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John Kneen

Epithet: Native Manx speaker (1852-1958)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: “I was a Smith…I was doing smithying for all the days at me.” John Kneen.

John Kneen’s occupation or craft had been handed down to him from his father. He was the third generation smith in his family. Indeed his craft literally defined him. He was known as Yn Gaaue, Manx Gaelic for The Smith.

“All the young men of the district used to gather in the smithy every evening where everything of importance was discussed. Often heated arguments ensued, which sometimes ended in blows…The busiest time at the smithy was in the autumn; getting the ploughs, harrows and grubbers ready for the farmers. Then in the quiet times a stock of horseshoes would be made. The blacksmith was looked on as a sort of vet. Lame horses, those having anything wrong with the feet came to the blacksmith to be cured. Remedies included tar, turpentine and pads of leather beneath the shoes…” (John Kneen)

Walter Clarke, one of the collectors of Manx Language, first met Yn Gaaue when he was 93. He described him as ‘The King of the Curraghs’, very active although his sight was failing and he eventually went blind. He had very fluent Manx and made several recordings both with Kevin Danaher of the Irish Folklore Commission and subsequently with Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh.

Yn Gaaue not only contributed valuable information concerning his native tongue, but also shared details of his life in the north, his occupation and his belief in ‘the little people’. In one interview he sadly reveals that he hasn’t seen a fairy for over thirty years. His faith in the supernatural sat side-by-side with a respect for the authority of the church.

“If a man stayed away from Church more than four Sundays in succession he was made to come and sit before the whole congregation wearing a white gown. In the case of an illegitimate child the punishment for the mother was to sit six weeks in the white gown. The churches were well attended!” (John Kneen)

John Kneen’s occupation put him in touch with a variety of people both from the town and the country. He recalls that in the old days it was Manx that was spoken around his smithy, but that most people had English too. Later he realised that a number of these people changed completely around and would hardly speak any Manx.

During the visit of the Irish Folklore Commission John Kneen was introduced to Harry Boyde, another native speaker. The two men had never met although they only lived five or six miles apart. They were encouraged to talk to each other in Manx and the conversation was eagerly recorded.

Although John Kneen retained his knowledge of Manx Gaelic he did not pass the language on to his children.

Gender: Male


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