The Isle of Man’s Rich Celtic Culture
Located in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is an independently governed crown possession of the UK. Despite its political link to Britain and the impact of Viking occupation on its history, the Isle of Man has a rich Celtic culture. Some of its holidays have unique names but when they are examined more closely, their Celtic origins become clear. Manx folklore, as well, demonstrates the island’s Celtic past as well as Norse influence.
This is not a complete list of Manx holidays but here are some significant highlights. Early in the year, the Manx celebrate Laa’l Breeshey. While the name might sound odd, the holiday will be quite familiar to Irish and Scottish people as well as regular readers of this blog. Laa’l Breeshey begins on the evening of January 31st (Celtic days begin at sunset). The folklore is that, during this night, St. Bridget seeks a place to rest. If you welcome her with food and a place to sleep, you will have blessings throughout the coming year.
This holiday has its parallel in Ireland and Scotland (February 1st) where it is known as Saint Brigid’s Day. Folklore associated with Brigid’s Day includes putting out a cup of milk and a loaf of bread for her and hanging a piece of white cloth known as Brigid’s cloak on a tree. The saint is said to bless it as she passes. Then the cloth is used during the year as a cover for the sick and is believed to aid healing. Another folk custom for Brigid’s Day in Ireland and Scotland is to make a reed-woven Brigid’s Cross, a custom echoed in a custom of the next Manx holiday.
Boaldyn is a celebration of the coming of May, similar to the Celtic fire festival of Beltane (May 1st). Being on guard and protecting your home are themes associated with Boaldyn. To protect against evil and witchcraft, the Manx customarily hang a crosh cuirn, a cross made from sticks and a bit of wool. This harkens back to the Brigid cross, but it also pulls from another Celtic fire festival: Imbolc. Imbolc occurs on February 1st along with Brigid’s Day and it marks the start of spring. Additionally, it’s the start of lambing season, thus, the wool on the crosh cuirin might be a hangover from the practice of Imbolc.
Laa Luanys takes place on August 1st and, originally, celebrated the god, Lugh. It is easy to see that this is the Manx version of the Celtic fire festival, Lughnasa, which marks the start of autumn. Although Lughnasa is supposed to be in honor of Lugh’s mother, it obviously is named after the god himself. The main activity associated with Laa Luanys is climbing a hill, apparently to get as close as possible to the sun god. Nowadays, the folk custom has been Christianized. On the day, church services are held on hilltops.
Hop tu Naa is said to be a Manx version of Halloween. One connection between the two holidays, besides the fact that they are celebrated on October 31st, is the hollowing out of a vegetable. In the U.S., that vegetable is pumpkin. On the Isle of Man, turnips are hollowed out and decorated. The Irish used to do the same, a practice derived from the story of Stingy Jack who, on being denied entrance both to heaven and to hell, roamed the world, using a candle inside a turnip as a lantern. Hop tu Naa likely has its origin in the same Celtic fire festival as Halloween: Samhain. To learn more about this ancient Celtic feast day that marks the beginning of winter and the dark half of the year, click here.
A holiday that is unique to the Isle of Man is Oie Noo Markys, St. Mark’s Eve. This celebration begins on the evening of April 24th, and it has something in common with Samhain. Manx folklore says that, on Oie Noo Markys, as at Samhain, the veil between this world and the Otherworld becomes thin, allowing humans to see the supernatural.
There is a spooky folk belief associated with this celebration. It is said that the souls of those who will die in the coming year leave their bodies on St. Mark’s Eve. According to folklore, if you sit on a church porch between 11 PM and 1 AM on Oie Noo Markys you can see the procession of the souls who will be buried in the coming year. Of course, if you partake in this entertainment, you run the risk of seeing yourself! A similar practice is in the folk culture of Ireland and Scotland, except that it is practiced on Samhain’s Eve.
The folklore of the Isle of Man is vast and cannot be covered in this one post, but here are a few select characters from Manx folklore.
According to myth, the Isle of Man gets its name from its original ruler: Manannan Mac Lir.
Manannan was a member of the Tuatha De Danann, a mythical Irish race from whom the faeries are descended. He was the god of the sea and was known as a trickster. His wife was a faerie queen named Fand, and he had several children including the famous Irish goddesses Aíne, Aoife, and Grainne. He is said to have been the foster father of Lugh. If it seems odd that the name of the Isle of Man is connected with so many Irish gods and goddesses, there’s a simple explanation. Scholars say that the island’s first inhabitants were from Ireland.
Like other Celtic cultures, the Isle of Man has folklore about domestic faeries. Scotland has brownies. Ireland has grogochs. Manx folklore has the fynodyrees. The Fynodyree is an extraordinarily strong, short, shaggy faerie who most commonly helps with farm chores. He is particularly good at mowing, which he can do with astonishing speed. He has been known, on occasion, to help fisherman mend their nets. All he requires in payment is a bit of food and drink. Never offer him clothes as he’ll be highly offended and leave (if you’re lucky) or curse you. He might do both. And don’t criticize him or his work. He has long, sharp teeth and has been known to bite farmers’ legs off.
Another Manx folklore creature is the Buggane. Ogre-like creatures, bugganes have black hair all over their bodies. They have big red mouths, tusks, and claws. They hang out in forests, under waterfalls, and among ruins. As primitive as all that sounds, it’s important to note that bugganes are intelligent as well as magical. Usually, they won’t bother you unless you bother them. So, if you see one, leave him be. Like the Fynodyree, you don’t want to make a buggane angry.
Moddey Dhu and Arkan Sonney are two other famous Manx folklore beings. Moddey is a ghostly black dog that haunts Peel Castle. And Arkan Sonney is a magical white pig. It is a good omen just to see him but, if you catch him, the lore says, you’ll get money. But you’ll need every bit of good luck to catch him.
Finally, the Isle of Man just wouldn’t be a Celtic place if it didn’t have a belief in faeries. But, of course, it does. Just two examples are the Fairy Bridge and the holiday Tynwald. On the main road from Douglas (the capital) to Castletown is a bridge known as the Fairy Bridge. Legend says that you must say “Laa Mie” (good day) to the faeries as you cross the bridge. If you neglect this, you may deeply regret it.
Tynwald is another holiday that is unique to the Isle of Man. It is the island’s national day, and the custom is to pin the herb bollan bane to your clothes. This is done as a protection against harm. The main threat is believed to come from “Themselves,” i.e., the faeries. The Little People will only harm you if they dislike you. Or you offend them. Or you encounter one in a bad mood. As I’ve said a million times, faeries are capricious. Take whatever precautions you can!
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Slan go foil!