The tradition of Manx Ceilidh & Ban Dance

There is a long tradition of dancing and folk music in the Isle of Man (what you would call Ceilidh or Barn Dance today), although due to very little being recorded in Manx literature until the nineteenth century, there is little detailed record of much of the ancient tradition. James, the 7th Earl of Derby and Lord of Mann in the 17th century described a Manx Fair held in Castletown marketplace:


"Today I left Derby House and mixed with the peasants on Market Square, this being their market day. I was greatly pleased with the excellence of the goods on the benches, [and] the order and genteel manners of the townsfolk, but most of all by the fiddling and the dancing, so much so I was minded to join in myself but for the hip injury I told you about in my last letter. The dancers, gaily attired and holding posies or sprays of flowering shrubs in their hands, did dance through the street, winding hither and thither among the townsfolk, so that withal it was pretty to see."


Of course, the Fair on those days was an opportunity for match making, so very connected with marriage and weddings, just as today ceilidhs and barn dances are a favourite entertainment at all kinds of wedding venues.


Manx folk dancing is a very interesting area which has been revived very considerably in the last fifty years or so. Manx people from all over the Island, with the addition of many people from elsewhere in the British Isles who have come to live there, have revived the custom of folk dancing with a new modern twist and very considerable enthusiasm. Many of the dances that are now used have long Manx traditions, and some of these are described below. However, some other dances may be of other origins, with less evidence that they may be originally Manx. Being located close to Ireland, there is a strong influence from the kind of music played by our Coulan Sona Irish Ceilidh Band C.  For example, a well-known dance called the Rakes of Mallow (otherwise known as the Rigs of Marlow) is believed to have been introduced to the Isle of Man some time ago and by the early 20th Century had become popular in the Island, being sometimes known there as “Lhigey, lhigey gys y vargey” (Let's go to the market). It was published in the Caledonian Country Dances of 1733, so is often played by our Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band . 

This photograph of Douglas Bay as it is today still gives the feel of how it must have been back in the days of the Ceilidh and Barn Dance (in those days referred to more genteelly as Folk or Country Dance) of Mona Douglas. A towering figure in the history of Manx folk dance and music is Mona Douglas (1898-1987) who collected information on those traditional national dances which survived, made a collection of many such dances, and was hugely instrumental in the promotion and revival of Manx music and dance. One of these, for example, is the Manx Dirk Dance, a dance for one man who, using a dirk (a type of sword or dagger) uses a number of movements showing how the dirk can be used as a weapon and as a ceremonial symbol, and showing also the grace and ease with which the weapon can be handled. According to tradition, this dance is believed to have been performed at the ancient Tynwald ceremony, the annual public meeting of the Manx government, during its early days in the middle ages. It is thought that the tune, which should traditionally be sung by a close female relative of the dancer, has also been handed down through the generations. The performance is linked with many old rituals. It was considered that its warlike movements should never be danced by a woman, the salute in the dance should always be made in an eastward direction, and although it was acceptable to rehearse the dance, it should always be practiced in sections, as a full performance could only be made as part of the ritual. The dirk used, a type of dagger, has been described as being “twenty-one inches long, very thin and flexible, double-edged, with a silver hilt. The cross pieces were curved back from the blade, one boss had the three legs (the symbol of the Isle of Man, found most famously on the Manx flag) on it, and the other a sun-symbol.”

Like all of the other Celtic nations, the Manx people have a tradition for different types of dancing. Even as late as the 1950s it was true to say that all areas of the island had their own particular traditions of fiddlers who would play regularly at traditional occasions and at parties in their local areas.


A dance called Mylecharaine’s March is thought to be linked to the “fiddler’s head” game which is, or at least was in the mid-20th century, well known around the British Isles and is closely linked to the children's game “Oranges and Lemons”. (“Here comes the candle to light you to bed, and here comes the chopper to chop off your head”!) It is said to be a particularly difficult dance and is performed to a tune very similar to that of the Manx National Anthem, “O Land of our Birth”. Traditionally this dance would be performed on the 6th of January each year, the Twelfth Day, which is the last day of the traditional Christmas period. The whole period was known in Manx as Kegeesh Ommidjagh ('Foolish Fortnight'), and it was traditionally one where little work was done but much fun was had, generally with dancing and plenty of jough (ale). In the dance, every man would carry two sticks in a way resembling some traditional  English dances [English and Welsh traditions], and at the end as the dancers gathered together in a circle around the fiddler the sticks would be brought closer and closer around him until they “cut off the fiddlers head” and he fell down “dead”. Then a girl dressed in a white sheet and holding a wooden horse’s head would appear to “raise” the fiddler and lead him to a seat where she would sit down with the fiddler's head in her lap. The remainder of the ritual was described like this by George Waldron in the 1730s: 


"On Twelfth-day the fiddler lays his head in some one of the wenches' laps, and a third person asks who such a maid or such a maid shall marry, naming the girls then present one after another, to which he answers according to his own whim, or agreeable to the intimacies he has taken notice of during this time of merriment. But whatever he says is as absolutely depended on as an oracle; and if he happens to couple two people who have an aversion to each other, tears and vexation succeed the mirth. This they call Cutting Off of the Fiddler's Head, for after this, he is dead for the whole year."

Picture on left shows the beauty of the Island’s countryside that has inspired the beauty of its folk music and dance tradition. There are similarities with a traditional play known as the White Boys (Ny Guillyn Baney) in the Isle of Man, which had its own traditional dance at the end of the show. The play, often performed in the Christmas period on the Island, is a traditional Manx 'mumming' play and often would not have had any fixed script, but it always incorporated a number of key elements, such as a fight, death, a resurrection thanks to 'the Doctor' (could this have been the inspiration for a well-known children’s TV series? Perhaps not), saints, and of course a happy ending. This play could have been seen in performance in Manx towns all over the Island around Christmas in the 19th Century and beyond, and it has seen substantial revival in recent years. The play included a special White Boys' Carol, and, like Mylecharaine’s March and the “cutting off of the fiddler’s head”, it was concluded with a type of sword-dance which ended with the holding up of the swords linked together into a six-pointed hexagonal star.

It was thought in the 1950s that at that point in the Isle of Man there had never been any popularity on a large scale of Scottish Highland dances or Irish jigs. Some would consider that the strong religious revival in the Isle of Man in the early part of the 20th century brought disapproval to dancing and the church authorities are thought to have restricted its use considerably, considering perhaps that there was something wicked about dance and that it was something that decent people should not do.


These days, one of the most well-known Manx dances is “Hunt the Wren”, which has been used in ceilidhs by the Ringerike Ceilidh band . Hunt the Wren is a traditional dance often seen in the Isle of Man on St Stephen's Day otherwise known as Boxing Day, the 26th December. In modern times groups of people perform the dance in a variety of locations all over the Island. Typically there will be singers of the “Hunt the Wren” song, and some instrumental players, whilst other participants dance a circle dance around a decorated pole, held up in the centre by one participant, which represents the wren.


There are some links between this tradition and similar practices which happen elsewhere, for example Wren Day in Ireland. In the Isle of Man the tradition of Hunting the Wren goes back at least as far as the 1700s, although probably further back than that. The melody of the song dates back at least as far as 1820 and appears in the Manx National Song Book in an arrangement by W.H. Gill.


In the late 20th and into the 21st Century the Hunt the Wren tradition has once again become very popular on the Island with different groups of people dancing around the streets of most major towns including Douglas, Ramsey, St John's and Port St. Mary. The dancers often collect for chosen charities. It is also not uncommon to see the dance performed at events such as the Tynwald fair on the Manx national day in July.


Another well-known dance is called Eunyssach Vona (“Mona’s Delight”), a chain dance for a number of people (usually four couples) which features distinctive “flying arches” and “stamp-hops”. The melody of the tune used was collected by Dr John Clague and the Gill brothers in the late 1800s, and the dance steps were recorded by Mona Douglas in the 20th Century. There were also several dances connected with the annual harvest “mhelliah” gathering, and the autumnal Hollantide procession took the form of a march with turnip lanterns (the “hop-tu-naa”) with singing and dancing.


Other well-known Manx dances include these:


The Cutting of the Turf


The Fathaby Jig


Keep the Petticoat Warm


Peter O’Tavey




Car Juan Nan


Mary of the Candles


The Flitterdance

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