Over sixty years ago, the Irish Folklore Commission made recordings of the last native Manx speakers. In doing so, the Commission ensured the preservation of the Manx language for generations to come.
It was summer 1947. Irish Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, was visiting the Isle of Man as part of a relaxing tour around the Irish Sea. During his sojourn on the island, de Valera (who was a fervent advocate of Irish Gaelic) met and spoke with Ned Maddrell, a native Manx speaker.
De Valera spoke Irish, Maddrell Manx, but the languages were close enough for communication. What de Valera learned alarmed him: the Manx language was dying out and the Manx museum had no technical means to record the last speakers.
On returning to Ireland, de Valera demanded that the Irish Folklore Commission immediately send a mobile recording unit to the island. But there was one problem: the Commission, which was keen to make recordings of Irish speakers, didn’t yet possess the necessary equipment.
The demands of the Taoiseach himself, however, led to the swift appearance of a van containing a disc-cutting unit. The unit could cut sixteen inch discs, each with the capacity to record fifteen minutes of speech per side.
In 1948, the van, driven by the Commission’s Kevin Danaher, trundled into Douglas, fresh off an Irish cattle boat and covered with cow dung.
Legend has it that on arrival outside the Manx museum, director Basil Megaw threw instructions to Danaher, telling him to stay in his vehicle and to make sure the windows were fully wound up, before having the van thoroughly hosed down.
The van made its way up to remote farms in Ballaugh and Bride, as well as to the village of Cregneash where Danaher recorded speakers whose mother tongue was 19th century Manx.
Locals Walter Clarke and Bill Radcliffe assisted Danaher, using batteries and convertors to power the unit. The turntable had to be balanced using a carpenter’s spirit level whilst tock and driftwood were used to prop up the apparatus.
Manx language expert, Dr Brian Stowell describes the recordings as ‘a crucial thing’ because they capture ‘Manx as naturally spoken’. ‘It was a terrific thing,’ he says. ‘It really saved the spoken language as we know it.’
The crate they came in is a reminder to us all of the importance of our rich heritage and has been chosen as one of the most significant items of historical interest on the Isle of Man today.
Manx Museum’s Kirsty Neate said “The object itself is very rough and very humble. Perhaps it’s not something we would immediately associate with importance in world history but what it brought back to the Isle of Man was invaluable.”
The cultural goodies carried inside have helped many people in their quest to learn Manx.
Today these recordings have been re-mastered, digitised and published with full transcriptions and translations. They have proved a priceless link back to the native Manx speakers for modern Manx linguists and have ensured the survival of the language”.
The recordings are available at Manx National Heritage.