Sunday, 21st May 2006
When writing about the Isle of Man, it is difficult not to sound like a tourist information guide. However, the island is so rich in heritage sites that it leaves little option.
The southern half of the island was to be the focus of attention today, with the first port of call being Rushen Abbey at Ballasalla.
Rushen Abbey was once the seat of Manx Christianity. A Cistercian monastery until 1540, the abbey later fell into disrepair and was badly neglected over several centuries. For many years, the grounds served as a dance hall, market garden and even had a nightclub built over the ruins. Acquired by the Manx National Heritage in 1998, it was then subject to intensive archaeological investigation and preservation. In 2000, the site was opened to the public to great acclaim and rightly so, for it is now wonderfully presented. It comes complete with an extremely helpful indoor display giving the history of Manx Christianity and explaining every facet of Cistercian Monastic life. Additionally, there is a video presentation showing how the archaeological team unearthed, with painstaking care, the ruins we now see today. As we wandered amongst the remains, my wife remarked on the attractive wallflowers, which can be seen growing from various nooks and crannies; a remark which unwittingly reflected the diary entry of Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of the poet) following her own visit to the abbey many years ago. For me, a walk around the cloister was brought to life by the tolling of a nearby church bell, which very much gave the impression of an echo from the past.
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Castletown, the principal town in the south of the island, was once the seat of government, both in medieval times and more recently.
Castle Rushen, within Castletown, is ranked as one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe. The oldest part of the castle dates back to the time of the last Norse King of Mann, who died in 1265. In later times, it has served as the island’s mint, administrative centre, law courts and, until the late 1800s, as a prison. Much work has gone into providing spectacular displays of life in the castle during the 17th Century. Some rooms are decorated with wall hangings, figures in medieval costumes, displays of medieval banqueting tables and soundtracks of contemporary music and speech, giving the visitor an inspiring insight to the period.
One discovery of great interest was a Fuddle Cup. Made of porcelain, the cup is really a group of four tall cups joined together, each with its own handle. When all four cups are filled with wine, it is then offered to a guest who has the challenge of draining one of the cups (without spillage of the others) before being able to hand the cup on to the next guest. What is not immediately apparent is the fact that the cups are internally joined by small holes deep within. Thus, the first guest would be tricked into drinking the contents of all four cups – and thus become ‘fuddled’. Unfortunately, they do not reproduce these as a traveller’s souvenir!
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The Old Grammar School in Castletown was initially built in 1200 as the town church. In 1570, it became the Grammar School and functioned as such until 1930. Having the accolade of being the oldest roofed building on the island, it now houses a display of a small Victorian classroom.
Interestingly, along with so much else over the years, the island was the first to promulgate the concept of a basic education for every child, regardless of sex or wealth.
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Across from the Old Grammar School, in a small square adjacent to the castle walls, is The Old House of Keys. The House of Keys is the Manx Parliament, now situated in Douglas. The Old House of Keys is the original, well-restored 19th century home of the parliament before it moved to Douglas.
Visitors are able to join in as representatives of a mock sitting of the House of Keys. Conducted through a clever mixture of technology, the model of the speaker comes to life through a projected face and various portraits become animated and make speeches to the house (rather like the portraits in the Harry Potter films).
The debates range through important facets of Manx history, including whether to give women the vote (introduced fifty years before mainland Britain), whether to allow motor racing on the island and, currently being debated, whether the island should apply for full membership of the European Union (with the possible loss of its tax haven status). The outcome is that the visitor leaves with a greater depth of knowledge and understanding regarding certain areas of the island’s history.
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In the southwest corner of the island, overlooking a much smaller island (the Calf of Man) is the village of Cregneash.
Another first for the island, Cregneash was the first outdoor living museum within the British Isles. It now presents a working illustration as to how life was during the 19th and 20th centuries in a Manx crofting village. The various buildings display woodturning, weaving and spinning, life in a farmhouse of that era and, most interestingly, life in a small, thatched, two-roomed cottage (lived in by the late Harry Kelly until his death in 1936). Justice cannot be done within a few words here to the real value of this village, which needs to be visited to obtain its full value.
It is possibly the right moment to mention the Manx poet, T. E. Brown, who had his collected works published in 1900. What is special about his poetry is that it captures in dialect verse the life and times of the Manx people during the 19th century. The Collected Poems has been re-published by Manx Heritage. The poetry is most accessible, very informative and quite often humorous. For example, the opening lines to the eighty-six-page poem entitled Tommy Big-Eyes commences thus:
I never knew a man in my life
That had such a darling little wife
As a chap they were callin’ Tommy Gellin’;
So how he got her is worth the tellin’.
Who could resist such bait? From the opening lines, it is clear that a good yarn is going to be forthcoming (and so it is). Based on such, I now possess my own copy and look forward to much entertainment.
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Throughout our tour of the various sites described above, we could be forgiven for thinking that we were the only two visitors to the island. On most occasions, we had the site/museum/castle to ourselves to the point that we felt that we were on a privately organised tour (for example, we were the only two for the Old House of Keys presentation). However, at every location we were made most welcomed by the staff, who went to great trouble to make our visit worthwhile and enjoyable. We cannot praise them highly enough. If they are representatives of the Manx people as a whole, then they are a delightful race and deserve to be hailed as such.