In a few days time it will be the first day of March, the national day of Wales and St. David’s Day, Diwrnod Dewi Sant is when Welsh people traditionally wear a daffodil, our national flower as one of the little things we can do as an outward sign of our patriotism. The Welsh name for a daffodil is cenhinen Bedr, Peter’s leek, which has led to debate over the centuries as to which is the real symbol of Wales – the daffodil or the leek? The Welsh word for leek is cenhinen and so it can be easily seen as to why there has been some confusion. However over the years both have become to be seen as genuine symbols of Welshness over here by now and no doubt they’ll be seen all over the place here. No daffodils can be seen pushing from the soil as yet, but before long they will be seen “tossing their heads in sprightly dance” everywhere. Supermarkets even stock ready-made Welsh lady costumes for fifteen pounds or so for parents to dress their children in tradtional clothing for school on this hallowed day. It is a good time to be Welsh.
Dewi Sant, St. David lived during the sixth century and probably his main message was “gwnewch y pethau bychain“, do the little things. An exhortation for people to do and say the little things that matter so much rather than go for large, showy and ostentatious things that ultimately signify nothing! Wales is not the largest of countries either, but as the poet, Elfed wrote in 1927 – “Os nad yw hi’n fawr mae hi’n ddigon/I lenwi, i lenwi fy nghalon” (Even if it’s not large it’s enough/To fill, to fill my heart!).
There is a little valley in upstate New York that has the same effect on me. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog, my great-great-grandfather emigrated to the Middle Granville area in 1883 only to be accidentally killed one evening by an acquaintance. I was always intrigued by his story – and I certainly don’t intend to bore you with the details – but a mysterious postcard in my grandmother’s possession of an unknown place in America eventually drove me to research into his demise. The postcard was of “Main Street, Granville, NY” and I could find nothing in books on this place.
And it was doing a little thing, that is, writing a letter to the American Embassy in London that eventually led to me standing by the hitherto unknown grave of my ancestor 113 years after his death. Many little acts led to a great kindness – a response from the researcher at the embassy led to a letter to Agnes Peterson at the Washington County Historical Society at Fort Edward, NY to a letter to Susanne Rappaport at the Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY to a letter from John A. Jones of Middle Granville, NY which led to a completely new existence! Each act was an unselfish, kind and little thing, but at the same time had very far-reaching consequences. Just like the simple dropping of a pebble in a pond creates ever-increasing circles. Months later, in February 1996 I was able to recreate the same view of the postcard with my own camera.
Since my first visit to Granville I have enjoyed hearing how the Slate Valley Museum is growing and flourishing……it’s a shame I live so far away! Good people seem to be at the helm there and the sacrifices they make – I wouldn’t dare say they’re little things! – are acts that the community should support. I keep banging on about how important it is to use places like the museum – use it by visiting and also by bringing along old family histories to share and to be recorded. (I’d be willing to translate any Welsh stuff in secret for you….just in case you suspect your ancestor was a wrongdoer!!) How many homes in the Slate Valley area have photos or letters of long-forgotten ancestors, I wonder? Bring in your treasures….. and who knows…….maybe doors that have been closed for generations might be reopened, voices that have been silent for decades might be heard again? Doing a little thing like rummaging in old drawers and boxes might be the catalyst to learning about yourself and your history! Wouldn’t the special Welsh day prepared for tomorrow at the museum be a wonderful opportunity to do something?
The film being shown is “How Green Was My Valley,” a Hollywoodian portrayal of a Welsh mining community. It was initially supposed to have been filmed in Wales, but the Second World War soon put an end to any chance of that. In fact, the boy who was supposed to act as Huw Morgan was a young Welsh boy who wasn’t allowed to travel across the pond because of the u-boat threat and as a result, a young English boy called Roddy McDowall who happened to live in Hollywood was catapulted to fame and fortune instead. Not one of the main actors were Welsh and none of them had any Welsh connections – most were in fact Irish-Americans! It’s very strange to see Barry Fitzgerald, who’d play Michaleen Oge Flynn in the wonderful “The Quiet Man” some ten years later, struggle to cope with the Welsh accent of his character Cyfarthfa! But for everyone outside Wales, including in England, your typical Welshman is a South Walian (that is not like the old Welsh of the Slate Valley), just as for everyone outside of the States your typical American is a stetsoned Texan! Movies have a lot to answer for! Even so, it is a great film that won five Oscars! The singing is great too – the musical miners made up of a choir of Welsh-Californians! It’s wonderful that the museum is giving everyone the opportunity to see a bit of history again.
As previously mentioned, there are no daffodils around as yet here, but they’re not far off. The fields, woods and hedgerows at the moment are full of snowdrops – clusters of small white flowers that augur that arrival of spring. We call them eirlys (pronounced ayrr-lis) in Welsh which can sometimes be given as a name for girls born at this time of year. As indeed can Blodwen, which means ‘white flower’, though ‘wen’ or ‘wyn’ can also mean ‘pure’ or ‘blessed’. Blodwen by today is a name usually considered to be one belonging to an elderly person though.
Which leads me to one final thing. There was another community similar to Granville, just over the border in Quebec called New Rockland. Over the years researching into the history of the Slate Valley I have found a strong link between both communities as my fellow North Walians moved back and forth from each to the other. One of these people was John Lloyd Roberts, a native of Bethesda, North Wales – a quarryman by trade who eventually ended up in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Fair Haven. But you’d search for him in vain there as he is simply recorded as “Father” in the family plot! A daughter of his named Blodwen remained in Canada and I have been privileged to come into contact with one of the Canadian descendants simply because she did one of these little things recommended earlier which was to take an interest in her background and try to piece together her family’s past. “Oni heuir, ni fedir” as we say in Welsh…..if you don’t sow, you won’t reap! Who knows what we’ll find now closed doors are opened and voices are silent no more?
Although the community at New Rockland has since been swallowed up by the vast forests of Quebec I’d like to think that the Welsh voices of there can still be heard too because of folks like Blodwen Roberts’s grandchildren who want to listen and hear once again. Blodwen Roberts died on March 1 1984, St. David’s Day, Diwrnod Dewi Sant and so I’d like to dedicate this blog to her and to all the other Welsh voices in far-off places that still should be heard.
Diwrnod Dewi Sant dedwydd i chi gyd / A happy St. David’s Day to you all!
Tan tro nesa’!