Hop tu Naa – Who Was Jinny the Witch?

Jinny the Witch has long been associated with the Manx observance of Hop tu Naa, a celebration of the Celtic New Year, along with a varied assortment of customs.Many of them were based on divination, with young girls attempting to discover whom they would marry, whereas the boys were more likely to be visiting their neighbours with cabbages on sticks demanding potatoes, herring or bonnag; hence its lesser known title ‘thump the door night’.

Hop tu Naa has, in recent years, wrestled for power with the imported festival of Hallowe’en which is something entirely different,baring no resemblance to the Island based ritual.

The words Hop tu Naa are said to be a corruption of Shoh ta’n Oie (‘this is the night’ in Manx Gaelic) and it’s believed that they have the same origin as the more universally recognised Scottish expression ‘Hogmanay’. There’s no doubting the clear parallels of celebration amongst the population of Scotland, the north of England and the Isle of Man which emerge from the many testimonials of researchers and scholars in the folklore arena.

On the Isle of Man it’s also known as Oie Houney (November eve) or Hollantide; the latter a reference to a Manx quarter day on the old calendar signifying a time when leases or rents were due, and when farm labourers began work with a new employer.

But the concept developed and changed as turnips (or moots) usurped cabbages and the words of the songs chanted by youngsters moving from house to house varied across the Island.

Nowadays Jinny the Witch plays a prominent role in the song we tend to hear, but it’s often been asked, who was Jinny the Witch? Manx traditional field worker Stephen Miller, perhaps more curious than most, grasped the nettle and began to focus on when Jinny made her first appearance on the Island.

During the nineteenth century it was customary to sing a lengthy text (gathered by respected collectors Dr John Clague and A. W. Moore) with no reference whatsoever to Jinny the Witch; its verses detailing the surrealistic story of how a heifer is chosen with which to make broth. The cook’s throat is scalded by the hot broth so they run to a well for a drink of water, but on the way back they meet either a witch-cat or a polecat which forces them to flee to Scotland, where they meet a woman ‘baking bannocks and roasting collaps’ or cutting cheese.

Stephen believes that the forerunner of Jinny the Witch made its first appearance on the Isle of Man towards the close of the nineteenth century, and was heard in tandem with the original verses garnered by Dr Clague and A. W. Moore. The name evolved through Jenny Swinny, Jinny Squinney, Jinny the Winney, Ginny the Swinney and Jinny the Spinney (along with assorted spellings) until settling in recent years with Jinny the Witch.

Until the recent digitalisation of Manx newspapers, the earliest written reference to Jinny the Witch emerged from an interview with E. Ethel Flanagan for the Manx Museum’s Folk-Life Survey in 1957, although further research has broadened this, from the mid-1940s through to 1960; although one reference to Jinny the Witch was found in the Manx Sun newspaper dated 1900. However, the oral tradition was much in evidence before 1957.

Despite its size, the Island maintained multiple versions of the song which remained steadfastly in their own areas, although nowadays one Jinny the Witch rhyme dominates the Isle of Man save for a very different version which lives on in Peel.

However, the Church of England viewed Jinny the Witch as a Paganistic ritual and associated the subject with Satanism. In 1992 the Bishop of Sodor and Mann suggested in the Diocesan News that we ‘celebrate Hallowe’en as a Christian festival’ with an evening based upon ‘saints and sausages’ or ‘banners and buns’ rather than Hop tu Naa.

But Stephen’s research unearthed an interesting press report throwing a different light on how one church on the Isle of Man celebrated events on the 31stOctober. He commented, “The earliest link between Hop tu Naa and the notion that it has an association with witchcraft comes from 1934, when the Examiner reported on St Matthew’s Church holding a Hallowe’en party for the children of the school. As part of the decoration in the school hall, there was what was described as a ‘witches’ kitchen’. A photograph of the event held the next year, 1935, shows that the witch was no other than the Vicar himself dressed up as an old crone – presumably Jinny the Witch, though that, frustratingly, is not stated.”

However, local farmer Hampton Creer has spent considerable time researching a variety of topics in the Manx Museum library, including his own family history, and after looking through many old documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concluded that he had found the name of the woman whom he considered to be Jinny the Witch.

Joney Lowney (or Lewney) lived on the Mount Murray Back Road in the parish of Braddan and came to the fore in Hampton’s research when he discovered that his ancestors (Hamptons of Ballabunt) had been called as defence witnesses at one of Joney’s Trials in 1716, where she was accused of being a witch.

She had been before the ecclesiastical  court at Bishopscourt previously in 1715 and sentenced to reform, but on her second appearance before the Bishop many prosecution witnesses were called during a four month period.

Although found guilty of the crime of witchcraft Joney escaped the death penalty.  The appalling deaths of Margaret Ine Quane and her son, who were burned at the stake in Castletown, horrified the Manx public and were never repeated. Instead Joney was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment, fined £3 and ordered to stand at the four market crosses, dressed in sackcloth.

Joney died in 1725 and is buried at Old Kirk Braddan churchyard.

A common refrain you might hear on the night of Hop tu Naa states:

Jinny the Witch went over the house

To get the stick to lather the mouse

Hop tu Naa, my mother’s gone away

And she won’t be back until the morning.

It’s believed by Hampton that this could be a reference to the accusation in Joney’s first trial which alludes to her vanishing one evening and not returning until the following morning with plenty of fishes.

Hampton has lived his entire life amongst the Manx people and is familiar with local accents which are now slowly disappearing from some localities on the Island, but he believes that it is the lilt of the Manx accent which has subtly altered the name of Joney into that of Jinny.

Jinny the Witch lives on in the hearts and minds of Islanders as innovative interpretations of the old verse slip into common usage, but she remains an elusive character.

Hampton considers that Jinny is from the seventeenth century, whereas Stephen’s research indicates a much later date, at the turn of the nineteenth century.His enquiries show that Jinny the Witch is part of a children’s ball throwing rhyme known all over England, which he strongly suspects was imported to the Island. And in Gloucestershire they still tell the tale of Old Jinny the Witch.

But regardless of her origin, it’s to be hoped that the children of the Isle of Man will long continue to chant the well-known rhyme as they travel from door to door in celebration of the Island’s Celtic New Year on the 31 October.

(With thanks to Stephen Miller and Hampton Creer)

Valerie Caine

© October 2014

(Courtesy of Manx Life)