Saturday, December 27, 2014

Radnorshire's lost plygain tradition

If you were to sum up Wales with one of those fashionable hundred-object lists then surely a recording of this plygain carol would have to be included.

There was a time when the plygain tradition held sway in Radnorshire. Ffransis Payne recounted the evidence of a Glascwm farmer, born circa 1820, who recalled the Christmas morning plygain service held in the parish church. The church bells were rung from 3am until the service commenced at 05.30, then traditional carols and hymns would be sung in the highly illuminated building - a lesser known element of the tradition -  and all this in the Welsh language.

Rhayader's plygain was abandoned, seemingly because of drunkenness, while in Llanbister the service was called pelygen.  After the tradition retreated from the state church it lived on in the chapels and even farmhouses.  In St Harmon the local chapel was still holding plygain services in the 1870s and the Primitive Methodists of Presteigne persisted until the 1890s, although this last example would have certainly been conducted in English.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Black Belt, Hillbillies and Reds

My previous post on the national question in the USA, see here, was written before I saw this fascinating map detailing individuals' perceived ethnic origins as recorded by the 2000 US census. The map shows the largest group in each county.  It illustrates some of the issues discussed before - the French element in New England and Louisiana and the Hispanic element in the South West, these being cultures which did not migrate to the United States but were already in situ when the US expanded to take over their lands.  We can also see the scattered remnants of the original inhabitants of the continent and how, for example, Hawaiians have been overwhelmed while indigenous Alaskans still have some degree of territorial integrity.

Turning to the mainstream - those who willingly migrated or were forcibly removed to America - it's interesting to note that the most widespread ethnicity mapped are not the English but the Germans.  In fact it's possible to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific without leaving a German predominant county.

Two other groups stand-out, the African Americans of the deep South (there are around 100 counties with an absolute black majority) and the group, mainly in the South, especially Appalachia, who do not list any ethnicity other than being American.

In 1928, at the behest of activists like Harry Haywood, the Comintern accepted that the African Americans of the Black Belt constituted a nation as defined by Stalin "a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture."  This led to the CPUSA defining the inhabitants of the Black Belt as an oppressed nation with the right to national self-determination, up to and including secession from the United States.  This line was largely abandoned in 1935 but is still held by small leftist and black nationalist groups.  Communist activity in pre-Second World War America has largely been forgotten - there were 2000 CPUSA members in Alabama alone - so it is easy to underestimate the strength of this idea at a time when sharecropping was still a major economic factor affecting millions.

There are those who would argue that the poor whites of southern Appalachia also have the characteristics of a distinct nation. The problems associated with internal colonialism and post-industrialisation echo those of South Wales.  I'd argue that the mockery directed at rednecks and hillbillies also has echoes in Wales, these being communities elites feel able to denigrate without any of the comeback associated with political correctness.

The small independence movements in Texas and Alaska don't seem to have much interest in their Spanish speaking or native American minorities, instead they are usually dismissed as being right-wingers unhappy with Washington rule.  As Washington rule is so closely allied with clepto-capitalism that's not necessarily a bad thing and perhaps we need to be reading Ralph Nader's book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

Oh and here are some Americans dancing in the days before the corporations started filling their food with high fructose corn syrup.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Around Radnorshire - Llanfair Llwyth Yfnwg

While looking at Estyn reports on Radnorshire schools I was taken by this comment in the inspection for Gladestry primary "all learners speak English, although some use the local dialect." How often has mention of the local dialect turned up in an official government publication? What next, official status?

Readers may be disappointed that there's not a lot about the "Radnorshire" dialect on this blog.  The dialect is characteristic of the north and the east of the county rather than the south and west and I do get annoyed at folk, not natural speakers, who put-on "thees, thous, bists and wunnas" as a form of mockery. At the same time a broad Radnorshire accent is a wonderful thing and listening to elderly dialect speakers negotiating a supermarket makes a welcome change from the more usual London and Midlands voices.  

The names of the Gladestry school's catchment area would surely have given Housman a run for his money in the quietest-places-under-the sun stakes: Gladestry, Colva, Michaelchurch-on-Arrow, Burlingjobb, and across the border, Huntington and Brilley.  The quarry at Dolyhir not so much.  I was surprised by the presence of Herefordshire pupils in a Welsh school but seemingly this is quite common, with over 2000 children from England attending state schools in Wales and even more making the journey east.

Census figures which show the Welsh language making ground in East Radnorshire -  the 2011 figures are more realistic than those of 2001 -  have always seemed a bit suspicious. I've put it down to monoglot parents over-estimating the linguistic abilities of their offspring.  Yet perhaps this viewpoint is too pessimistic given the report's description of language use in the school: "Their use of English and Welsh in both oral and written work is extremely advanced and nearly all transfer between the languages confidently and easily."

I'm sure there may be one or two locals who see the revival of the old Welsh placenames of the area as the perverse invention of some rabid nationalist in the county's Highways Department.  Infact the earliest reference to Llanfair Llwyth Yfnwg (Gladestry) dates back to 1291.  Lewis Glyn Cothi came here in the 15C to praise its inns - serving the ales of Llwydlo (Ludlow) and Gweble (Weobley) - and to receive the gift of a mantle from Elis Hol, comparing it in some striking dyfalu to the Golden Fleece and the mantle of Tegau Eurfron.  And of course we are just a mile or so from Hergest, a place of real importance to everything that makes Wales an idea worth defending.

Brulhai (Brilley) was the home of Phelpod ap Rhys, a cyfarwyddyd (storyteller) with a whole world of stories within his head, a master of the seven arts who knew all the chronicles of the island.  Glyn Cothi calls this district Bro Gintun (the vale of Kington) and so did the muleteers of the pre-railroad age bringing coal from South Wales: yn mynd a llawer llwyth o lo, ar hyd y fro i Gyntyn.

The area was still Welsh-speaking in the 18C when a local was taken to court for slander "Di gyrn di dorrws y twlle sydd in di hatt di" - "your horns tore the holes in your hat."  Note the southern verb ending  - ws.  But by the start of the 19C language shift was probably complete, although the Radnorshire antiquarian Mr Cole reported that his grandparents - who farmed Redborough between Llannewydd (Newchurch) and Llanfihangel Dyffryn Arwy (Michaelchurch on Arrow) - still knew Welsh in the middle of that century.  Only Burlingjobb lacks a Welsh name, although 16C spellings such as Byrchop and Berchoppe suggest that, at that time, the name had been cymricised to something like Bersiob.

With the Welsh language spoken in the village school's two classrooms and on public display, at least on the Radnorshire side, we can say that these are small victories in a war whose major battles are being fought, and probably lost, far to the west.