Meditations on Things Welsh

Among the mines and myths of Wales, A curious cultural trait exists

DRAWN by its diesels the ``Red Dragon,'' British Rail's express from Wales to London, pulled out of Cardiff Central station. Its smooth but astonishing gain of momentum pressed the seat cushions behind me into my back, lifting me inexorably forward. In moments we were flashing through the Llanbies, east of Cardiff, a system of below-sea-level fields and reens protected by grassy dykes from the rowdy waters of the Bristol Channel.

As the rounded hills and low mountains of Gwent rose before us an elegant white-haired gentleman seated in the corner opposite turned calm blue eyes upon me. Then he spoke, with a Pleasant Carmarthenshire lilt.

``Off to London, is it?'' One of those polite Welsh gambits. The Dragon would not stop until it got to the English capital. I politely agreed. He was in his mid-90s, he told me.

``When I was a young man such as yourself I took the train to London, just as we are doing now. Trains were pulled by steam engines then and took longer to get where they were going.

``I was on my way to America,'' he continued, ``called to minister to a Welsh congregation in Pennsylvania. Several congregations actually, for we were required to preach on a circuit.''

HE and his fellow ministers, called out from Wales, had been further required to preach two sermons every month in their native Welsh, in addition to others in English. The coal mines of Pennsylvania, it seems, like the coal mines of Wales, were managed by Welshmen, much prized by American mine-owners for their skills developed in the deep anthracite passages still honeycombing the Welsh earth, though some of the mines are museums now.

`I THINK I'll rest,'' said the retired minister. He closed his eyes and slept delicately and soundly the while BritRail rocketed us to London.

Lacking more of his story, I mused about those Welshmen of many years ago who loved their language and their Lord enough to bring preachers all the way from Wales to the Pennsylvania coal fields.

They left their mark, those Welsh miners. Pennsylvania has a plethora of Welsh place names. Bryn Mawr - big valley - for one.

They left Welsh surnames, too, prominent among them the ever-ubiquitous Jones. And Morris, and Hughes, and many more. Not many Mainwarings, I think. It's a Norman name, more common perhaps among mine-owners than mine workers, redolent of 1066 and all that. Welsh people frequently mispronounce it. A typically literate form of passive resistance, perhaps, to the Norman Conquest. I'd like to think so.

But there's more than coal mines and the religious longing those Welsh Pennsylvanians must have felt that go to make up the profound cultural awareness known as Welshness.

Welshness has something to do with chapel, certainly.

I REMEMBER from childhood long sermons in beautifully-spoken Welsh delivered by preachers who were poets more often than not. Many of them bore the title of bard, an honorific won at the rigorously competitive festivals of poetry and song called, in the plural, Eisteddfodau.

And I recall standing at my father's side in chapel (perhaps I should say at his elbow since my head didn't reach much higher) surrounded by golden Welsh singing in four-part harmony, plus silvery descants from the tenors in the choir. There, possibly, arises the myth that all Welshmen can sing like the canaries they took down the mines to test for gas.

You got to know the hymns in chapel, learning as you sang along to place your little piping voice in harmonious relation to all the others. The fervent beauty and emotional power of Welsh choral singing is no myth, however, and is justly celebrated.

Myths aplenty there are in Wales, though, a basis of truth as usual deep-hidden within.

And legends: Like the one that says America was discovered in the 12th century by Prince Madoc of North Wales.

THE 19th-century laureate, Robert Southey, wrote a poem about Madoc who is supposed to have quarreled with his brothers and set sail from Wales with 12 shiploads of followers, fetching up either in what is today Florida or in Alabama, or possibly visiting both.

Alabama would seem to have the better claim. A plaque placed at Mobile in 1953 by the Daughters of the American Revolution confidently commemorates his arrival, celebrating him additionally for having left behind with the Indians the Welsh language.

The American artist-explorer George Catlin, furthermore, charted in the 19th century similarities he found existing between the Welsh language and the tongue of the Mandan Indians. He depicted the Mandans as taking to the water not in canoes but in coracles as some fishermen in Wales do to this day.

THE possible existence of Welsh-speaking Indians also has some substantiation from an Indian Chief called Tobacco. He is mentioned by two archeologists as having witnessed the massacre of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians on an Island in the Ohio River opposite Sandusky.

More significantly, the archeologists, William D. Funkhouser and William S. Webb of the University of Kentucky, reported in 1926 the existence of burial cysts at intervals all the way from Florida to Ohio. Burial practices at these mounds exhibited no similarity, they reported, to Indian custom, being alike in manner only to the funeral customs of the ancient Welsh.

It must be observed that Funkhouser and Webb say that stronger evidence is lacking and that it should not be concluded that Madoc is a discoverer of America. Solemn inquiries by the Gorsedd of the bards of Wales likewise resulted in a declaration at the Eisteddfod of 1895 that the legend of Madoc and Welsh-speaking Indians may be deemed devoid of a basis in fact.

I'm not so sure. I'd rather trust a poem, burial practices, Chief Tobacco, and the DAR any day!

So, when others are out memorializing the great Christoforo Colombo, you will likely find me up a mountain singing Welsh songs, in my singular version of four-part harmony!

And, look you, if you would like to join me in instituting Prince Madoc Day in celebration of his discovery of America, you may. I only wish I had known of the matter those years ago when I bade farewell to that elegantly gentle Welsh minister as we reached Llundain (sorry!) London. He might have shed light on the matter.

WE don't know the day of Madoc's arrival in America, but we can follow honored custom and select one. How about March 1st? This is St. David's day, when loyal Welshmen sport a leek in cap or on lapel in honor of the patron saint of Wales and Welshness.

Appropriate, surely. There must have been leeks in Madoc's boats!

The Home Forum's Tuesday story `Meditation on Things Welsh' mentioned the massacre of Welsh-speaking Indians on an island in the Ohio River near Sandusky, Ohio. Archeologists actually believe the event took place on the Sandusky River in Ohio.

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