Traditional Music on the Isle of Man

Cliff McGann

It should come as no surprise that Canada's distance from what are perceived as the main centers of Celtic music has contributed to our unique music often being taken for granted. The Isle of Man suffers from a similar fate caused by completely different circumstances. The Manx language has been called, by T.F. O'Rahilly, the Cinderella of the Gaelic tongues and due to its proximity to Ireland and Scotland it has long been overshadowed by their presence. To understand Manx music is to understand the music of Ireland, Scotland, and England as they have all influenced the music of the small Island. Many Manx melodies draw from Irish laments, Hebridean lullaby's, English popular song and dance tunes that were popular throughout the British Isles.

Manx Gaelic, which ceased being a native spoken language with the death of Edward Maddrell in 1974, is part of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages which includes Irish and Scottish Gaelic. A library of spoken Manx exists on the island and includes 40 recordings of the last 18 native speakers made between 1948-74 by Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh (Manx Gaelic Society). These 18 Gaelic speakers made it possible for the teaching of (neo-) Manx which occurs today in evening classes and as part of the cirriculum in primary and secondary schools. At the same time as Manx Gaelic ceased being used as a native language a cultural revival began with the successful revival of the Islands Gaelic festival Yn Chruinnaght. The Chruinnaght helped breath life into music and dance on the Isle of Man and provided it with a much needed boost.

Music has always played a major role in the life of the people on the Isle of Man. With increased accessibility to affordable sound recording equipment came an increase output of commercial recordings. Despite the increased output of quality recordings from Man its music has remained virtually unknown off of the island. At the forefront of a new movement, bringing traditional Manx music to the world, is twenty-two year old Emma Christian. Her debut album Ta'N Dooid Cheet/Beneath the Twilight (Manx/Celtic Productions PO Box 4475 London, UK SW19 5XD TEL:0181 946 9772) contains 18 tracks of traditional Manx Gaelic song and instrumentals. Christian accompanies her Gaelic singing on the harp and utilizes the recorder like an Irish tin whistle playing traditional instrumental music. Gleaned from Manx oral tradition, collected near the end of the 19th century, Christian's repertoire consists of invocations, love songs, religious songs, and a milking song. Her sound is very ethereal and is well suited to the castles and churches where she often performs by candle light. Beneath the Twilight is a beautiful and highly recommended introduction to the music of Man.

While Christian is a recent newcomer to the Isle of Man's traditional music scene harpist Charles Guard has been a mainstay of the islands Celtic music scene for a number of years. His work as administrator at the Manx Heritage Foundation and as a producer have made him one of the leading figures helping to put the islands music on the world map. Guard's CD 'Avenging and Bright' (Shanachie 79014), which was recorded in Dublin in 1977, was re-released by Shanachie Records in 1991 and illustrates the broad range of influence on Manx music in the 20th century. 'Avenging and Bright' is a solo harp album, with fiddle and whistle joining Guard's harp, consisting of equal parts Scottish, Irish, and Manx traditional music. His arrangements of more well known Scottish material like Heman Dubh, Tha mi Sgith, and The Haughs of Cromdale along with two of Moore's Irish melodies and a Carolan piece are to be found alongside traditional Manx pieces Arrane Ghelbee (The Song of the Water Kilpie), Yn Eeanleyder As Y Lhondoo (The fowler and the blackbird), and Ny Kiree Fo Naightey (The Sheep under the Snow). 'Avenging and Bright' is a must for anyone interested in the Celtic Harp.

Common to folklore of all the Celtic countries is the notion of a place where eternal youth and riches beyond ones wildest dreams exists. In Ireland that place is Tir Na Nog and in Manx folklore and mythology it is the island where Mananan, Manx ancestral god and ruler, went after Man become overcrowded with mortals. The Secret Island (Mananan Music MMC 4, 1993) is a cassette of traditional and contemporary music which explores Manx Legend and this Celtic otherworld. Put together by harpist Charles Guard The Secret Island is a very modern sounding album at times reminiscent of Enya's debut album. The production is lush and at times very keyboard heavy with the vocals adeptly handled by Marlene Hendy and Dilys Sowrey. Guard's beautifully evocative harp playing on tunes like the traditional Manx Padjer Columb Killey are the recordings highlight. Another featured artist on The Secret Island is violinist Bernard Osborne. Osborne received classical training at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is presently head of the instrumental music service on the Isle of Man. Since 1970 he has been the violinist for the "Manx Folk Dance Society" and along with guitarist Peter Lumb is one half of Kiaull Manninagh. Their 1992 self titled cassette (Manx Camerata MXCM 1) is a collection of traditional Manx music played on the violin with guitar accompaniment. Osborne seemlessly combines his classical training and his deep love of traditional Manx music. The influence of his classical training is readily apparent on this recording as his style is reminiscent of present day Scottish fiddlers playing most tunes fairly straight forward without many of the embellishments found in Cape Breton and Irish style fiddling. The fiddle has long been a favored instrument in Manx folk music and Osborne solidifies its future.

The town of Ramsey has played a central role in the traditional music of the Isle Man as the home of the inter Celtic festival Yn Chruinnaght. Paitchynn Vannin, which means 'Children of Mann', are from Ramsey and illustrates the young up and coming talent that the island possesses. The group consists of instrumentalists and dancers who are all students at the Ramsey Grammar school. Eight of them appear on the the album Fragments-Manx Traditional Music (Manx Heritage Foundation MHFC 1, 1995) playing whistle, violin, mandolin, harp, jews harp, guitar, banjo, and bodhran. This all instrumental recording, while occasionally a bit rough around the edges, belies the groups relatively young ages. Paitchynn Vannin are young musicians and their sound will mature with time but the lively arrangements and spirited playing illustrates that they've emerged as the torch bearers for Manx instrumental music.

At the forefront of the islands instrumental tradition is the group MacTullagh Vannin. Their debut self titled cassette (Dirt Music DT001) was originally released in 1986 and was re-released by the Manx Heritage Foundation in 1992. At the time of MacTullagh Vannin's founding they set new standards for Manx music and were instrumental in performing part of the Island's neglected heritage. This all instrumental album is led by Peter Cubberley's whistle, Mai Ying Lee's tenor banjo, and David Collister's fiddle. Accompaniment is provided by Sue Ling Lee's guitar, John Corlett's bodhran and special guest David Speers on bouzouki. The musicianship is top notch with crisp arrangements that always keeps things interesting. Also of importance on this recording is the inclusion of four of Peter Cubberley's compositions. Cubberley has emerged as one of the most important composers in the Manx idiom. With MacTullagh Vannin traditional Manx instrumental music is in good hands.

Harpist Charles Guard wrote in the liner notes to MacTullagh Vannin's cassette "It is a source of constant surprise to people outside the Isle of Mann that we possess such a wealth of beautiful and fascinating traditional music." It was due to my interest in music from all of the Celtic world, especially those areas traditionally ignored, that I sought out recordings from the Isle of Man for this column. Indeed what I found was surprisingly beautiful and fascinating and highly recommended to those seeking a fully rounded understanding of Celtic music.

For More Info on these recordings contact the Manx Heritage Foundation-P.O. 1896, Douglas-Isle of Man or check out this Isle of Man website.

Copyright 1996, Cliff McGann

Originally published in Celtic Heritage, reproduced by permission.

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