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Thomas Kermode

Epithet: Blind singer of traditional airs (1825-1901)

Record type: Biographies

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

Thomas Kermode was born in a little thatched cottage in Bradda, Port Erin in 1825. When he was six years old he contracted smallpox. In those days you were lucky to survive the disease. This child did, but he lost his sight and was thereafter known as Boy Doal, 'Blind Boy' in his native tongue of Manx Gaelic. In spite of his blindness, he went to sea for most of his life and earned his living as a fisherman.

Nature invariably compensates us in one way or another, and to this boy was given the gift of song. Rising above his infirmity, he became one of the finest singers of Manx folk songs, the main channel through which dozens of our best airs have been preserved in all the purity of their traditional modes and rhythms. He was a born musician, and in his great gift of song, his absolute certainty of intonation in the most unusual intervals, his hearing attuned to the most delicate nuances of sound, he was a treasure indeed for the folk-song collector.

About the same time, there was a doctor practising medicine in Castletown. The doctor also had an interest in music, and while on his rounds visiting his patients he listened to and collected the folk songs sung in Manx. His name was Dr John Clague and his manuscripts are housed in the Manx National Heritage Library. Thomas Kermode became one of Dr Clague's chief helpers. If ever Dr Clague was in doubt as to the true traditional version of an air among several variants, he always went to Tom Kermode and took his rendering as the correct one.

This is what Dr Clague had to say about the humble fisherman, with regard to a certain tune:

"I took it down from the singing voice of 'Boy Doal' of Bradda. He lost the sight of his eyes after smallpox when he was very little and he was obliged to use his ears in place of his eyes. He had a wonderfully good memory and he was good to sing and he knew the Manx language very well. The greater part of the words and songs that I have are taken down from his singing, and I spent many happy hours in writing them down. Although he was blind, he continued at his work as a fisherman for many years. He had great intelligence and I owe him a great deal for the knowledge he has given me of the life of the Manx at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He deserves this to preserve his memory."

Tom Kermode did not marry until he was 37 and according to the baptismal records, the first child was born eight days after the wedding! He may have been a slow starter, but he made up for it later and had nine children.

Tom Kermode's son, Edward, recalled that when he was a schoolboy he sometimes came home for his midday dinner - there were no school meals then - to find that his mother was out working and had left his father to see to the meal. But Dr Clague and his coachman, Charles Clague the Fiddler, would have arrived some time during the morning and Tom would have forgotten all about such mundane matters as cooking and be absorbed in a musical session with his two guests.

He knew Dr Clague's other chief helper, Tom Moore the Lhag, [Ballaglonney, Bradda East] very well, and the three sometimes held joint musical sessions. Tom Kermode lived to be 76 and after his death Tom Moore continued to work with Dr Clague and helped him with the preparation of his Cooinnaghtyn Manninagh (Manx Recollections).

William Henry Gill, arranger of traditional tunes for the Manx National Songbook wrote in 1896 in his preface:

It is on the peasant class that we have had to depend for our material - rough sons of the soil, unaided (and may it be said unspoiled?) by musical knowledge, notation or instruments - sailors, weavers, shoemakers, tillers of the land and toilers of the sea, and even among such it is only from a very limited few of the last survivors in the solitary wilds of the Island that we have been able to glean these last remnants of the old-world music of our forefathers.

Thomas Kermode died on 2nd March 1901 in his home at Bradda and is buried in Rushen Churchyard. A small stone was erected there in his memory on 16th June 1991 by his grandson, Laurence Kermode, followed by a reception for invited family and friends including Miles Walker, the Island's then Chief Minister, and members of the folk music fraternity.

Biography written by Laurence Kermode (grandson).

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.250-1.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1825

Date of death: 2 March 1901

Name Variant: Thomas 'Boy Doal' Kermode


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