Welsh in the Rhondda – it was our language too
Continuing our series by John Geraint, author of ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, and one of Wales’s most experienced documentary-makers. ‘John On The Rhondda’ is based on John Geraint’s popular Rhondda Radio talks and podcasts.
Shwmae? Did you go to the Welsh School? Did you send your children there? Are your grandchildren at Welsh School, perhaps? I bet someone you know is. So many families in areas that used to be thought of as English-speaking Wales, areas like the Rhondda, have an active connection with the Welsh language nowadays, and that’s great to see.
Back when I was in Junior School things were a bit different. On St. David’s Day, the girls would get dressed up in Welsh hats and shawls, the boys might wear a small cloth leek, we’d have a short Concert and sing Calon Lan maybe, and then we’d dash out of school for our half-day off – and that would be that, as far as Welshness was concerned, for the rest of the year.
Of course, it would have been different if I’d been at the Welsh School… ‘the Welsh School’ – it’s an odd phrase, isn’t it? I mean all the schools in Wales are Welsh. But back then there was only one Junior School in the whole Rhondda that taught in Welsh – Ysgol Gymraeg Ynyswen.
And when the Ynyswen children got to secondary school age, to continue their lessons in Welsh they had to be bussed out of the valley down to Rhydfelen, beyond Pontypridd.
It’s fair to say that many Rhondda people thought that sending your child to Rhydfelen was posh, and a bit snobby. But then people said that too about where I went, Porth County Grammar School, so who am I to talk?
In Porth, we were given the choice of two languages to learn – Welsh or French. French was a proper modern language, a language with a future, the Common Market and all of that. So almost all of my class decided to try to ‘parler français’.
But I was a contrary so-and-so. I chose Cymraeg. I reckoned I’d have a flying start with Welsh. After all, I’d been born in Llwynypia, been brought up in Penygraig, lived in Tylacelyn, gone to school in Hendrecafn, played in Penmaesglas, on Craig-yr-Eos and Carncelyn.
String all those place names together and you’d have practically passed the O level Oral Exam without trying! And the English we spoke, though we might not have realised it, was full of Welsh too.
“There’s a bwgibo up that gwli!”
“Duw, don’t talk twp, myn, and gi’s an ansh of your apple.”
When I got to my O level year, the set poem for group recital in the Urdd Eisteddfod turned out to be Y Ffynhonnau. It means something like ‘The Mountain Springs’, I suppose.
It’s an epic poem, all about the Rhondda, by local minister Rhydwen Williams – a kaleidoscope of the Valley’s long history, coal mines and boxing booths, chip shops and sarsaparilla fountains, chapels and the Holy Well at Penrhys, all done by a chorus of voices speaking proper Rhondda Welsh, with a sprinkling of English phrases thrown in, naturally.
So it was natural for us in Porth County to have a crack at it. And it’s still one of my proudest achievements that we did it, we won First Prize in the Eisteddfod – we beat Rhydfelen at their own language… ‘their own language’ – there you go, another strange phrase.
We did think of Welsh like that, but it was our language too.
I was lucky in Porth County: I had a succession of brilliant and committed Welsh teachers – Berian Davies and Delyth John, Olwen Peters and Eleanor Aubrey.
Eventually, thanks to them, and a summer spent working on a couple of farms in Carmarthenshire, I became fluent in Welsh – well, fluent enough to make TV programmes in the language anyway.
Spirit of Rhondda
By then, Welsh had begun to flourish again in the Rhondda. There were five Welsh-language junior schools – Llwyncelyn and Bronllwyn, Bodringallt and Llyn y Forwyn in Ferndale, as well as Ynyswen – and a big Comprehensive in Cymmer. Welsh was popular now, not posh.
So, in 2002, this crazy idea came to me – how about making a film where that favourite poem of mine, Y Ffynhonnau got recited by every child who was at Welsh school in the whole Rhondda? There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them.
We could gather them all together on top of Penrhys where the poem begins and get them to recite it there. Madness!
But the great thing about working in television is that people are willing to do the daftest things if they’re going to be filmed. And once I managed to persuade the schools it was a good idea, the thing began to snowball.
The Pendyrus choir got involved. And the Cory Band. And loads of other top-class talents from the Rhondda: the actors Daniel Evans from Cwmparc and Judith Roberts from Ferndale; the wonderful folk singer from Treherbert, Siwsann George; and the legendary Penygraig rock guitarist, Tich Gwilym.
And all sorts of other performers – dancers and swimmers, Treorchy rugby icon Adrian Owen, Huw Davies (who taught me English!), Italian café owners and a man who kept champion racing pigeons. Clydach Vale’s Glyn Houston – a veteran star of TV and film – wanted to be part of it, too, though he didn’t really speak much Welsh at all.
But we gave him a few short lines, and he had such presence on the screen that he became a really big character, the retired miner who represents the very spirit of the Rhondda.
Vital and thriving
So there we all were, a thousand strong, one summer’s morning, processing across Penrhys, behind the Maerdy Miners Lodge Banner, and the Treorchy Comprehensive school band.
Chances are, if you’re from the Rhondda, and depending on your age, you might have been with us, or your nieces and nephews were, or little Gareth or Sian from down the street, who’re all grown up by now. After all, it was twenty years ago.
The film made a bit of a splash at the time. We had a grand Premiere – just like Hollywood – in that grand Rhondda auditorium, the Park and Dare, in Treorchy.
The place was packed out. And when – up on the big screen – those hundreds of children, all of them Welsh speakers, stood in front of the statue on Penrhys, up above the Spring and the Holy Well, and they began to chant the poem’s most famous line, “Mae’r ffynhonnau’n fyw!” (“The mountain springs are alive!”), it really did feel like we were all part of something vital and thriving; and that Welsh, too, was a language of the future right there in the Rhondda.
John On The Rhondda’ is broadcast at about 3.15pm as part of David Arthur’s Wednesday Afternoon Show on Rhondda Radio
All episodes of the ‘John On The Rhondda’ podcast are available here
John Geraint’s debut in fiction, ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, is available from all good bookshops, or directly from Cambria Books
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