This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

November 2000

Potato Riots on the Isle of Mann

3 November 1825: Perhaps more than any other item in the Celtic Calendar, this terse entry has provoked the curiosity of our readers. We’ ll not keep you in suspense any longer; hear now the unexpurgated tale of the Manx Potato Riots.

Since the days of Henry VIII, in England and in all lands occupied by her, the Protestant Church of England was by law the “established church” to which everyone was obliged to pay taxes, or “tithes” to support its upkeep, whether or not they belonged to it. Subsidiary national churches were set up for most of the occupied Celtic nations. There was a Church of Ireland, a Church of Scotland, and a Church of Wales. Despite its semi-independent status as a “crown dependency,” the Isle of Mann was considered too small to rate a separate church establishment of its own. Instead the Manx were included in the Church of England, under the curiously titled “Bishop of Sodor and Man.” At first this wasn’t much of a problem: Mann had largely escaped the violent religious divisions that beset Ireland and Scotland, and just about all the people on Mann were at least nominally Anglican Protestants.

But church tithes were a burdensome obligation everywhere, and especially so on the Isle of Mann. For most people, tithes were payable as a percentage of their crops. When the potato arrived on the Isle of Mann late in the 1700’!s it proved immediately popular. Not only was it a prolific addition to the food supply, but better still, on the Isle of Mann it wasn’!t on the list of crops on which tithes had to be paid. When the list of officially titheable crops was drawn up in the 1600s, the potato was still virtually unheard of.

But in 1825 the new Anglican Bishop Murray decided to change things. His cash flow burdened by an ambitious church-building program, he flatly announced that potatoes, as a food crop, were as titheable as anything else, and the tithes on potatoes would be immediately and rigorously enforced. For good measure he stated that turnips too would be tithed, and that moreover the “neaps and tatties” would be tithed to the tune of twelve shillings per acre, twice the rate that pertained in England and a cool four times the rate in Ireland.

As things turned out, 1825 saw a poor harvest on the Isle of Mann, and many people wondered how they were going to make ends meet after handing over their tithe of potatoes and turnips. Desperation spawned resistance, resistance was followed by forcible confiscations by church officers, and then things began to get really out of hand. Angry mobs set ablaze whole wagon loads of the Bishop’!s confiscated taters, and before long the Bishop himself was facing an angry mob of some 5000 Manx people assembled at his palace door behind a red flag.

The experience was enough to put the Bishop off his potatoes, and soon he was off the Isle of Mann as well. The controversy hadn’!t been resolved, but Murray’!s successors wisely left the potato tithe unenforced and a dead letter. Finally, in 1839 the Tynwald, the Manx parliament, acted to greatly reduce the scale of tithe payments.

The potato still had a role to play in Manx history. In 1846 the same potato blight that struck Ireland destroyed the crop on Mann. Though not as catastrophic as in Ireland, the potato blight on Mann nevertheless caused such hunger and distress that the Tynwald sought to relieve the situation by the unusual step of asking the English crown for what amounted to a refund of some of the tax revenue paid by the island. No such relief would be given to Mann by England, and, as in Ireland, large scale emigration was soon underway as numbers of Manx people left their island.

The events and people of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann covered in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the Celtic League American Branch’s annual Celtic Calendar, now available.

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