UNDER THE ‘THREE-LEGGED-SWASTIKA’: Celtic Studies and Celtic Revival in the Isle of Man in the context of the ‘National Socialist Idea’

By George Broderick



1. The Three-Legs and Swastika as symbols in Man

The “Three-Legs” or “Triskele” is the national symbol of the Isle of Man, and on the national flag it is found in the centre of a red field. The Three Legs symbol has a long association with Man and, so far as is known, is first attested as an emblem on the 13th century Manx Sword of State traditionally attributed to King Olaf II of Man (1226-37) (Stenning 1958: 143). In Manx folklore Manannan Beg Mac y Leer (G. Manannán Mac Lir), the eponymous god of Man and protector of its people, is said to roll down from the mountain top against Man’s enemies in the form of a fiery three-legs as part of his protective mechanism (Morrison 1911(1929): 181-82), and as such this association may predate the Scandinavian period in Man (9th-13th centuries).

The Swastika has also a long association with Man and is found on a number of runic crosses of 10th century date in the form of a so-called “Fylfot or spiral-headed Gammadion” (cf. Kermode 1907: 29). On Thorburnwald’s Cross-Slab from Andreas (And-reas 128; cf. Cubbon 1977: 32-33) the Swastika seems to appear three times, twice spiral-headed (anti-clockwise) and once as a simple design (clockwise)2.


2. The Three-Legs and Swastika as symbols in the Manx cultural revival

However, in the 1920s both symbols became associated with Manx cultural organisations and were loosely referred to as a “Swastika”. In November 1924 the Manx cultural gathering Cruinnaght Vanninagh Ashoonagh (sic) ‘Manx National Gathering’ was established. This evolved from an idea based on that of the Welsh National Eisteddfod suggested at the Annual General Meeting of the World Manx Association (WMA) in Douglas in May of that year, and developed under the auspices of the WMA in tandem with Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh ‘the Manx Language Society’ (YCG), whose secretary J. J. Kneen gave the Cruinnaght its title3.

The emblem of the World Manx Association, then as now, shows a Viking ship in full sail, bearing a black Swastika (in the form that we now know it, with four angula legs running anti-clockwise) in the centre of the sail. The emblem used on the Gold and Silver medals awarded at that first Cruinnaght came from an idea suggested by William Cubbon4, Librarian at the Manx Museum (1922-32), then its Director (1932-40), and was described on p. 11 of the subsequent official report (MM.L3) as “a primitive Swa-stika design”. The design is in fact is a Triskele with curved legs running clockwise.

The description of the Three-Legs as a Swastika is found also in Germany in 1940s. In an article about the Isle of Man delivered in September 1941 (see below), the Berlin based Celticist Gerhard von Tevenar (Tevenar 1941a) uses the term Drei-Bein-Hakenkreuz ‘Three-Leg-Swastika’, a description that would be readily understood in Germany at that time5. Hence the title of this paper.

It seems therefore that for the period ca.1920-1945, i.e. the period under discussion, both symbols were loosely termed “Swastika” in cultural circles in Man and seem to have been closely associated with one another6. Both symbols are still in use in Man today; the Three-Legs as the National Symbol is used ubiquitously in various forms, including at the present Yn Chruinnaght (see footnote 1), while the Swastika remains the emblem of the World Manx Association, though the WMA and Yn Chruinnaght are no longer connected organisationally and the earlier close association no longer obtains.


3. The ‘National Socialist Idea’ in ethnicity and identity in Man

The 1924 Cruinnaght formed part of the surge in interest in Manx language and culture then prevalent in Man. The inspiration for this came from Ireland in the closing decades of the 19th century, the founding of Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh in 1899 as the main promoter of Manx Gaelic, then as now, taking its cue from Conradh na Gaeilge ‘the Gaelic League’ set up in Ireland in 1893. Such a surge formed part of a general movement throughout Western Europe in matters to do with ethnicity and identity which promoted the “exhaltation of the native thing”, e.g. language, music, song, dance, folk-lore, etc, and in some places included exhaltation of the ethnic grouping, employing terminology such as “race”, “blood”, “blood and soil (Blut und Boden)”, as a fundament to the concept of identity: “Manxness”, “Irishness”, “Germanness”, etc.

In the promotion of the foregoing, particularly where revival activity may be involved, an element of kitsch and pseudo-tradition can be found mixed in as part and parcel of the whole, but which has little or nothing to do with historical reality. In Germany, for instance, although promotion of, and interest in most if not all the foregoing took place long before 1933, these concepts 1933-45 fell under the auspices of the Nazis (National Socialists in Germany)7. For our purposes here the term “National Socialist Idea” is used to embrace the foregoing in the ideology of ethnicity and identity in a cultural, not a political context8. This term is chosen here, as it was in Germany under the Nazis that the “exhaltation of the native thing” in all its facets was perfected to a fine art9.

Fervent interest in this “National Socialist Idea” in many of its facets took place also in Man in the period under discussion. From the beginning and even today, interest in and enthusiasm for matters Manx, particularly the language, is linked in the minds of many Manx people with pride in “Manxness” and the Manx national identity, hence the YCG motto gyn çhengey, gyn çheer ‘no language, no country’10.


4. Academic activity in Man and the ‘National Socialist Idea’

Concomitant with a surge in the promotion of matters Celtic at this time was an awakening of interest on the academic scene. In Man11 the main thrust came in the personage of Carl Marstrander (1883-1965), Professor of Celtic at the University of Oslo, who visited Man 1929, 1930, and 1933 to record the remnants of Manx Gaelic speech (Marstrander 1929-33a). Marstrander was a Norwegian national and patriot and was not immune from the surge in interest and feelings in matters Germanic of the period. According to his diary (Marstrander 1929-33b), Marstrander obtained samples of Manx speech from some 36 informants. But all the time he was looking for someone from whom he could learn good Manx, and finally he found him in Thomas Christian, Ramsey, (his main informant) whom he described as [...] an excellent old man, a Nordic type through and through. (Marstrander 1929-33b: 47).

For Marstrander, a Nordic type obviously possesses the following attributes. Marstrander continues:

Here I seem finally to have found the man to work with. His pronunciation is clear; the man is intelligent, patient, and understands that he can be of great service to scholarship by making himself available. He answers small test examples quickly and idiomatically (Marstrander 1929-33b: 48).

Marstrander was very sympathetic to the Manx local historian and language enthusiast J. J. Kneen referred to above, whose work on Manx place-names (Kneen 1925-28) he praises highly (Marstrander 1929-33b), to such an extent that he obtained £200 from the Fridjof Nansen Fund in Norway for Kneen to continue his academic work. In his letter to Kneen (Marstrander-Kneen 16.10.1929) Marstrander, in his capacity as the Nansen Fund’s “delegate to the Island”, says that he was able to persuade the Fund to support his (Kneen’s) Manx place-name research by emphasising the Norwegian connection with Man:

[...] Neither can they forget that the population of the Island is to a great extent of Norwegian origin, that for centuries the Isle of Man was held and cultivated by our ancestors and that even at the present day the place-names of every parish bear testimony to this ancient chapter of our common history (Letter Marstrander-Kneen 16.10.1929, J. J. Kneen Papers, MM).

The evident over-emphasis of the Norwegian connection, still in place today12, was clearly to obtain funding for Kneen. Marstrander himself, in his work on Manx place-names (cf. Marstrander 1932, 1934), would have known perfectly well that the overwhelming majority of the extant place-names in Man are of Gaelic provenance. In addition, an examination of Manx surnames in the local telephone directory reveals a proportion of roughly 2 : 1 in favour of those containing a Gaelic, as opposed to a Scandinavian element.

However, also in line with some of the thinking of his time Marstrander was also prone to apparent anti-semitic sentiment. This is to be found in the material collected from his main informant Thomas Christian published in A Handbook of Late Spoken Manx (cf. Broderick 1984-86).

In Vol. 2 Dictionary we find under the item Hew ‘Jew’ (p. 220) the following example requiring translation into Manx: ‘I hate the Jews’, Mx. ta feoh aym er ny Hewnyn. Under the item custey ‘accursed, damned’ (p. 115) from the same informant we find ‘he is a damned Jew’, Mx. t’eh ny Hew custey. It is clear from Marstrander’s diary (cf. above quote about Christian) that the test samples came from himself and not volunteered by his informants, and this appears to be the case also with Christian. The fact that such samples were elicited at all would indicate that even in Man at that time such sentiment would not have caused offence. It would almost certainly cause offence today.


5. Nazi academic interest in matters Manx

The Nazis took a keen interest in matters Celtic (including Manx), especially the SS-Wissenschaftsamt Ahnenerbe ‘ancestors’ heritage’, set up in 1935 by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and two others. This Amt was renamed ‘Amt A’ within the Hauptamt of Himmler’s personal staff in 1942. The purpose of Ahnenerbe was evidently to attract specialists in a number of fields of study that could also serve the political interests of the state (cf. Simon (1985a, 1985b), Lerchenmüller (1997: 265, note 88)). One such field was devoted to matters Celtic and was headed by Prof. Dr. Ludwig Mühl-hausen (1888-1956) who became Professor of Celtic in Berlin in 1936 on the enforced resignation of his Jewish predecessor Julius Pokorny (1887-1970).

Mühlhausen joined the NSDAP in 1932 and the SA in 1933, and in 1943 transferred to the SS. In December 1936 Mühlhausen and others set up in Berlin the Deutsche Gesellschaft für kelti-sche Studien ‘German Society for Celtic Studies’ (DGKS) which had as its Geschäfts-führer or manager the West Prussian Celticist Gerhard von Tevenar (1912-1943), already referred to, and the renowned Celtic scholar Rudolf Thurneysen (1857-1940) as its honorary president; Mühlhausen was president. By 1942 through Mühlhausen’s endeavours the DGKS (along with the Celtic studies periodical Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, with vols. 22 (1941) and 23 (1943) entitled Zeitschrift für keltische Philologie und Volksforschung under Mühlhausen’s editorship) had come under SS control (BDC: Akte Mühlhausen M/32 (courtesy Dr. Gerd Simon, Tübingen); Lerchenmüller 1997).

In addition to his duties as Geschäftsführer of the DGKS Tevenar evidently had an interest Celtic fringe matters (Lerchenmüller 1997: 387), including Manx; it could be said that he was the DGKS’s ‘specialist’ for Manx. In September 1941 he delivered a lecture on the Isle of Man, its history, constitution, traditions, language, cultural promotion, etc, entitled Die völkische Eigenart der Insel Man ‘the ethnic peculiarity of the Isle of Man’ at a joint symposium of the DGKS and a science ministry sponsored initiative (primarily directed against England) styling itself Kriegseinsatz der Geisteswissenschaften ‘deployment of the Humanities in war’ at Wernigerode, Sachsen-Anhalt (Tevenar 1941a).

It is clear from the contents of the published version of the lecture that, in spite of one or two minor slips, Tevenar was fairly au fait with the Manx situation. It is also clear that he had made contact with Man (perhaps with J. J. Kneen himself), since it is Kneen’s unpublished language map of Man (drawn in 1910 and recently discovered in his papers at the Manx Museum) which appears with one or two modifications in Tevenar’s article13.

The Irish Rising of 1916 and its aftermath had made clear to the Nazis that it was possible for a Celtic country to detach itself from its dominant neighbour, and SS interests in matters Celtic evidently had as an aim, in a British Isles context, to fragment English control through support for political and cultural movements in the Celtic countries, hence especial interest in the Celtic Congress (cf. Tevenar 1941a: 289)14. Tevenar was also the author of an obituary and laudatio to J. J. Kneen after the latter’s death in November 1938 (Tevenar 1941b).


6. The Manx cultural revival and the ‘National Socialist Idea’

The cultural revival in Man can be shown to have taken place in three phases: Phase 1 embraces the period from the closing decades of the 19th century to ca. 1930, Phase 2 from ca. 1930 to ca. 1940-45, Phase 3 from ca. 1945 to present. Pertinent to our topic here would be Phase 2.

Personal enquiry seems to indicate that the Manx revival received a second major impetus in enthusiasm ca.1930 lasting till just after the outbreak of the Second World War. The catalyst here seems to have been Marstrander’s visits of 1929, 1930, and 1933 which encouraged language enthusiasts to seek out those still alive who had learned Manx from the cradle (Broderick 1999). In addition to the language enthusiasts, two main activists at that time figure in Phase 2. They were J. J. Kneen (1872-1938) and Mona Douglas (1898-1987).

J. J. Kneen, also active during Phase 1, was a producer of mint rock by profession who found time to be a productive local historian. He brought out a six-volume work on Manx place-names (Kneen 1925-28), a Manx grammar (Kneen 1931), and a work on Manx personal names (Kneen 1937), not to mention a flood of smaller works, including a number of plays, connected with the Manx Revival (see Cubbon 1933, 1939). As we have seen, Marstrander was generous in his praise of Kneen’s efforts during his visits to Man (Marstrander 1929-33b), and arranged for the Nansen Fund in Norway to grant Kneen £200 to assist him in his place-name work. Kneen was active in YCG, holding the posts of secretary and latterly of president.

Mona Douglas, a rural librarian and journalist by profession, was also involved in Phase 1. As a protégée of Sophia Morrison (active in Phase 1), she collected folksong and folkdance material at a time (particularly in the 1920s) when scant attention was apparently being paid to things Manx, collecting from ca.1912 to ca.1930 from some of the last bearers of the relevant traditions (see Douglas & Foster 1928, 1929, 1957; Cubbon 1933, 1939; also Speers 1997). Mona Douglas was also a poetess and romantic, and some of her poetry about Man was inspired by the 1916 Rebellion in Ireland (Douglas [1916]).

In 1931 she (with others) founded the Manx youth movement Aeglagh Vannin ‘youth-band of Man’ (with resonances of Óglaigh na hÉireann ‘warriors of Ireland’, the Irish title of the IRA) (Douglas 1932), at a time when such movements were in vogue, and was active in YCG and the Celtic Congress right up until the Second World War and after. Douglas was evidently equally vigorous in pursuing her interests in Manx nationalist politics, and from personal enquiry and interviews with surviving members (1990-91) she played a central role in the seemingly shadowy organisation Ny Manninee Dooie ‘the true Manx’ at the outbreak of war or shortly before.

This group evidently advocated a neutral stance for the Isle of Man, as taken by the then Irish Taoiseach Éamonn de Valéra for Ireland and advocated also by the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru for Wales, and was apparently looked upon by the Manx authorities as being pro-German15.

Mona Douglas’s interest in Manx nationalist politics (which for her was evidently inseparable from the promotion of the Manx language, music, and dance) seems to stem from her view of hostile (English) immigrant attitudes over the years towards things Manx (cf. her letter to The Observer 01.02.1924 in Broderick (1999: 33)). This view is reiterated as late as 1981 in Rallying Song (Douglas 1981), a novel based on the aspirations of the Manx nationalist cause:

[...] A few new residents could be absorbed [...] and some of the newcomers did try to integrate and were accepted [...] but not the overwhelming numbers arriving today, most of whom had no interest in Manx history and culture, did not, in fact, admit that it had any real existence or value, and did not wish to become involved with the Manx people except in so far as they could pay them to do menial work (Douglas 1981: 22).

Concomitant with this is her belief, spelled out in the same book, in the “spiritual roots of the [Manx] race” from which a true faith would emanate, which would inculcate a dedication to “a national and racial image built of dreams and visions, tradition and history [...]” (Douglas 1981: 25). Such a belief would be a

[...] vision born of the very spirit of the race, taking its nourishment from the roots firmly bedded in the immemorial past and springing afresh in each generation to become a great force which would transcend and weld together all the dedication and sacrifice now directed to material and mental temporal aims, a real religion of the future which would sweep through the lands of the Gael and go onward like a flame into the world beyond, transforming the general materialism and violence of the present age (Douglas 1981: 25-26).

Mona Douglas’s interest in ‘race’ and ‘nationalism’ has a long history, and sentiment in that direction finds expression even at the founding in 1932 of the Manx youth movement Aeglagh Vannin in her article ‘Manx Nationalism and Aeglagh Vannin’ (Douglas 1932: 5):

[...] Nationalism itself is a passion of the soul. Nationalism is a force which can be used for either good or evil [...], for the invisible National Being, the image of the Nation in the hearts of its children, the overshadowing, composite spirit of the race (Douglas 1932: 5).

In her appeal to the youth of Man to join the movement Mona Douglas beckons:

Volunteers! The new nationalism calls on. Look back on the splendour of our racial past - your own past [...]; look forward into the golden vista of the future, alive with dreams - and then step out under the banner of Aeglagh Vannin to do your bit for your country’s sake [...]. So shall Ellan Vannin go forward, steadfastly and full of national consciousness, to possess her Tir nan Oge (Douglas 1932: 6).

These sentiments are echoed in religious tone in the Aeglagh Vannin Rallying Song, composed by Mona Douglas in 1934 and set to the traditional Manx tune Carval ny Drogh Vraane (‘carval (i.e. religious carol) of/about the bad women’)16. It was latterly printed in her novel Rallying Song referred to above (Douglas 1981: [3]), and from personal enquiry frequently sung at meetings:

O Land of our allegiance For us thine ancient glories
O Mannin of the sea Gleam yet on sea and shore
May we be ever worthy In us the nation’s spirit
To claim our share in thee! Renews for evermore
We hold thy soil as sacred And still our dreams make holy
And though we wander far The hills our fathers trod
Thy flame of song and story For in our Sacred Island
Burns where thy children are We touch the veil of God

Tir nan Oge (G. Tír nan Óg ‘land of the (ever) young’) is a concept of ‘heaven’ found in Gaelic literature. Here Mona Douglas sees the achievement of that ‘heaven’, a Manx Utopia perhaps, through nationalism and a reinforcement of the “splendour of our racial past” idea.

Mona Douglas returned to this theme some years later. In an article on traditional Manx folk songs and dances (Douglas 1941 (1949), in Miller 1994), in which she gives details of their collection and reconstruction, Mona Douglas saw the re-availability of these songs and dances (evidently prompted by the English Folk Dance Society’s Easter Vacational School held in Douglas, Isle of Man, in 1929 (Miller 1994: 9-12)) in romantic folkloristic terms as a visible demonstration of Manx identity in the face of change:

[...] A modern and alien life is all about us now, and before its onslaught the old Gaelic culture of our land and race is in danger of being lost unless we can persuade the rising generation to love, appreciate and use our national heritage of artistic expression. In doing so we believe sincerely that they will keep our tiny but proud and ancient nation continually nourished and revitalised from the inexhaustible springs of racial tradition, eternally young and vigorous and full of the deathless beauty of Tir-na’n Oge (Douglas 1941(1949), in Miller 1994: 12)17.

Such sentiments pervade Mona Douglas’s thinking right through her life. As we have said before, they were in vogue in Western Europe, particularly in the Celtic countries, in the early decades of this century, as well as in Germany, and are clearly reminiscent of aspects of National Socialist and Fascist ideologies. The references to “Tir-na’n Oge”, given the individual concerned, would almost certainly indicate direct contact with Ireland. The excesses of the Nazi régime in Germany rendered such sentiments unfashionable after 1945. However, it does not follow that a belief in them implied sympathy with such excesses or support for such ideologies.

Nevertheless, their whole ethos seems to permeate Mona Douglas’s ideas regarding the establishment of a youth movement, the promotion of Manx Gaelic, and the re-establishment of the Manx folkmusic and dance traditions, from the 1930s onwards right through to her re-inauguration in 1977 of the Manx Inter-Celtic Festival of Yn Chruinnaght (‘the gathering’) and thereafter. Given these circumstances, it is evident that Mona Douglas could not have made her not-inconsiderable contribution to the Manx cause without a firm belief in such sentiments.

In 1976 Mona Douglas, aged 78, retired as leader of Aeglagh Vannin on health grounds; shortly after the movement was disbanded. After the war Mona Douglas’s overt interests in Manx politics appeared to have evaporated (cf. also Broderick 1991-92). In fact, in a quest by the Celtic Congress to jettison its political image after the war, Mona Douglas was sacked as secretary of the Manx Branch on a suitable pretext at its Annual General Meeting in 1952 (John Belchem, Liverpool, pc 1997).


7. The ‘National Socialist Idea’ and the Manx cultural movement today

The Manx cultural movement today can be divided into three parts: language, music/song, and dance, each having attached to it a number of societies (language), session groups (music/song), and dance groups (dance). As we have seen above, all three aspects received considerable impetus in their promotion during the period under discussion, especially due to the indefatigable efforts of Mona Douglas, particularly in the “restoration” and promotion of Manx folksong and dance (Douglas 1941 (1949), Miller 1994). We have seen also that Mona Douglas’s world view was permeated by sentiments of a “National Socialist” hue and that the dynamism in her involvement in the promotion of Manx culture owes its impetus to such sentiments.

Her view particularly of Manx traditional dance is still widely accepted among enthusiasts in Man today in a manner that is held by some as “holy” and any criticism regarded as offensive. This holds also for a view by some as to how traditional music is to be played18. In addition, the reinauguration of Yn Chruinnaght in 1977 by Mona Douglas is a celebration inter alia of Manx music and tradition in the way she understood them, and the ritual of semi-obeisance to her memory each year at the opening of the festival carries on a tradition that has its roots in the 1930s19 and has thereby generated a certain amount of “mythology” surrounding Mona Douglas and her activites20.

We have also seen that Mona Douglas’s “restoration” and promotion of Manx dances was motivated by the visit of the English Folkdance Society to Man at Easter 1929, to provide a Manx balance to something that was seen as intrusive and non-Manx. That is to say, that Mona Douglas’s commitment to the promotion of Manx “traditional” dance served the interests of identity and national aspiration at a time when it was felt necessary in Man to do so, thus giving credence to the comment attributed to Dr. Goebbels: “truth is for historians; we are dealing with reality!”, a “reality” that in Man depended on kitsch and pseudo-tradition to sustain it.

The 1930s material is now some sixty years old and could itself be regarded as a tradition in its own right. These dances are still performed and are regarded by many as “traditional” purely on the length of time they have been danced, irrespective of whether their provenance is genuine or not. In addition, the circumstances of their creation at a time imbued with apparent “National Socialist” ideology is regarded by many today as irrelevant. The further away we move from the 1930s and the attitudes of that time, the dimmer that memory becomes. The so-called “National Socialist Idea” in a Manx context, unsullied by political excesses, was able to continue to some extent in Man long after 1945. But with the passage of time even the Manx equivalent is now passing into history.

In its place an up-and-coming generation of young people in Man are now creating their own dances that have very little to do with the Mona Douglas corpus, but probably unintentionally have more in common with the genuinely traditional material. There is a similar tendency in the music, i.e. new material is being created, not necessarily in the old tradtional style as there is no reference point, but which has the dynamism and vitality of the old traditional material (cf. Speers 1997). It is attracting a large following and at the same time has nothing to do with 1930s attitudes. This is probably aided and abetted by a current change in population in Man involving considerable immigration into Man from all parts of Britain and Ireland, with new and exciting ideas and attitudes contributing to a new slant on the Manx identity at the start of a new millennium.


Source: http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/~kelly/LIST...ick/THREE.html