Superstitious as were the Manxmen whose occupations were on land, they were surpassed by the Manxmen whose occupation was on the sea. Proof of this is afforded by the following account of the superstitions of Manx fishermen:
On May Eve, the crosh cuirn (rowan cross) would be put into every boat. They would travel for miles into the country to get this, and would then deposit it in some secret place in the boat, and it had to remain there until the following May Eve.
In making a start for the fishing for the first time, care must be taken (1) not to go out on Friday; (2) to turn the boat with the sun, as to turn against the sun would be unlucky; (3) to have salt in the boat. If by any chance the boat had to turn back, it was considered very unlucky, especially on the first day of going out.
No person was allowed to whistle on board the boat, as it would attract the attention of the Dooinney-marrey (merman), who would be sure to send more wind than was required. No person was allowed to speak of dogs, cats, rabbits, horses or mice. A horse-shoe was nailed in some place in every boat, that of a stallion being considered the best.
It was lucky to dream of a ripe cornfield, and of a high tide with an abundance of seaweed on the shore. If a man dreamed of his wife it was sure to bring fine weather; but if he dreamed of strange women the weather would be bad. If a pair of ravens were seen to fly across the bay, creek, or harbour, it was a sign that there would be plenty of herrings caught.
If the boat was becalmed, the surest way to bring the wind in a very short time was for a man to stick a knife in the mainmast. If it blew a gale when the fishing boats were at sea, it was no unusual thing for fishermen’s wives to throw handfuls of salt in the fire. They believed that would stop the wind from blowing so hard. This practice was common fifty years ago.
If a boat was unlucky, recourse was had to the herb-doctor. Many a good handful of herbs have I seen carried on board. The herbs had to be boiled in a pot, and the liquor, when mixed with rum, was divided among the crew, except a portion which was thrown upon the nets. Occasionally some of the herbs would be put in the tail buoy, and disposed of in various ways as ordered by the doctor. The whole ceremony was to be kept a secret from other people. This ritual was believed in, not only by the most ignorant, but by the most intelligent among the fishermen; class leaders and local preachers, and many of that sort believe in it to this day.
When a fisherman was leaving home to go to fish on Monday, his wife threw an old shoe after him. If it stopped mouth up with the point of the shoe pointing the way he was going, it was very lucky; but if the point showed back towards the house, he might as well go back himself, as it would be a poor week’s fishing. This throwing of the shoe was also a sure indication whenever a person had any venture such as a law-suit, going to sell a cow or horse at a fair, or getting married.
If a fisherman lost the first fish as he was hauling his line in, or if the first fish was caught by the stern-most man in the boat, it was considered unlucky. If the first herring caught in the boat for the season had a roe, it was lucky; if it was a milt herring it was unlucky.
To go out third boat on the first day of the season, especially, but also at any time, was unlucky. To leave home on Monday morning with the stockings, drawers, singlet, or any of the undergarments put on by mistake wrong side out, was lucky; but they had to be left that way during the whole of the week.
The merman, or Dooinney-marrey, man of the sea, was feared by the fishermen. No one on board a boat dared to whistle lest he should send more wind than was convenient, and the following shows the need there was of getting on the right side of him:
There was a tradition that there was a herring fishing-boat that was manned by a crew of seven single young men; she was called Baatey ny Guillyn, The Boys’ Beat. Every place that they shot their nets they got herring. They were in the habit every morning when they were hauling their nets of throwing a jystfal (dishful) of herring overboard to the Dooinney-marrey, with the result that good luck followed them wherever they went. The admiral (the fisherman in charge of the fleet) saw that they had more herring than any of the others, and, not knowing how it came to be so, he had them summoned to appear on a certain day on Port Erin shore to be sworn that they would undertake to show the rest of the fleet where they were fishing. They swore that they always fished to the South of the Calf, with the result that all the fleet started for that ground. After the fleet had shot their nets some time, the night being fine and calm, the men on Baatey ny Guillyn heard the Dooinney-marrey saying “Te kiuneas aalin nish agh bee sterrym çheet dygerrid,” that is, “It is calm and fine now, but a storm is coming shortly.” With the result that they at once put their nets on board and gained the harbour. No sooner had they arrived there than a sudden storm arose and destroyed the fleet. Only two men – brothers – were saved, and they, trying to save their father on the rugged rocks at the Calf, nearly lost their lives, but succeeded in bringing their father’s corpse to land. It was given for law ever after that no crew should consist entirely of all single men. There had to be at least one married man on board. And no man was bound in his hiring to fish in the South Sea, which was called the ‘Bloody Sea’ ever after.
They used to say that mermaids were very fond of crabs. Once when a Dalby man, down on the Niarbyl at low water fishing for crabs among the rocks, had got a good string of crabs, up comes a mermaid to him, and says she to him in Manx
“Give us a crab, Joe Clinton, an’ I’ll tell your fortune.”
Joe gave her one, and she made off with it, chiming out as she dived into the sea
“Choud as vees oo bio er y thalloo, cha bee oo dy bragh baiht er y cheayn.”
“So long as you live on the land, you will never be drowned in the sea.”
(source: William Cashen’s Manx Folk-lore (1912); artwork is Peel Harbour by William Webb courtesy of Magnolia Box and © Manx National Heritage)