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The International Writers Magazine: Isle of Man

The Irish Sea time-warp
Quentin Bates
The accent’s not easy to place, floating somewhere between Liverpool and Irish. But this place isn’t Ireland, and neither is it Scotland or England. It’s a subtle blend of them all, with unmistakeable Norse undertones.


The Isle of Man has the feel of a comfortable time-warp somewhere in the 1970s. A Billy Fury tribute show’s following the Swan Ballet at the Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, the island’s capital, its sea front packed with a motley array of hotels and boarding houses resplendent in their faded pre-war gentility.

There’s plenty of variety. Football pubs with blaring screens and punters roaring with glee at every goal rub shoulders with more refined establishments where each course has its own cutlery. There’s fish & chips next to the Texas chicken & kebabs (We Deliver Until 4 AM!), next door to a black tie do at the hotel next door, while the Paparazzi will whisk up a made-on-the-spot pizza or a steak that you might feel the waitress would be better of delivering in a wheelbarrow than on a plate.

Man5 These are the relics of what continental immigrants brought here almost a century ago by the island’s growing position as a tourist spot for the more genteel holidaymakers from England’s industrial north, while the less genteel headed for Blackpool or Skegness. But their legacy is that a cappuccino or an ice cream zinging with flavour are there for the asking.

Then there’s local fare as well, crab sandwiches or flash-fried queen scallops. The Manx fishing industry has taken a battering over the years and these days succulent Manx kippers aren’t made with locally-caught herring any more.

Outside the town, the island’s history jumps out of the hills. The Viking place names say it all: Langness, Ramsey, Laxey, Snaefell. Man was already a Christian island when the pagan northmen began to arrive in the eighth century and its Christianity survived, more or less intact as the Norse influence waned and the Norse kings were run out of town eight hundred years ago. Man Train

Man’s Norseness is everywhere, but subtly understated. The Parliament is the Tynwald, a short sidestep from the Norse word Thing, and supposedly the world’s oldest continuous Parliament.
The banks of clinging low cloud gathered along the hillsides are an eerie reminder that although the Isle of Man is in the middle of the wet and windy Irish Sea, with the rain blown across from Ireland only twenty miles away, this place has the feel of the Viking outpost it once was as the Suðureyjar. (Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides were the Norðureyjar).
History oozes from the Man rocks. On the island’s eastern side Peel sits under the lee of the ruined castle that guarded it for centuries. Peel’s red-stone castle was a settlement when there were still Pharoahs in Egypt and the little St Patrick’s Isle saw successive fortification to protect from Vikings and later from privateers and roundhead troops while the English Civil War raged. The town and its fortress played a role when Spain was making plans to occupy Catholic Ireland as a stepping stone to the occupation of England and stamping out the protestants who had dared expel the Church of Rome.

This place quietly meets Iceland’s proud claim to four different kinds of weather in a day. With its North Atlantic weather filtered and polished as it passes over Ireland on its way westwards, the Isle of Man would be a paradise for rain connoisseur. Mist, drizzle, torrents and downpours alternate with bewildering frequency, interspersed with bouts of blazing sunshine and blue sky that reminds you that there is a summer somewhere.

Every road sign and official document is painstakingly translated into Manx Gaelic, the original Celtic language if the island, but the feeling is that this might be a lost cause. Manx people don’t seem to need their language to maintain their identity and keeping Manx Gaelic alive may be a losing battle. The last native speaker died almost forty years ago and although strenuous efforts have been made to keep the language alive, if the Isle of Man has a real second language, then Polish is a more likely candidate. Every hotel, bar and restaurant is staffed by Eastern Europeans speaking fine, sharp-accented English that contrast against the locals’ soft Irish/Liverpool Manx tones.

There’s an independent feeling to the place, not an overt, table-thumping independence that asserts itself at every opportunity as it does in Iceland, but a quiet confidence that the islanders know they are different from their neighbours and it’s no big deal. At the same time, the tax-exile millionaires who live among the Manx are quietly tolerated and taken no more seriously than they deserve.

The most famous, veteran comedian Norman Wisdom, now until recently resided in a home for the elderly on the island, a victim of dementia in his mid-90s, while his statue graces a bench outside a Douglas bar that carries his name as Sir Norman’s. Sir Norman reputedly made the move from England years ago, as the island reminded him of the England he remembered and preferred from the 1950s – and the place still has that time-warp feel to it that makes you feel that time passes at a gentler pace than on the mainland.
Man Steamshio The Isle of Man can be reached from many UK airports. The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company runs ferries to England and Northern Ireland, although, in spite of the name, these are no longer steamships. A car ferry runs between Heysham and Douglas twice a day, while fast catamarans, known colloquially as the Vomit Comets when the Irish Sea decides to be unkind, run to Liverpool and Belfast.

© Quentin Bates - November 2011

Frozen Out Order Quentin's new novel 'Frozen Out' - due Jan 27th 2011
Publisher: Robinson Publishing (27 Jan 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1849013604

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