Memorial Notices :  Material and photo courtesy of Manx National Heritage

May  2001 by  Brian E. P. Kneen


                                        John Joseph Kneen M.A., R.I.St.O.O. ( Norway ) 1873 - 1938

With the passing of John Joseph Kneen the Manx nation mourns one of its most distinguished and most useful sons. He was born in Hanover Street, Douglas, on 12th September 1873, and was sixty-five years old when he died on 21st November 1938. He was the son of Mr. John Kneen, a Douglas postman, who came of an old Kirk Andreas family, and Hannah Crebbin, one of the Kirk Santan family, of Ballakelly.

He was educated at St. George's School under Mr. Nichols, and early developed a leaning towards the study of the Manx language. His parents were interested in his studies, and he was able to secure a good deal of traditional knowledge from them. Being possessed of great natural philological talent he eventually became the greatest authority on his chosen subject.

He first attracted attention by his writings in Manx, with interlinear literal translations in English, which appeared in the Isle of Man Examiner as early as 1895, when he was only 22 Years of age. In 1897 these contributions came to the notice of the Speaker of the Keys, Mr. A. W. Moore, who had several interviews with the present writer and with the young man, which resulted in the formation two years later of the Manx Society.

Thus encouraged, his enthusiasm for the preservation of the language and the study of the folklore and history of his country, continued to the end of his days. He wrote many booklets and compiled lessons for the use of students. Having a fine poetic sense, 'he translated Manx ballads and hymns, all of which were used in the cause of Manx language and literature. He took a leading part in the production of a new and improved edition of Archibald Cregeen's Manx Dictionary, and not many months ago he finished the compilation of a Manx-English pronouncing Dictionary of his own.

In the year 1910 Mr. Kneen completed what is possibly his greatest work, A Grammar of the Manx Language. Not having the means to publish it, he was in 1927 prevailed upon to deposit the MS. in the Library of the Manx Museum. It was brought to the attention of the Trustees, who realised its importance, and asked Tynwald for a vote of 250 to pay for its publication.

During the War period he began to make notes on the place-names of the Island, using as a basis the pioneer work, which had appeared in 1890, of the late A. W. Moore. By 1923 his manuscript was complete, and the matter was brought before the Manx Society, of which he had been both secretary and president, and they agreed to undertake the publication of the work in six parts, each dealing with a Sheading of the Island. In 1925 Part 1, comprising the place-names of the Sheading of Rushen, appeared, and the full work was in print by 1928.

The "Place names of the Isle of Man" With their own and Origin and History represents an amazing amount of intensive research, the wonder of which is considerably heightened when it is remembered that for many years the author was in delicate health. The introductory matter is lucidly written, and his explanations of the meanings of the names are not without a certain romantic interest, and in all cases they bear the stamp of authority.

J. J. Kneen's services to Manx literature were recognised by the University of Liverpool in 1929, when the degree of Master of Arts was conferred upon him, together with Mr. Philip M. G. Kermode, the Curator of the Museum.

Another distinguished honour followed in 1930 -, when, in recognition of his researches into the Norse elements in the Manx race, history and language, he was through the influence of Professor Carl Marstrander of Oslo University, awarded a grant from the Norwegian Government of 200 from the Norwegian State Research Fund and the trustees of the Fridtjof Nansen Fund, for the promotion of scientific research.

This was to enable Mr. Kneen to continue his researches, especially with a view to securing an accurate record of the local pronunciations of the place-names before all genuine knowledge of the living Manx had passed away. In offering the grant through the Manx museum and ancient monument trustees. Professor Marstrander, who had visited the island to study the remains of the spoken Manx tongue, refereed to the unusual step of offering to a member of a foreign community the support of Norwegian funds. The time had passed, he said for considering to whom the task rightfully belongs. The population of the island was to a great extent Norwegian in origin. And for centuries Man was cultivated by their Norwegian ancestors. Even at the present the place-names of every parish bore to that ancient chapter of history common to their two countries.

It was in this year-1930-that the Grammar which had been completed in 1910 and lodged in the Manx Museum was finally published, and in this year also J. J.Kneen commenced the heavy task of compiling the material for a projected volume dealing with the history and romance of The Personal Names of the Isle of Man. Again, on the recommendation of the Manx Museum Trustees, Tynwald appropriated the sum of 300 as a grant to enable the work, when finally completed, to be published, a responsibility which was undertaken by the Oxford University Press in 1937, and proved a great success. It is well recognised that the book-buying public in the Island is too small to reward the efforts of writers of serious literature; that being so, it is a matter for congratulation that Tynwald has taken such a patriotic and commendable attitude.

In 1933, again on the recommendation of Professor Carl Marstrander, he had conferred upon him by King Haakon, the Knighthood of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olaf: Ridder avI Klasse av St, Olavs Orden, Norge"'

On the death of the late High Bailiff, Mr. H. Percy Kelly, Mr. Kneen was appointed (together with Mr. Mark Braide) official translator of the Acts of Tynwald into Manx. At the same time the Manx Society elected him as their representative on the Manx Museum and Ancient Monuments Trustees.

Whilst engaged in the work of an arduous business J.J. Kneen was at the same time striving with vigour those Celtic studies which in due time won for him a world-wide reputation. At the beginning of his literary career Manx studies were generally deprecated, and popularly regarded as the useless hobby of a few philologists. Before he died he saw those studies elevated to their right place in the great questions of history, philology and folk-lore, and not a little of that change in attitude may be said to be due to his own great enthusiasm, and that fine strength of mind and spirit, which kept him unflaggingly at work even when his health was poor. The change owes much, too, to the, labours of Arthur Moore, W. H.Gill, Dr. Clague and others, in whose steps J. J. Kneen so worthily followed.

Mr. J.J. Kneen possessed the true scientific spirit in his quest for facts, and the pain he took to verify them. There was no keener critic of his own work; none more highly appreciative of the labours of others. He was ever ready to give help either to students or casual seekers after information; either by letter or conversation his store of knowledge and the wisdom of his counsel was open to his fellow men. He was very human, full of courtesy and nobility of heart, and possessed a strain of quiet. Humour which not even his many severe illnesses were able to impair. In recent years, and more especially during, periods of indifferent health, he was materially helped in his work by his wife, formerly Miss Catherine Bridson.

Return to Index     dated  25th October 2004