Search records

Harry Kelly

Epithet: Native Manx speaker (1852-1935)

Record type: Biographies

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

'Today Harry Kelly's name is associated with the cottage which forms one of the focal points of the Cregneash Folk Life Museum. However this is by no means his only claim to fame. For much of his life Harry Kelly lived as a Cregneash crofter, going fishing in the summer months and earning his living in a variety of ways in the winter, as well as tending his fields all the year round.

Although he had two brothers and two sisters, the elder of whom died whilst only months old, it was Harry, a lifelong bachelor, whose permanent residence was always the cottage where he was born and which now bears his name. From the age of seven he worked in the fields of Cregneash at harvest time, before finally leaving school at thirteen to go to sea as a cook, thus getting a half of one share of the catch. At the age of sixteen he became a full member of the crew and became entitled to a whole share. He worked at sea for 40 years, travelling to the Shetlands and Orkneys, mainland Scotland and the west of England as well as locally. He was typical of the Manx fisherman of his time having an extensive knowledge of the locality and knowing every creek and fishing mark around the coasts. Also he was steeped in the traditions and superstitions of his trade.

Kelly told a Manx language researcher that while he had learned Manx hearing his parents talking to each other, he only gained `complete mastery' of it when he went to sea.

Another aspect of his working life was on the Calf where he was employed by George Cary as rabbit catcher. This 'crop' was reputed to net Cary £50 profit annually, a large sum in the late nineteenth century. It is said that the bed in Harry Kelly's cottage belonged to Cary, and after his death Kelly shipped it over from the Calf and cut down the legs to get it through the door. He worked too for the new owner, Sam Haigh, assisting Ted Maddrell the farm manager until a few years before his death.

It was on 17th June 1929 that Kelly had a meeting that was to lead to his making a vital contribution to Manx culture. A Norwegian professor of linguistics, Dr Carl Johan Sverdrup Marstrander, had heard of his prowess as a Manx speaker and journeyed to Cregneash to meet him. Marstrander tested Kelly's proficiency by giving him sentences to translate which he did with ease. 'Kelly can undoubtedly be used', he recorded in his diary. Marstrander returned, having selected Kelly as the most idiomatic of the southside speakers he had met. He was told by locals that the Cregneash man was difficult and unapproachable, but despite Harry's occasional lack of cooperation Marstrander developed a good working relationship with him.He was keen to preserve the southsider speaking Manx Gaelic on wax cylinder recordings, and set up his equipment in the Station Hotel in Port Erin, although conditions there were not ideal for using the primitive recording machinery.

'My impressions of the recordings are somewhat uneven', Marstrander wrote in his notebook. 'Kelly's voice is somewhat hoarse, is a bit bit squeaky and not very sonorous. But the result improves when he speaks relatively softly and his mouth well close to the horn.'

Marstrander finished his four days of recording with Kelly having 29 cylinders for metalisation. Unfortunately only cylinders 2-6 and 8-24 (with part of 14 missing) survive. In addition, he tested Kelly on a machine attached to a graph recording levels of 'sonailty, nasality and consonant and vowel sounds'. Professor Marstrander completed his work with Kelly and other speakers on 30th January 1933 and shortly afterwatds returned to Oslo. Transcriptions of his recordings were donated to the Manx Museum in 1951 by the Norwegian government.

Harry Kelly showed himself to be a natural teacher of the language, teaching a young Manx language student Mark Hughes Braide to speak fluently in the early 1930s. Mark's enthusiasm led him to visit the old crofter twice a week, cycling down from Douglas. He noted down many of Kelly's anecdotes and quotations. Despite his reputation for awkwardness, Braide described him as lane dy kinjalys - full of kindness.When Kelly died Mark Braide was one of his pall bearers, and he carried on Marstrander's work, recording with others the last remaining native speakers.

One incident recorded by Marstrander illustrates Kelly's awareness of Manx fishing lore and at the same time his belief in the Manx ways. He and Marstrander went out fishing in the Sound in 1928 shortly after their first meeting. Kelly astounded the Norwegian by producing a bottle of whisky, the contents of which he poured into the water to placate the Beisht Kione Dhoo (Beast of Black Head) a legendary monster that he believed prowled the waters around the Sound.

After his death in 1935 his nephew, J.T. Kelly, donated his cottage to the Manx Museum as a monument to the Manx crofters' way of life.

Biography written by John Wright.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.232-3.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1852

Date of death: 1935


Optional, not displayed

Manx National Heritage (MNH) will always put you in control of the information we send you. Read our privacy policy