Thursday, February 13, 2014

Welsh Lessons

I suppose it never crossed my mind that people would go to evening classes to learn Welsh before, say, the 1960s.  Certainly clever chaps like Cyril Cule and Ffransis Payne picked up the language and thousands of  unremarked 19C migrants to the coal fields would have learnt a new tongue in the organic way that newcomers to any foreign country might ...... but evening classes?

Now clearly I'd got this all wrong, which was why I was surprised to read, in the latest tranche of newspapers uploaded by our National Library, that the Breconshire authorities were subsidising such classes during the First World War.  In the winter of 1914/15 classes in Llanganten had 24 students, Beulah and Troedrhiwdalar 50 between them and there were 23 in Builth.

The classes seem to have been aimed at teaching the old language to English speakers.  By that time Builth was as anglophone as it is today, as was Llanganten (readers probably know it better as Cilmeri).  There was still a good deal of Welsh spoken in Beulah and Troedrhiwdalar and native speakers as well as learners seem to have been catered for there.  How long did it last?  Well the Beulah teacher, local farmer Daniel Jones of Penrhiwmoch, was appointed for a third winter in 1916.  Coincidentally he was the grandfather of one of my rediscovered Radnorians, the racing driver Liz Jones.

Not everyone was supportive of this enlightened policy though. When Llangammarch applied to the Breconshire Education Committee for support in 1915, voices - well chiefly the Surbiton born manufacturer Arthur Beckwith -  were raised against it.  Like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone Beckwith's comments are all too familiar:

classes like those for Welsh only are not a real and urgent need at the moment, and it is not one of the subjects on which we ought to spend public money.

It's easy enough to take a pop at Beckwith but at least he was an elected member and was out-voted by other elected members. The majority decided that the courses were popular and deserving of support. The virtue of councillors, you can get rid of them - much harder with the arms length quangocrats, third sector charities and out-of-control local officials you find  today.

At the end of their first winter the Welsh classes of Llanganten and Builth decided to engage in a little friendly competition to celebrate St David's Day 1915.  It was held at Builth's Forester's Hall (where? - Ed.) and the town defeated the village by 383 points to 354.  In addition to examples of our native flair for self-congratulation there were speeches from local bigwigs.  The town's Tory councillor Arthur Gwynne-Vaughan praised Lloyd George and his role in the war - a few months later residents would marvel at the popular solicitor's splendid masonic funeral - and the headmaster of Builth county school, Rees Thomas, made a well-received speech about Welsh nationalism.

Well actually it was also about the war.  Little Wales was part of a great Empire and its way of life was threatened by Germany.  If the enemy won all would have to learn the German language and the eisteddfod would be threatened.  Like the Poles the Welsh might become a minority in their own country (in the parallel universe called the present this nightmare scenario has actually come to pass in much of Mid-Wales ). Mr Thomas was overjoyed that Wales was in front of England, Ireland and Scotland in the matter of recruitment.  The best educated young men in Wales had volunteered to make up the Welsh battalions, which would emulate the valiancy ( is that a word? - Ed.) of Cromwell's Ironsides.

Perhaps Mr Thomas's heart was in the right place - his watchwords were justice, truth, good faith, humanity, mercy and education.  Who could disagree. He was greatly vexed by the suffering of gallant, little Belgium and it led him to head-up the committee charged with canvassing (pressurising?) the young men of the district to join the forces.  It seems that for the good headmaster Welsh nationalism could flourish as part of a great and virtuous Empire - in much the same way as so many of our modern day nationalists see the nation state as a thing of the past and Wales's destiny as part of another larger and supposedly virtuous entity. 


Jac o' the North, said...

It's quite amazing how, in recent centuries, so many of our forebears thought that the finest expression of Welsh patriotism was to serve England. This outlook still endures, unfortunately, but it is at least challenged nowadays by a more genuine and focused Welshness.

radnorian said...

I suppose one point I was trying to make, and not very well, was that the good headmaster might not have been a forerunner of the pro-British, Farage types of today. He seems to have seen the Empire as a virtuous enterprise in which little Wales might play a part.

Of course the Empire is gone and I wonder if his type now has more in common with those who see the developing, highly-centralised European state as a similar virtuous enterprise in which little Wales might prosper.

I think Welsh supporters of Empire-then and the EU-now are both somewhat deluded and base their views more on wishful thinking rather than an analysis of the likely outcomes for the Welsh as a distinct nation.