Tributes to Siôn Eirian (1954-2020), poet, playwright, novelist and screenwriter
Tributes have been paid to Siôn Eirian, the gifted poet, playwright, novelist and screenwriter who passed away this week at the age of 66. Brought up in Flintshire, he attended primary and secondary school in Mold before studying drama and Welsh at Aberystwyth University. Subsequently, he attended what was then the Welsh College of Music and Drama, becoming a Fellow. Hard-working, iconoclastic and constantly explorative, Siôn Eirian pioneered in many ways. He was the youngest winner of the Crown at the National Eisteddfod, wrote the first police procedural drama for S4C and authored the first urban novel in Welsh. His considerable legacy of challenging, engaging and probing work includes over twenty plays and a substantial body of TV drama and film.
Jim Parc Nest (James T. Jones), poet, dramatist and former Archdruid
I came to know Siôn when I joined the BBC Cymru drama department in the early 1980s, chock-full of dramatists such as Gwenlyn Parry, Michael Povey, Dewi Wyn Williams and the playwright-editor par excellence William Jones (Wil Sir Fôn); and in the adjacent light entertainment department, another dramatist, Rhydderch Jones, would often cooperate in dramatic productions.
Siôn was already an acclaimed poet having won the crown at the 1978 Cardiff National Eisteddfod at the age of 24. His winning series of poems primarily engaged in the experiences of a Welsh adolescent in the late 1960s. The work is autobiographical, and addresses, with a notable directness of style and refreshing honesty, the problems of Welsh identity, sexual relationships and world peace in a nuclear age.
I already knew Siôn’s parents well, Jennie and Eirian, both, in their different ways, political and cultural Welsh national leaders. Jennie, as a young, radical Plaid Cymru candidate in Carmarthenshire paved the way for the ground-breaking Gwynfor Evans victory in 1966; she was later to become the editor of the periodical, Y Faner, providing its readership with fresh initiatives for the rebirth of Wales as a nation seeking a new self-confidence. Eirian, a Calvinistic Methodist minister pioneered a philosophically humorous style of poetry as well as nurturing a bohemianism which challenged the traditional manse way of living and thinking.
Siôn inherited, and was influenced by the radicalism of his parents. It developed into a rebelliousness which characterised his work, both as poet and playwright. In his crown winning entry he personifies himself as a ‘young ram / butting the furniture of his environment / by kicking sparks from the ground / when seeking a gap in the hedge’ (hwrdd ifanc / yn topi celfi ei amgylchedd / gan gicio gwreichion o’r pridd / wrth chwilio am fwlch yn y clawdd).
His anti-establishment stance eventually became one of the main hallmarks of his dramatic tragi-comic legacy in both English and Welsh. In order to organise the spectacle of the Eisteddfod crowning ceremony the winning poet has to be informed before-hand to ensure his/her presence, with the proviso that the information must be a guarded secret until the actual ceremony.
In Siôn’s case, the Gorsedd Curator, Gwyndaf, was to inform him. (Interestingly, Gwyndaf, the youngest ever winner of the National Eisteddfod Chair was destined to meet the youngest ever winner of the Crown!) Gwyndaf’s chosen practice was to adopt a cloak and dagger visit. About two months prior to the 1978 Cardiff Eisteddfod, on a Sunday morning, around eight o’clock, Gwyndaf, in his Sunday best, and with an Anthony Edenesque hat, rang the doorbell of 42 Oakfield St. Roath, Cardiff. It gave Siôn and Erica, who were having their usual Sunday morning lie-in, quite a start. Siôn quickly donned his dressing gown and rushed downstairs. Gwyndaf, tilting the rim of his hat as low as possible, trying to make himself invisible to an empty, sleepy Oakfield Street, asked Siôn whether he could have a quiet word with him.
He was led upstairs to a spacious lounge with a settee and various easy chairs. (Eventually, as our friendship developed over the years, I would come to enjoy countless hours of both Erica and Siôn’s generous hospitality in that particular lounge. On my very first visit I was kindly warned not to sit in one chair in disrepair, having collapsed under a heavier than normal gentleman.)
A rather flustered Siôn, in the presence of such a distinguished officer of the legendary Gorsedd of Bards, was relieved to hear Gwyndaf accept his offer of a cup of tea. But as soon as he vanished into the adjoining kitchen to put the kettle on, Siôn heard a loud crash, and having rushed back to the lounge, was confronted by a spread-eagled Gwyndaf with his Sunday boots flailing frantically in the air. Luckily, no injury ensued from the accident, and after the offering and accepting of apologies, and due order and dignity restored, the messenger was able to convey his glad tidings.
This anecdote provides one with the perfect metaphor to illustrate Siôn’s relationship with the establishment, both socially and politically. From the very beginning of his creative career he was a destroyer of idols. That responsibility has always remained a challenge for the creative artist. Siôn accepted this challenge with enthusiasm and courage. His loyalty to the truth has ensured that his work will endure.
As a tribute to Siôn, and to offer my sincere condolences to Erica, his dearest friend, and his loyal brother Guto, I have tried to encapsulate both my gratitude for his friendship and my admiration of his genius in an englyn. Death cannot destroy the irrefutability of Siôn’s drama.
Taran ei theatr ni thewir; a mellt
fflam ei wên, ni rewir;
y mae gwneud a gweud y gwir
mwy’n ddrama na ddirymir.
(The thunder clap of his theatre isn’t silenced; nor is
the lightning flame of his smile, frozen;
the practice and expresSiôn of truth,
henceforth, will be an irrefutable drama)
Eiry Thomas, actor
I have known Siôn and Erica for 30 years. I was aware of Siôn’s work, and was thrilled to meet him in the early 90s when our professional lives weaved between The Sherman Theatre, and Pete Edwards’ TV company Lluniau Lliw.
Our paths crossed a lot, and we became friends and neighbours. We live across the street, and would stop for a chat and a gossip: politics, rugby, plays. He was the gentle poet who very kindly fed our cats whenever we were away.
It was through his work I got a deeper sense of who he was and how he saw the world, and over the last decade I have been incredibly fortunate to have been given several opportunities to explore Siôn’s work, in English and in Welsh. Pen Talar for S4C, Garw for Theatr Bara Caws, and later two translations/adaptations of Saunders Lewis’ plays with Theatr Pena: The Royal Bed (Siwan), and Woman of Flowers (Blodeuwedd).
Theatr Pena came together in 2008. We were a group of friends with a shared love of classic plays, and a drive to explore them. The company was formed and led with incredible dedication, passion and skill by Erica Eirian for 10 years. We wanted to create opportunities for women in theatre and put them centre stage. Siôn was very supportive of the company and when we struggled to find classic plays that explored female stories and experiences, he very generously gifted the company his Saunders Lewis’ adaptations and translations Siwan and Blodeuwedd. They were true to the originals, but he had miraculously and seamlessly breathed beautiful new life and poetry into them. New characters too, putting women at the centre of the action.
I feel very lucky and privileged to have known and worked with Siôn, a modest man, I was in awe of his ability with words on the page and his intellect. He was a craftsman. His scripts were so deftly crafted: once delivered, they were never changed or questioned for clarity or meaning. Each word was carefully considered and placed on the page with care.
As an actor you knew you were in very capable hands.
Siôn had a deep understanding and passion for Wales, for politics, and his work often examined the social and economic conditions that mould us. This is why I love being an actor, the pleasure of immersing yourself in a world, real or imaginary, and learn how the world works, and how people in it tick.
I loved doing Garw, set in a valleys’ town, mid-1980s, it wasn’t about the miner’s strike, as you might expect, it was a human story about an ordinary family grappling with a changing world. I felt as if I was in a Welsh language Miller, or Tennessee Williams play. Big ideas, big themes. The rhythm of the language, the dialogue and longer speeches were brilliant to do. His scripts gave you something to think about, rooted in fact and truth, you knew the world he had created had been immaculately researched, and thoroughly thought through, and the language revealed the character’s innermost fears and desires, so tenderly and beautifully.
His staggering dedication to his work has always impressed me, always writing, researching, thinking.
He was a quiet presence if he came to rehearsal, usually on day one, to give us a bit of background, always unassuming, knowledgeable, wise. Always enthusiastic and encouraging, and with such good judgement. The bar was set high, and I think we as actors always worked hard to rise to that standard.
Alun Wyn Bevan, writer and broadcaster
1954 was a notable year for several reasons. It was the first time Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece Under Milk Wood was aired on BBC radio with Richard Burton as ‘First Voice’; in May of that year Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road in Oxford and Aneurin Bevan, after a period of disagreement and dissent, resigned from Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. In ’54, children in the USA were vaccinated against polio, the first Burger King opened its doors in Miami and it was the year Marilyn Monroe walked down the aisle with Joe DiMaggio. It was also the year two literary greats were born – the 1998 Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro and Siôn Eirian.
Siôn’s arrival in the Gwter Fawr (the original name for Brynaman) was low key – delivered fast asleep in his carrycot on the back seat of his parents’ Morris Minor. The Rev. Eirian Davies was a Methodist minister who had recently accepted a calling to oversee the flock at Moriah Chapel. The Chapel Manse was at 22, Bryn Avenue (later renamed Erw Fyrddin by Eirian and Jennie) and this is where the family lived happily for the next eight years. In addition to his pastoral duties, Eirian was also a gifted poet who in his ‘off-duty’ time loved boxing and wrestling!
It was my good fortune to live at 24, Bryn Avenue, next door to the Eirian Davies’s. Although six years older than Siôn, we established a camaraderie which existed until the time of his passing. Not only were we good friends but the friendship also extended to our parents. Later on holidays in the north of Wales became a regular occurrence.
The walls separating our two homes were wafer-thin so that very often a tap, tap from next door heralded a time to get up or a time to meet in the back garden. Another benefit of living next door to Jennie was that occasionally we were the grateful recipients of one of her famous sponge cakes – she would have given Mary Berry a run for her money! Baking was one of her many and varied skills. In fact, in 1957 she was the prospective parliamentary candidate for Plaid Cymru for the Carmarthenshire Constituency.
It was a sad day when the family (who were now four; Guto having been born in 1958) moved to Mold. At times like these connections can become tenuous but not in our case. We continued to keep in touch and even as family members were lost, Siôn, Guto and I maintained our friendship.
When Guto rang with the news of Siôn’s passing, it took a while to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer with us. As I reflected on our times together, one anecdote sprang to mind. I remember arriving home from school one day to find an ambulance parked outside Erw Fyrddin. Being an inquisitive three-year-old, Siôn had decided to try putting his hand through the bars of an electric fire. The fact that this was red hot was, in his mind, of no consequence. You can imagine the panic in the household and the pain he must have endured.
His sense of curiosity, of pushing the boundaries was something which stayed with Siôn throughout his life and it was often reflected in his work. Had he been born the other side of Offa’s Dyke or in the United States, Siôn Eirian’s name would have been revered and recognised worldwide. His talent as a poet, writer, dramatist and scriptwriter was second to none – equally prolific in both Welsh and English languages.
Equal to his love of words was his love of sport. Influenced by his father’s passion for combat sport he often used to recount how he and Guto on Saturday afternoons, energised from watching Les Kellett and Mick McManus on their TV screens, used to indulge in a little wrestling of their own on the living room floor dressed in flimsy underwear. With Eirian taking over Kent Walton’s commentary role it more often than not ended in blood and tears!
I like to think that it was my own father and I who introduced Siôn to rugby. Shortly before the move to Mold, the three of us piled into our MG Magnette and set off one Saturday afternoon – destination Stradey Park. Llanelli were playing Aberavon, the place packed to the rafters and Siôn was mesmerised. The location, the noise, the crowd and the game itself had an effect which lasted throughout his life.
During the half time interval, together with scores of other children, we ran onto the field and joined the players huddled together munching their oranges and listening to captains offering advice. We hung on every word that was said then sprinted back to the Tanner Bank for the second half. And what a half it turned out to be! Brian Davies and Ken Jones between them created a magnificent try with the latter running some fifty yards to finish off a delightful move. We all stared in disbelief.
This love of the game continued throughout his life. Siôn and Guto were regular fixtures on the terraces (not in the stands with the Barbour Brigade) at Pontypridd, one of the less fashionable teams in the country. Without a doubt, Siôn’s early years, surrounded by the panoramic Black Mountains contrasting with the stark, black anthracite coal-tips became a part of his genetic make-up. It is no coincidence that he took the bardic name Aman Bach when he won the crown at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff in 1978.
Whenever we met up, his first words were always of the Amman Valley. He wanted to know how well the village team was doing and the latest news of his school contemporaries, Douglas and Mary. We then moved on to other news. Just over a year ago, a fund-raising campaign was launched in Brynaman. The grave of the poet Gwydderig had fallen into disrepair and money was needed for its restoration. A phone call to Siôn resulted in a generous contribution arriving on my doorstep the very next day. This was typical of the man as he always went out of his way to help others. No wonder the local taxi driver dubbed him, ‘Roath’s Mother Teresa’.
Again some twenty years ago Siôn was asked to write a piece about the boxer, Joe Erskine whom he knew as a friend. The words were crafted with feeling and I would like to include some of them here:
‘He was gentle mannered, sometimes overly polite and always effusively talkative… In reality Joe couldn’t have lifted a finger to harm a fly. He was like some affable old bear, so keen was he to befriend and humour all those in his company.’
He would be too modest to admit it, but they could have been a description of Siôn himself. He will be a huge loss to his wife Erica, his brother Guto and the whole family. Wales has lost a literary giant and a genuinely good guy.
Adam Price, Leader of Plaid Cymru
With roots that stretched from Brynaman to Flintshire Siôn was that rarest of phenomena: someone who could write with a voice and vision that was convincingly pan-Welsh. A pioneer in so many ways – of urban Welsh writing in Bob yn y Ddinas he was the first to bring LGBT concerns to the Welsh language stage in Wastad ar y Tu Fas. His last play, Yfory, crystallised the sense of bitter stasis and broken dreams that so many of us felt in 2016 and since, and yet the radical hope of a reimagined Wales still shone through. In small nations especially poets must double-up as prophets or political commentators. Siôn was the compete trinity, holding up a mirror to us all of who we are and what we might yet be.
Betsan Llwyd, artistic director at Theatr Bara Caws
This first time I saw Siôn was on stage in a school pantomime which he himself had written — me in my first year, he a 6th former — and as a frisson of tension rippled through the hall I became aware, even then, that this charismatic personality liked to push boundaries.
He continued to do this throughout his career, but not just for the sake of it — he was passionate about opening his audiences’ eyes to all sorts of themes and possibilities, and though he worked across all media, I believe theatre to be the one he enjoyed most, as this is where he was most free to have his own voice heard.
When I was appointed Artistic Director of Theatr Bara Caws our own artistic journey began in earnest, and what an enriching, fascinating, joyful journey it has been.
His true genius as a writer lay not only in the intellect and engaging discourse so typical of his work, but in the tangible humanity he imbued in each and every character, ensuring that the story was always kept ‘real’.
He was generous, kind and wittily irreverent – I will keep our e-mail threads for posterity!
William Owen Roberts, novelist and dramatist
Siôn Eirian was one of the dearest writers I have ever known. For years I thought about him as a poet, and particularly as the author of the remarkably fresh free verse poem that won the crown at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff in 1978. Some of the lines sing in the memory even now, about fierce swallows and tender Luftwaffe. Later he became a novelist to me, with the appearance of the stories of Bob yn y Ddinas. This was a novel that broke fresh ground by extending the range of Welsh language prose to encompass and discuss urban life and experiences. It was only later that I came to think of him as a dramatist. But the thing that most people will not know about him is that he was a committed trades unionist throughout his writing career. Together with Gareth Miles, Siôn established the Welsh branch of The Writers’ Guild over 30 years ago. He was incredibly faithful to monthly committee meetings and the general work of the union during all of these years. There will be a great loss with his passing.
Sharon Morgan, actor
I first met Siôn at the BBC in Llandaf in the mid-60s reading his poetry on the radio. I was 16 so he must have been about 12! This child prodigy went on to be a constant presence in the cultural life of Wales, challenging the legacy of the stifling narrow-mindedness of the Nonconformist tradition as a socialist and internationalist but always with his love for Wales firmly at the centre of his work. His novel Bob yn y Ddinas, that shocked the establishment, was only the beginning of a long and rich career of championing those Wastad Ar Y Tu Fas (Always On The Outside – the title of his play about gay relationships for Hwyl A Fflag).
I only worked with Siôn as an actor on a few occasions: at Theatr Clwyd in 1977, where he was the writer in residence, on the devised community show Sergeant Sarah’s Allstars, his accomplished adaptation of A Soldiers’ Tale for Music Theatre Wales (on Siôn’s recommendation) as Margaret Edwards the forensic pathologist on the very first episode of Yr Heliwr (Mind To Kill) and on the film Gadael Lenin in St Petersburg in 1993. The first was a bit crazy, the second a spectacular challenge, the third a brilliant job for a woman, and Gadael Lenin was extraordinary. It was my privilege to see it again, with Siôn and Erica, when it was shown at last year’s Iris Festival. It is the story of a young gay man on a school trip to a Russia on the cusp of change. It is about art and the artist and politics and freedom, and about being true to oneself, told with the utmost sensitivity and deep intelligence with a wonderful layer of humour, but most importantly, with heart. And this short list of when his and my professional lives collided, alone can remind us of the breadth of Siôn’s work in both languages.
Siôn and I were also part of the community of artists of the 80s and 90s that worked hard and played hard; when politics and culture intertwined as Wales took those first steps on the road to democracy, and I shall remember Siôn, always a gentle man, who weighed his words with care, at innumerable talks and gatherings, but maybe most memorably at Bill’s bar at the Sherman, in those days when it stayed open late into the night, and we were all part of something that meant something in the greater scale of things, although we didn’t know it at the time.
Endaf Emlyn, film director
I had the great pleasure of sharing the adventure of creating Gadael Lenin with Siôn Eirian in 1992, clothing the skeleton of an idea with the structure of a film, as the two of us ventured on a trip around a changed Russia. As the Soviet Empire had only just been dismantled, resulting in a complete lack of order and organisation, we were under a good deal of pressure, on a trip chock full of trials and discoveries. When the time came to start filming, in the middle of what was wild mayhem Siôn was always Stakhanovite in his work rate and clear in his vision, feeding us pages of script each and every day. It was a privilege to work with a dramatist such as Siôn, with his sure craft and swift mind and it was an equal pleasure to also get to know the man – warm-hearted, affable and to become his friend. There is a great loss after his passing.
Geraint Lewis, dramatist and short story writer
I’m sure others will rightly laud Siôn’s substantial achievements as a playwright, poet, scriptwriter and trade unionist. To that admirable list I would add the often unsung role of script editor.
Our paths crossed for the first time in a professional capacity when I submitted a script to the fledgling new independent TV company, Lluniau Lliw, in the late eighties. It was called Slac Yn Dynn, an unashamedly polemical series based on the dreams and disappointments of a young man, Ceri Morgan (Gareth Potter), who was on the dole in Thatcher’s Britain.
Having achieved so much already, still in his early thirties, I was in awe of Siôn, so it was with great trepidation that I met him. I needn’t have worried. Grabbing my hand firmly, with a mischievous glint in his eye, he said ‘Ah, the young man who wonders where the fluff in one’s navel comes from.’
This was a reference to one of Ceri’s wry voice-overs. But it was also vintage Siôn, the epitome of unconventional charm, putting me at ease. It is a rare talent, the ability to bring the best out of others, but Siôn had it in abundance. Knowing that someone of his calibre would be supporting your material gave one immense confidence, freeing the imagination. Many years later, story-lining Pobol y Cwm together, he would often chuckle and tease me about the fluff in the navel. It became a running gag between us.
Unlike the fictional Ceri, Siôn didn’t just dare to dream, he made things happen. As well as being a highly respected practitioner he was a facilitator, an encourager of dozens like me. The whole community of writers in Wales will mourn his passing with great sadness. The world needs more Siôn Eirians. Hwyl fawr gyfaill. A diolch.