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Was it a Good Friday when RS Thomas burned his cassock on the beach?

29 Mar 2024 5 minute read
Eglwys Hywyn Sant, Aberdaron by richardoyork is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Susan Fogarty, Pioneer Minister through Poetry, Church in Wales and Director of the RS Thomas & ME Eldridge Society.

This year, the birth and hence retirement anniversary of RS Thomas, the Welsh poet and priest, falls on Good Friday, 29th March.

It is said that when he retired at Easter 1978, he burned his cassock on the beach, below the medieval church in Aberdaron that stands sentinel above the shores of the Irish Sea.

Knowing what I do about RS Thomas, I think it highly unlikely that he would make such a public demonstration.

He would be much more likely to burn it in a spring-time “bonfire of the vanities” in the secluded garden of his vicarage.

I wonder if a reverse bonfire of the vanities was on his mind, as he burned the vestments of priesthood, disliking as he did all of the grandeur of the higher church with ostentatious vestments.

As he wrote in the Easter poem ‘Not the Empty Tomb’

“ …We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven…..”

RS Thomas at Aberdaron in 1970s

Called by God

He stated late in life “I was called by God to be a poet, I trained to be a priest”.

He set down the cross, that was his to carry throughout his ministry, he was now free to stride out and ascend to greater heights, closer to the presence of God who had often been far off and sometimes absent.

Many scholars, readers and admirers of his poetry say that this was the time of his best writing.

This was also the time when he became more visibly demonstrable about his views on causes related to Welsh Nationalist issues, such as demonstrations against the Tryweryn Dam in the 1960s and the establishment of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh Language Society with Saunders Lewis.

In 1976 he delivered the annual literature lecture at the National Eisteddfod at Cardigan, entitled Abercuawg, ‘Where is Abercuawg? I’m not certain that this is the right way of asking the question. I’m half afraid that the answer to that is that it does not exist at all. And as a Welshman I do not see any meaning in my life if there is no such place as Abercuawg, a town or village where the cuckoos sing.’

Unseen poem

Last August saw the National Eisteddfod on the Llŷn Peninsula, in close proximity to Aberdaron, during which the RS Thomas and ME Eldridge Society presented Aspects of RS Thomas with artist Sian Parry, broadcaster Jon Gower and Jason Walford-Davies, Co-director of the RS Thomas Study Centre at Bangor University.

During that conversation Walford-Davies produced an as yet unseen poem by RS Thomas, with the tantalising suggestion that “there were more where this came from”.

In the audience was the sub-dean of Bangor Cathedral Rev. Sion Rhys Evans, who set in motion the commissioning of some of these unpublished poems to choral music.

At 6pm on Good Friday, Bangor Cathedral choir will perform the premiere of Yr Oedd Gardd ~ There was a Garden, composed by Alex Mills using the unpublished poems by RS Thomas.

It will be live-streamed on Bangor Cathedral YouTube Channel.

Celtic Cross at St Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, Gwynedd, Wales (Credit: Wiki Commons)

Spiritual writers

This year is the 10th Annual RS Thomas & ME Eldridge Poetry and Arts Festival in Aberdaron.  The theme this year is Spiritual Writers inspired by the title of the soon to be published Anglican Spiritual Writers of the 20th Century, in which there is a chapter on RS Thomas and another on Jim Cotter, the first general secretary of the Gay Christian Movement, and former priest-in-charge and advocate of Thomas’s poetry in his parish.

There will be presentations on these two prominent figures by Mark Pryce and Nicola Slee, feminist theologian and also on William Williams Pantycelyn and Ann Griffiths, two of Wales great spiritual hymn writers by Nathan Munday.

This coincides with the publication of M Wynn Thomas’s Poems from the Soul: Twelve of the Great Hymns of Wales, some of which will be performed in St Hywyn’s Church, above the shore of Aberdaron.

Prophetic poems

The musical connection between Thomas’s poetry and choirs will be taken forward into 2025, as the Brecon Choir Festival marks the 25th anniversary since his death.

They are dedicating the theme of their Festival to RS Thomas and his prophetic poems dealing with ‘the machine’ and the impact of technology on our lives. Nothing could be more relevant and contemporary in this age of artificial intelligence.

People often wonder aloud “What would RS Thomas have thought about the idea of an annual poetry and arts festival in his name and that of his wife the artist ME Eldridge?”

I wonder what he would have made of Google and instant access to the fact that Good Friday was in fact on the 25th of March in 1978?

The 29th of March 1978 may not have been Good Friday when he retired, but it was certainly a very good Wednesday in Easter week when his cassock smouldered somewhere within the vicinity of Aberdaron.

RS Thomas & ME Eldridge Festival 13 -16th June 2024 www.rsthomaspoetry.co.uk.


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Another Richard
Another Richard
11 days ago

It would certainly have been very odd (to put it mildly) if a priest had chosen to conclude his ministry on Good Friday, two days before the celebration of the Resurrection, the central and defining event of the Christian faith.

Richard E
Richard E
11 days ago

This lauding of RST is just so off the reality of his impact in the community he settles in. His lack of interest in our language . local state or church education and culture- non of which he bothered to pass on to his public school educated son.

Being a talented English language poet for sure but someone who sets themselves apart from the host community just compares with the love the Llŷn folk had for near neighbour Jan Morris whose English language writings and local connection to cultural and artistic local events contrast so much.

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