Druidism in the Island of Man?

From Manx Soc vol 15, 1868 article by J. R. OLIVER, M.D.

From a very early epoch, the Isle of Man had been the seat of a monarchial government. Its first line of kings2 were princes from North Wales, who ruled over it for the space of four centuries. The earliest and most celebrated of these was Maelgwyn, King of North Wales, and nephew of the famous King Arthur. He conquered the island A.D. 525, chiefly through the assistance of his uncle. From this circumstance he received the name of Draco Insularis, and became one of the Knights of the Round Table. The Welsh line of kings terminated with the demise of Anarawd ap Roderic in the year 913. During this long period, a close friendship existed between the Welsh, and the Manx people, cemented and strengthened by frequent intercourse with each other. Prior to the Cambrian dynasty, a mythological character called Mannanan Beg Mac Y Leir, is said to have governed the Isle of Man, and to have been its first legislator or ruler. Who this personage was, or from whence he came, is not very certain. According to the most approved tradition, he was of royal extraction, and descended from one of the kings of Ireland. Being of a restless roving disposition, he found his way to Man and settled there. Unfortunately, "little Mannanan", Mannanan beg, as he is called in the Manx language, has the ominous character of a paynim and necromancer, who by his occult arts enveloped the island in a perpetual mist, so that strangers were unable to visit it, whilst he sat at home in ease on the top of a high mountain called Barrule.3

The probability is, if such a person as Mannanan ever existed, he was simply some adventurous seaman or trader who, happening to visit the Isle of Man, settled in it, and made it the country of his adoption. He was there at the time of St. Patrick's visit, and whatever his skill in the occult arts may have been, it was not potent enough to prevent his banishment by the Irish Apostle. The religion of the Manx at this period is supposed to have been Druidism, and like Mclinus, they were said to be addicted to the practice of the black arts, a circumstance which sorely grieved St. Patrick, so, that instead of proceeding on his journey, he stayed in the island until he had converted them from the error of their ways.

Whatever may be the amount of truth mixed up with the legend of Mac Leir, there can be little doubt that after the Roman edict, the Druids of Anglesey fled to, and found refuge in, the Isle of Man.4 Here they erected their altars, disseminated their doctrines, and finally perished, exterminated it is said by the orders of St. Patrick. At one time they must have existed in considerable numbers, instanced by the numerous places still called after them. To the present day, the peasantry use the term Druid, or Druidical, when speaking of any old ruin of whose history they have no knowledge, legendary or otherwise, and apply it alike to the stone circle of the Norseman, and the debris of a ruined chapel.

Insular tradition, as we see from the above, in its ascription to St. Patrick of the conversion of the Manx people, hints, that he made short work of the business, inasmuch as he destroyed the Druids by fire and sword. For the sake of St. Patrick's Christianity, however, we hope the traditionary account is not true, and we may safely ignore it, as being wholly contrary to the well-known precepts and practices of the early missionaries. They in fact did no violence to the prejudices and feelings of our heathen ancestors; but, by judicious management, gentleness, and kindness, won over the sympathies of the inhabitants to the new faith. By this means only did they establish Christianity, and firmly plant it in the affections of the people.

June 25th, the day of Manannan's offerings?

From [From Folklore of the Isle of Man, A.W.Moore, 1891]

The festival on June 24th, Midsummer-day, and on its eve, Midsummer-eve, kept since the change in the Calendar on July 5th and July 4th, seems to have been of Scandinavian origin, for, among the ancient Celts, the longest day, as far as is known, was of no especial account. But to people living within the Arctic circle, who for months in the winter were altogether deprived of the sun, his ascent and descent were naturally of greater importance than to people living further south. This festival was probably originally in honour of Balder, the northern Sun God, who at Midsummer attained his greatest splendour and duration, and from thence began to decline.13 The beginning of his declination was commemorated by the lighting of his funeral pyre, which the modern bonfires have perpetuated. Of the later celebration of this eve and day in Scandinavia, Vigfusson writes :-" St. John Baptist's Day is in the northern countries a kind of Midsummer Yule, and was in Norway and Sweden celebrated with bonfires, dance, and merriment ; and tales of fairies and goblins of every kind are connected with St. John's Eve in the summer as well as Yule-eve in winter." And with regard to its origin, he says :-" The origin of this feast is no doubt heathen, being a worship of light and the sun, which has since been adapted to a Christian name and a Christian Calendar."14 Very similar are the observances of this eve in Man. Bonfires were lit on the hills, and blazing wheels were formerly rolled from their tops, probably originally with the intention of typifying the beginning of the sun's declination.15 Cattle were also driven between or over fires to keep them from disease, and men and boys leaped over the flames. Train says that "on the eve of St. John the Baptist, the natives lighted fires to the windward side of every field, so hat the smoke might pass over the corn ; they folded their cattle and carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times."

These fire observances were in fact the same as on May-day Eve, and they seem to have been designed as Charms to secure as much sunshine as possible, which, considering our dull and cloudy climate, is not to be wondered at ; and they were at one time connected with human sacrifices.16 There was also a notion that the corn would grow well as far as the bonfires were seen, and, therefore, numerous bonfires were lit on these occasions, and it was supposed that the height of the straw depended on the height that the men jumped over the flames.

Fairies are supposed to be especially powerful on this eve, and Witches are said to hold a saturnalia.

A curious belief that the souls of all people left their bodies when asleep on this night, and wandered to the place where they would die was formerly prevalent, and from this probably arose the custom of sitting up to watch, and so avoiding such an occurrence. Those who watched in the church porches were rewarded with the sight of those who would die in the year, as on St. Mark's eve and Hollantide eve. On this eve, too, was gathered the BolIan-Feaill-Eoln, "John's Feast-day wort" (mugwort), which was made into wreaths to be worn on the heads of man and beast to protect them from witchcraft.

The next morning the great Tinwald Court,17 corresponding to the Icelandic Althing, was held, when the laws were promulgated, and the festival proper, all Witches and evil Spirits having been disposed of on the previous evening, began. At this festival, which probably lasted a fortnight in old times, there took place not only the Court, but probably a religious feast and merry-makings of all kinds, such as hurling and football, match-making, feasting, and, above all, recitals of legends and traditions. As regards Man, however, we have no definite information about the observance of this day from tradition, except that there was a fair, which still continues ; and from written sources there is only preserved a letter written, in 1636, by Bishop Parr to Archbishop Neile, in which he states that on St. John Baptist's day he found the people in a chapel dedicated to that Saint "in the practice of gross superstitions," which he caused "to be cried down," and, in the place of them, "appointed Divine services and sermons." We can only wish that the good Bishop had informed us what these "gross superstitions" were. We have already seen (Chapter I.) that Manannan received his tribute of rushes on this day, and it is curious that the pathway leading up to the chapel is still covered with rushes supplied by a small farm close by, which is held on the tenure of doing this service.

As we have already seen from the name, St. John, the Church adopted this heathen festival as that Saint's feast, Feaill Eoin, "John's-Feast," as it is called in Manx. It has been ingeniously suggested by Mr. Tylor that this adoption, or rather adaptation, may have arisen from the same train of symbolism which adapted the heathen Midwinter solar festival to the Nativity of our Lord, i.e., from our Lord's own words "He must increase, but I must decrease." It seems, however, much more probable that St. John was merely substituted for Balder, as our Saviour was substituted for him in other poirtions of the northern faith.

The following proverb attached to St. John's Day probably refers to the desirability of having rain to bring on the straw of the corn crops at this time rather than later, when it would interfere with the maturing of the grain: Lane croie cabbyl dy ushtey L'aal EoIn feeu mayl Vannin, "A full horse-shoe of water (on) John's Feast-day is worth the rent of Man."

Interpretations/Translations of Manannan's name:

From The name Man - Manx Place-names, 1925

It has been surmised by some that the Island took its name from a tribe called the Menepii, who inhabited a tract of land on the east coast of Ireland in Ptolemy's time. This tribal name meant 'hill-men,' but whether they had any connection with Man it is impossible to say The late Prof. Rhys suggested that Mann may have taken its name from Manannán, the Celtic Neptune, but it is much more probable that Mananndn took his name from the Island. The suffix nán, conveyed the idea of 'littleness,' which sometimes included endearment ; thus Manannán means 'little Manxman,' and in Manx tradition he is called Manannan beg mac y lir, 'little Manannan son of the sea,' showing that the idea of diminutiveness was associated with him.

From [From Manx Soc vol 30, 1880]MANN, ITS NAMES AND THEIR ORIGINS.

The word mannan = kid or fawn, exists in the Erse and Britannic dialects, and in other tongues. Some of its forms appear below:

Manx: mann-an.
Irish: mion-an.
Old Irish: mm-d.
Scottish: mean, meann-an.
Welsh: myn, myn-an, myn-yn.
Cornish: mm, myn, mynn-an.
Amoric: Menn.

A trace of the word appears in the Saxon and English hind, the female of the red deer. It is an element of the Latin hinn-a = hind or mule, and of hinn-ulus or hinn-uleus young hind, fawn, kid, or little mule ; and also of the Greek Ivvoc.

The Manx adjective mannanagh signifies belonging, or relating to kids or fawns. The plural of this word is mannanee, the exact name of the natives of Mann.

The fabled enchanter Mannanan beg Mac y Leah, who could hide the little island in a disguise of magic fog, or charm it into fascinating light, was the kid, the Son of the Mist. Such may be the interpretation of his name.