Review: Y Delyn Aur by Malachy Owain Edwards
There is a dual meaning behind this biography’s title. I had naively assumed it referred solely to the golden harp on the cover of Irish passports and Celtic symbolism. However, it also refers to the hymn tune of the same name.
From the get go in this volume’s foreword, the reader is introduced to the golden thread which runs throughout. That being the question of identity.
Specifically, not just how identity can vary within families (though they both bear Irish first names, the author is Welsh, whilst his cousin sees herself as English) but also how Edwards is seen by others in his own family and the wider community.
The catalyst for the book’s journey was the Brexit referendum result and a determined unwillingness on Edwards’ part not to be stripped of his Welsh European identity, through the loss of his European citizenship.
His initial reactions to the referendum result certainly mirrored my own at the time. However, unlike this reader, the author did have a path back to European citizenship. That being Irish nationality by descent through his Grandma.
However, rather than take it for granted, Edwards questions his right “…but did I feel Irish, enough of an Irishman to apply?” “I was partially of Irish descent on Mam and Dad’s side, but what other Eireannach links and attitudes were within me? I’m of Irish descent, but do I, a black man who’s never lived in Ireland, share their cultural identity and heritage as well?”
He resolves to answer these questions.
As we accompany the author on his journey, the reader gets to know intimately the members of his family. With a few of them I found myself thinking “I know who they remind me of”. His Irish Grandma Doreen for example, reminds me of my half siblings equally devout late Grandma. I’m sure the two would have got on like a house on fire.
As I read the book I found myself at times laughing (the author and his brother Gwilym’s day in Ireland I must admit, had me in stitches. At other times though, I got quite teary, such as when the reader learns how the pandemic impacted the whole family early on.
Some old letters sent from Ireland to London, which Anne, the author’s aunt, doesn’t want to read herself as she’s concerned about the contents, (though her nephew is very keen), provide another insight into the family dynamics.
Speaking of Ireland, it was great to see Irish place names presented in Irish here for the most part (the only exceptions I noticed, Dublin and Ulster, were presented to the reader in Welsh.) I wonder what the rationale was for that decision?
I read with great interest the author’s familial complexity with regards its relationship with the British Empire. On the one hand, you have a grandfather’s time serving in Hong Kong (where Edwards’ father became a proud Welshman, courtesy of one particular teacher, and also began learning Welsh, as a friend of his father, from Ceredigion originally, was raising his daughter bilingually in Welsh and Cantonese).
On the other hand, then, the author has enslaved ancestors who had been taken to Barbados and a great grandfather who fought in Ireland’s war for independence.
As a mixed race individual, the author talks openly about the experiences and attitudes he’s had to deal with.
“Where are you from originally?” Edwards notes “feeling like an exotic animal on display” after he recounts an experience when a shop assistant in Eryri “goes to the back and calling excitedly to some woman ‘come here, there’s a black boy here speaking Welsh!’”
However, Edwards notes that he is “Black to white people. White to black people” and he also recounts how his uncle Peter questions his blackness “Black?! In London they’d look at you and tick the White English box”. Anne, his aunt on the other hand retorts that nobody would mistake their nephew for being white.
The reader gains an insight to the very obvious closeness between the author and his aunt, who accepted her nephew as black and it is with Anne, that he explores that aspect of his identity.
Identity and a sense of belonging is important to each of us. In Y Delyn Aur, the reader is treated to a candid insight into the author’s exploration of the facets of his identity. The following quote made me ask quite a few questions of myself:
My grandfather hadn’t chosen the name Taff for himself. This reminded me that we can change direction, but not the context of our birth. Not the location or period. We can change our name but not the identity of our parents or the community we were raised in. There are aspects of our identity which we can pick and choose – but the majority of our identity is inherited. And I felt, I’m from Taff’s Well – a Taff – and wherever I go that will never change. And I’m proud of that.
Accompanying this rollercoaster account are stunning black and white photographs, giving the reader a very much appreciated extra dimension into locations discussed within Y Delyn Aur, such as a photo of the author, his wife Celyn and his brother Gwilym in Paris in June 2016, around the time of the catalyst which sets Edwards on his journey to obtaining Irish citizenship, to events much further back in time, such as a photograph taken on the wedding day of Agnes and Peadar, the author’s maternal great grandparents, in 1930.
On the subject of history, Edwards has also included his family tree on both his mother’s and father’s side, going as far back as the 1860s and 1820s respectively and including details of where each family member was born (Ireland, Wales, Barbados or London).
If there’s one positive thing to come out of Brexit, it’s Y Delyn Aur. I couldn’t possibly recommend this book highly enough.
Seeing as it’s coming up to that time of year, if you’re wondering what to get the bookworm in your life, you couldn’t go far wrong here.
A word of warning though, this book will definitely have you thinking about your own identity!
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