On many of the quarterland farms on the Island, it was always the custom to provide hospitality, food and shelter for the wandering beggars who travelled about the roads; people who got their living by ‘going about the houses’ as it was called. They were usually otherwise homeless, going about from place to place relying on people’s charity to provide them with a bed and some food, oatmeal or potatoes or a salt herring to put in their ‘wallad’.
The insular law dealt very strictly with them, ordering them to be whipped and sent back to their own parish and maintained there, a law which seems to have been largely disregarded, for they were made welcome; no-one ever turned them away, but accepted them as part of the pattern of life.
Some farms, even up to the 19th century, had a beggars’ house (one or two of them still in existence), a small house with a fireplace, where beds were provided and there was a fire to sit by: on many farms the travellers were allowed to sleep in the barn, first surrendering any matches they might have in their possession.
This habit of willing hospitality is possibly one of the social attitudes taught to the people long ago by the religious orders. It is perhaps an indication of the origin of the custom that the farms constituting the grant of land on which the hospital of Ballacgniba was founded were themselves places where the beggars were housed and fed. It has been suggested that the name of one of them, Ballavitchal, comes from the Irish ‘bally-biatach’, the land held by the keeper of a hostel or hospice for the entertainment of travellers and the poor.
The Irish records mention several varieties of places of this kind, from Da Derga’s Hostel of the legends, to places of sanctuary for murderers, and hospices for travellers and the poor. ‘The Irish missionaries carried this fine custom to the Continent in early ages…they established ‘hospitalia’ chiefly for the use of pilgrims on their way to Rome’, and it is perhaps permissable to suppose that they or their successors may have brought it here.
(source: The Folklore of the Isle of Man by Margaret Killip (1975); photograph http://bit.ly/1M5wvZa)