[From Mona Miscellany second series Manx Soc vol 21]




AT a distance of about a mile and a half from Castletown, the metropolis of the Isle of Man, round the head of Derby Haven, lies St. Michael’s Isle, on which are to be met with the ruins of the little chapel of St. Michael (in Manx, Keeihll Vaayl), from which it takes its name, and which has been in its present roofless state for more than two hundred years. The length of the chapel is 31 feet, and the breadth 14 ; the height of the side walls 10 feet ; and the date of the building may be about the 12th century. There is an ancient graveyard attached to it, which is now principally used as a place of interment by the Roman Catholics.

Many years ago there was a famous priest, who gave up all that he possessed, and came to teach Christianity in these parts. He was not a Manxman, though he could talk with the people in their own tongue. He lived in a poor house at Derby Haven, but for all that there was not a sick or needy person near but what he helped with medicine and food, as well as spiritual advice. Along with a kind heart he had a kind face and voice, so that the little children would run out to laugh and kiss his hand when they saw him pass. For a long time he used to gather the people together in the winter evenings in one of the largest rooms in the hamlet, while in the summer he would preach to the fishermen and their families on the seashore.

After some years of this intercourse, he proposed to the men that they should build a small church on the Island. St. Michael, he said, had appeared to him in a vision, and pointed out a chapel on a flat space upon the grass close to the rocks ; he had seen it, he said, quite plain in his dream the light was shining out of the windows ; he had crept up under the wall, and looked in, and lo ! he saw himself kneeling before a beautiful costly altar, and he recognised the congregation as themselves.

Now, while they were full of admiration at this dream, the good father bade them rise up and follow him to the place where he had seemed to see the chapel, and lo ! when they got there they found the ground marked out where the foundations of the chapel now stand, and a border drawn some distance around on which that wall was built, which you can now trace in the grass, just as if some one had turned up a furrow on the bare earth, and then laid a carpet of turf upon it. And when the men of the place saw the marvel, and how truly the good father’s dream had been from Heaven, he bade them kneel down there at once, while he prayed to St. Michael and all angels that these people would not leave off the good work till they had built a chapel to him. Thus they were led to begin, and promised to give a portion of their time till the little church should be finished.

There was abundance of stone close by, and the architecture of the edifice was of the simplest kind. Four plain thick walls, with a roof, was all they aimed at. Now, this part of the work was comparatively easy ; but Father Kelly began to be sore perplexed as it approached completion, how he should furnish it within, and so fulfil the dream in providing such a costly altar as he was persuaded he ought to build. The poor people had neither silver nor gold. They had already offered such as they had — strong hands, and hours taken from their rest or work. Night after night Father Kelly used to repair to the chapel, now roofed in, and pray to St. Michael to help him in this strait. One dark evening he was there later than usual ; he had fallen down with his face upon the ground before the spot in which he hoped to put the altar. While thus prostrate in prayer, and longing for a continuation of his former dream, he heard some footsteps close outside the chapel walls. Having his face upon the earth, the sound came quite distinctly to his ear. They stopped, and a voice said, " This is the chapel, let us lay them here, ‘tis just the place for a burial."

" Very well," replied another ; " how does she lie I Here goes, mate, by the north-east corner."

Then came the sound of digging and pauses, as if men were stooping down to lay something in the ground ; after that Father Kelly heard the mould put back, and some one stamp it down. Though the church had not been furnished, two or three funerals had taken place in the graveyard, one of which he had himself celebrated only that afternoon.

What could be the object of these strange night visitors? They had not disturbed the dead—they did not remain long enough for that ; their work, whatever it was, seemed to be accomplished in a quarter of an hour, for after that time he heard a slapping of hands, as if some one were cleaning them of the dusty earth, and a voice saying, " There ! that is done and as dead men tell no tales, we may trust the present company."

"Ay, ay," replied the other, " I trust them so much, I don’t think we need wait any longer."

" What ! art afraid, man !"

" Not I : but there is foul weather coming, and the sooner we clear off these cursed rocks the better."

" Well, come along!"

Then Father Kelly heard them walk down towards the water, and presently distinguished the grating of the boat’s keel as she was pushed off ; then the double sound of the oars in the rowlocks died away, and all was still. He got up from the floor and walked out of the chapel It was a midsummer night. The air was warm and motionless ; clouds, however, had crept up so plentifully as to cover the sky. While he stood there outside the chapel, the moon, which was about a week old, became obscured, and the darkness drew close to his eyes. He could not see a yard before him ; he listened, but heard only the slow wash of the swell as the rising tide carried it into the clefts among the rocks, with now and then a liquid flap, as a wave ran into a sudden angle and fell back upon itself. He felt for his lantern, and got out his steel to strike a light. Having dropped his flint, in groping about to find it he forgot the direction in which he had stood; and when he got upon his feet again, after an unsuccessful search, felt himself so utterly at a loss, that after walking a few steps with his hands stretched out before him, he determined to wait for the morning, rather than risk a fall over one of the slippery rocks in his attempt to return home. When he had sat there for some time, the rain began to fall in large though few drops ; these were, however, but the splashes from the bucketfuls which were soon poured on his head. The wind, too, was loosed at the same time, and rushed on him with such violence, that though he dared not search for shelter lest he should fall over the rocks, he was glad to sit down on a large stone which he felt at his feet. The first flash of lightning, however showed him the chapel itself not more than ten yards off. He groped towards it immediately in the gloom, with his hands stretched out before him, right glad when he felt its rough stones. The wall once found, he soon discovered the path with his feet, and when he got home was glad to go to rest at once.

He had not slept many hours before he was roused to visit a dying man in one of the neighbouring houses. Hurrying on his clothes, he hastened to the place, where a crowd was gathered about the door, many of them dripping from the sea. The storm which he had seen the evening before had grown into a terrible tempest, during which a ship had been driven on the rocks, and utterly wrecked. All the crew were drowned but one man, whom they had dragged out of the surf and carried to Derby Haven. He had apparently, however, been saved from death in the water to die on the land, for he was so grievously bruised and cut by the rocks on which he had been thrown, that life was ready to leave him altogether. When Father Kelly came in, he found him lying on the floor, wrapped up in such dry clothes as the people had at hand. He had begged them to fetch a priest. His back, he said, was broken, and he knew he could not live another hour ; so the people fetched Father Kelly, as we have seen, and left the two together.

" Father," said the dying man, a will you hear the confession of a pirate and a murderer ?"

The priest, seeing there was no time to lose, signified his assent, and kneeling down by his side, bent his ear to listen.

Then the man, with strange breaks and ramblings in his speech, told him of murders out in the wide seas, and horrible recollections of cruelty and rapine.

We took a Spanish ship some weeks ago, added the man, and came in here to water, being a safe place ; when I—God forgive my soul I—I committed my last crime, and stole from the captain, a box of gold he took out of the Spaniard. Another man and I were in the secret. We brought it with us, and buried it in the graveyard of your little chapel, intending to make our escape from the ship on the first opportunity, find our way over here, recover, and enjoy the booty we had got.

" To whom did it belong ? " said the priest.

" God knows ;" replied the man ; " to me now, I suppose. Those who owned it can use it no more : the ship from which the captain took it went down with all on board ; we burnt her."

" What was her name ?" asked Father Kelly.

" Name," said the dying man, " There, take the gold, and shrive me ; I have confessed !"

Then, without another word, he died. The people buried him, and gathered up some few pieces of timber from the wreck of his ship, but nothing came ashore to show whether she was laden or not. They never knew her name, nor, for a great while, what she was, the priest not conceiving himself bound to tell them even so much of what he had heard in confession. Many years afterwards the whole story was found in a book which the priest left behind him when he died.

The words "take the gold" haunted the good Father long after the man who died in uttering them had been committed to the ground. The chapel was finished, but not furnished; the fulfilment of the dream was incomplete. Many a night the priest lay awake, arguing with himself the lawfulness of a search among the graves for the treasure, which, he had no doubt, was hidden there. Suppose he could find it, should he credit the pirate’s word about the death of its owner ? Could he conscientiously appropriate it, not, indeed, for his own use, but to that of the chapel ? He thought of the terrible sentence which fell on those who put unhallowed fire in their censers ; he thought of the accursed thing found in the Jew’s tent, which brought trouble upon the whole people to which he belonged. Then, again, it looked as if the sin attached to the appropriation of this gold had been punished in the persons of the pirates who had taken it. It looked as if it were rescued from the service of the world, to be devoted to that of the church—snatched from the devil himself to be given to St. Michael, his chief enemy.

On the whole, he decided upon using the gold, if he could find it. He must, however, be cautious in the search ; he would not trust the people to look. It might not be there, and then he would be ashamed. There might be more than he thought, and they might be tempted to take some ; or, if not that, be jealous at his retaining the possession of it himself. He would search alone. The conversation he had heard outside the chapel, while he listened on the eve of the storm, indicated the spot on which he should look.

Having, therefore, waited for a suitable moonlight night, he went very late to the churchyard with a spade. There was no one there. The shadow of the building fell upon the likely spot ; he could work unperceived, even if the late returning fishermen were to pass by that way. Half ashamed of the errand, he had not removed many spadefuls of earth from the grave he suspected, before he struck upon something hard. Stooping down, he felt for it with his hands ; it was a heavy box. He took it up, smoothed down the soil, carried it straight home, double locked his door, and broke it open. It contained broad shining pieces of gold. They made such a heap on his table as he had never seen before. There was, moreover, in the box, a necklace of large pearls, gold for the chapel, jewels for the Madonna.

The church was furnished, the altar was decked, the image was brought, and round its neck he hung the string of fair large pearls.

Father Kelly saw his dream fulfilled, and as success often produces conviction, he thanked St. Michael and all angels for having turned the robber’s booty into sacred treasure. So it was written in his book, but he told no one whence these riches came. Some of the simple folk thought the virgin herself had brought these jewels to the father. He, however, many a time, while he sat on the rocks by the chapel, looking out to seaward, and watching the white sails go by, wandered back to the question whence these riches came, and whether, after all, they might not hide some after-curse or other.

One evening as he sat there, a vessel came round the point, and dropped anchor in the haven. She drew his attention as being unlike any of the common coasting ships, or even of the traders which ventured on more distant voyages. She carried more canvas in proportion to her hull, and had her sails furled almost as soon as she had swung round with the tide.

Presently a boat came off from her, and was rowed to the shore, just beneath the spot where he sat. Two men, apparently officers, got out, and walking up to him, begged him to accompany them back to the ship, as they said one of their crew was dying, and needed the offices of a priest. He went with them at once without suspicion ; a man who had been with him, and heard the summons, returned to Derby Haven.

The ghostly summons, however, was a ruse ; this was the sister ship of the pirate who had been wrecked here in the storm—now some months ago. The new comers had learned her fate, and had landed to search for traces of the treasures she had on board. They had first taken the priest, as they thought, with much probability, he could tell them whether the inhabitants of the village had plundered the wreck, and also whether any of her crew survived.

What they learned from Father Kelly, no one ever knew. Some of the men, returning to the shore, strolled into the chapel, and doubtless recognised the necklace as one of the costliest items of their lost treasure. The next morning the ship was gone, and the people, searching for their priest, who had not returned home at night, found the chapel sacked, and his corpse set over the altar in the place where the image of the Madonna had been, with a knotted cord, like a necklace, tightly twisted round his throat.

The superstition of the natives never permitted them to use the chapel again. It gradually became a ruin ; the roof fell in ; the storms lashed the walls within as well as without; until at last it passed into the state in which it is to this day. Even now, whoever struck the walls and listened, could hear a moan within, and a noise like the jingling of money. You can try it yourself and find whether I have told you the truth.


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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001