taking our culture forward

Complete T. E. Brown recording

Wed, 01 May 2024

A complete recording of probably the Isle of Man’s most important poem has been released online.

Dollin Kelly’s seminal recording of T. E. Brown’s best-known and most-loved ‘Betsy Lee’ has been released online by Culture Vannin.

Recorded in 1992, when Dollin Kelly performed the piece in its entirety in public from memory, this is another chance to listen to one of the most-renowned interpreters of the Manx National Poet’s work.

James Franklin, Online & Educational Resources Officer at Culture Vannin, says:

‘Not enough people realise the drama and depth that lie in T. E. Brown’s ‘Betsy Lee.’ It is so much more than just a poem, and it used to be widely recognised as the most perfect attempt at capturing ‘Manxness’ on paper. But, as with all ‘yarns,’ the telling is so important, which makes this performance from Dollin so important.”

Dollin Kelly RBV will be fondly remembered by many, as a teacher and headmaster, but also as a great advocate of all things Manx, particularly Manx dialect poetry.

Having received his first 736-page copy of ‘Collected Poems of T. E. Brown’ at the age of 11, Dollin developed a life-long love of the most Manx of all poets. In 1992 this saw him memorise the entirety of Betsy Lee for performance at the Mananan International Festival at the Erin Arts Centre. The following year he performed it again, at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1993, over a one week show at the Festival Club.

After the original Port Erin performance, the piece was recorded for released on cassette by Charles Guard in association with Culture Vannin (then known as the Manx Heritage Foundation).

This recording from 32 years ago included the beautiful ‘Betsy Lee Suite’ by Manx composer, Steven Dallimore, which was first performed with the Erin Arts Centre performance itself.

T. E. Brown was born in old Douglas in 1830 and enjoyed a career in teaching, first at King William’s College and then at Clifton, near Bristol in the UK. It was here that he wrote his great sequence of long, narrative poems in Manx dialect, ‘Fo’c’s’le Yarns.’ By the time of his retirement to Ramsey in 1892, five years before his death, these poems had earnt him international recognition as a leading poet.

In 2002, Isle of Man Newspapers poll saw Brown voted the Greatest Manxman who had ever lived.

As the 1992 cassette version of the Dollin Kelly’s reading says:

‘T. E. Brown loved life, he loved language, he loved humanity. The intense kindness and humanity of the man is revealed in everything he ever wrote, but perhaps nowhere more so than when writing of the Manx people and their Island.’

Brown’s best-known poem is the first in the ‘Fo’c’s’le Yarns’ series; ‘Betsy Lee.’ This is a story of great joy and heartbreak, as we follow the narrator’s tale of his love for and loss of Betsy Lee.

Containing such well-known sections as ‘Where childher plays,’ many of us will know parts of the poem, though its great strength ultimately comes only in the full narrative setting.

It is released now by Culture Vannin with thanks to the family of Dollin Kelly.

The full 90-minute recording can be found on the Culture Vannin website and BandCamp page:

'Betsy Lee' told by Dollin Kelly

Original sleeve notes from the 1992 cassette tape