Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The County Radnor

As well as being one of the more familiar Irish premiers to those of us this side of the water Garret Fitzgerald also took time out from his official duties to research  the decline of the Irish Language.  Somehow I can't see Carwyn or Cameron doing something similarly esoteric in their spare hours, but you never know.  Fitzgerald's method was to look at the census figures for the 60 plus age group in order to deduce the linguistic situation in a particular district half a century or more earlier.  You can find his work on the 1911 census here - although without the all important maps.

It says something about the relative strengths of Welsh and Irish at the beginning of the 20th century that if thoroughly "anglicised" Radnorshire had been treated as if it belonged in the list of Irish counties, then it would have been 12th in a list of 32 (11.5% of the oldest cohort speaking Welsh) just ahead of Tipperary (11.4% speaking Irish).  In the Rhayader District Council area - roughly the A470 north of Newbridge-on-Wye and the A44 west of Crossgates - the figure was 28.2%, the majority locally born.  Of course this meant little to the Welsh speaking intelligensia of the day; for them every Radnorshire lass in trouble was further evidence of the moral decay they associated with the English language.

Why Ireland should have suffered such a severe language shift - in Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Laois, Longford, Offaly, West Meath, Wexford, Wicklow, Antrim, Belfast, Down and Fermanagh Irish speakers were even rarer than Welsh speakers in the Knighton-Presteigne-New Radnor area - has never been that successfully explained.  Clearly a good many had ditched Irish long before the famine. Plantations played a part, a similar 16C plantation in the Llanidloes-Trefeglwys-Llanbrynmair area is remembered now only in surnames like Wigley, Jarman and Peate.  It had no long-term effect on the local language situation, probably because both natives and newcomers were protestants and thus easily assimilated.

Language shift in Radnorshire is similar to that in Ireland, with the language retreating 20 miles in a generation. As for explanations, firstly this from the county's historian Jonathan Williams writing in the early 1800s and speaking of the border parish of Bugeildy:

"An increased intercourse with England, a more general interchange of the commodities and produce of these two countries respectively, and, above all, the introduction of that jurisprudence with which the inhabitants of Wales found it necessary to be familiarized, as well as the diction in which all legal pleadings, deeds, conveyances, processes, &c., are executed, soon undermined that predilection for their mother tongue which was before their distinguishing character, and rendered the study and acquisition of the English language necessary, not only as an accomplishment, but also as a matter of indispensable interest."

Secondly a 19C Irish explanation for language shift in Limerick:

"the growing public feeling that Irish was a dying language, a mark of a degraded people who were not 'decent' - all this combined to produce a new people who from youth were pledged to speak no Irish. And so in West Limerick you had many who persisted in trying to speak a broken English and never again uttered a word in the old tongue they knew so well."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What's in a name

I had hoped to post some impressions - not a review, that would be presumptuous - of this, the latest volume in the Oxford History of Wales, but the truth is I haven't been able to get to grips with the book at all.  Perhaps that's down to ageing brain cells or the sheer density of information contained, but it's certainly not as reader-friendly as some of the earlier volumes in the series.  Perhaps there will be a better chance later on in the winter.

A couple of things are already apparent though - although covering a period with only limited documentary sources archaeology doesn't get much of a look in. Then, while the book treats with all the British lands: Wales, Cumbria, Cornwall and Brittany, as well as their relationships with the Irish, Northumbrians etc., interesting British survivals like that in Lincolnshire or in the pedigrees of  Wessex and Mercia don't get considered.

Of course the biggest omission, although completely expected, is the sparsity of references to East Central Wales.  I wonder if those whose cynefin encompasses Gwynedd or Powys or Gwent or Deheubarth  have any idea of how deprived the patriotic Radnorian is of any historical treatment of their gwlad.  Book after book is published with barely a word.

It's not as if East Central Wales wasn't an important strategic region, geographical imperatives rarely change as anyone following the fighting in the Donbas will know.  There's a reason why Llywelyn's last campaign was along the banks of the Wye, why Glyndwr's great victory was at Bryn Glas and why Gwerthrynion and Buellt are associated with Vortigern.  A few decades after the period covered by this book men like Madoc ab Idnerth and his sons are amongst the most important battle leaders in Wales - if you read the source material that is, rather than the history books.

Why the lack of coverage?  Well Gwynedd, Powys, Gwent and even Deuheubarth or Dyfed are pretty catchy names.  Whereas East Central Wales has to make do with a treasure-hunt clue of a name - Rhwng Gwy a Hafren.  Not even a very precise clue, it could be referring to Ledbury or Ludlow, and one cantref, Buellt, isn't even twixt Wye and Severn at all.  Well-meaning souls have come-up with other obscure names from ancient documents to describe this fifth part of Wales more succinctly: Cynllibiwg, Fferyllwg, Fferegs.  I can't see any of them catching on.  I doubt if Madoc ab Idnerth and his sons thought in terms of a unified Rhwng Gwy a Hafren at all.  There were the more local names: Maelienydd, Elfael, Gwerthrynion, Buellt, Ceri - to be defended by the descendants of Elystan Glodrydd and through him to Iorwerth Hirflawdd, progenitor of the Iorwerthiawn one of the gwelygorddau of Powys - and perhaps that's a clue, but don't expect anyone to follow it up any time soon.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


This coming weekend the European Parliament would like us all to wear black ribbons, having voted in 2008 to designate the 23rd of August a European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. A vote supported by three of the four Welsh members of that institution: Jonathan Evans, Glenys Kinnock and Eluned Morgan.  This is part and parcel of the Prague Declaration which amongst other things envisages the "adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks so that children could learn and be warned about Communism and its crimes..."

I wonder how much progress has been made in overhauling the textbooks used in Welsh schools?  Surely pupils need to be warned about Communists like the half-Radnorian Arthur Horner, Will Paynter and Dai Francis, men who led the Welsh miners in their misguided struggle against our benevolent coal owners.

The work of Welsh writers tainted with Communism like Gwyn Alf Williams, Raymond Williams and Lewis Jones needs to be closely vetted and all those monuments to the Stalinists of the International Brigades should be demolished.  Instead we could perhaps erect a monument of shame to the 15000+ misguided souls in Rhondda East, who came within 900 votes of ousting the Labour candidate in the 1945 election.  Particular attention should also be paid to re-educating Welsh politicians who make occasional glowing references to half-remembered troublemakers like Paul Robeson or Annie Powell.

Enough of the sarcasm.  What we have here is an attempt to enforce a particular and contentious view of 20C history on the younger generation.  While many authors claim 20-40-90 million fell victim to the purges, less sensationally others say that the archives in Moscow suggest that the figure was less than 2 million.  Still shocking but in the same ball park or even less than the victims of the British Empire and America and its allies - who seemingly don't merit a black ribbon day.

It was once generally accepted that the famine associated with collectivisation was nothing to do with genocide or Great Russian chauvinism, It was even admitted that it made possible the rapid industrialisation which eventually saved Europe from Hitler.  The genocide theory was just a fringe idea cultivated in emigre circles in North America.  Today it's mainstream and academics with opposing ideas are shunned.  And so it goes on, with a re-writing of history regarding the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact and culminating in the Doctors' plot - a genocide which never actually happened, but something of a clincher for those who want to demonstrate the moral equivalence of  Stalinism and Nazism.

I wonder how those proposed revised textbooks will go about explaining to Welsh schoolchildren the Red Army's overwhelming contribution to the defeat of Nazism and how Generalplan Ost, today a footnote in history, was once a blueprint for the elimination of the very nations which are loudest in their condemnation of Communism?  What they must do, of course, is convince the hoi polloi that only Wall Street and the City of London can protect democracy, free speech and a law based society.  Any truck with socialism will inevitably lead to a Stalinist dystopia.

Funnily enough while Communism is roundly condemned, with laws being passed in some EU countries to jail those who argue that its crimes have been exaggerated, all over Eastern Europe pro-Nazis are being rehabilitated and public monuments erected in their honour.  If you want to learn more see this website for example.

As the wartime generation kicks the bucket, the history of those times becomes, more and more, the preserve of the public-school-academics, right-wing nationalists and American neo-conservative and neo-liberal warmongers.  Those with an opposing viewpoint are hardly likely to be invited to make documentaries for BBC2 - certainly not the likes of one Grover Furr, who holds that the Old Bolsheviks were guilty as charged and that Khrushchev's 1956 speech attacking Stalin was a tissue of lies. His website is here for anyone interest in such controversial viewpoints.


I can sympathise with those who say I should stick to my usual Radnorian related material and not bother with Ukraine, I feel the same way myself a lot of the time.  If our mass media, in particular the BBC, were actually reporting the facts on the ground then I could happily ignore this bloody war at the other end of Europe.  People would have the facts to make-up their own mind about the company our government keeps. Instead we are being fed a load of tripe.  In Lugansk there seems, at the moment, to be just one Western freelancer.  In Donetsk you have a handful of Western photographers and a young Asian backpacker/blogger.  The BBC are too busy rehashing fanciful Kiev press releases or chasing after humanitarian convoys inside Russia to ever venture anywhere near the killing fields.

What is not reported are the civilian deaths, the SS-21 missiles being launched at cities, the 700,000 who have fled across the border into Russia - the largest ethnic-cleansing in Europe since the Second World War.  In particular many folk in the West are unaware of the enormous losses suffered by the largely conscript and barely trained Ukrainian army.  At least 11000 killed so far.  Like the civilians, mainly from working class districts, slaughtered by their hopeless shelling, these press-ganged Ukrainians are unpeople as far as the western media is concerned.

Their wives, mothers and surviving comrades are not unpeople however and in this subtitled youtube video you get a sense of the anger welling-up against the oligarchs who sold-out their country in the interests of American and European meddlers.  Facing such losses, a winter approaching without heating and an economy already in ruins, even before the IMF get to work, maybe the Ukrainian soldiers will follow George Bernard Shaw's advice to the British soldiery of a century ago - shoot your officers and go home.

Please turn-on the subtitles

Friday, August 01, 2014


So Powys County Councillor Myfanwy Alexander has caused a stink by using the N word in a cabinet debate.  As expected in these politically-correct times retribution was swift.  Ms Alexander will be sent on an equalities training course and has already apologised for her use of the word - why does this all remind me of Maoist China?  She has also been referred to the unelected Public Service Ombudsman for Wales, which will doubtless lead to more abject apologies and severe reprimands in due course.

Ms Alexander used the unfortunate term during a discussion on the cross-border health arrangements which see many Powys residents treated in English hospitals.  The councillor complained that she and other patients were being mocked for having Welsh forenames.  Some Shropshire based public-servant had told Myfanwy that her name was just "a meaningless jumble of letters."  Furthermore when she had asked if a Welsh-speaking nurse could speak to her father she had been told "that's fine as long as you don't mind your father being considered a racist."

Ms Alexander rightly complained that an Indian patient would not be mocked for having an unfamiliar name.  I'm reminded of a recent BBC "comedy" where a Welsh teacher was humiliated by having his pupils make sheep noises.  Everyone in the show thought this very droll and I was left wondering what the reaction would have been had an African teacher - to use another degrading stereotype - been greeted by monkey sounds.  The councillor viewed such double standards as Welsh people "being treated like n*****s over the border."  What she clearly meant was that Welsh people are now the only minority who can be treated in such a disrespectful way by polite society.  Of course the councillor's substantive complaints are ignored in the hullabaloo and she has become the villain of the piece for transgressing a taboo.

It seems to me that these taboos have become a way for the neo-liberal elite to avoid any suggestion that they are exploiters.  They may not pay their fair share of taxes, they may be economically and socially corrupt but at least they never break politically-correct codes of behaviour.  Why should they, none of them damage the financial bottom line.

So where do we go from here?  A hundred years ago our Radnorshire village had a rather good mixed choir and I've inherited a couple of examples of sheet music from their repertoire.  One piece is an English-language version of Myfanwy by Thomas Walter Price entitled Arabella - some even claim that Price's lyrics predate the Welsh version?  Perhaps Ms Alexander should consider adopting this forename.  It should have sufficient vowels to satisfy even the dimmest English public servant.