[From Manx Quarterly, #25]

Tynwald : Its Origin and Antiquity

Tynwald is a name pregnant with interest to all Manxmen, it is the day par excellence of the Manx calendar, and the chief national festival-day of Mann. In this article I shall briefly attempt to show how the ceremony had its beginnings in the dim and misty past, anterior to the very dawn of history and long before Christianity had emerged from its Eastern cradle.

Tynwald, principally because of its name, is usually assumed to be of Scandinavian origin, but it is very evident that the latter people only perpetuated a custom which had already existed from time immemorial, a custom almost co-eval with the advent of man upon the earth, a custom which had through the ages evolved from a primitive human instinct to worship something, and the object which appealed mostly to their prehensile imaginations was the sun, the glorious Orb-of-Day, which gave them light. and heat, caused their corn and fruits to grow, filled the rivers with fish, thus giving them a bountiful food supply and benefiting them in many and varied ways too difficult to enumerate.

There were several days dedicated to the Sun-God in the Celtic year, but the particular festival- I intend to treat of here is that usually called Beltane (Irish: Bealtaine ; Manx Boaldyn). These were in fact two distinct festivals-a late spring and an early summer one; but they did not differ materially from each other in custom and procedure, and really were the twin-halves-so to speakof one great festival.

According to Dr. Stokes, the primitive form of Beltane was belote[p]nid, from belo-s, " clear," " shining," the root of the names Belenos and Belisama, and to[p]nos, " fire." Thus the word would mean something like " bright fire," perhaps the sun or the bonfire which took the place of the sun in later ages.


One of the chief ritual acts of Beltane, not only in Mann but in all Celtic countries, was the kindling of bonfires, usually on hills. The house fires in the district were often extinguished, the bonfire being lit by friction from a rotating wheel-the German " need-fire." The fire kept off disease and evil, hence cattle were driven through it, or, according to Cormac, between two fires lit by Druids, in order to keep them in health during the year. Sometimes the fire was lit beneath a sacred tree, or a pole covered with greenery was surrounded by the fuel, or a tree was burned in the fire. These trees survive in the Maypole of later custom, and they represented the vegetation spirit, to whom the worshippers also assimilated themselves by dressing in leaves. They danced sunwise round the fire or ran through the fields with blazing branches or wisps of straw, imitating the course of the sun, and thus benefiting the fields. For the same reason the tree itself was probably borne through the fields. Houses were decked with boughs and thus protected by the spirit. of vegetation.

An animal representing the spirit of vegetation may have been slain.

In late survivals of Beltane at Dublin, a horse's skull and bones were thrown into the fire, the attenuated form of an earlier sacrifice or slaying of a divine victim, by whom strength was transferred to all the animals which passed through the fire. In some cases a human victim may have been slain. This is suggested by customs surviving in Perthshire in the eighteenth century, when a cake was broken up and distributed. and the person who received a certain blackened portion was called the " Beltane carline," or " devoted." A pretence was made of throwing him into the fire, or he had to leap three times through it, and during the festival he was spoken of as " dead." Martin says that malefactors were burned in the fire, and though he cites no authority, this agrees with the Celtic use of criminals as victims. Perhaps the victim was at one time a human representative of the vegetationspirit.


The bonfire was a sun-charm, representing and assisting the sun. Rain-charms were also used at Beltane. Sacred wells were visited and the ceremony performed with their waters, these perhaps being sprinkled over the tree or the fields to promote a copious rainfall for the benefit of vegetation. The use of such rites at Beltane and at other festivals may have given rise to the belief that wells were especially efficacious then for purposes of healing. There is a Chibbyrt Balthane or " May Well" on Bradda, in the parish of Rushen, where certain customs were observed until quite recently. Balthane is also the name of a farm in the Abbey Lands of Malew, and we may be sure that it had some connection with the festival of Belthane. The custom of rolling in the grass to benefit by May dew was probably connected with magical rites in which moisture played an important part.

The idea that the powers of growth had successfully combated those of blight may have been ritually represented. This is suggested by the mimic combats of Summer and Winter at this time. Referring to this custom in Mann, Dr. Kelly observes: " On this day (May-day), likewise, the young people of different districts form themselves into two parties, called the Summer and the Winter (Sourey as Geurey), and having appointed a place of meeting, a mock engagement takes place, when the winter party gradually recedes before the summer, and at last quits the field." The May king and queen represent earlier personages who were regarded as embodying the spirits of vegetation and fertility at this festival, and whose marriage or union magically assisted growth and fertility. Probably the king of the May was originally a priest-king, the incarnation of the spirit of vegetation. He or his surrogate was slain, while his bodily force was unabated, in order that it might be passed on undiminished to his successor. But the persistent place given to the May queen rather than to the king suggests the earlier prominence of women and of female spirits of fertility or of a great mother-goddess in such rites. It is also significant that in the Perthshire ritual the man chosen was still called the " Beltane carlane" or " cailleach" (" old woman"). And if, as Professor Pearson maintains, witch orgies are survivals of old sex festivals, then the popular belief in the activity of witches on Beltane here, also shows that the festival had once been mainly one in which women took part. Such orgies often took place on hills which had been the sites of a cult in former times. A hill of this description is found in Baldwin, or Boayldin, as it is called in Manx. The site of an ancient mote or meeting hillock is still pointed out, and it is interesting to note that a Tynwald Court was held here in 1429. The name of the homestead in which this Tynwald Court is situated is an extremely valuable one from an archaeological standpoint; it is still called Algare, which is derived from a root " ealg," meaning " justice," and means " A Place of Justice." There is a hill in the county of Roscommon, Ireland, of similar derivation. Its Irish name is Druim Ealgach, pronounced Drum Alagagh, but the place is now popularly known as Mount Equity. In relation to this name Joyce says "Perhaps we may be permitted to conjecture that in old times some celebrated brehons (or judges) lived there; and if this were so, the present name would be singularly appropriate." It is more likely, however, that a mote-hill was situated here, and in this connection it is of the utmost importance to note that a Balley Vriw or " Judge's Deemster's) Homestead" formerly existed in Baldwin, which of late years has unfortunately been renamed.


In regard to the name Baldwin or Boayldin ; in spite of the fact that is called Baldall in the 15th century, I regard it as a relic of the festival of Beltane, and in fact its Manx name, Boayldin, is exactly similar in pronunciation to Boaydyn, the Manx for Beltane. The old scribes who wrote these names were notoriously careless in their spellings, and it seems very probable that the original pronunciation as found in Boayldin has been handed down by the people from mouth to mouth for long generations past. Beltany, the Anglicized form of Bealtaine, is found as a common place-name in Ireland. There is a stream joining the River Galeg, near Athea in Limerick, called Glasheennabaultina (Glaisin na Bealtaine), the streamlet of Beltane.

The Baldwin Benefit Society used to commemorate the event of the Tynwald having been held there as late as 1860, and perhaps later. On their anniversary day they marched to the hill, upon which the standard bearer planted his standard, whilst the band played " Mylecharaine," " Ny Kirree," and other Manx airs.

The ritual of the Midsummer festival did not materially differ from that of Beltane, and as folksurvivals show, it was practised not only by the Celts, but by many other European peoples. It was, in fact, a primitive nature festival such as would readily be observed by all under similar psychic conditions and in like surroundings. A bonfire was again the central rite of this festival, the communal nature of which is seen in the fact that all must con tribute materials to it. In local survivals, mayor and priest, representing the earlier local chief and priest, were present, while a service in church preceded the procession to the scene of the bonfire. To anyone acquainted with the ritual or procedure of the Manx Tynwald, the resemblance will be quite evident.

According to an old Manx ballad, the only yearly tribute that was} levied on Manxmen by the wizard-chief Mannanan was a bundle of rushes delivered to him every St. John's Eve, i.e., the eve of the Midsummer festival. A survival of this is still seen in the custom of strewing the path from the Church to the Tynwald Hill with rushes, representing a former sacrifice or offering to the Spirit of Vegetation.


As I have already noted, Beltane and Midsummer were the twin-halves of a spring, or early summer festival, the intention of which was to promote fertility and health. This was done by slaying the spirit of vegetation in his representative-tree, animal, or man. His death quickened the energies of earth and man. The fire also magically assisted the course of the sun. Survival of the ancient rites are or were recently found in all Celtic regions, and have been constantly combated by the Church. But though they were continued, their true meaning was forgotten, and they were mainly performed for luck or out of sheer conservatism. Sometimes a Christian aspect was given to them, e.g., by connecting the fires with St. John, or by associating the rites with the service of the Church, or by the clergy being present at them. But their true nature was still evident as acts of pagan worship and magic which no veneer of Christianity could ever quite conceal.

The only Tynwald now surviving in Mann is also dedicated to St. John, and the church called St. John's Chapel probably stands on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the Sun-god.

The chapel near the Baldwin Tynwald Hill is now known as St. Luke's Church, the previous edifice being dedicated to St. Abban., otherwise known as Boniface.

There was another Tynwald Hill at Kirk Michael, now called Cronk Urleigh, but formerly known as Reneurling. There are also records of Tynwald Courts having been held here.

This name is an interesting one, in fact there are a group of names in this neighbourhood which seem to be directly traceable to one rooturlaidhe (urley), meaning conflict, combat or slaughter. Nerlogh is an old Treen name, probably Yn Erlogh (Irish: An Urlach), the Place of

Conflict, etc. Reneurling stands for Rheynn Urley or Urleigh (Irish Rinn Urlaidhe), the Ridge of Con flict, etc. We find in Ireland a place named Ath-na-n'urlaidhe, now Englished Urlingford, a kind of hybrid !translation; Cronk Urley, for Cronk Urleigh (Irish: Cnoc Urlaidhe), the Hill of Conflict; and Ballaleigh for Balley Urleigh (Irish Baile Urlaidhe), the Homestead of Conflict, etc.

We have records of several conflicts having taken place at the Tynwald, but it is now difficult to say where these conflicts occurred. King Reginald was defeated and slain at the Tynwald in 1228.

Owing to the proximity of the Michael Tynwald to Bishopscourt, which latter was probably the residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles-Orrisdale, from [G]o [dhf]rey[dhr]s Stadh[r), Orry's or Gorry's Estate. Part of Bishopscourt is still known as Orry's Tower-it is very probable that some sanguinary encounters took place in this neighbourhood.


A later development was the fair held in connection with these Tynwald ceremonies. In place-names the other traditions all over Celtia, old assembly places can still be traced, where laws were enacted, modified or confirmed, and taxes and tributes regulated. The men of lore came there with their poems in praise of the living, and their stories of the olden times and their genealogies. Musicians came and clowns with their antics, and sleight-of-hand men. The men of military age came with their arms for weaponshow, and then laid their arms aside till the assembly ended. Traders from distant countries came to sell and buy. Horse races and other games were held. The general public, at least in the larger assemblies, were arranged and classed in divisions, and wooden galleries were set up to seat them. Streets of booths were set up for sleeping and eating, giving the place of assembly the temporary aspect of a town, and such towns were, probably, the cities named and placed in Ptolemy's description of Ireland, written in the middle of the second century.

Each of the Tynwald Hills we have mentioned has its fair-ground attached, as well as the church. Such was the Tynwald of the olden days, handed down from pagan, times with unbroken continuity, long before the Viking hosts sought for expansion in the West, and probably some of the rites and ceremonies connected therewith were practised by the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain.

The resemblance between the Gaelic name Boaldyn and the Scandinavian one, " Tynwald," has led some etymologists to believe that they are both traceable to a Celtic root or roots, but the latter name is derived from a Scandinavian source, Thing-vallr, meaning a " Field" or " Place of Parliament."

The resemblance, however, is still a very striking one, as one may readily observe when the syllables are reversed:

Tyn wald.


And it is possible that this resemblance had some influence on the translation of the Celtic into Scandinavian, for this fact must have been noted by the latter people.




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