manx celtic music and dance

Music has always been an important part of Manx life. Early manuscripts include Mona Melodies (1820) and the even earlier John Moore's Music Book of English and Scottish tunes (1804), which is of uncertain origins.

It is not, however, until the late 19th century that the story of Manx traditional music as it is played today really begins. During the 1890s, the Gill brothers, composer William Henry and Deemster John Frederick, joined forces with Dr. John Clague on a rescue mission to collect Manx folk music from Manx people before it was forgotten. They took down over 300 melodies, mostly without words, from which Gill arranged and published a collection with new lyrics entitled Manx National Songs (1896). Manx National Songs was an attempt to popularise Manx music with newly generated song texts – some translations of the original Manx into English and some on patriotic and other themes. Published by Boosey, it remains popular today.

Manx National Songs was followed in 1898 by Manx National Music, a collection of tunes for piano solo. At the same time that Gill was preparing his publication, noted antiquarian and historian, A.W. Moore, was concluding a parallel project which prioritised song texts over musical notation – Manx Ballads and Music appeared in 1896. Unfortunately Clague and the Gills concentrated on the music, while Moore focused on the Manx texts and translations, and the two rarely marry.

In the early twentieth century Mona Douglas collected folk songs and found many pieces not noted previously. Working with English composer and pupil of Vaughan Williams, Arnold Foster, she provided English translations for his arrangements which they published with Stainer and Bell as three volumes of Twelve Manx Folk Songs. These arrangements have remained popular up to the present day. Douglas also collected many dances and, with the help of Philip Leighton Stowell, restored them for performances in the 1930s across Britain. It is worth noting that Manx traditional music and dance have a close relationship - dancing popularised traditional tunes during the 1940s and ’50s. By the 1960s and ’70s, groups such as the Mannin Folk brought new life to many of the songs in the Clague, Gill and Douglas collections.

During the 1970s the Isle of Man developed its status as an offshore financial centre, which prompted a building boom to provide houses for new residents. This was seen, by some people, as a threat to the traditional Manx way of life and it resulted in a renewed interest in all things Manx. The original manuscripts of Dr Clague and the Gill brothers were revisited and, along with dance and the Gaelic language, the performance of traditional music was seen as a symbol of Manxness. The ‘Clague Collection’, as it became known, was copied and distributed at a purely Manx music session in Peel called ‘Bwoie Doal’ (Blind Boy), named after one of Clague’s 19th century informants, Tom Kermode of Bradda. Many new Manx bands and dance groups have since evolved from this original session and much of the repertoire performed within the current Manx traditional music scene can be directly linked to this 1970s revival and influential series of tune-books called Kiaull yn Theay published by Colin Jerry from 1978 onwards. 1978 was also the year that Yn Chruinnaght Inter-Celtic Festival was born. Today there are three main festivals a year – with Shennaghys Jiu Celtic Youth Festival and the Cooish Inter-Gaelic Festival. There are regular sessions, a growing number of bands and dance groups as well as music taught in schools. Other long established festivals such as The Manx Music Festival or ‘Guild’, founded in 1892 as a competitive platform for Manx performers, features some classes for Manx music and dancing alongside a more established classical repertoire.

The earliest commercial recordings come from Kelly Record(ing)s and include Brian Stowell’s LP Arraneyn Beeal-arrish Vannin (1973) and The Mannin Folk’s King of the Sea (1976). In 1986, the instrumental group, Mactullagh Vannin, recorded a self-titled album on cassette and this initiated a more productive period of recording of Manx music in line with new recording technologies. Today, most Manx music groups feature on CDs and have tracks for download. There is an Irish language documentary from 1981 featuring Manx music revivalists of that time.

At the start of the 21st century, groups continue to enjoy international success – musicians and dancers have featured on the world’s media, Moot was selected for the final of Liet-Lavlut European minority language song contest (2006), King Chiaullee won the coveted folk-group trophy at Lorient (2008), followed by Nish as Rish (2011) and Laura Rowles' composition 'Sheena's Waltz' made it through to the semi-final of the Amber Fiddle Award (2010). Laura's group, Shenn Scoill were also been very successful at the Pan-Celtic song contest, winning the award in 2014.

Even more recently, Barrule and Ruth Keggin had double victory with first and second places in the Trophee Loic Raison folk-group competition in Lorient (2015) and young Manx harpist, Mera Royle won the BBC Radio 2 young folk musician of the year (2018). 

New Manx music is continually being created by traditional music groups, composers, arrangers and rock bands alike. Manx music is more widely recognised within the world of Celtic music and features regularly on compilation albums, TV shows and at festivals.

Find out who's who in our PERFORMERS section.


The Revival of Manx Traditional Music: From the 1970s to the Present Day - PhD thesis by Dr Chloe Woolley [2003]


VIEW the four Clague Collection manuscript notebooks - Manx National Heritage MS448A / photographs by David Speers:

Book A 1 Book B 2 Book C 3 Book D 4

And the JF Gill Collection

Ballads and Songs in Mona Miscellany

Read research articles