“In light of the recent heavy snow across the UK and the Isle of Man, we’re (the band “Barrule”) giving you the chance to download a free copy of the Manx traditional song ‘Ny Kirree fo Niaghtey’ (‘Sheep Under the Snow’), and donate money towards the Isle of Man Farmers Benevolent Trust.”
For more info on how to donate and receive the track, CLICK HERE.
Ny Kirree fo Niaghtey (Traditional Manx)
An 18th Century ballad, Ny Kirree fo Niaghtey (‘The Sheep Under the Snow’) records an incident much like the disaster currently affecting Manx farmers, as they fight to rescue their sheep and cattle from the heavy snows that have hit the island this week.
We have just recorded this very song, with Greg Joughin singing, for our debut album and for a limited time we are offering it as a free download here.
All we ask is that you donate an amount of your choosing and all proceeds will go to the Agricultural Benevolent Trust to support the farmers through a difficult and distressing period. In addition we’ll also be donating 25% of CD sales made between Monday 25th March and Friday 12th April.
Graham Crowe, Chairman of the IOM Agricultural Benevolent Trust said:
“I would like to wish Barrule all the very best with their new album, and we are delighted that it’s launch is also being used to raise some funds for the trust. All the work we do is very discreet and conducted in completely confidential manner, but we are very happy to be associated with events that can raise our profile at a time like this on the fund raising side”.
Donations are made via PayPal using the button below:
If you want to go further and take direct action to help farmers, they are looking for volunteers to help free cattle that is still trapped in the snow. For more information contact the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture by calling (01624) 685844
Translation of the original Manx lyrics:
After winter of snow and spring-tide of frost
The old sheep were dead and the small lambs alive
The men of Lonan rose up and they went forthwith
In Barrule’s hollow they found the sheep dead
Oh! get up shepherds, and to the hill go ye
For the sheep deep as ever are under the snow
The men of Lonan rose up and of Kirk-Christ too
They found the little sheep in Agneash hollow
This said Nicholas Raby and he at home sick
“Beneath the snow are the sheep in Braid-farrane-fing”
The wethers in the front the rams in the midst
The ewes heavy with lamb coming after them
This said Nicholas Raby going up on the loft
“Be my seven blessings on my two thousand sheep
I’ve one sheep for Christmas and two for Easter
And two or three others for the time of death
I have sheep in the hollow and goats on Slieau-rea
Wild sheep in Coan-ny-chistey that will never come home”
Lyrics translated by A.W. Moore (1853-1909)
The ancient ballad ‘Ny Kirree Fo Niaghtey’ (Sheep under the Snow) was thought very highly of by some Manx people, and although recording a tragic episode of Island life, historically it ran a very close second to ‘Mylecharaine’ with its beautiful and expressive tune touching the hearts of many.
Over time there have been many versions of the song, but the core of the tale remains the same, recounting the heart-breaking but reportedly true story of the loss of innumerable sheep during an unexpected blizzard in the parish of Lonan during the late seventeenth century. Farmers were obliged to rely on local knowledge when it came to forecasting, but could easily be caught out by sudden changes in the weather.
This heartfelt lament is an emotional outpouring of despair, but the variance in detail, depending on which version you read, does cause confusion over the name of the farmer, the date of the tragedy, when the ballad was written and by whom. How many sheep died we’ll never know, but some versions report that as many as two thousand sheep belonging to Raby Farm met their deaths. The farmer was reported to have taken to his bed owing to ill health and unable to attend to his sheep during that fateful blizzard. But who was the unfortunate farmer? Some versions of the song refer to him as ‘Qualtrough Raby’ (said to most likely be William Qualtrough of Raby Farm c.1660 – c.1685) but others say it was ‘Nicholas Raby’ (William’s nephew Nicholas Kelly c.1695 – 1783) who later did live at Raby Farm. It was the custom to refer to farmers by the name of their farm.
First published in ‘Mona Melodies’ by John Barrow in 1820 (the son of Charles Barrow who was uncle to the novelist Charles Dickens and organist at St George’s Church in Douglas) he fled to the Isle of Man to escape prosecution. A long list of subscribers included the names of John Dickens (the novelist’s father) and other members of the Barrow family.
Celtic scholar and linguist George Broderick believes that the farmer referred to in the song must have been William Qualtrough. The song itself is said to derive from the late seventeenth, or early eighteenth centuries, which would predate Nicholas Kelly’s time at the farm, but not that of William, the last of the Qualtroughs to hold the estate.
Oral tradition, however, needs to be treated with some caution, which may have been the view of William Harrison who edited ‘Mona Miscellany’ in 1869 who noted that there were several variations of the song.
William Kennish’s recollections also give further tantalising glimpses into this oft repeated tale. He tells of the long probing-poles used by the shepherds in their desperate search, and the round ‘breathing holes’ formed by the heat of the animals’ breath as they lay trapped in the snow. This had a dual purpose affording ventilation for the sheep and attracting the scent of the dog. The tradition remarked on here relates how the fated Nicholas Kelly was the owner of Baljean, Raby and Graanane estates in the parish of Lonan, a Member of the House of Keys and also the Captain of the Parish.
Kelly did not know how many sheep were in his flocks as they were known only by their shepherds’ marks, but here we have some extraordinary additional information with reference to Kelly. A woman of the parish swore that Kelly had robbed her one night and he was taken to Castle Rushen to be tried for his crime. However, Kelly vociferously defended his corner, locating witnesses who confirmed that Kelly was enjoying the hospitality of a public house in Laxey at the time of the assault. The Deemster questioned how they could be so confident without a watch, or clock, but they responded that it was high-water. Later it was discovered that two Irishmen, apprehended in the area of Ballig in Kirk Michael, were guilty of the crime and duly executed. Unfortunately Kelly’s defence costs were so great that he was forced to sell one of his estates to defray the cost, but in a curious twist of fate the purchaser’s daughter married Kelly’s son and the estates were later re-joined.
Well known Manx cultural field worker, Mona Douglas, collected an interesting oral account in 1929 from John Matt Mylchreest, living in the parish of Lonan. A shepherd crofter, he had his own remarkable story to tell of living with his sister, Christian, on a small croft known as ‘Thalloo Hogg’. Despite losing an arm in an accident whilst working on the construction of the Snaefell Mountain Railway, Mylchreest remained active and took care of himself until well into his eighties after his sister died. He was said to be a great storyteller with a number of songs and dances in his repertoire. He had worked for most of his life around Raby and for a time at Laggan Agneash, a croft at the foot of Snaefell. Mylchreest was well acquainted with the places referred to in the song and told how it was ‘made on’ Nicholas Colcheragh (a colloquial pronunciation of Qualtrough) before the Murrays (the Dukes of Atholl) came to Mann, by a young man living in Raby who was a wonderful singer and fiddler. It was said that after the great storm and the loss of his flock Raby also died.
By 1896, however, in A. W. Moore’s ‘Manx Ballads & Music’ the story has been transformed and according to the Rev. John Quine, Vicar of Lonan, the song was composed as Nicholas Kelly lay in Castle Rushen accused of murdering ‘a couple of old people who had a stocking’ living on the slope of Snaefell. Upon the real murderers being discovered he was released without charge.
In that same year ‘Manx National Songs’ arranged by W. H. Gill promoted yet another version which indicated that all of the sheep were dead. A melodramatic flourish of the Victorian pen perhaps in spite of other versions suggesting that some did indeed survive.
The song has stimulated others to bring the story to a wider audience, including adjudicator Dr James Lyon at the 1909 Manx Music Festival who used his own arrangement of ‘Ny Kirree Fo Niaghtey’ as part of a test for Manx Senior Choirs.
‘Ny Kirree Fo Niaghtey’ also caught the imagination of Annie G. Gilchrist who highlighted the ballad in the ‘Journal of the Folk Song Society’ in 1926. Although it was thought to be unknown outside of the Island, Gilchrist spotted its kinship with two neighbouring Scottish tunes which dealt with the vagaries of shepherds and their flocks. Gilchrist pondered on the likelihood that various forms of a tune were derived from a common original and used for various pastoral ballads current in Scotland and possibly the Isle of Man in the eighteenth century.
Centuries have passed since the song ‘Ny Kirree Fo Niaghtey’ first became popular, but its appeal remains and despite its plaintive story is loved by many people both on and off the Island, but whether we will ever truly find the origins of this sad tale may lie with the diligence of future researchers and academics.
(Courtesy of Manx Life – winter issue 2012)