Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Radnorshire Redneckery

The previous post highlighted some of the less than complimentary statements about Radnorshire found in the Welsh language press of the Victorian era.   In reality, apart from the decades long, politically astute and well-organised activities of the Radnorshire Rebeccas, the county was noted for its lack of crime; for example, in its 90 year plus existence the Radnorshire Constabulary only had to investigate four murders.  Even in matters of religion the locality was not quite as pagan as the devout scribes of Pura Wallia would have it, see here. .  ........ But hang on, what if those Bible punchers were onto something, what if Radnorshire was indeed the pagan, immoral and ignorant place the press described.

In the past I've made the point that we should differentiate between language shift and anglicization.  Radnorians were certainly better able to pick up fluency in the English language than those living far away from the border.  It was mainly a matter of geography. With the Teme, the Lugg, the Arrow and the Wye all running eastward into England and much of the county lying within the orbit of English-speaking market towns, surely sparsely populated Radnorshire should be praised for holding back the tide of language shift for so long?

The language aside it seems that Radnorshire maintained many of the traditions of Hen Gymru Lawen and in these aspects, at least, it was less anglicised than it's respectable Welsh speaking neighbours. Take this report from 1861 concerning Aberedw published in Baner ac Amserau Cymru:

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.

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.

Here's another description of the gwyl y mabsant in the parish of Betws Diserth, it appeared in the  Radnorshire Standard in 1898 but was recalling events much earlier in the century:

"I remember well attending the Betws Feast ....... Early on Sunday morning the guests would be in high spirits, and eager to exhibit their prowess in wrestling, jumping, ball playing, fighting etc.  The parson would arrive at the usual hour to hold a sacred service at the church, but suddenly his prayer would be interrupted by roars of imbecile laughter from the maudlin brains outside.  Some hundreds used to attend this gathering from all parts of Radnorshire and the neighbouring counties.  Here could be met the champion wrestler as well as the champion fighter of the county.  On the following Monday the hounds would be brought, the disciples of Diana would forsake Bacchus for a few hours.  Here for a whole week drunkenness and debauchery might be witnessed."

Even in Radnorshire respectability eventually managed to outlaw the merry-making associated with the parish wakes - although if Builth during show week is anything to go by, that may well have been a good thing!  There were those who regretted the passing of the old world.  In 1893 a correspondent to a Swansea paper recalled conversations with an old footballer who had played for Breconshire against Radnorshire at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  This, of course, was football as a mass-participation sport ranging over the countryside.  The writer remembers a couple of technical footballing terms from the time, namwn and hanner namwn, although I don't think you'll find these in the University's Geiriadur.

Regretting the passing of country sports and dancing the writer turns his ire on what he sees as the downside of chapel life:

"The Welshman had all the manliness preached out of him.  He became afraid of his landlord, afraid of the agent, afraid of the Set Fawr and the preacher, till his life became a burden to him, and there naturally developed in him low cunning and deceitfulness and so it has come to pass that Wales has acquired an unpleasant notoriety for untruthfulness and want of straightforwardness."

Of course now we are back with the prejudices of the Anglo-Saxon head measurers who were saying much the same thing:

"To paint the character of the sly, insincere, deceptive and cunning Welshman i.e. those unfavourable features which may be considered to distinguish him from his fellow subject of England, would take up too much space."


Jac o' the North, said...

"The Welshman had all the manliness preached out of him. He became afraid of his landlord, afraid of the agent, afraid of the Set Fawr and the preacher, till his life became a burden to him, and there naturally developed in him low cunning and deceitfulness and so it has come to pass that Wales has acquired an unpleasant notoriety for untruthfulness and want of straightforwardness."

I've heard views similar to this expressed elsewhere. But does it make sense? If religious feeling destroys 'manliness' then how do we account for the crusaders and the conquistadors; and other martial groups in other religions? In addition, the Catholic religion never stopped the Poles, the Irish and others fighting for their freedom. The Orthodox religion almost encouraged the Serbs to fight against all-comers. So if we are dealing specifically with Protestantism then why didn't its adoption enervate the English, the Scots, the Prussians and many other peoples?

I think there must be another factor at play. One possibility has to be the loss of a native leadership, as the old aristocracy and squirachy became anglicised and C of E. Then, given the integration of Wales with England, and the contempt with which Welshness was regarded, social advancement became synonymous with anglicisation, in generation after generation.

radnorian said...

Your comment about the lack of a native leadership must have something to do with it. I may be on shaky ground but I think that one of the reasons for the strength of Radnorshire Rebeccaism - and it carried on throughout the Victorian period and even into the 20C - was the fact that the county had a larger % of small landowners (greycoats) than many other counties.

The big landowners often showed the white feather to the Rebeccaites, turning a blind eye to their actions or imposing laughable fines. In one famous case a magistrate, one with large estates in Ireland as well as Radnorshire, dismissed charges of violent assault by the rioters on the river baliffs because they had failed to show the miscreants their letters of appointment!

Welsh non-conformity does seem to have had a particularly pacific outlook and even with it's demise we seem far too concerned with what our neighbour think of us and far too eager to sign up to the latest obsessions of the London chatterers.

Jac o' the North, said...

I can't agree with Welsh non-conformity having "a particularly pacific outlook". My grandparents' God was veangeful and brooked no criticism or questioning. It was an eye for an eye and eternal hell fire for the damned. There was little about it that was comforting.

So if we are to follow the logic of your argument then our ancestors may have had the "manliness" frightened out of them from fear of the eternal consequences. Around a century ago the Labour Party and / or socialism replaced the chapels and the Liberal Party for most Welsh, but this only capitalised on the pre-indoctrinated loyalty to the British State.

After a few centuries of such indoctrination, from various quarters, it's hardly suprising that so many Welsh today are the timid and beaten people who don't want to make a fuss . . . while they are marginalised in their own homeland, insulted on a regular basis, and still 'led' by people, political parties, a media, and other agencies, telling them to lie down and take it.

For to complain or resist makes us 'extremist', 'intolerant', 'unwelcoming'.

radnorian said...

You're probably right about Welsh non-conformity, I can't say I've had much experience of it. One of my grandfathers kept a pub and the other was a miner who went awol.

While Welsh non-conformity always played quite a part in the peace movements I seem to recall that the chapels acted as recruiting sergeants when Lloyd George gave the nod.

I guess it's a case of sorting out the what-they-do from the what-they-say, such as those anti-imperialists who were quite happy for NATO to bomb Belgrade or the white-poppy-wearers who treat the International Brigaders as secular saints.