New Year's Day Lecture 2022

by Curtis Devereau

Nowadays we take the sight of the Bilingual running-in boards on the railways as commonplace, so it is easy to forget the suppression of the Manx language back in Victorian times -and before - with children being shamed out of speaking the language in school. The subsequent revitalisation of the Manx, led by pioneers of the Gaelic society and now in full blossom with the delightful Manx Language Schools is a joy to behold, and of course is shared worldwide through the efforts of Culture Vannin and the like.

I have recently been searching through the archives of Sheshaght Ghlare Vanninagh - the Manx Language Society - as part of their drive to digitise the minutes of all their meetings, pamphlets and letters, some of which date back to the mid 1880’s. Whilst carrying out this research I discovered a number of references to plans to run Manx-only trains during the era of Pan-Celticism and Celtic revival around the turn of the last century. Cross-referencing these records with those of the three railway Companies - the IMR, Manx Northern and Foxdale - shows there was much support for the idea in principle, with evidence of goodwill and cooperation that challenges the received wisdom of poor relationships verging on outright animosity.

To outline the plans, it was intended that a number of trains each week would be run by Manx-speaking staff, with specially-printed tickets bearing the destination names in Manx; trains would be hauled solely by locomotives bearing ‘authentic’ Manx names, and - radical at the time - English station nameboards would be replaced by Manx-language ones on the appropriate days. There was considerable excitement amongst the members of Sheshaght Ghlare, a few of whom worked on the railways; the minutes of several meetings have sections devoted to the idea. Take this example, from March 1898: ‘Deemster Kissack has proposed that each Ramsey-bound train should be staffed by Manx speakers, who would then travel back to Douglas as passengers; a trial showed the refreshment room in Ramsey filled up with staff who chose to break their journey with an over-long (and very liquid) lunch break; a splinter group chose to travel to Douglas by tram, thereby achieving the legendary ‘fainey raad yiarn’, or ‘railway ring’, i.e. a circuit of the Island by rail.’

Further trials were carried out, which highlighted a number of problems. One was that not all staff were competent in Manx, resulting in tickets being mis-sold and passengers given incorrect information: the example was given of a group of well-intentioned schoolboys who travelled to Balley ny Croshey (Crosby) when they should have gone to the Grammar School in Balley Chashtal (Castletown). Similarly, a lack of fluency in the old language was cited as the reason for all the milk churns on the Island being sent to Purt Chiarn (Port Erin), resulting in Shiaghtin Bainney Soor -sour milk week- followed several months later by Mee Ny Caashey Rour (The Month of Excess Cheese), events in Manx history which are still referred to in hushed tones by elderly members of the community. There is also an apocryphal story, still told in the watering-holes of Ramsey, about a consignment of Rum being sent to Rumsaa in December 1899; the G van containing the shipment was left in the station yard overnight, only to be found empty the next morning. The local constabulary mounted an extensive search and interviewed many townsfolk, both formally and informally -but were met with a wall of silence. In scenes reminiscent of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore!, tales abounded of bottles being disguised as -variously- fire extinguishers, PT dumbells, a telephone and, improbably, a dachshund. When, in 1989, a hoard of rum bottles was found during renovation work to the building that had once housed Caine’s the Butchers in Parliament Street, the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place, with all the evidence pointing towards the Ramsey Butchers being behind the theft, annually reducing their illicit stockpile at their Christmas party.

I discovered other irregularities, such as Phurt le Moirrey being mistaken for Phurt Ny Hinshey, resulting in a large delivery of scorched oak chippings bound for the Peel Kipper houses being left on the goods siding at Port St Mary, where, again due to error, it was taken to be a load of Bog Ore from the gasworks and was spread along the permanent way between Ballabeg and Colby, giving that section a distinct aroma that persisted until the Iris Scheme relay almost a century later.

The final nail in the coffin of the Manx-language trains though was not as result of any difficulty posed by the actual linguistics, but due a huge argument in a joint IMR /MNR timetabling meeting over whether Ramsey-bound trains were up or down trains, with the traffic managers of each company having the other by the lapels by all accounts.

Although the challenge of running the special timetable using only four locomotives ('Mona', 'Tynwald', 'Douglas' and 'Ramsey') has been described as almost insurmountable, my researches have discovered that an un-named member of the Committee had the idea of renaming several engines by adding temporary ‘clip on’ plates. Designated as Q-class locomotives for the events, plates were made for locomotives Quilleash, Quine, Qualtrough, Quiggin, Quaggin and Quirk (this last-named being thought to be one of the West Baldwin contractor’s locomotives); the cost of the temporary plates was being borne as a sponsorship deal with Ramsey solicitors Quiggin, Quaggin, Quirk, Qualtrough, Quine, Quilleash and Quaglio. One result of the fabrication of these plates explains one of the persistent mysteries of the Manx foundries in the last century: the absence of cast letters Q and U for the years 1904 – 14; it was said that the Ironmongers Gellings were out of stock until they purchased replacements as part of the War Effort, charging the cost to the British Government as part of the works completed for the Knockaloe Internment Camp.

The minutes of several meetings highlight an early rumour that that there was no letter 'F' in the Manx language, which resulted in the misguided belief that the carriage stock would be limited solely to the Cleminsons. But perhaps predictably enough, an unminuted note pencilled in the margin of the 1901 AGM refers to arguments between Manninagh daa cheayrt 'sy çhiaghtin (‘twice-a-week Manxmen’) and boddagh olley na daaghey (dyed-in-the-wool old men’), and it seems the subsequent in-fighting was enough to scupper the entire idea. Although not entirely: the recent resurgence of interest in the language means that, alongside Pie & Mash trains, the railway is considering introducing a Manx Language ‘gossip club’ using the saloons, known as Skeet, Gaal as Tey, or chat, steam and Tea, bringing life to the long-dormant dream of Sheshaght Ghlare Vanninagh.