by Ber Weyde

Profanation on the Sabbath was one of the commonest offences and the breaches of the holy days were very varied in character.  Men were presented for grinding snuff; for selling sickles near the Cross at Rushen church; making bee-hives and horn spoons; gathering sand-eels; grinding on the ‘wherne’; Richard Wilson, the famous master of Peel Mathematical School for travelling in 1780, on his worldly business with a surveyor’s chain on his back; a Ramsey banker, as late as 1808, for digging potatoes in his garden.

In 1737, according to the chaplain of St Matthew’s, a party of thirteen met on Sunday ‘in a disorderly and tumultuous manner at the Nunnery Mill dam to swim and passed the day there in Idleness and Folly.’  They were committed to gaol.

One curious case was that of William Caine of Kirk German in 1776, who ‘worked with his spade and dish upon the Lord’s day, seeking gold in Traie Bane (White Strand).’

In 1713, some people rode the Stang on the Sabbath.  The Stang was a pole upon which, when strong feeling was aroused by a wife or husband beater, the culprit was carried in procession.  In Lonan it was the wife who was accused of ill-treating her husband.  In Court she magnanimously forgave those who had paraded her by proxy.

Convictions for Sabbath-breaking throw light upon some of the ways in which Manx people amused themselves.  Probably the most general reaction – apart from visits to the fairs held several times a year in each parish – was social gatherings of friends and neighbours for talk, cards, music and dancing in one another’s houses and particularly where there was an ale licence.  Alehouses were patronised by every class, including the clergy though there was a feeling that they should avoid places where drinking was often immoderate and led to strife.

Violins and viols are the only musical instruments mentioned and the fiddlers who played at the gatherings generally went in twos and travelled long distances to fulfil engagements.  Playing was strictly forbidden on Sundays and other holy days.  The definition of ‘Sabbath’ varied from time to time.  At one period it stretched from sunset on Saturday to Sunday at sunset or to Monday morning.  Saturday evening was always debatable ground and the fear of punishment must have damped the fun of many a social gathering.

In 1780, when Robert Corlett of Peel, was charged with permitting a puppet showman to exhibit and play his puppets on a Saturday night in his house, the Court dismissed the case on proof that the show ended before 10pm.  John Shimmin, a well-known fiddler of Kirk German, who, after frequently encroaching on the Sabbath limits, disappeared from the Island for some years but on his return in 1723 was immediately clapped into St German’s (Cathedral, which also acted as an ecclesiastical prison) for his past offences.

The Courts were sympathetic to complaints of abusive or libellous language and sometimes meted out severe punishment for offences of this kind.  In 1714, a woman who called a person of weak intellect, ‘caillagh holaanagh’, that is, a feeble-minded old woman, was given seven days’ imprisonment.

When a Douglas merchant, after exchanges in Court, called the parish clerk of Kirk Michael a blockhead, he was immediately committed to St German’s.

The use of animals’ names as scornful epithets was banned by the Church.  The Spiritual Statutes singled out ‘dog’ in particular, and prescribed as punishment for its misuse the wearing of the bridle at the Cross or seven days’ penance.

In Jurby the word ‘porpoise’ was used in ‘screbbin gy perkin’, ‘a scabby porpoise,’ and a girl in 1742 called her red-haired rival, ‘muck jiarg’: ‘a red pig.’  ‘Donkey’ is never used, probably because the animal was a stranger here until modern times.  In 1803, however, the Vicar of Kirk Conchan was presented for calling a troublesome parishioner, ‘a mule,’ which, like ‘donkey’ was an exotic name in Man.

Smaller creatures like the ‘carnoain’, a beetle, sometimes provided words of contempt.  A Kirk Arbory woman called her victim a ‘grub.’  ‘Thou caillagh ny growag!’ she cried.  ‘Thou grub of an old woman and of the grubby kind didst thou come!’

In 1757 J.K. of Kirk Braddan, called his neighbour a ‘sniegan’, the Manx word for ‘ant.’  The Chapter Court, remembering favourable Biblical comment on the little insect’s activities, solemnly declared that ‘sniegan’ was ‘a word of no great scandal,’ and dismissed the case.

The dungeon at St German’s Cathedral was used as a prison for the last time in 1780 but the Spiritual Courts exercised powers of committal to the civil prison in Castle Rushen and of excommunication until 1825.  After that date no further cases are recorded and the system of penance by coercion which John Wyclif, more than four hundred years before, had declared to be wrong and anti-Christian, came to a belated and unregretted end.

Text: by David Craine, M.A., and appears in Vol. V, No.1 (April 1942-March 1946) of Proceedings published by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1948.
Photograph: taken c.1900 and shows Peel Castle and St German’s Cathedral on St Patrick’s Isle courtesy of imuseum.im.

You may also like