Keeils of the Island, a talk by Andrew Johnson on21st October 2015


by John Slater

This was a wonderful evening in more ways than one. Personally, I was delighted to be able to act as chairman, again, after my exciting time in Liverpool for a surprise triple by-pass. I was touched by the warm welcome and the opportunity to express admiration and thanks to the paramedics and teams at Nobles and Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospitals.

Andrew is one of out most sought after speakers. No surprise to see the crowd of people streaming into the Centenary Centre. The hardest part was encouraging people to leave but still continuing their discussions on the pavement. Clearly, this topic is one we must re-visit.

The title of the talk was, ‘ A Reassessment of the Physical Remains of Medieval Chapels on the Isle of Man’. It was soon clear that Andrew has and continues to play a very important part in this important, on-going work.

The earliest keeils, perhaps from the 6th c. onwards were probably made of wattle and daub. These do not survive. However, 30 – 40 stone examples from a possible total of about 200 chapels exist above ground and may be clearly seen. This represents virtually one keeil for each square mile of the Island! Early Christian priests, arriving largely from Ireland, constructed these simple structures measuring about 4 x 3 metres, usually with an entrance at the west end and the altar, as is still the custom in churches, at the east end. A small window opening was usually present.

The priests continued in their lives of worship and prayer in parallel with monasteries and the emerging system of parishes. Graves surround the keeills together with a variety of artefacts showing that the priests served a local population although services of more than a few would have to be outside. Oh for such commitment and piety, today! Presumably, the priest must have had help in quarrying the stone and then with the building. Roofs were, probably, thatched.

No centrally heated, lit vicarage or rectory – just a simple cell providing some degree of shelter from the elements. Given that the keeils were deliberately constructed in isolated places, with little or no protection, one can only marvel at the physical, mental and emotional strength of these priests, imbued with divine, spiritual power.

The earliest photograph we saw was one taken in 1861 of a keeil at Ballakilley, Malew. However, it has been long demolished. This is a fate enjoyed by so many before their value was recognised.

Philip Kermode, the first director of the Manx Museum, now Manx National Heritage, threw himself into a Manx archaeological survey. We owe him such a debt. Andrew is carefully applying modern techniques to studying surviving structures and the sites of others and they are yielding more and more.

We were able to see a whole succession of pictures from all over the Island. Lintel graves from the sites were of great interest. These stone coffins provide absolute protection for the skeleton and any artefacts that have been placed by the remains for the after life. I wonder how many people, these days, are buried with their mobile phone!

By the way, one keeil you won’t see is Keeil Vael. This was, apparently, blown up when the reservoir was constructed!

We looked at a plan from 1907 and of a 1909 excavation. These were largely in the hands of enthusiastic amateurs so lacked the detail we now expect from modern scientific methods. Andrew did a lot of rescue work in the 1990’s. Amongst other artefacts, ten crosses have been found and are on display, I believe, at Maughold.

Many will remember the Channel 4, Time Team excavation at Mount Murray, when Andrew was very much in action. This is still of great significance as the remains of a person from 1400 years ago still had hair on the head. This has never been seen before, anywhere.

The fine workmanship, often in gold, of beautiful jewellery makes us realise that our early ancestors were much more sophisticated and skilful than one might expect. The carved, stone slab depicting the crucifixion from the Calf of Man shows a similar level of craftsmanship. How fortunate we are to have Andrew to open our eyes to this   world of long ago.

Our next meeting is a special event in the Centenary Centre on the 18th November at 7.30pm. The Wandering Players are treating us to ‘Them Oul’ Times’ – the Manx story through poetry, prose, song and readings. A lovely event to lighten a winter evening!