Short story: St Patrick’s other island

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Caroline Smith, author of the Isle of Man in the Great War celebrates St Patrick’s day with her short story on St Patrick’s other island, the Isle of Man.

St Patrick is indisputably associated with Ireland, but it has been said, that as long as they don’t mind sharing him, the people of the Isle of Man could equally claim the saint as their own.

The Isle of Man, which sits just off the coasts of Cumbria and Scotland, is small.  It only has about 96 miles of coastline, but historically, it was a strategic point on the old trading routes across the Irish Sea.  Its strategic importance meant it was regularly fought over. The Irish, the Vikings and the Scottish all ruled the island before it finally fell into English hands in 1329.  So it is hardly surprising that there is a real mix of nationalities and, despite not being part of Ireland, I know I won’t have to go far on 17th March to find a nod to the shamrock or friends downing pints of Guinness.

However, the island’s links with St Patrick go further than there being a substantial number of people of Irish descent.  It is said that he is responsible for bringing Christianity here.  Legend has it that St Patrick was returning from Liverpool to Ireland in AD444 when he, and 30 followers, landed on what was called ‘the Isle of Eubonia’ – the Isle of Man.  Instead of continuing their journey, they stayed and established a church.  The little islet just off the west coast town of Peel, where it is claimed he first landed, is still called St Patrick’s Isle.  Peel Castle was later built on the islet and all we can say, with any certainty, is that among the castle ruins are the remains of an earlier Celtic church.

St Patrick’s Isle is now connected to the main island by a causeway, but the original channel of water between the two has given rise to another story about St Patrick’s arrival.  Some have said he rode across the channel on horseback whilst being chased by a sea monster.  To escape the clutches of this strange creature he forced his horse up to the top of the hill and there, where he and his horse rested, a spring of water sprang up which was then used to baptise the early Christians.

Of course there is little in the way of written record of the time of St Patrick’s landing or his stay on Mann, which handed-down fable says was three years.  However, folklore does suggest he had his work cut out for him.  The Isle of Man was the last bastion of druidism and Patrick found the island ‘much given to magic.’  Maybe this was why he decided to stay and take on the task of converting the people and, by all accounts, he drove out the ‘toads,’ ‘snakes,’ ‘venomous beasts’ and ‘devils.’

The Manx people, who had suffered a turbulent history, were not noted for their trust of ‘foreigners,’ especially ones who tried to tell them what to do.  However, they were eventually won over through his preaching and performing of miracles, but even though Christianity became the primary religion it is doubtful that the old ways were ever completely forgotten.  Even today, the Manx, who are proud of their national independence, have some interesting traditions.  We still have ‘Fairy Bridge’ where, when passing, one should always say ‘hello’ to the fairies, or the ‘Little People’ as they are often called.  It sounds like a little bit of fun and opera singer Katherine Jenkins willingly obliged when she visited to give a concert, but rumour has it, when an American man refused on the grounds that it was ‘silly,’ his taxi driver refused to take him any further.

The separateness of the island, the will for independence and a stubbornness in preserving tradition have shaped much of the island’s cultural history.  It probably explains why certain traditions have lived on when in many parts of the world they would have died out and it is fertile ground for intriguing stories.  When I began work on my book Isle of Man in the Great War, which looks at the social side of the island during the conflict, I suspected there would be plenty of fascinating stories that deserved to be retold.  I was not disappointed in my research.

Today much of that independence has been achieved.  We have our own laws, parliament and tax regime.  Douglas, the capital, is a modern financial centre and the e-gaming business is booming.  Even so, there is still a nostalgic feel to the island.  The old electric trams, horse trams and steam railway run throughout the summer and there is still plenty of unspoilt countryside.  The open-air Tynwald ceremony (the reading of laws passed) has taken place for over a thousand years and woe betide anyone who suggests that Tynwald Day (the Manx national day) be scrapped.  Even Manx Gaelic, the native language, is having something of a revival.

What would St Patrick think if he visited the island today?  No doubt he would be confused by the morning rush-hour, our smartphones and the world famous TT races, but I think he’d recognise the spirit of the Manx people.  He might be disappointed to find that the strange creatures of Manx fables haven’t been forgotten in favour of Christianity, but I think he might be pleased to find there is still an isle and a parish bearing his name and that there are plenty of people celebrating him on his own day.

Copyright Caroline Smith, 2015

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