Monday, October 26, 2015

Thoughts on Tryweryn

I don't have a television so I missed the various programmes commemorating Tryweryn, I gather it even made it on to that cosy comfort blanket of the British middle classes Countryfile.  For a Welsh nation so anxious to be patted on the head by their big brother that must have been sweet indeed.

There was no escape though on my twitter feed, which was flooded with cloying terms such as tragedy, open wound, raw, poignant and the occasional trist and colled.  Really? There were quite a few tragedies in 20C Wales - the two wars, the depression, deindustrialisation, Senghennydd, Gresford, Aberfan .... But Tryweryn?  Meanwhile the on-going ethnic replacement of the Welsh-speaking heartlands continues with barely a murmur from the tweeting classes.

Of course Tryweryn showed the impotence of the Welsh MPs and Welsh opinion in general, but was anyone in any doubt that Wales counted for, still counts for very little?  It certainly didn't change  the political landscape, with Welsh folk continuing to vote for the usual Unionist time-wasters. Come to think of it the very real crime of Aberfan didn't produce much of a dent on those Unionist voting habits either.

I don't know if any of the commemorations mentioned the fact that the first physical attack on the Tryweryn site was the work of two English speakers from New Tredegar and Bargoed?  One thing I did learn from twitter concerned the Gwent village of Pwlldu which was demolished at around the same time as Capel Celyn. 

I already knew about Pantywaun, demolished to make way for open cast - you can spot it at the two minute mark of this youtube showing the last train from Newport to Brecon.  All history now.

Finally the brouhaha surrounding Tryweryn and Clywedog is supposed to have ended the process whereby Welsh valleys were drowned to supply English cities with water. Maybe that was more the result of declining demand but it certainly helped scupper Labour's plan for a town of 60000, mainly incomers, between Newtown and Llanidloes.  For that we have to thank the dynamiteers. 

Caveat Emptor

Some 40 years ago I bought a facsimile copy of John Speed's Welsh maps, it cost a remaindered £2.50.  Over the years I've wondered how many of the supposedly original, hand-coloured Welsh county maps you see in antique shops were actually sourced from that book. Anyway caveat emptor.

Here's the town plan of New Radnor taken from the book, the earliest plan of any Radnorshire town dating to around 1610.  Nothing much has changed except that the castle masonry has disappeared, the perspicacious Radnorians seeing such monuments as a source of building materials.

New Radnor would have had a population of 500 or so and was at that time a Welsh speaking place. No doubt there was a degree of bilingualism since it lay so close to -  what were even then  - thoroughly English-speaking parishes within Herefordshire.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Penn Sardin

Although women in France did not get to vote until 1945, the Breton Jos├ęphine Pencalet (1886-1972) was elected to the town council of Douarnenez  in 1925.  Included on the Communist list it took a few months for the authorities in Paris to notice this flagrant violation of the constitution and declare her election illegal.

Douarnenez at the start of the 1920s was a leftist stronghold, it had elected the French state's first Communist mayor in 1921 and in 1924 thousands of women working in the sardine canneries came out on strike. This song, illustrated by some superb postcards of the sardinieres, recalls their struggle.  It should also be remembered that the language of the strikers would have been Breton not French as their slogan pemp real a vo reminds us - a real was 25 centimes and their wage demand was for 1.25 francs an hour.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Half-Opened Door

It’s said that if a publisher wants to guarantee good sales for a Welsh historical book they’ll include the name Owain Glyndwr in the title.  Maybe this is why one or two decidedly eccentric publications have seen the light of day; an accusation that certainly can’t be levelled at Lolfa’s latest effort Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndwr.

This is an investigation of the various stories surrounding the death and burial of our National Hero from the pen of Professor Gruffydd Aled Williams.  As befit’s the author’s academic background it is a work that comes complete with footnotes and an extensive bibliography.  At the same time the prose is clear and readable, for which anyone with as shaky second language skills as myself will be grateful.

The author examines the various stories associated with the death and burial of Owain in Herefordshire.  A new candidate being Kimbolton or Capel Kimbell.  Unlike some of the candidates south of the Wye this was in a thoroughly English-speaking district and might be thought an unsuitable location for a Welsh rebel on the run.  But then who would have thought that Bin Laden would turn up in Abbottabad rather than the caves of Tora Bora?

It says something that this is the first book I’ve read about Glyndwr which makes as much of his Radnorshire based (and base) daughter Gwenllian - she lived in the parish of St Harmon - as it does of her half-sisters married into the Herefordshire families, the Mortimers, Crofts, Monningtons and Scudamores.  Unlike them Gwenllian left no castle or fine house or any privileged descendants, yet for the bards of the 15C she and her family were of far greater importance: a source of patronage, a centre of resistance and a house of learning.

Gwenllian’s husband Philip ap Rhys was a nephew of Rhydderch ab Ieuan Llwyd - owner of one of the treasures of world literature, the White Book of Rhydderch.  Philip was also a first-cousin of such leading supporters of the rebellion such as Rhys Ddu and Rhys ap Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Foethus.  Like them he was also a kinsman of the great Rhys Gethin himself.  There is some evidence to suggest that Philip continued to fight on after the collapse of the main rebellion, certainly it was to him that Owain’s youngest son Siancyn y Glyn turned for a sword.

The author believes that Gwenllian and Philip have the strongest Welsh claim to have protected Owain in his old age, with nearby Cwm Hir as a possible burial site.  Mr Williams also turns to the prophetic literature of the 15C to show how the myth of Owain’s return was linked to the cantref of Maelienydd, his possible burial site.  On one aspect of this excursion into vaticination we can help the author to make a better case than he does in the book.  Mr Williams quotes Lewis Glyn Cothi’s prophetic poem to Dafydd Goch ap Maredudd, who he describes as being from Presteigne, which the author believes to be part of the commote of Llwythyfnwg and hence linked to Maelienydd:

Fo gyfyd i’r byd o’r bedd
Cnawd Owain cyn y diwedd.

(The flesh of Owain will rise up from the grave into the world before the day of judgement.)

In reality Dafydd Goch was only briefly Lord of Stapleton Castle in the Lordship of Lugharness rather than nearby Presteigne.  It’s doubtful if Presteigne itself was in Llwythyfnwg which in any case was connected with the cantref of Elfael rather than Maelienydd.

Dafydd Goch’s links with Maelienydd were far stronger than this attempt to link him with the cantref. His home, apart from the brief sojourn at Stapleton in the aftermath of the battle of Mortimer’s Criss, was in the parish of Llanbadarn Fawr in the heart of the cantref, hardly a mile from another location famed in the prophetic poetry, the red ford on the Ieithon.

Of course there is hardly a place in Wales without some legend connecting the locality with Owain Glyndwr.  In this sense the authors of the prophetic poetry were correct in saying that he did not die.  Attempts to tie Owain down to a single burial place deprive him of his last unassailable power, the power of myth. For the early 20C poet A G Prys-Jones the hero’s resting place was on Radnor Forest.  It’s as good a location as any:

And here men say he vanished in the dawn
Leaving no sign save a half-opened door,
His baldric and his naked sword forlorn
In some lone shepherd’s hut below the moor.
And so he passed, but Radnor Forest still
Hides in her wind swept acres, secret lore
Of him whose heart beat one with moor and ghyll,
The hero-heart of Wales that beats no more.