On Christmas Eve, called in Manx, “Oie’l Verrey,” the Eve of Mary, a singular and interesting custom is observed, which attracts large numbers to the parish church for the purpose of singing carols (in Manx called Carvals) and which appears to be peculiar to the Isle of Man.
On this evening, the church having been decked with holly, ever greens, and flowers, after prayers the congregation commence singing their carvals, which they keep up with a spirit of great rivalry until a late hour. On this occasion the church assumes a brilliancy seen at no other time, for each person brings their own light, some of the candles being of large size, many of them formed into branches for the occasion, and adorned with gay ribbons. During the interval of the carols, parched peas are flung from all directions, the female portion of the singers having previously provided themselves with an ample stock to pelt their bachelor friends.
This custom of carval singing seems yearly to be on the decrease in most parts of the island. The following account of a “Manx Oie’l Verrey,” is written by a thorough Manxman, William Kennish, for many years a warrant officer in the royal navy, which graphically describes an “Ilvary,” as he calls it, at Kirk Maughold.
THE MANX ILVARY
From Mona’s Isle and Other Poems, by Willam Kennish, R.N., London, 1844
When dark December’s dismal gloom
Came louring o’er the sky,
And snow-storms gather’d drear around,
And Christmas feast was nigh,
With all its merry-making time
Of festival and glee,
Beginning with the good old rule,
The parish Oie’l Verree.
When each young rustic with his lass,
Dressed in their best attire,
Trudged onwards to the parish church,
Oft o’er their shoes in mire;
But it was good old Christmas Eve,
At which time of the year
They pass’d each glen and haunted road
Without a spark of fear.
For many a merry-making laugh
Was heard along the moor,
Where meet in groups of neighbouring swains
Around some cottage door,
Selected by majority
To be the starting post,
Through the good nature of the dame,
And drollery of the host.
And daughters smart perchance they had,
Attractive too and fair,
While none seemed happier than the dame
To see them, pair and pair,
Start off in all the pride of youth,
As she had done before, –
On many a merry Christmas Eve,
From the same cottage door.
The parish bell rung merrily,
Indeed as well it might,
For through the year, save at that time,
It never rung at night:
Group after group now fast arrived
From all the parish round,
While mirth and rural jollity
Did ‘mongst the whole abound.
Some came across the mountain’s side,
Some many weary miles
O’er hills, and lowland marshy fields,
O’er hedges, gates, and stiles;
But it was good old Christmas Eve,
Which comes but once a-year,
Hail, rain, or snow, could not detain
Them from th’ Oie’l Verree cheer.
The lasses with their gowns tuck’d up,
And strongly pinn’d behind
Were led by lads along the aisle,
Their landlords seat to find; (1)
With candles formed in many a branch, (2)
The pew t’ illuminate,
Fused in the crescit (3) by young Peg,
And dipp’d by thrifty Kate.
Along the gallery and nave
Of the old church, were seen
Festoons of many a holly-branch,
Relieved with heben (4) green.
When in full light the sacred pile
Of many a year appeard,
And the selected prayers were read,
The pastor homeward steer’d.
Leaving the delegated clerk
To rule the rustic train,
While each in turn his carol (5) sang,
Celebrity to gain
A veteran old, of many years’
Experience in song,
Was still the first each Oiel Verree
Amongst the rustic throng.
To draw the time-worn sheet from out
His leathem breeches’ fob,
In creases deep by dint of years,
But plain enough for Rob;
For he had leamt it all by heart,
As the old saying goes,
But to be thought he could not read
In writing, rhyme, or prose,
Was a dishonour to his fame,
Such as he could not brook,
Tho’ he had never learn’d the use
Of letters or a book;
But, to be candid, perhaps he might,
If educated well
Have been a Milton, or a Pope,
A Johnson, or Boswell
But here we had him as he was,
An honest Manxman bred,
With all the marvels yet extant
Well hammer’d in his head;
And with self-consequential air
He’d lean out o’er the pew,
And tune his quav’ring annual note
As if each year t’were new.
While at the end of every verse,
The wags around the door
Would loudly cry, with mock applause-.,
“Well done, Rob Jack! encore!”
But he was proof alike to scorn,
And flattery’s magic spell,
His own so oft-tried power of song
He knew himself full well.
And that he could his voice command
O’er all their “hems” and “haws,”
Knew where to lay the emphasis
On words, and where to pause;
Yet notwithstanding all his powers,
Few did appreciate
His music or his eloquence,
Saving his old wife Kate.
Who would, with great pretension too,
To St. Cecelia’s art,
Chime in to help him through each verse
Towards the latter part.
The next whose customary turn
Was to perform, stood up,
And being stimulated well
By famed old Nelly’s cup,
Commenced his diatribe against
The cassock and the gown,
Each bishoprick and vicarage
He would that night cry down;
The curate too came ‘neath his lash,
As did the easy clerk,
Whom he would view with look askance
At every shrewd remark.
For many a home directed stroke
Was drawn in metaphor,
In this his yearly tilt against
The Episcopal lore;
When those two yearly champions
Had finished each his song,
The one so fraught with satire keen,
The other dry and long.
The youthful band the moment hail’d
With many a smiling face,
For now the time for shutting up
Was drawing on apace.
Now went each joke, and shrewd remark,
Around from pew to pew,
And maids their stock of parched pease
Amongst the rustics threw
By custom taught for ages back,
The lasses brought their pease,
In pockets full each Oie’l Verree,
The bachelors to tease,
By taking opportunity
When they were least aware,
To throw their pulse artillery,
And make the rustics stare.
Now when each chanting candidate
Had done his best to please, (6)
And lasses tired of the sport
Created by the pease,
They’d all agree with one accord
To take the dreary road,
Repassing through each haunted glen
Ere all reach’d their abode.
But on that merry-making eve
There is no cause to fear,
Nor ghosts, nor witches, for ’tis said
They dare not then appear:
Upon each road a half-way house
Was ready to receive
Each courting pair, on their return
From church on Christmas Eve.
A noted one amongst the rest,
The far famed Brumish Veg,
Well stock’d with home-brewd beverage
Fresh frothing from the keg;
And blithely on that jovial night
Each toast and jest went round,
And with their rustic merriment
Did Brumish Veg resound!
The ale was seasou’d to the taste
In each full foaming pot,
Not with ground ginger mixed with spice,
But good black pepper (7) hot;
And junks of wheaten-flour bread,
So seldom used in Man,
After being toasted on the turf,
Would hiss within the can.
Such was the fare at Brumish Veg,
As flowed the mirthful tide;
And many a youthful pair, whose home
Was on the mountain side,
Sat down to quaff the barley-corn’s
Most stimulating juice,
And in their turn another sort
Of songs would introduce,
From those which they had sung in church
An hour or two before,
While they would pass the jug about,
Regardless of the score,
Until each lass, persuasively,
Would hint the way was long
They had to go, which would give rise
Unto the parting song.
The parting they sang that night
I well remember yet,
It aye reminds me of those scenes
I never them forget;
Though many years have pass’d away
Since just I heard that strain,
Its tones oft o’er my memory steal,
And bring home back again. (8)
After the parting verse was sung,
And jough y dorrys (9) drank,
And the large Christmas candle had
Within the socket sank,
They of the host of Brumish Veg
Then took a parting leave,
And thus the merry rustics all
Closed that auspicious eve.
Each lad would see his lass safe home,
Whose parents would invite
Him in, and sanction his request
To stop with her the night,
While they would go unto their bed,
And leave them by themselves,
With a good fire upon the hearth,
And plenty on the shelves.
Thus they would pass the happy night,
Still daring not to stride
O’er Hymen’s boundry, or attempt
What virtue has denied,
Observing the old adage still
Which they were wont to say,-
“To keep the feast strictly preserved
Until the festal day.”
(1) As but few of the better-thinking sort of the community visited church on this night, the rustics had free access to each of their landlords’ seats.
(2) It was customary for the females to manufacture candles formed into branches for this occasion.
(3) A piece of broken iron pot, commonly made use of for melting tallow for the purpose of dipping half-peeled rushes in the grease, and so making “rush lights” of them.
(5) The custom was for one or two men to stand up at a time, and sing their carols to the audience after the church service was over; and the church door was kept open until a late hour for that purpose.
(6) There was considerable rivalship on these occasions in display of vocal abilities.
(7) This is a custom which prevails in the island at all festivals.
(8) The “parting verse”
♫ My guillyn vie, te traa gholl thie;
Ta’n stoyll ta foym greinnagh me roym;
Te signal dooin dy ghleasagh;
Te tayrn dys tra ny liabbagh.
My guillyn vie, te traa gholl thie;
Ta’n dooid cheet er y chiollagh;*
Te geginagh shin dy gholl dy lhie;
Te bunnys traa dy graa oie vie. ♫
* or, Ta’n smarage gaase doo ‘sy chiollagh.
which may be rendered thus:-
♫ My good boys, it’s time to go home;
The stool that’s under me urges me to be off;
It signals us to move off;
It draws to time of going to bed.
My good boys, it’s time to go home;
The darkness comes upon the hearth;*
It forces to go to bed;
It’s nearly time to say good night. ♫
* Or, The cinder grows black on the hearth.
(9) The stirrup cup.
(source: Manx Calendar Customs by Cyril Ingram Paton (1942); Mona’s Isle and Other Poems by William Kennish, RN (1844))