J. J. Kneen

The greatest Manx linguist of his generation and one of the most important scholars of Manx subjects, John Joseph Kneen was also the most prolific playwright that the Isle of Man has ever known.

Born in Hanover Street, Douglas, in September 1873, Kneen left school to become a sweet manufacturer, a trade that he would maintain throughout his life, despite the volume of time and thought he dedicated to Manx language and scholarship. After some early articles on Manx Gaelic in the Isle of Man Examiner, Kneen joined the great Manx historian, A. W. Moore, at the formation of Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh (the Manx Language Society) in 1899. It was Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh who published his definitive work, The Place-Names of the Isle of Man with their Origin and History (1925). His other main works are: A Grammar of the Manx Language (1931) and The Personal Names of the Isle of Man (1937). It was for these works, and his wider contribution to the Manx cultural and linguistic revival, that Kneen received honours including a Knighthood from the King of Norway.

Another of Kneen’s great contributions to the Isle of Man was his literature: poetry and plays. His poetry was predominantly translations from and to Manx Gaelic, including the ‘Arrane Ashoonagh Dy Vannin,’ the Gaelic version of the Manx National Anthem. Kneen’s plays were often, in contrast to his rather serious character, full of humour and comedy. A good example of this side of Kneen’s work is shown in his ‘Yn Blaa Sooree’, published in Four Manx Plays. In writing 13 plays his output was prolific for an amateur Manx writer with a full time job and daunting scholarly commitments. Many of these plays show Kneen’s deep knowledge of Manx history through his use of them as their themes. One clear example of this was Illiam Dhone, a play that also gave him the space in which to express and investigate the meaning of Manx patriotism.

Kneen died at the age of 65 on Monday 21 November 1938 and was remembered mainly for his scholarship in Manx language and culture. However, independently of his scholarship, Kneen’s plays and poetry demand to be remembered, as works of a range and quality rarely met elsewhere in Manx literature.

[Image courtesy of Manx National Heritage]

Works by J. J. Kneen

Four Manx Plays (1921)

Putting up the Banns by J. J. Kneen (1924)

Cooking his Goose by J. J. Kneen (1927)

Johnny Jem Beg puts up for the Keys by J. J. Kneen (1934)