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John Joseph Kneen

Epithet: Gaelic scholar and author (1873-1938)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

John Joseph Kneen was one of the outstanding Manx scholars of his generation, honoured both at home and abroad. Born in Hanover Street, Douglas, he took a deep interest in the Manx language from an early age and became an authority in his chosen subject.

He first attracted attention by his writings in Manx, with interlinear translations in English, which appeared in the Isle of Man Examiner in 1897, when he was 24 years old. These contributions caught the eye of Arthur William Moore, then Speaker of the House of Keys, and led to the founding of Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh, the Manx Language Society, in March 1899.

The main aims of the society were then, and still are, to preserve, study and teach the Manx language, songs, music etc., and to invoke a feeling of national consciousness among the young people of the Island.

'JJ', as he was affectionately known by his close friends, was a sugar boiler and confectioner by trade. Encouraged by A.W. Moore and William Cubbon, director of the Manx Museum, he continued his research work while in business in Port Erin and later in Douglas. He went from farm to farm and cottage to cottage adding to that store of knowledge which has helped to save the Manx tongue from extinction. With tireless determination, he brought about the publication of a number of important works. It was mainly due to his efforts that interest in the language was kept alive at a time when it was in danger of dying from apathy and neglect. In 1908, he re-edited Cregeen's Manx Dictionary and in 1911 his Yn Saase Jeeragh, 'The Direct Method' (of teaching Manx) appeared.

At the annual general meeting of Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh in 1914, he concluded his speech with the following remarks:

"Cheer erbee to lhiggey da'n chengey ashoonagh eck geddyn baase, t'ee scuirr dy ye ashoon. Shen-y-fa, lhig da' n kionghraue ain y ye, 'Yn sleih ain, yn cheer aim yn chengey ain!' This translates as: 'Any country that permits its national language to die, ceases to be a nation. Let our motto therefore be "Our people, our country, our language!'

His important and valuable work, Place Names of the Isle of Man, was published by the Manx Society in six volumes in 1925. It was republished by Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh in a single volume in 1970.

Tynwald voted a sum of money so that two more of his scholarly works might be published. The first, A Grammar of the Manx Language, appeared in 1931, and the second, Manx Personal Names, in 1937. The latter was dedicated to William Cubbon. His services to Manx literature were recognised by the University of Liverpool in 1929 when a Master of Arts degree was conferred on him. In 1933, the King of Norway conferred on him the Knighthood of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav in appreciation of his work for Norse and Celtic culture. This latter honour was on the recommendation of Professor Carl Johan Sverdrup Marstrander who took a great interest in his work and was very impressed by his 'Place Names'.

Professor Marstrander was head of Celtic Studies at Oslo University and visited the Island in the summer of 1929-30. He wrote: 'Celtic studies owe a great debt of gratitude to Mr Kneen for his able, conscientious and unselfish work, which I esteem very highly'.

J.J. Kneen also wrote several other works and translated a good number of poems and songs into Manx, as well as Manx language primers and a number of plays, both drama and comedy, in the Anglo-Manx dialect.

His work came to a climax in 1938 when he published his English-Manx Dictionary. It was unique in that it included the pronunciation of the words - a formidable task - with a view to making a permanent record of the Manx language. In this, his simple system of phonetics was of great assistance to students of Manx. Sadly, he died in the same year.

Reserved by nature, J.J. Kneen was nevertheless an inspiration for many of the Manx speakers who came after him. His grave in Douglas Borough Cemetery bears the simple inscription: V'eh Dooinney Doaieagh - 'He was a likeable man'.

Biography written by Sue Woolley.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.273-4.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 12 September 1873

Date of death: 21 November 1938


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