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Before the Norsemen

by Bernadette Weyde

Is it possible for us to guess what the Gaelic name of St John’s or Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man was before the coming of the Norsemen? In the true Chronicle of Mann, the origin of which is obscure, it says in reference to the annual tribute to Manannan; “Some came with rushes to Wragfell and some to a place called Man, a place which is still so called.” Wragfell of the tent is obviously an error for Wardfell now Barrule; I shall deal with the other name Mann, later.

In the ballad of Manannan Mac Lir we read:

The rent which was coming to him (Manannan) out of the country
Was a bundle of green rushes each year,
And it appears they were going with that
Throughout the country each John’s Feast Eve. (Midsummer)
Some of them were going up with it
To the top of that great mountain Barrule;
Some others remained below
With Manannan above Keme-ool.” (also Keamool)

Here we have two place-names, Mann and Keme-ool, obviously referring to the same neighbourhood. Can we still identify the place? I think we can and with a certain amount of accuracy.

We can still see traces of Manannan’s tribute annually on Tynwald Day in the green rushes with which the path from the chapel to the hill is strewn, and the old ballad definitely connects this ancient pagan god with Midsummer, later the Feast of St John the Baptist.

Keim-ooyl (Irish ‘Cérry Abaill) can only have one interpretation ‘the Pass of the Apple Trees,’ a poetical name definitely pagan in origin, and probably referring to some old and long ago forgotten legend which we shall never now discover. This place was something in the neighbourhood of Tynwald Hill as was the name Mann, with which I shall now deal. Mann probably referred to Tynwald Hill itself, and is simply a worn-down form of its original name. But what could the latter have been? When we consider all the points it seems fairly clear that the pagan name of Tynwald Hill was Croc Manannaid. The name Mann is therefore the first syllable of Manannan and a worn-down form of the old name.

The dedication of Tynwald Hill to a pagan deity does not necessarily imply that the hill could not have been the place of departure of an early Manx rule.

Colloquially Manannan was often called Managhan and in several local names close to St Johns this name is incorporated.

A tumulus at Ballacraine is known as ‘The Grave of Managhan Beg,’ and this is clearly the name we have in the old ballad where it states, ‘Manannan Beg was the son of Lir.’ Then we have Manannan or Managhan’s Chair, in a field called Managhan. In this field tradition says that Manannan or Managhan and the Devil had what is now popularly known as a ‘scrap.’ Which was the victor? I cannot say, but as the legend is evidently an echo of the triumph over paganism, it was probably his satanic majesty who won.

Then there is a road leading down to St John’s known as Bayr ny Managhan, which probably means Manannan’s Road, but there is also a legend about the Monks using this road in travelling back and forward to the North to collect their tithes in kind, although the legend may have been a popular conception to explain a name which in Christian times would be regarded with a certain amount of suspicious as having a smack of paganism.

The St John’s end of the road is – or was, known as the Follagh y Vannin Road. Now the latter name is obviously a corruption of Bollagh Vanannan, Manannan’s Road, the English ‘road’ being added when the meaning of the Manx had become obscure. This obviously old name rather discounts the legend of the monks and it is quite clear that both names are simply variants, one part of the road being called Bollagh Vanannan and another part Bayr Vanannan. ‘Bollagh’ and ‘bayr’ are nearly identical in meaning.

The road leading from Knock Sharry to the Staarvey is called Bayr ny Hooyl, the Road of the Apples, or Apple Trees. Had this any connection with the name Keme Ooyl – the Pass of the Apple Trees – mentioned in the Manannan Ballad?

The following names are mentioned in an old Irish MS in connection with Manannan and are generally thought to be in Mann: Emain Ablach and Cruitin na Cuan.

Emain, gen. Emna, having a Latinised form Emania, is an other form of Mann.

Thus the name Emain Ablach is Old Irish for ‘Mann of the Apple Trees.’ What is the significance of ‘apple-trees’ in these names we cannot say, only that they are pagan in origin. Cruitin ny Cuan means ‘the little crook of the harbour,’ and may possibly have referred to Peel as being the nearest port to St John’s.

The earliest piece of testimony extant with reference to the language spoken in Mann relates to the seventh century and establishes the conclusion that the language of Mann at that period was substantially identical with the Gaelic in Ireland. The evidence in question is contained in a story related in Cormac’s glossary about a visit paid to the Island by Senchan Torpeist, who was the chief poet of Ireland from 649-662 CE. Senchan, it is stated, was accompanied on this visit by fifty poets as his retinue, besides students. On their arrival on the Island, probably in the vicinity of Port St Mary or Port Erin, the first person they saw was an old woman gathering seaweed. She asked them who they were and after receiving their reply she gave them a couplet of verse and challenged them to cap it with a corresponding couplet, which one of their number did. Unfortunately neither of the couplets were recorded for if they had, they would have been of the greatest interest to modern students of Gaelic.

The old Manx name of the parish of Kirk German was Skyll Carmane. Whatever the latter word means it certainly did not refer to any saint named German and it is difficult to decide whether it referred to a personage or a territory.

The ancient Irish historians mention a place called Carman where there was a great fair held, called ‘Oenach Carman.’ Irish authorities are divided as to the exact site of this fair, some claiming one country and some another. Could it have been in Mann on the place where Tynwald Fair is now held? It is a fascinating question. We certainly have the name in the parish, Skyll Carman. Let us examine the facts as recorded in Irish history. Even the various descriptions of the place by different writers are conflicting and it is possible that there may have been more than one place called Carman.

One account says that there was an Oinach held every three years – that is a grand council of kings and chiefs – an exhibition, a cattle show, a fair and races. The site was an extensive cemetery with meeting mounds, raths, fields without houses reserved for the fair. A ‘cúan’ (harbour) was there, with ‘ráith lind’ (bounteous water) and ‘bruachib’ (banks).

The harbour, bounteous water and banks might well apply to Peel where merchants from Ireland and elsewhere would land to attend the fair.

The whole subject is of the greatest interest and a closer examination of these ancient Gaelic records might throw a flood of light upon the pre-Norse history of Mann. Perhaps some future Manx scholar will go into the subject thoroughly for it is one deserving of investigation.

(source: JJ Kneen, M.A. from The IOM Natural History and Antiquarian Society Proceedings Vol IV No. II 1935-1937; photograph is of Tynwald Hill, the fairfield and St John’s Chapel courtesy of Google Earth)

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