Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Few More Thoughts on the Welsh Language in Radnorshire

If the decline of the Welsh language in Radnorshire has been addressed at all, it has been done so from the viewpoint of geographers. A typical example is the article The Geography of Cultural Transition: The Welsh Borderland 1750-1830 which appeared in the Winter 1979 edition of the National Library of Wales Journal. The article summarises the geographers viewpoint as follows "the upland mass of the county is located between major avenues of anglicisation, the Severn and the Wye Valleys, and so it was cut off from the major Welsh speaking areas to the west."

Ffransis Payne dismissed this viewpoint as "lol i gyd, cynnyrch breuddwydion uwchben y map." ("a load of nonsense, the result of daydreaming over a map.") The truth of Mr Payne's words are well illustrated by one of the maps accompanying the NLWJ article which shows that Welsh language church services persisted in Wye valley parishes such as Boughrood, LlandeiloGraban and Llansteffan long after the language had been dismissed from parishes in the north of the county. The truth is, that far from being an avenue of anglicisation, the Wye valley was something of a stronghold of Welsh, something that the author of the article might have spotted if he had bothered to look at his own maps.

In reality anglicisation spread from the border towns of Presteigne and Knighton, making early inroads - for reasons we will investigate later - into the parishes of the Ithon valley.

The census of 1891 and 1901 shows Welsh persisting at that date to an extent in Cwmteuddwr, Rhayader, St Harmon and parts of Nantmel. There is precious little evidence for it elsewhere in the county, even amongst those who would have been born early in the nineteenth century in parishes where you would have expected at least a few old folk to be recorded as using Welsh. In part this is because the census was asking about language use rather than language ability. I also believe that there was an element of prejudice in Radnorshire towards the language. As an example I know that my great grandmother from Carmarthenshire spoke Welsh occasionally with her husband born in Diserth in the 1850s. In the Diserth census she is listed as bilingual while my great grandfather is not. I spoke about this once with one of my great uncles born in the 1890s. He was most upset at the suggestion that either of his parents spoke Welsh, I might as well have accused them of being thieves.

In order to gain some insight into the position of the language in the first third of the nineteenth century, I have examined the 1891 census for 263 individuals listed as being born in Radnorshire before 1820 but living outside the county itself. Of course it is quite likely that some of these individuals left the county at an early age, while others might have picked up Welsh in the mines of South Wales. Infact hardly any of these Radnorshire migrants went to the Welsh speaking rural counties and surprisingly few to the more Welsh speaking industrial areas. The great majority went to parishes just across the border in Brecon and Montgomery, to rural English speaking Monmouthshire and the more anglicised towns of the South Wales coalfield such as Tredegar.

Of our 263 Radnorshire born individuals aged 70 or over at the time of the 1891 census 29% were bilingual and 4% spoke only Welsh - 67% were English monoglots. When we look at the birth places of these migrants we find that 60% born in Rhayader Hundred use Welsh - those that can't are mainly from Nantmel or have moved to anglicised areas; from Colwyn Hundred the figure of Welsh speakers is 34%, and from Painscastle Hundred 24%. When we look at the Hundreds of Knighton and Cefnllys the position is quite different with only 10% listed as Welsh speakers and most of those coming from Cefnllys parish itself. The figure for Radnor Hundred is 12% but the number of individuals involved, fourteen, is really too small to be of much use.

I believe that these figures provide a fairly accurate view of the position of Welsh in Radnorshire during the first third of the nineteenth century. Welsh is still widely spoken as a hearth language in Rhayader Hundred with English making rapid inroads into Nantmel. A fair amount of Welsh is still spoken in Colwyn parishes such as Diserth, but English is rapidly gaining the upper hand. there is still some Welsh spoken in parishes lower down the Wye such as Bochrwyd and Glasbury but, as a hearth language, Welsh has already disappeared from the north and the east of the county.

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