Review: Cardis by Dylan Iorwerth
If you are a Cardi, your patch is Ceredigion. Said to be named after Ceredig, son of the fifth century Chieftan Cunedda who was rewarded the lands for defeating an invasion of Irish Scots, the county’s administrative boundaries have remained largely unchanged for the past 1,400 years. It is bordered by the rivers Dyfi to the north and the Teifi to the south, to the east by the bare majesty of the Elenydd Mountains and to the west by the broad embrace of Bae Ceredigion.
It is the people of this ancient tract of land which is the focus of Cardis, a series of 19 portraits – from seventh century Saint Padarn to the recently lamented singer Dave Datblygu – all tied inextricably to the county of Ceredigion. Published to coincide with the National Eisteddfod in Tregaron, the book is a celebration of people who, across the centuries, have called the county home.
‘Scotsmen without generosity’ was how one 18th century wag chose to aphoristically slur the Cardi, whilst also ensuring a swipe at their Celtic cousins. Once a pejorative term, it is now worn as a badge of pride. Author and journalist Dylan Iorwerth has chosen a wonderfully diverse selection of innovators and iconoclasts, pioneers and poets, politicians and preachers, saints and sinners, shedding light on less familiar figures and fleshing accounts of those more famed and feted.
We begin where the mist of myth veils the fragments of any biographical truth. More is known about 13th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym than of the Saint whose patronymic church at Llanbadarn was one of the former’s love haunts.
Drawing on the detective work of numerous Welsh scholars, we are given an outline of the man whose love poems and earthy humour are untrammeled by the passage of time. The young man who met and fell in love with Morfudd and penned 36 poems in her praise (only to see her wed the Bwa Bach or ‘small crook’) is best known through his work, and the book induces us to return to the poems themselves and to the still seductive voice.
The strength of this brief lives format lies in its persuasiveness to make us seek more. Thomas Jones, 1532-1609, better known as Twm Siôn Cati, was first mythologised in a pamphlet ‘Tom Shone Catty’s Tricks’ in 1763 and became 300 years later the subject of a much-loved series of children’s novels by T. Llew Jones.
This Welsh Robin Hood was part of a tradition of bandits and brigands, celebrated as underdogs who successfully fought tricked, and challenged authority. The author gives us not only the facts of the origin story but also an analysis of how these evolved into compelling fiction.
Two early 20th century fiction writers are given their dues, though their works could not be more contrasting, despite both sharing duties as pupil teachers in Rhydlewis village school. For Caradoc Evans (1878–1945) and Moelona (Elisabeth Mary Owen, 1877–1953), those early formative years were the inspiration for both their best-known creations. Moelona’s novel for children Teulu Bach Nantoer became a huge bestseller.
In its portrayal of the hopes, dreams, and hardship of the family of Nantoer, the importance of family and the warmth of the Welsh community is paramount. Caradoc Evans’ My People was very well received in England. Its dark portrait of a community where bestial misogyny and hypocrisy was the norm, ruled over by the cruel iron grip of the chapel in rural Ceredigion, played to the prejudices and preconceptions of an anglophone readership. However, throughout the remainder of his life, Evans would occasionally need to call on the protection of the police for fear of attacks, such was the sense of outrage in Wales at his perceived betrayal.
For the academically able in rural Wales, the route to intellectual inquiry, as well as an income, lay in the Church. Evan Evans (Ieuan Fardd, 1731–1788) was born to poverty in Lledrod, educated in the classics by Edward Richards at his school in Ystrad Meurig, he graduated from Merton College, Oxford, to become a keen and perceptive literary critic, poet, and classicist.
Dismissed by non-other than Dr Samuel Johnson as a ‘drunken Welsh curate’, his Some Specimens of the Ancient Welsh Bards published in 1764 was the first anthology of early Welsh poetry translated into English prose, which gave status and prominence to the Welsh tradition.
Preacher Daniel Rowland (1711–1790), was the star turn of the Religious Revival of 1762–4. Such was the pulling power of Boanerges or Son of Thunder as he was described by William Williams Pantycelyn, that as many as 10,000 people would travel to the small village of Llangeitho on a Sunday to hear him preach. Some would have sailed from the Llŷn Peninsula to the small ports of Llanrhystud or Aber-Arth before walking the remainder, a journey of some 80 miles.
Of the individuals who moved things forward and dared challenge the expectations and conventional wisdom of their age, many in Cardis are women. Annie Evans (1792–1907) became the owner of Highmead Estate, Llanybydder, following the early death of her husband. Annie’s diary is an unique record of the vast woodland and hedgerow planting undertaken during her tenure as well as a record of good husbandry and estate management.
Highmead would produce and consume 700 barrels of butter and 800 pounds of cheese per annum. The cheese would be aged for a year before being eaten and she carefully noted the correlation between the feed consumed by the dairy herd and the subsequent flavour. A culinary and farming pioneer.
Sarah Jane Rees (1839–1916) is better known by her bardic name Cranogwen. She was famous in her day for poetry, journalism and preaching as well as an early career teaching would-be sailors navigation and helmsmanship.
The poem that brought her to prominence, considered shocking to her contemporaries, was a portrayal of a woman imprisoned in a marriage to a drunken and abusive husband. She lived with a female companion for the last 23 years of her life and has found recent newfound fame as a symbol of female emancipation and a hero to the LGBTQ community.
A life-size figurative sculpture of Rees, commissioned by the Monumental Welsh Women (MWW) statue campaign, will on completion take pride of place in the middle of her home-village of Llangrannog. Another energetic Cardi, Annie Davies (1873–1942) led and organised an unprecedented campaign for world peace and hand delivered a petition by 309,296 Welsh women to American President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in 1924.
The affection and admiration of Dylan Iorwerth for his subjects shines through in these portraits. Humorist and playwright Idwal Jones (1895–1937) who laid the foundations of Welsh light entertainment is captured in some laugh–aloud quotes from his plays. Poet Edward Prosser Rhys (1901–1945) found fame and unsought notoriety with his Eisteddfod winning poem Atgof which alludes to the sexual attraction between two males.
We read of his affection for Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and of Kate Roberts’ meeting with the ‘shy and quiet young man’ in the isolation of the railway station at Dyfi Junction. Judicious and revealing anecdotes. Iorwerth ends the collection with a quote from singer–songwriter Dave R Edwards (1964-2021) whose band Datblygu crystalised the anti-establishment rage of Thatcher’s Britain whilst skewering middle-class Welsh pomposity. ‘Datblygu will never die’ said Dave and neither will his legacy nor any of the Cardis caught and captured in this memorable collection.
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