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The Manx Church

by Bernadette Weyde

The Manx church was the social as well as the spiritual centre of the Manx parish. At the Parish Cross, which stood outside every churchyard fence, people gathered after service to exchange news and hear the Sumner make public announcements; there, warning was given for attendance at the Spiritual and Civil courts; and there too, were held the annual fairs.

The Manx of past times disliked any break in the practices of their ancestors: “Mannagh vow cliaghtey cliaghtey, nee cliaghtey coe,” they said – “Unless custom is indulged by custom, custom will weep.”

This reluctance to sever relations with the past is seen plainly in the history of the churches. The sites they occupy appear to have been sacred places from time immemorial and were chosen by the first Christian missionaries because of the veneration they had already aroused in the minds of the people.

The late Canon Quine drew attention to the influence of tradition on the form and proportions of the ancient Manx parish churches. Nearly all have now disappeared but there is evidence enough to show that in plan they resembled the medieval church of St Trinian. They were rectangular and without transepts, the length being approximately three times the breadth. The traditional proportions are to be found at Old Kirk Lonan which is 54′ x 18′. Kirks Malew, Andreas, Bride and Maughold were originally of the same proportions; and when Ballure Chapel was rebuilt in 1743, its dimensions, either by accident or design, followed the tradition and were 57′ x 19′.

There was a pre-Christian belief in the Scandanavian countries that evil came from the north. This superstition is found in the Manx expression , “Bee er dty hwoaie!” that is “Be on thy guard!” which is literally “Be on thy north!”, north being synonymous with danger. And in the early Celtic church building the architect, actuated by the same superstition, made as few openings as possible in the north wall.

The Manx churches perpetuated this custom. Old Kirks Malew and Marown had no window on the sinister northern side; Kirk Lonan and Kirk Michael, one small window. The present windows of Old Ballaugh Church are of fairly recent date – not earlier than the 18th century – and take the place of two small openings of earlier times.

The early Manx keeills (chapels) were thatched or roofed with ‘scrahyn‘ (sods); but the Episcopal records imply that the parish churches were slated by the end of the 16th century and that it was customary to whitewash them periodically inside and out.

Medieval chapels and churches were not provided with seats for the congregation. In the case of the Manx keeills their small size makes it probable that the building itself was often reserved for the officiating priest, whilst the worshippers knelt outside. After the Reformation, the floor space in a Manx church was divided up into portions which were allotted in country parishes to the occupiers of quarterlands, crofts and intacks; in other words, to land and not to houses as in England. Generally the seat holders were responsible for the erection of their own benches and this sometimes led to trouble when a bench was shared between two landowners. The fact that the seats were private property made their owners sensitive to any uninvited intrusion into them and their resentment led to scandal.

In Kirk Arbory in 1718 when there was disagreement between two parishioners over their adjoining pews, the man and woman concerned went separately and secretly to Church and ripped out the opponent’s pew.

Much the same sort of trouble arose in towns. In 1669 there was a squabble during service time in St Mary’s, Castletown, over the possession of a seat. Two prominent women, members of Castletown society, were involved. One pricked the other several times with a great pin to induce her to move and tore off her kerchief and scarf ‘to the great offence’ it was said ‘of the congregation.’ And no doubt they agreed with the victim of the assault when she cried out, “Good Lord, deliver me from such rude bears!

(source: Manannan’s Isle by David Craine (1955); photograph is of Maughold Church © Bernadette Weyde)

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