[From Manx Quarterly, #10]

Manx Language Literature.

By G. W. Wood

The bi-monthly session of the North Western Library Association was held in the Town Hall, Douglas, in the first week of June, 1911. On Saturday, June 3rd, after an inspection of the Manx books, papers, and other objects, of antiquities, conference met in the Council Chamber while the business meeting was held. In the absence of Mr G. W. Wood, of Streatham, London, his paper was read Mr Wm. Cubbon, of Douglas, who said Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, — May introduce the paper by saying that the author. Mr Wood, is a scholarly Manxman, who has held for many years an important post under the London County Council. He takes the keenest interest in Manx literature, and he has the reputation of possessing the most complete library of Manx literature known, not excepting even the Douglas Public Library. Not only is he the possessor of rare and valuable books, but he is a student of no mean order. And we in the Island are proud to recognise that, although he is so far removed from us, he is no less an ardent countryman.


Part .I.
Original Literature.

The Literature of the Isle of Man, like that of its sister countries, falls naturally under two heads : original and translated. Its original literature, or such of it as is known to exist, is undoubtedly scanty, comparatively unimportant, and of no considerable antiquity. There is nothing in Manx at all comparable with the annals of Ireland, or with the Bardic literature of Wales or even with that of the lesser Celtic Nations : and this fact has led more than one writer to say boldly that the Isle of Man has no original, literature. To some extent, therefore, a student of Manx — whether of history or language — starts with a feeling akin to disappointment,

What there is, however, possesses an interest peculiarly its own, as illustrating the thoughts and environment of the Manx people when their little kingdom was almost a seclusion, and their life one of extreme simplicity.

The literature indigenous to the Island consists almost exclusively of poems, ballads, and carols (known locally as "carvals"). It is impossible to assign date or authorship to most of them, or to say with any certainty which is the oldest; so I purpose to estate the items in order of seeming importance,. giving such facts concerning them as are likely to be of interest,

In the British Museum may be seen a manuscript bearing the following title: — . " Fin as Osshin, or Fingal and Osshian, a Manx Heroic Poem." it was taken down, so Deemster Heywood relates, from. the lips of an old Manxwoman at Bishopscourt by one of the Manx clergymen (the Rev P. Moore), who was engaged there in the translation of the Bible into Manx, in 1762. It is claimed for it that it is a fragment of an Ossianic poem, agreeing in narrative with a, Scotch legend, from which it was adapted to its Manx form and dress. An English translation accompanies it. It relates to the adventures of one Orree, a captive in the hands of Fin and Osshin, who, during their absence on a hunting expedition, fired their house, and on their return was punished by being torn asunder by wild horses. I shall not be expected to discuss the authenticity of the poem, but I must inform my hearers that this is by no means unquestioned. It is ably dealt with in a pamphlet by the late Rev T. Talbot, of Douglas, published in 1897.

Then there is what is known as the traditionary ballad of " Mannanan beg Mac y Leirr " (Little AMannanan, Son of the Sea). Our knowledge of it comes only through the medium of J. Train, author of a " History of the Isle of Man, 1845," who possessed it aas anrinted broadsheet — the only one known. Train states that the date of it had been obliterated. It might be inferred from the text that it was written between 1504 and 1522; but the late Rev T. Talbot very pertinently says that " being credited with bearing the weight of 390 years, due respect for literary truth might safely cut off the first figure." If this be so, I am afraid the romance of the ballad is gone, and the author must be considered a Manx Chatterton. It gives a summary of events which occurred in the Island from the time of Mannanan — a necromancer, and its first traditionary ruler — to the period when Thomas, Earl of Derby, was King of Man in 1507.

Next to be mentioned is the popular song of " Mylecharaine," probably one o£ the oldest of these compositions. It has been called — though undeservedly so — the "Manx National Anthem." The tune is perhaps better known now than the words. I used to hear it droned out by the children who followed the traps of visitors on the high roads of the Island. The song concerns one Mylecharaine, who was accounted the first to give a dowry to his daughter on her marriage. George Borrow relates how, in 1855, he essayed to trace a descendant of this Mylecharaine, who was said to live in a remote part of the Curraghs of Lezayre. He found the house of the person sought, " John Mollie Charane," who was himself out, but his wife wondered that he (Borrow) " should have given himself the trouble to come to such a place to see people merely because one of their forebears was mentioned in a song."

There are several other early ballads preserved at Knowsley by the Earl of Derby. They were composed by S. Rutter, Bishop of the Island, in 1661, but are only of minor interest.

Later, comes the ballad "Baase Illiam Dhone" (Death of William Dhoie). This was William Christian, Governor of the Island under James VII., Earl of Derby, who was shot at Hango Hill, near Castletown, for alleged treason in 1663. His sword and cap were in the possession of the late Mr A. W. Moore, Speaker of the House of Keys.

Another historical ballad, " Thurot as Elliot," relates to the war declared by England against France in 1756, and commemorates the battle between the French and English squadrons in Ramsey Bay in 1760, which ended in the defeat of the former, and death of its commander Thurot. There are two large and fine engravings of this action occasionally to be met with from paintings by an eyewitness.

Next may be named " Coontey ghiare jeh Ellan Vannin " (A Short Account of the Isle of Man), by J. Bridson, in 1760, and "Arran mysh ny Baatyn Skeddan" — a poems on the destruction of the herring fleet in Douglas Bay by a storm in 1787.

Of the rest, I need perhaps only mention " Kirree fo Niaghtey" (Sheep Under the Snow), " Mannin Veg Veen" (Dear Little Isle of Man), and " Colbagh Vreck er y Strap," the last-named written by the Rev P. Moore (already referred to), in response, it is said, to a challenge by Dr Lowth, the Hebrew scholar, to produce an ode in Manx in any of the Greek metres. Anything more unclerical in subject matter it would be difficult to imagine.

There are many other ballads and songs of various types, mythical, nautical, patriotic, love songs, etc., which, for the most part, are crude, though doubtless interesting as folklore relics. About 70 of these pieces, including many fragments, were brought together and printed (in some cases with tunes) in book form by Mr A. W. Moore in 1896. Some of them had previously appeared in Vols. 16 and 21 of the Manx Society's publications, and in the " Manx Note Book " — that dainty production which is probably known to some of my hearers.

Next as to the " Carvals." These were first noticed by George Borrow, who spent some time in the Island collecting its legendary remains. Borrow, linguist as he was, also took much interest in the Manx language, and I have his copy with autograph of Oregeen's Manx Dictionary. He aptly describes the " Carvals" as being " preserved in uncouth-looking, smoke-stained volumes, constituting the genuine literature of Ellan Vannin." They were composed for singing, generally as solos, in the churches on Christmas Eve, at what was known as the " Oiel Voirrey " (the Feast of Mary), and the custom has lately been revived at some places in the Island. The best description of it is in " Mona's Isle," and other poems, published in 1844 by W. Kennish, a Manxman, whose book contains many references to old Manx customs.

The earliest "carval" — the date of which known — belongs to the year 1720, and perhaps one of the most striking of them is "Yn Carval ny Drogh Vraane" (The carval of the Bad Women) of the Scriptures. All the " carvals " that could be collected were published as " Carvalyn Gallckagh " in Douglas in 1891. Some were printed as broadsides about 50 years before by the " Mona's Herald " Newspaper Office, and a few still earlier. I have pleasure in submitting one of the old Carval " books for the inspection of members.

Here I may perhaps mention that as recently as our own time, an " old Manx bard (as he has been called) dwelt in a remote part of the parish of Patrick, in the person of John Quirk, of Carn-y-Grebe. He had quite an exceptional knowledge of the language, and composed many original soings or hymns in Manx, chiefly on temperance lines. A few of them have been printed, the best known being perhaps "Yn Jeirkagh Meshtyllagh " (The Drunken Beggar). Mr Hall Caine picturesquely describes this Old bard in the "Little Manx Nation," and I am pleased to say I am in possession of his (Quirk's) manuscripts (given me by his widow), which I hope some day to publish.

Before leaving this part of my subject, I should. I think, briefly mention the proverbs. Cregeen includes some of them in his well-known Manx Dictionary — the late Rev T. E. Brown, the classical Manx poet (whose works are not so well known to English readers as they deserve to be), dealt with a number of the proverbs in a lecture, which he delivered in Castletown when he was master at King William's College. Still larger collections have since been made and published.

It will, I think, be recognised from what I have said, that the original literature of the Isle of Man,, if it does not throw light on early Manx history, is not devoid of interest. Even the comparatively recent times to which the latest pieces belong are fast altering in character, and therefore all who take an interest in things Manx will be grateful to those, whether individuals or societies, who have been the means of preserving to us these relics of a bygone age, before the Manx language passes to its doom, as befell its sister Cornish a century and a half ago.

Part II.
Translated Literature.

It is only when we come to our second division — Translated Literature — that we are on firm, if more prosaic, ground as regards authors and dates. But here again we have nothing in Manx to compare in point of age with Irish, Or Welsh books, although very few persons are aware of the large number of books and smaller pieces which have been translated into Manx. The earliest Manx books were all printed off the Island, principally in London and Whitehaven. The first printer on record in the Island was M. Shepherd, who came from Whitehaven to Ramsey about the year 1767.

I purpose now to give a resume of the books and other publications, with a few comments on the more important of them. The earliest translation into Manx known is the Prayer Book of John Phillips, Bishop of Sodor and Man, of the year 1610. It existed only in manuscript until 1893, when it was printed by the Manx Society as Vols. 32 and 33 of their series. The latter volume contains an important treatise by Professor (now Sir) J. Rhys on Manx Phonology.

Notwithstanding my opening remarks, in this division, it is singular that there should be uncertainty as to the date of the first book printed in Manx. The book is " The Principles and Duties of Christianity," a catechism by Bishop Wilson. The date almost universally assigned to it is 1699; but no one ever appears to have seen a copy so dated. The error, for error it undoubtedly is, was originated by Crutwell, the Bishop's biographer, in 1781, and it has been repeated as usual by all subsequent writers. Keble, in his "Life of Bishop Wilson" (1863), quotes regarding it from the Bishop's diary : "I finished and printed my Manx Catechism, May 30, 1707." This, I think, may be taken as conclusive. It was translated under the good Bishop's auspices, English and Manx being in parallel columns, with some black letter. Numerous later editions have appeared in English, and one in Welsh, in 1752.

There was an interval of 41 years before the next Manx book appeared, although Harrison states in is " Bibliotheca Monumensis" that Bishop Wilson's " Knowledge and Practice of Christianity " was published its Manx and English in 1840. I have a copy of this edition, but it is in English alone.

The second book, iiherefoge, in Manx was " Yn Sushtal scruit liorish yu Noo Mian " (the Gospel of St. Matthew), and it was published by Bishop Wilson at his own expense. Thia was the first instalmentt the Manx received of the Scriptures in their own tongue. The Welsh had had their first Bible in 1588, and the Irish in 1682. Only a small edition of this Gospel was printed, and it is now very scarce. In 1761 appeared the second edition of Bishop Willson's Catechism. It is peculiar as furnishing probably the most remarkable illustration extant of excessive punctuatrion. There is a comma. after almost every second word. The Rev P. Moore wrote concerning it, that the corrector of the Press had "often been told that many a better pointer had been hanged."

In 1763, Bishop Hildesley, who had succeeded to the See of Sodor and Man, induced the S.P.C.K. (Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge) to print the first part of the New Testament (Gospel and Acts), which 'had been translated under his predecessor. This is known as " Doctor Walker's Edition," from the name of the Vicar-General, who had chief hand in the translation.

The second volume was printed four years later, and is the first book known to have been printed on the Island.

In 1763, the, S.P.C.K. also published the " Christian Monitor" in Manx, which was followed in 1765 by the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer. This was translated for Bishop Hildesley by three Manx clergymen. In the Litany is a prayer for the Manx fisheries, but the Ordination Service and the Thirty-nine Articles were omitted — the latter being issued much later (about 1822) in separate form.

A second edition of the Prayer Book was printed in Ramsey four years after the first, as well as a Manx translation of " Lewis's Catechism," of which I have Welsh and English versions, and one in French.

The year 1771 was an important one for the Manx-speaking people, for it heralded the appearance of the first volume of the Old Testament — " Yn Vible Casherick." This was due to the zeal of Bishop Hildesley, who distributed the work between 24 translators, who, with two exceptions, were Manx clergymen. it is worth repeating, for the sake of those who may not have heard it before that when a portion of the manuscript was being taken from the Island to Whitehaven for printing, it narrowly escaped destruction by shipwreck. It was preserved by being held above water for five hours, and was almost the only article saved. This event was reported in "The Newcastle Chronicle" of, 23rd March 1771.

There are two editions of Vol. I., dated 1771 and 1772 respectively, and they vary inter alia, in the rendering of certain passages. The most noteworthy is in Judges xv., 3, 4, lnd 5, where Samson's foxes with firebrands tied to their tail in the 1771 edition, are altered to sheaves of corn laid in a train in that.of 1772. I suggested an explanation of the phenomenon of two editions of this volume appearing within a year of each other, which has been adopted by the British and Foreign Bible Society in their Historical Catalogs of Bibles now in course of preparation.

The second volume of the Old Testament appeared in 1773, and the New Testamen in 1775, making up what is known as "The Whitehaven Bible." Two books of the Apocrypha were included. It is claimed for the Manx Bible that it was a new translation from the original versions, and it has justly been described as the greatest monument of the language. It established a standard for its orthography. which before had been uncertain and fickle. There are several important deviations from the English version. In Joshua, Rahab is described as " innkeeper "; in Sings, Elijah's " ravens" are translated " inhabitants"; and the phraseology was tered in certain passages of Job, Samuel, and Kings to meet " modern ideas of propriety."

In 1777, came the third edition of the Prayer Book, and Bishop Wilson's "Short and Plain Introduction for the Lord's Supper " in Manx and English. English editions of this book are still being published, and it has twice been translated into Welsh.

In 1783, Sermons by Bishop Wilson, translated into Manx, were printed at the expense of the Bishop's son by Crutwell, of Bath and are esteemed for the excellence of their Manx prose, The first mention a Manx hymn book occurs in the same year.

The second edition of the Hymn-book printed in 1795 by C. Briscoe, of Douglas, one of the earliest of the Manx printers. 'The hymns were selected and translated from the books of Wesley. Later editions followed in 1799, 1830, and 1846 with greatly improved typography.

In 1796, a translation was made of the larger portion of Milton's " Paradise by the Rev J. Christian, of i. and it was printed in Douglas. It was also reprinted by the Manx Society.

The next important work was the Manx Grammar of the Rev J. Kelly, of 1804. It is said to have been compiled, together a triglot dictionary, about the year 1766, primarily for the instruction of Bishop Hildesley. This was also reprinted with some alterations by the Manx Society and the reprint having become scarce, a small edition in facsimile was struck off in 1870 by the late Mr B. Quaritch, the noted bookseller, of London.

In 1803. the then Bishop of Sodor and Man (Dr Crigan) wrote to the S.P.C.K., that he had been importuned by the natives of his diocese to solicit a new edition of the Scriptures, adding that "the former impression was almost entirely worn out by above 30 years' use in damp churches and smoky houses." The funds in the hands of that society available for Manx Publications were found, however, to be insufficient to meet the expense of printing the Bible, and the society therefore offered an edition of the Prayer Book of 5,000 copies in substitution. This was produced in 1808, and distributed in the Island at a charge of about one-third of the prime cost.

About the same time, the attention of the British and Foreigp Bible Society was drawn to the scarcity of the sacred writings in the Island, and were urged to supply the want. It was estimated that the population was about 30,000, of whom one-third understood Manx only, and two-thirds understood Manx better than English. The result of the appeal was the printing of 2,500 copies of the New Testament in small size from stereo-typed plates. Further issues were made from the same plates in 1815, 1824, and 1825.

" Crossman's Catechism" was published in Manx in 1814, and four years later a small Manx Primer from the pen of the Rev Hugh Stowell, of Ballaugh. In 1817, the British and Foreign Bible Society were again approached for a supply of the whole Bible, as the need for it was stated to be very great; and in 1818 that society issued 5,000 copies in one volume octavo. No portion of the Apocrypha is included. This is the Bible which one generally sees in the homes of Manx people at the present day.

In 1819 appeared the first of a series of tracts translated from English originals. Five of them were printed in Douglas, three in Liverpool, and three in Bristol. The last of them, " The Sinner's Friend," was printed at Maidstone, Kent, in 1836, from the original by the Rev Newman Hall, and at the expense of a private fund, one of the contributors to which was Benjamin Disraeli. The hitherto unprinted 39 Articles appeared about 1822, as also six of the Homilies of the Church of England used in the time of Queen Elizabeth. In 1826, the Religious Tract Society published Dr Watts' " Hymns for Children" in Manx.

In 1835, Archibald Cregeen published his Manx-English Dictionary, which is still held in the highest estimation and has become very scarce. So much so, that this year it has been reprinted with some alterations and additions by " Yn Cheshaght Glailckagh" — the additions including an account of the author and a glossary of English words.

In 1840, the S.P.C.K. brought out the Fifth Edition of the Prayer Book, followed by another (the last) in 1842. Within the next few years there appeared some temperance tracts in Manx, one being a translation of a tract by John Wesley.

We have now arrived at the end of what I am afraid has been rather a. tedious recital of the publication of Manx printed literature. The year 1846 marked the last of the supply of Manx books to the Manx-speaking people, then a greatly diminished and diminishing number.

The book itself was a small one of " Family Prayers," and singularly and appropriately it was by the same author as the first book printed in Manx, viz., Bishop Wilson. It was also issued by the S.P.C.K., who were the pioneers of the movement nearly a century before.

Before concluding, I should wish to add my testimony to the good work which librarians are doing in connection with our free libraries and to the services rendered by them to literature in securing books relating to their respective localities. I remember the Douglas Free Library when it contained only a sprinkling of books dealing with the Isle of Man, and I think not one in the Manx language. Now, thanks to the zeal and discernment of Mr J. Taylor, who realises the fact that such books — and especially those in the vernacular — are becoming ever year scarcer, it is possible for you to see quite a. storehouse of Manx treasures, which otherwise might have been carried off the Island by visitors as " archaic curiosities," as I saw a Manx book described in a Liverpool bookseller's catalogue a few years ago (loud applause). Some also are going to Germany, and I am reminded that the philological library of Prince L. L. Bonaparte, which included some rare examples of Manx books, has left London for the Newbery Library of Chicago. The Douglas Free Library has also lately enjoyed the unusual advantage of the bequest of a private well-equipped library. I refer, of course, to that of my friend the late Rev T. Talbot, the able and critical scholar, whose researches have done so much to clear up confusion and error in Early Manx History.

I hope I may be forgiven if I have tried the patience of my audience too severely with the length of my paper, and I must add my regret that I was not able to come to the Island and make their acquaintance personally.

In conclusion, I would express my obligation to the chairman of the Library Committee (MrCouncillor Gale) for giving me the opportunity of contributing to what I hope will prove an interesting and enjoyable visit for the members of the North-Western Branch of the Library Association (applause).

Having spoken in eulogistic terms of the paper,

The Chairman said that they had at Manchester a copy of the rare Whitehaven Bible, which he would send along if Mr Taylor would like to receive it. There might not be any practical necessity for preserving old Manx prints, but from a philological point of view they were very valuable. Several Manchester men had written on Manx subjects, including William Harrison, author of " Bibliotheca Monensis" ; Dr Clay, who wrote the Manx Society's work on " Coinage"; Mr John I. Moseley, who had prepared a revised edition of Kelly's Dictionary; and Mr Roeder, the author of " Manx Notes and Queries," who, he was sorry to say, was lying at the point of death.

Mr Taylor produced from his collection a copy of " The Principles and Duties of Christianity," which was referred to in the paper as being out of print. The date of publication was 1707. The copy had belonged to the late Mr Robert J. Moore, High-Bailiff of Peel.

Councillor Gale said it was intended to have in the Douglas Library a distinct Manx section. This paper of Mr Wood's would form an extremely fine preface to a catalogue of Manx books. He moved a vote of thanks to Mr Wood for his interesting and instructive paper.

The Chairman seconded the motion, and included Mr Cubbon in the vote.

The motion was carried unanimously.


Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2002