Themselves: Underground devils, not flying girls

Thu, 22 Aug 2019


In the eighth in our series of articles about Manx folklore and calendar customs, this piece looks at one of the most important figures in traditional Manx folklore beliefs; Themselves / the Lil' Fellas / the Mooinjer Veggey (more daringly named as the fairies). This was recently published in the Manx Independent:

Underground devils not flying girls

There is only one sort of Manx creature who would think nothing of stealing a baby or punching a sleeping woman in the eye.

But what should we call them?

Themselves, the Little People, the Little Fellas, the Mooinjer Veggey – all are good options. But ‘The fairies’ isn’t, for good reason.

You need to be cautious around these ones, for fear that they’ll do some jeeyl (mischief) on you.

Like the woman in Bride who was punched in the eye when she forgot to leave out cake for them. Or, worse, the Laxey drunk who foolishly mocked them, only to be immediately pelted with stones and later losing not only all his cattle but also by his own life within the next few weeks!

In fact, if you go back far enough, the traditional Lil’ Fella was associated with the devil.

One of the earliest references to the Fairy Bridge is in a guidebook of 1816. It will surprise many to know that at that time Ballalona Bridge was ‘usually called the Devil's Bridge’ and that it was ‘said to be the scene of his satanic majesty's frequent exploits.’

Indeed, many stories are unclear whether it is Themselves or devils which are being spoken of.

And, of course, we know that traditionally they don’t live behind pretty doors, but in burial mounds.

Many will know the story of The Fairy Hill outside Port Erin, where a man named Colcheragh sneaked in to enjoy their wonderful party but narrowly avoided being trapped inside forever when he refrained from drinking their wine.

This not the only fairy hill in the Island – a large number of Bronze Age burial mounds are associated with Themselves, including Killeaba Mount in a residential street in Ramsey.

Another story is of a house near Ballaragh constantly troubled by Themselves in the night-time. But the building of the tramline in the 1880s uncovered a number of lintel graves, and when these were taken away the raids by the Lil’ Fellas ceased.

Undead devil-like beings who dwell in burial mounds? The traditional Manx belief is some way from today’s winged and kind variety of fairy.

But perhaps this goes back to the issue of their name.

Since the Manx deliberately shied away from giving them a definite name, it was easiest to explain them to the English visitor as ‘fairies.’ So that name began to stick and it opened the door to Tinkerbell-esque invaders.

Things would have been very different if we’d called them the Brownies like the Scots, or the pixies as in Cornwall.

But of course traditions change and evolve… though perhaps we’d be wise to understand the traditional Mooinjer Veggey better.

Or else watch out for a punch in the eye in the night time!

 

The article will soon be available to be enjoyed on the Isle of Man Newspapers' website.
More about the folklore and customs of the Isle of Man can be found amongst our Manx Year pages.