Friday, July 24, 2009

Attitudes to Radnorshire in the 19C, part two

The Welsh language is, of course, one of the markers of Welshness, but it is not the only one.

You only have to look at the position of Ireland to see that a sense of national identity does not depend on a vigorous national language alone. Indeed the very strength of Welsh, still spoken by perhaps a quarter of the population, to an extent weakens the national self-confidence of the 75% who do not.

Although Radnorshire was the first county in Wales to be anglicised in language terms, in other respects it was one of the most traditional of all the Welsh counties. Rebeccaism, tai un nos, the traditions of ceffyl pren are all examples of this. The following is an extract of an 1861 article translated from the newspaper Baner ac Amserau Cymru. Although to modern ears the description of the traditional parish wake in Aberedw seems laudable enough - an example of Hen Gymru Llawen (Merrie Old Wales) - to the author of the article and his readers it was something to be condemned.

The other day I was in Aberedw, to see the ruins of the castle and Llywelyn’s cave. Aberedw is a place on the Radnorshire side (of the Wye). We went to sit for a while in a house that was known to one of our company. The niece of the man of the house happened be there on a visit.

“When are you going home?” someone asked.
“I’m not going home” replied the young girl, “ until after the feast.”
“When is the feast?”
“Next Sunday”
“What feast is that” I asked.
“Aberedw Feast” said the girl.
“What sort of feast is that?”

But the young lady could not give an explanation, other than it was Aberedw feast, a little amazed that I should enquire about a subject of which everyone was aware.

Gwlabsant” explained her uncle “that’s the feast.”
“Perhaps.” he said “you don’t know what gwlabsant is?”

I knew a little from history, but only from history. I had never before been in a district where the gwyl y mabsant, the feast of the patron saint was still alive.

“What will happen next Sunday that is different from any other Sunday?”
“Oh the feast is not as big as it was years ago. Then it lasted a week, feasting and drinking, singing and dancing, fighting and so on. But now there’s just a little feasting, killing fowls, baking cakes, puddings, pasties and meeting to spend the day eating and socialising with each other."

Even the very mention of a saint’s feast has died out long ago in every other part of Wales. There’s barely one in a thousand who even knows the meaning of the word. The Sunday schools have extinguished virtually all of the old country customs except in Radnorshire. Here they have a refuge and a burial place.

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