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Constance Mona Douglas

Epithet: Author, journalist, musician and antiquarian (1898-1987)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

In the 1930s 'Norris Modern Press Year Books' repeatedly stated that Mona Douglas had been born in Woolton, Liverpool, but later in life she used to claim that she had been born between Douglas and Liverpool, on board the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's Ellan Vannin.

She continued to plough an individualistic furrow throughout her full and active life. Creative, imaginative and very literate, from an early age she received a great number of tributes. Her honours included: Member of the 'Gorsedd' of the Bards 1917, Mannanan Trophy 1972, International President of the Pan-Celtic Festival 1980, MBE 1982, appointed as first patron of the Manx Heritage Foundation 1986, appointed to Principal Order of the 'Gorsedd' of the Bards 1987.

In 1988 she was posthumously awarded the prestigious 'Reih Bleeaney Vannanan' by the Manx Heritage Foundation.

Mona's love affair with words was nurtured by her mother, and the 'lilt and rhythm and beauty of music and poetry' were absorbed in her early days. At four she fell in love with Grimm's 'Fairy Tales', and at ten she discovered the poetry of W.B. Yeats, whose work was to influence her own.

Her father had left the Isle of Man for Liverpool as a young student, and had married and settled there. Her parents both loved the music of the great European composers as well as Manx folk songs, and Mona was also steeped in English, American and French poetry. In spite of this cultured background, she claimed to be uneducated. Doctors advised that her constitution was not strong enough for her to thrive in Liverpool, so she was sent to live with her grandparents in the Isle of Man. Her grandfather often took her with him when he travelled round the countryside or went out in the boats with the fishermen. Sophia Morrison gave her a notebook, taught her the rudiments of music, and sent her off to collect stories and songs. Mona's first book of verse 'Manx-song and Maiden-song' shows the influence of her hero Yeats, but at seventeen she had already found her own voice. Her friendship with Sophia Morrison, which shaped her adult life and career, was broken by Miss Morrison's death in 1917, just as the work of the Celtic Congress was beginning to take root.

The Celtic renaissance was influencing writers and artists as well as shaping politics. Manx scholars were swept up in the movement and representatives from the Island, including Sophia Morrison, had taken part in the first meeting in Dublin of the Pan-Celtic Association. The outbreak of World War I halted formal activities, but after the war Mona, in her capacity as secretary of Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh (The Manx Society), went as a delegate to the revived Celtic Congress in Wales. There she was received into the Welsh 'Gorsedd' of Bards and given her Bardic name of Mona Manaw. She took over as corresponding secretary of the Manx branch, and when it first met in the Island in 1921 the entertainments included a performance of her play 'The Faery Tune'.

Mona saw the Celtic Congress as the means by which her life expanded for a period beyond her home ground. She attended sessions in Dublin (where she later lived for a year), Glasgow and Edinburgh, Cardiff, Quimper, Rennes and Carnac, meeting people 'prominent in academic, literary, musical and artistic circles, many of whom became good friends'. She also laid the foundations for a later career as a journalist, though this was not to be achieved until her 'retirement'. In 1921 she spent some time in Dublin studying Irish literature with Professor Agnes O'Farrelly and librarianship in the hope of a post at the Manx Museum. That was not to be, but she did become a regular visitor to Rathgar, where George Russell ('AE') provided a forum for the young litterati. His interest in Theosophy helped shape Mona's somewhat unorthodox religious and philosophical views. Russell also talked to her about Manannan, another powerful spiritual force in her life. Her love of drama was fed by frequent visits to the Abbey Theatre, and it was here that she first set eyes on her childhood hero Yeats.

An influential figure was Madame Maud MacBride (Maud Gonne) who advocated raising the national consciousness of young people; Mona would later create 'Aeglagh Vannin', a youth group which she fostered for many years.

On the subject of language, she was practical enough to accept that pioneering work would have to be in English, but she was not prepared to give up her dream that Manx Gaelic would eventually be restored to equal status with English and other modern languages.

Another important figure to emerge from the Congress connection was A.P. Graves, who had family links with Peel and who had also been an inspector of Manx schools. He invited her to become his personal secretary while he was writing his autobiography, and when this was complete, suggested that she should move to London. There she worked closely with the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS) at Cecil Sharp House. In 1928 and 1929, the first two volumes of Manx folk songs were published by Stainer and Bell. They had been selected and translated by Mona and arranged by Arnold Foster. She had also been in correspondence with Miss A.G. Gilchrist, who had published three major articles in the EFDS Journals of 1924-26. At this time, however, her longing for the Island became irresistible, and she returned to become Rural Librarian in Douglas, where she was to work for the next 30 years.

Settled in a new career with a steady income, she threw herself back into the work of Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh and a new Manx history for Manx schools which, by 1933, was 'almost ready for printing and we hope to have it in schools before the end of the year'. Unfortunately this ambitious project never saw the light of day and the manuscript seems to have disappeared. However, some of the material prepared for it may have been recycled in later years when Mona prepared a series of syllabuses for use in schools covering Manx folklore, archaeology, history, literature and language.

A team of young folk-dancers under the joint direction of Mona and Philip Leighton Stowell helped to revive dances that she had discovered in the notebooks of her great-grandfather, Philip Quayle, a noted folk singer and dancer. The team performed at the Albert Hall, dancing to Foster's orchestral arrangements. Collecting was always an adventure. Mona told of how she was almost hired at a fair when trying to contact dancers, and occasionally had to resort to subterfuge in order to create the right conditions ('Hunting the Dance in Mann', Manninagh 3, pp 38-41, 1973). While trying to collect 'The Salmon's Leap' from Kelly the Blackguard, her turn of speed in taking a short cut to intercept him led him to believe she was from the other world.

Mona's own qualities as a performer must not be overlooked; she was a gifted comic actress and a fine folk-singer whose stage presence belied her small stature.

In addition to all this, she took on The Clarum at Ballaragh. After the war, she went into partnership with Nikolai Giovannelli, who as an internee had been assigned to help her on the farm. This period is well-chronicled as Nikolai published in 1969 an account of their project, a brave attempt at trying to make a success of an upland holding. But he had to return to London in 1945 because of family commitments. The experiment failed and they were forced to sell up.

Mona travelled by bicycle and public transport, and when she could eventually afford a car, drove it with great panache. One of her long-standing friends wrote that 'It was an exhilarating thing to be her passenger'. Other friends remarked that Mona 'abandoned' rather than parked it. Cats were her great love. On one occasion when she was taken ill, she rang a relative to ask them to care for her animals while she was in hospital. They arrived to find her lying on a stretcher on the road outside the cottage. Harry Carr recalled that 'We were all amused, including Mona, ill as she was, when one of the cats came along and gently placed a mouse on Mona's chest as a farewell offering'.

When she retired from the Rural Library in 1963, she was able to achieve a lifelong ambition to be a journalist. She continued to write on music, dance and folklore, was active in many organisations devoted to the preservation of Manx language and culture, such as 'Ellynyn ny Gael' and the Manx Folk Dance Society, and began to bring another ambition to fruition. This was to revive the Chruinnaght Ashoonagh (National Gathering), a Manx cultural festival that had flourished in the early part of the century. From a small, two-day event in 1977 the revived Chruinnaght grew to be recognised by the Welsh Eisteddfod, the Scottish Mod and the Irish t-Oireachtas. Although she received many honours in later life, Yn Chruinnaght will be her major memorial. The festival has gone from strength to strength, and is producing a thriving new tradition. Above all, it belongs to the younger generation, who enjoy the culture for what it is, rather than what it represents.

Perhaps Mona's greatest talent was that of vision. Fearless in bringing Manx culture to a wide audience, she persevered in spite of being regarded by some as something of an oddity. She was not eccentric in the usual sense of the word. She was unusual, full of apparently limitless energy, single-minded in her crusade, and blind to potential or real set-backs and difficulties.

Biography written by Fenella Bazin.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.157-60.)

Culture Vannin

Gender: Female

Date of birth: 18.09.1898

Date of death: 08.10.1987

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