One small step for Man

It must be a good 20 years and more ago since I first saw the Isle of Man - saw it from a distance of 30 to 40 miles, from the…

It must be a good 20 years and more ago since I first saw the Isle of Man - saw it from a distance of 30 to 40 miles, from the hills of Cumbria where I live. It was only this year I saw the island properly. I had two reasons for going: to see what it was like, of course - I was impressed - and to find something out about the Manx language.

As Manx is closely related to Irish, a language I've been trying to gain some mastery of for the past six years - not an easy task for a Sasanach living in rural north England - I wondered how much of Manx I might be able to understand. The answer was: not very much when I saw it written on the page. The language is written differently from Irish, the spelling is more phonetic - which, surprisingly, makes it harder to decipher rather than easier. A written phrase such as "Ta cooinaght aym er dooinney" was completely mystifying to me, though had it been read to me I might have understood this was Manx for: "I remember a person."

The last original native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, aged 97. I remember reading this once in a Guinness Book of Records - Manx was given the dubious accolade of having been one of the least-spoken languages in the world. I remember being shocked that in my own lifetime a native language of the country I live in had become obsolete.

I heard a recording of Ned Maddrell's voice in the Manx Museum in Douglas - a splendid museum, one of the best museums I've ever gone round. In a section devoted to the Manx language, through a set of earphones, one could listen to recordings made in the late 1940s of the last native speakers of the language. That these recordings were ever made at all was due to Eamon de Valera.


In 1947, de Valera made a visit to the island during which he met the last speakers of the language; there were then about only 20 left. At his prompting, members of the Irish Folklore Society soon afterwards travelled over to the island and began the task of recording the voices of these last speakers. All elderly then, of course, their voices come across as frail and halting. Listening to them is akin to the visual experience of watching the final flickering flames of a dying fire, a language older than English finally shrinking into oblivion.

Oblivion? Well, surprisingly not. There began a movement 100 years ago on the island to retain the language. During this century, then, the island has always had a number of people who have learnt Manx as a second language.

In an excellent old-fashioned pub in the town of Peel, at the weekly "Manx Night", I met players of Manx traditional music - like Irish, but more gentle - and I heard to my surprise that there are now two young couples on the island who have committed themselves to speaking exclusively Manx in the home in order to bring up their young children as Manx speakers. So, amazingly, after a gap of 100 years or more, there are yet again native speakers of Manx on the island learning the language from the cradle.

One of these couples, I was told, lives in Cregneash, the southernmost village on the island, which I walked out to the following Monday. I failed to meet them, but I had another reason for going. The village is now, in part, a living museum. Here, a number of old crofts are maintained as they would have looked 100 years ago, with thatch roofs, and the land around is farmed in the manner of 100 years ago as well, as using horses instead of tractors: shire horses graze in the fields.

That evening, at a class in Ballabeg, four miles away, held in a Methodist hall, I found no fewer than 25 people learning Manx. Apparently, there are several such classes held all over the island most nights of the week. Perhaps in the whole of the island there might be nearly 1,000 adults involved in learning or speaking the language - out of a population of 70,000, this may seem a modest enough number but what percentage of adults in England or Ireland is actively engaged in learning Latin or Esperanto?

I drove back to Peel with three of the people I had met at the class. None was actually from the island, they were all "come-overs" as they are termed there. One, in fact, was a young German lad teaching his own language in an island school for a year.

"How did you get to be here?" I asked. "Ah well, it was a bit of a mistake," he said. "You see, I was in Liverpool about two years ago and I liked Liverpool, so I said I would like to work somewhere in the Liverpool region. And this is where they sent me!"