Parish of St Matthew the Apostle,
Douglas, Isle of Man
I have been looking through a book of photographs taken by Christopher Killip. It is not just a story about the Isle of Man, it is also a story that can be told all over the world. However, it is a remarkable record of the Isle of Man.
It has a preface by John Berger. He catches the truth about survival, and he does this so well because his choice of words and the ordering of them, reads like poetry as he observes the world of the Island and its roots in the land and sea. The photographs portray a way of life that has been hard. It has had to fight against the elements, where the weather is both friend and foe. There is the heavy work of turning the soil for the harvest seed, and the ever-watching eye upon the sky. The sea is both friend and foe, an uneasy friend for the little boats that went out upon the deep to gather the silver harvest of the sea.
In every face portrayed in the book there is the strength of a native character. In every age it is there, the sturdy face of character that will be there to the end of life even when the limbs no longer work the way they did, and the hands are tired of doing the work they once found so easy. Sometimes survival called the sons to leave for a new beginning, to cross the Atlantic or make for Australia or South Africa.
Letters would somehow find their way to reassure those who remained. It took them many months to reach the hands of the family gone away across the water, and the letters were reassuring, not to worry. Loved ones are never out of mind. Ellan Vannin holds sentiments in its verses which some might find curious today, but then life was hard, and there was no easy email to press a key and send an instant message to be read within the hour.
I saw the end of that world. In East Baldwin, high up on the slopes of Carraghan, I spent many happy days of childhood, swimming in the cold river, climbing the hills, and everywhere there seemed to be something to fire my imagination, especially the Tholtans.
Who were the people who had lived in that ruin? It must have been a family there, and what has happened to them? I would muse upon it all, and watch the farmer in what appeared to me to be a kind of three piece suit with the trousers tied around the ankle with old binder twine against ‘the Long Tails.’
We children would walk up to the old road and along to St Luke’s Church, which was always open. Its oil lamps hanging from the rafters, the harmonium, and its heating stove for the dark of winter. In summer time when the sun always seemed to shine, it was but another place to explore. Its grave yard with all the stones telling of this person made me think what these people must have been like, and then there were the people who had lived in the house where we were living. I thought of them, and wondered how they lived. Did they have a tin bath, and did they use the Thie Veg at the bottom of the garden?
Yes, I saw the farmers, the Donkey man who walked his donkeys into Douglas for ‘The Visitors’ and the old lady in black who seemed to walk into Douglas every day and back again. The old farm-houses were starting to be replaced, and the farming was changing. Indeed the world was changing, and in many ways it was becoming much easier. There was more money, and the challenges of life were changing, and times not quite so harsh. Yet I wonder if we have too little time to think, too little time to reflect, and know what is really good in life. The struggle that our forebears did have made them people who could be stern, yet they were also kind. If anyone’s load was too much to bear, then the people were there to support them through whatever had befallen them.
It is not easy to love one another, as Christ tells us to do. Love is about belonging to life, and we do it by not demanding love, but being there to help one another along in life. We are Island people, and we have a long tradition of standing by one another. Our families are so important, and so also is the stranger at the door, and we have a duty to both.
With all my good wishes, and prayers,