We know that at the time of the Roman invasion the whole of the British Isles was occupied by three distinct races; first, that pre-Aryan race, usually called Iberian, whose presence in our Island for a period of unknown length is attested by implements of flint and hard stone scattered throughout the whole district; secondly, by the earlier Celtic people, who appear to have come over from the Continent at least seven centuries before our era – these are the Goidels or Gaels of Ireland and the Scottish highlands and islands, and the Isle of Man; thirdly, by a later Celtic people, closely allied to those of Gaul, who must have arrived in Britain about 300 B.C. – the Brythons, Cymry of Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.
The Gaels, as we learn from classical writers, confirmed by physical anthropology, were a tall-statured people with fair or red hair. In Gaul they intermingled with a small dark people, and with a short, sturdy, round-skulled dark people, with whom they appear to have amalgamated before the later Celts (Brythons or Cymri) drove them westwards.
The Goidelic Milesians, including the Scotraide or Scoti, appear to have arrived in Ireland about the beginning of the Christian era, and Irish legends point to a Celtic occupation of Man before the dominance of the Scoti, Cormac Mac Art being supposed to have banished the Pictish tribes of Ulster to Mannann and Insigall (the Western Isles) in the year 254 A.D. The total population must always have been small, and as the new comers arrived they would still find room for settlement, and would probably amalgamate by degrees with the older Iberian inhabitants.
Their dress was no doubt similar to that of the Irish in the seventh century, consisting of the Lenn, a kind of loose shirt, generally of woollen and sometimes linen, reaching with the men a little below the knee (the modern kilt), and with the women, to the ankle. Over this was the inar, a close-fitting tunic reaching to the hips, and bound round the waist by the criss (Manx cryss), a girdle or scarf open at the breast to show off the embroidery of the lenn. Over the left shoulder, fastened with a brooch, hung the bral (Manx), a shawl or plaid like the modern Scottish one. The legs were bare; feet either bare or with shoes of raw hide (our Manx carranes). The Welsh so late as the twelfth century wore their cloaks and tunics, and had their legs and feet generally bare, and the custom no doubt lingered as late in Man. The serfs or slaves wore braccæ or tight-fitting breeches reaching nearly to the ankle, the upper part of the body being left bare or covered with a short cloak without sleeves. In winter, all classes appear to have worn a long hooded cloak. Clad in such cloaks, we are told, and carrying a book, a wallet, and a leather bottle, with a thick-knobbed staff, the Irish missionaries went forth at the end of the sixth century, and travelled all over Europe. We may form an idea of their appearance by comparing them with the Benedictine monks, who got their dress from them, which in time became the characteristic habit of this religious order. Freemen wore their hair long, curling in ringlets; the women braided theirs, which they confined at the back of the head with a pin; the men also wore their beards long, often plaited into tresses.
Every tribesman had the right to bear arms. The Ancient Laws of Wales mention sword, spear and bow, with twelve arrows, as the full equipment of the head of a Cymric household. The principal weapon of the Irish was a lance with a very long handle. Some had a short sword suspended by a belt across the shoulder, and a shield of wood covered with hide. They learned from the Norse in the ninth century the use of iron battle-axes and weapons; before that they appear to have been still armed with stone hammers and axes.
The Scots of Ireland, like the Picts, tattooed figures on their bodies with woad; they covered their fingers with rings, their arms with bracelets, and wore torques or twisted rings of gold about their necks.
Their food was simple, consisting chiefly of oat-cakes, milk, cheese. curds, and butter, with fish and game, and the flesh of all domestic animals fresh and salted. They ate watercress also, and doubtless various wild fruits, nuts, and roots. Their chief drink was ale, the right to brew which was confined to the Flatha, or chieftain class. Bees were introduced into Ireland by the early missionaries, and came to be greatly cultivated for their honey and wax; onions, parsnips, and possibly other culinary roots and herbs also were introduced with Christianity.
The houses of people of all classes were made of wattles and wicker-work, cylindrical in shape, the space left between two circular frames of wattlework filled in with clay; the walls were brought to a conical roof thatched with rushes, grass, or straw. Each “room” was a separate house or cell, and an Aire, or freeman, would have a living-house for sleeping and meals; a women’s house for spinning, weaving, and domestic work; a kitchen, in which the grain was ground in hand-mills or querns after being dried in a small kiln, and food prepared. There was also a barn, calf-house, pig-stye, and sheep-house; the whole group, with the cattle-yard, being enclosed by an earthen rampart and ditch.
In some districts where there was no wood, the houses were built of dry stone in courses which, at a few feet from the ground, slightly overlapped so as to converge till capped by single slabs across the top, thus forming a beehive shaped hut, and many such are still to be seen in the West of Ireland. The walls are very thick, there are no windows or chimney, and the doorway would be filled in, as in the Hebrides at a much later date, with a movable frame of wicker or wattles, with heather or bent interwoven.
In Wales, so late as the twelfth century, the beds along the sides of the wall were formed of rushes covered with a coarse cloth. The fire, on a hearth in the centre, was kept burning all night. Wooden platters were used, with drinking horns and other vessels of wood; but in Ireland no domestic pottery.
They were a pastoral people, possessing herds of swine, sheep, goats, and cattle, the latter being their standard of value – thus we read in the Ancient Laws of Ireland that six cows were to be given to the master-builder for a church, three cows for a house, and so on.
In summer they went to the mountains with their flocks and herds, returning in autumn to reap their small crops of corn and spend the winter in more sheltered positions, and even in the twelfth century they had made but slight progress in agriculture and the other practical arts. Their chief business in life was warfare, at least in the sense of plundering raids on their neighbors, which, as in all communities in such a primitive stage of development, was regarded as a most honourable pursuit; and the spirit of jealousy which prevailed between rival clans and led to perpetual quarrels and incessant conflicts and bloodshed, was not perceptibly lessened by their adoption of Christianity.
They were a people of fine artistic sense. The Brehoti, orjudge (Manx Briew), and the Liag, leech, physician (referred to in one of our Ogam inscriptions from Arbory, where a stone was raised to MacLiag, the son of the Leech), the worker in metals and the smith (Manx Gaaue) held honourable positions in every tribe, and each head of a household had his domestic Bard. The harp was the chief musical instrument, but a sort of bag-pipe and kind of violin (crioth) were also played.
There were periodical gatherings of tribes, and on a larger scale of groups of tribes, called in Ireland Oenatha (fairs), held with religious ceremonies around some celebrated burial mound, at which (1) laws were promulgated and pedigrees rehearsed ( 2) poetry was recited, tales told, and there were musical contests; ( 3) sports, particularly horse-racing and wrestling; and (4) there was barter of all kinds of wares.
Something of the nature of their paganism may be gathered from early records. They believed in Sidhe (Manx Shee), or gods of the earth – the personified powers of nature, dwelling in the heavens and the earth, in the sea, in rivers, mountains, and valleys – beings to be dreaded and conciliated. These they worshipped and invoked, as well as the natural objects themselves, in which they were supposed to dwell. They assembled to worship in groves, perhaps in stone circles of an older race. No statues, altars, or temples by them, either in the British Isles or on the Continent, are known before Roman times; but reference is made by St Patrick in the fifth century, and other early saints, to their idols, which some have supposed to have been the Menhir, or upright stones, perhaps of Bronze or Neolithic Age.
They had some sort of religious regard for animals, particularly the Boar, and in Christian times, many of these objects, no longer actually worshipped, were regarded as charms, powerful to protect their owner in health of body and soul. In a hymn called “The Girdle of St. Finnian,” the Saint specifies five such charms – the goat, bird, serpent, seaweed, and heather – thus: “A girdle of a serpent is my girdle; the serpent is round me, so that men shall not wound me, so that women shall not bring me to perdition; it has raised me to the stars, it is about me with power.” On its practical side it was ‘a performance of traditional rites; its aim was not the salvation of souls, but the safety of the tribe, and it was just as a member of the tribe, community, or family, that it concerned the individual.
A great deal of what has been written about the Druids is based on what may be gathered of their system in Gaul at the time of their contact with the Romans, and if it applies to Britain, whence, according to Cæsar, it was transmitted to Gaul, it does not do so to Ireland, where the Druids were simply magicians or charmers, as no doubt they were in the Isle of Man. Members of our Society will remember that Prof. Rhys, speaking to us of an Ogam inscription from Rushen, which reads, “The stone of Dovaidu, son of the Druid,” asked, ‘Was there ever a time when there were not Druids in Man’? Undoubtedly, however, the Druids did exercise a great influence over the people from the belief that through the aid of the Sidhe they could practise a sort of witchcraft or magic which might be used either to benefit those who sought their assistance, or to injure those who were opposed to them.
We may, I think, reasonably assume that, in their dress, food, dwellings, and mode of living, as well as in their character, habits, and the nature of their paganism, the inhabitants of the Isle of Man in the fifth and sixth centuries were very much as here described, somewhat modified, it may be, by their small numbers, isolated position, and close contact with the older Iberian race. It remains to be seen whether any further light can be thrown on the subject by a more careful examination of such material remains of the period as are still existing.