hospitality of the people had been foully imposed upon in innumerable instances, and hence they had become more cautious as to the objects upon whom they bestowed their hospitality. Another proverb said-
"Cha vel sonnys gonnys."
" Store is no sore."
This proverb he would illustrate by supposing that they employed a man to carry a bag of coals for them, and asked him how much he would charge. His first observation would be, " It's a terrible weight ;" and then he would higgle and haggle until he brought you to his terms. But offer the same man as much coal as he could carry for nothing, and you would speedily be astonished by his Herculean powers. Another proverb said-
" Leah appee, leah lhoau."
" Soon ripe, soon rotten."
By no class of persons was this proverb more frequently realised than by those of his own profession - the schoolmasters. They well knew that they often met with certain young geniuses, or boys whom their friends imagined to be geniuses, but who had an unhappy knack of turning out great boobies, for which the master was very often blamed ; in such a case it was, " Soon ripe, soon rotten." When on this point he would speak a few words for the poor plodding boy, who did not seem to possess so much showy ability as those imaginary young geniuses. He should at least receive a fair chance at the public schools, and not allow the clever boy to receive the most attention, while the poor plodding fellow was left to grope his way as best he could. He would remind them, again, then, that " soon ripe" was "soon rotten ;" therefore, after this, let them not stake everything on the fine showy fellow, but rather upon the lad who, with the less showy abilities, might, after all, possess far more substantial parts. The next was altogether a melancholy proverb-
" Cronk ghlass foddey voym; Ihoam, lhoam tra roshym eh."
"A green hill when far from me ; bare, bare when it is near."
Most people who had lived to years of discretion had, no doubt, found that the green hills of expectation, which they had toiled, and fought, and striven to secure, had too often turned out, when reached, to be far from perfect happiness-to be but barren after all. He did not wish to throw over them a cloud of sorrow, but he would remind the young people that the green hills of hope, which in the distance seemed so fair, might, on a closer approach, turn out to be but withered grass, and disappoint their expectations. And to them, as well as to older persons, he would say, " Turn your eyes from the green hills of earth to those celestial hills which can never disappoint you, but which, from their flowery beds, can spread forth the perfumes of God's everlasting love. Look to those hills and be comforted ; look to those hills from whence verily cometh your help." His next proverb was-
"Millish dy ghoaill agh sharroo dy eeck."
"To share is sweet, but to pay is bitter."
This must be classed among the cautious proverbs. It would well apply to the young man who imagined he was quaffing the flowery bowl of happiness ; let him remember that "To share is sweet, but to pay is bitter." He might enjoy himself among his boon companions, but the devil would present the bill in the morning, and he was, a stern and determined creditor who must be paid, and who had his torturers and his prison to enforce the payment. The next proverb which he would introduce, he thought a very manly proverb-
"Nagh insh dou cre va mee, agh insh dom cre ta mee."
"Don't tell me what I was, but tell me what I am."
That he considered by all means a manly proverb, and yet it must be remembered that it was an essentially Manx one. He claimed it as the native product of Mona, and as such it reflected infinite credit upon the Manx character. He regretted to say, however, that all Manxmen did not express their feelings in such language as that ; but still he believed this, and the majority of the other Manx proverbs, to represent the national character, to which, no doubt, individual exceptions might be found. He had met with many who were always disposed, when they heard another man praised, to question it in every possible way, and try to discover some fault in his antecedents. This disposition might have originated from the high claims of some people rendering it necessary that they should be taken down ; but still, surely, when a man was spoken of as being great and good, it was unnecessary to exclaim, as too many Manxmen were ready to do, " Och, I knew his feather!" This was degrading, mean, and foolish ; instead of admiring the man in his present position, and what he had himself done, they would sit down and talk about who was his father. Possibly they might know his father, and very probably he was a better man than themselves. They should always, then, be disposed to look upon the best side, and, not looking, back upon what a man had been, speak truthfully of what he was at the present time.
Varying, it from the original, he would also say, " Don't tell me what I may be, but tell me what I am." This, he thought, would convey to young persons a salutary lesson not to rear up baseless visions of the future. Let the young shoemaker, or the young grocer, or the young tailor, who imagined himself a remarkably distinguished young man, and who built visions of future happiness upon the improbable possibility of the Prime Minister of England visiting Douglas, noticing him, and, struck by his appearance, elevating him to a high position in the state-let him say, "Don't tell me what I may be, but tell me what I am," and let him stick closely to his last, his counter, or his goose, as the case might be.
The last proverb he would bring before them was one not without its deep moral lesson-
" Ta'n aghaue veg shuyr da'n aghaue vooar."
"The little hemlock is sister to the great hemlock."
This was truly a Manx proverb as far as he had been able to discover, although the idea contained in it might be found in the proverbs of other nations. It might be freely translated, " The little sin is sister to the great sin "-for the little sin, if indulged in, would undoubtedly lead to greater sin at last. Knowing this, he would affectionately warn his young hearers to beware of these little sins-to beware of the first oath-to beware of the first act of dishonesty, for there were ten thousand chances against one that the first offence would lead to the most deplorable consequences.
In conclusion, he hoped that Manxmen in general would long continue to uphold the institutions of their island, rendering their tribute of respect to the worth of their national proverbs and departing language, and, proud of their nationality, be ever ready to say with heart and voice, " Ellan Vannin dy Bragh."