Quaerentes in Extremis
Church on Isle of Man
The Church is an important landowner on Man. Rushen Abbey owns around an eighth of all the treens on the island (this land is collectively known as the Abbeylands or Abbey Demesne), while other important Church landowners include St. Runius’ Convent in Onchan, St. Maughold’s Monastery in Maughold, as well as St. Bee’s Priory in Cumberland, Whithorn Abbey in Scotland, and Bangor Abbey and Sabhal Abbey in Ireland. Legend tells that the first Christian on Man was King Mordains, who was converted by Joseph of Arimathea, when Joseph was bringing his staff and the Holy Grail to Britain. This notwithstanding, church records tell that Christianity first fully came to the island in 444 AD, when St. Patrick landed in Man at Peel. The Christians on Man still mostly follow the ways of the Celtic “Culdee” church (from the Goidaelic cele De, “servants of God”) , but more and more of the parish priests are now being appointed from the mainland Latin Church, since the Celtic Church held the Synod of Cashel in 1172, the Celtic Church has been officially subsumed into the Latin Church. The current bishop of Man and the Isles, Reginald Ivarsson, is the king’s nephew, and is mostly a political appointee; he does not take much of an active role in Church matters. Due to the historical political dominance of Norway, the diocese of Man and the Isles (also known as the diocese of “Sodor and Man”) is actually part of the Archbishopric of Trondhjem in Norway, despite its closer proximity to the British Isles.
On Man, there are two basic kinds of church building — the ancient Celtic “keeills”, and the more modern Norse “kirks” (from kirkja — Norse for “church”); there are more than 200 such churches on Man in 1220, but these are unevenly spread across the island — with many treens having multiple keeills, and some having no church at all. The keeills are small, dry-stone buildings with low, turf roofs (some are as small as 10’ x 6’, with a roof as low as 6’); they have no nave or chancel, and the altar is always against the eastern wall. The kirks are larger wooden, or stone-and-mortar buildings with wooden roofs, and a more modern layout. Many of the older keeills have fallen into disrepair, and several kirks have been built on sites where keeills used to be — meaning that both types of church are associated with the “chibbyr” holy wells. Also, Norse Christians have often renovated keeills without rebuilding them entirely — meaning that many churches share features of both types of church building.
Convent of St. Runius near the town of Douglas is the oldest establishment on the island, being founded in 493 AD; until recently it was run by Culdee nuns of the Brighidian order, but has recently adopted the Cistercian rule.
St. Maughold’s Monastery was founded in 498 AD by St. Maughold, an Irish pirate redeemed by St. Patrick; this monastery used to be the seat of the bishopric until the completion of Bishopscourt (see page 58) by Bishop Nicholas de Meaux.
Rushen Abbey, or St. Lua’s Monastery, in Rushen parish is the youngest, being established in 1134 as a Savingian monastery, though it converted to the Cistercian rule in 1147 AD.
Parish priests on Man are often referred to as Vicars of Thirds, as they receive only one-third of the church tithes paid from their parish. The remaining two thirds are divided equally between the Bishop and Rushen Abbey — and this uneven distribution is a source of not inconsiderable friction within the Manx Church.
Most of the island’s population — both Celtic and Norse — is Christian, but there is still a substantial minority of the Norse inhabitants who follow their traditional pagan ways; in some parishes, there will be a small Hof, a building entirely dedicated as a shrine to the Æsir and Æsinjor gods (and often with a slight magical or faerie aura). Many Norse households will also contain small shrines to Æsir such as Thor and Freyja (for plentiful crops), and to Njörd (for safety at sea). The Norse religion is still a state religion for Man, so Thorbrand Finnsson the resident high priest of Odin, blesses most important public occasions (like the Tynwald). Manifestations of some of the more powerful fay on Man will typically be interpreted as being from the Æsir: Mannannan is taken as Thor or Njörd, Arawn as Odin, and Rhiannon as Freyja. There are a small number (perhaps a dozen) of vitki present on the islands; mostly in the retinues of the more powerful hersars.