Blog - Story of Wales

‘Y Plygain’ in Wales

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 20-12-2019

Once autumn has bid a fond farewell and each and every one has started to complain that it’s cold, it’s the perfect time to visit Montgomeryshire. Why? Well, to sing the old ‘plygain’ carols – not in a concert or an eisteddfod, but rather as part of a service that occurs as a natural part of society in both church and chapel, throughout the Advent and Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles or Candlemas) on the 2nd of February.

Apparently the word plygain stems from the Latin pullicantio, ‘cock’s crow’. Originally, the service was held at 3 a.m., before being brought forward to 4, then 5, and then 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, plygain was one of the services of the Catholic Church, but it was subsequently adopted by the Anglicans, and then at a later date, the Nonconformists. Today, the service is mostly held in the evening.

The service commences with the Evening Prayer (in a church) or a short service (in a chapel). Then comes the declaration ‘Mae’r plygain yn awr yn agored’ (The plygain is now open), which means that it is open for anyone to present a plygain carol. Children open the plygain, followed by young people, then a party from the church or the local area, followed by those who have travelled from afar; should there be more than one local party, then one of them will close the plygain. There is never a programme. The carol-singers, both individuals and parties, make their way through the large congregation down to the chancel or the elders’ pew, pitch a note with a tuning fork, and then sing unostentatiously. The carol-singers decide on the order of the evening to ensure that no two soloists or duets follow each other, and to ensure that the items are varied.

All of the singing is informal, without a conductor or leader. Participants must remember the order of the first half so that the same order is followed during the second half (or the second cycle), and they must also remember which carols have been sung to ensure that none are repeated. At the end, the men who have already presented a carol are called forward to sing ‘Carol y Swper’ (the Supper Carol) together. At their best they are truly mesmerising.

The season’s first plygain is magical experience, as the singers come together once again after another busy year. There is a profound friendship amongst the carol-singers and the supper that follows the service is a very important part of the evening.

We are extremely grateful to the folk of Montgomeryshire and adjacent areas of Gwynedd – Mallwyd, and Llanymawddwy especially – for succeeding without fail to uphold the tradition over the centuries. This is still the plygain’s stronghold today. However, the old carols were sung across Wales at one time, and the tradition is starting once again and enveloping large parts of the country.

Traditionally, the parties were members of the same family, for example ‘Parti Bronheulog’, and would practice at home. The carol-singers have a book of family carols, and only members of that family can sing those particular carols.

‘Parti Bronheulog’ singing the Plygain carol ‘Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore’

Today, with so many moving away from the communities where they were born and raised, many of the modern parties are new parties, based on friendship rather than lineage and blood.

It is possible that the custom of singing carols at plygain services was started by the carol composers of Glamorgan in the 16th century. The custom spread throughout Wales, bringing sermon and song to the parishioners, conveying the teaching of the Righteous and the order of Salvation in Christ, as well as His birth, His death and His resurrection. It is not uncommon for some of the old carols to contain twenty and more verses, and to be steeped in the theology of salvation. However, by the twentieth century, the flame of the Great Reformation having faded, the carols are not so consistently intense in their content.

Many of the carols were sung on tunes popular at that time, and the Welsh measures used include ‘Ffarwel Ned Puw’, ‘Clychau Rhiwabon’ and ‘Difyrrwch Gwŷr Caernarfon’. And it wasn’t just the Welsh measures that were popular; English measures were also used, including ‘Charity Mistress’, ‘Let Mary Live Long’ and several ballads. Another tune sung often at the plygain is ‘Annie Lisle’, an American ballad composed in 1857 by H. S. Thompson, Boston, Massachusetts.

Powerful lyrics, beautiful melodies, the company of friends and a scrumptious supper. What else could anyone want on a cold winter’s night?

Dr Rhiannon Ifans

Salem and all that …

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 06-12-2019

When I first wrote about Sidney Curnow Vosper’s painting Salem in the magazine Planet in 1988, I could take it for granted that almost all of my readers would know something about the story of the picture, or at least be familiar with the look of it. The big coloured print still hung on the wall in many a grandparent’s house. That’s why I felt confident about coining the term ‘National Icon’ to describe it. But, about five years ago, teaching art history to a first year undergraduate class at Swansea University I got a shock. None of the class recognised the picture when I showed it, and none of the students had heard of it. The national icon had disappeared from the consciousness of this rising generation.

It was, perhaps, not the disappearance itself but the speed of the disappearance of Salem that was most surprising. After all, the living presence of the picture in the culture had been reinforced in every generation between its creation in 1909 and 1997, when the magazine Golwg reinvented it as a cover image during the devolution referendum campaign of that year. The magazine doctored the picture to show Sian Owen leaving the chapel with her fingers crossed – presumably on her way round to the vestry to vote ‘Yes’.

Created as an image of picturesque religiosity among the Welsh people, Salem originally presented a reassuring message of national docility intended for sale in the English art market. If all had gone according to plan, it is unlikely that more than a few Welsh people would ever have seen it. However, the purchase of the picture by William Hesketh Lever, MP, and its banal use by him in the form of a poster to promote the sale of his company’s Sunlight Soap, put the picture in the public domain and created the potential for the subsequent transformation of its meaning. Although the initial mechanics of the transformation remain obscure, by the 1920s the picture had acquired a new narrative among a different audience. The ‘discovery’ of the face of the devil in Sian Owen’s Paisley shawl stimulated the reinvention of Salem as a parable of the sin of pride. That said, I don’t suppose any but the most puritanical of Christian believers took that morality tale seriously – surely, it was the magical nature of the revelation of the face in the shawl that appealed. It was a story that had more in common with the Mabinogi than with Nonconformity, notwithstanding its promotion in a poem by T. Rowland Hughes, written during the dark days of the Second World War, as a work of Christian devotion. It was revamped again in a meditative mood, with a heavy dose of ruralist hiraeth, for the cover of an Endaf Emlyn LP in 1974. Going up-market, the painter Hywel Harries modernised it in a sort of Cubist-cum-patchwork quilt oil painting.

The failure of the 1979 devolution referendum changed the atmosphere, but in the period of political activism that followed, Salem was again powerfully reinvented. ‘Deffrwch y bastads. Mae Cymru’n marw’ – ‘Wake the bastards up. Wales is dying’ – was the slogan surrounding the image on a pamphlet produced in 1989 by Cymdeithas Cyfamod y Cymry Rhydd. The context was now the reaction against inward migration and the arson campaign against holiday homes. Subsequently, Sian Owen was deployed by environmentalists against the chemical multi-national Montsanto, based at Wrexham, this time making grotesque use of the myth of the devil lurking in Sian Owen’s shawl.

But that may well have been the end of the road for Salem as an active force in the culture. If the Swansea students are typical, perhaps the decline of the Nonconformist Christianity that was the picture’s original context, and the unfamiliarity of a social world based on chapel life, have eventually undermined its potential for redeployment. The National Library’s recent acquisition of the copy version of the picture has certainly reawakened interest in its history. This second version was painted for Frank Treharne James, a Merthyr solicitor and brother-in-law of the artist, who had been frustrated in his desire to acquire the original when the future Lord Leverhulme snapped it up for 100 guineas at a Royal Watercolour Society in London. But I suspect that the original Salem has now passed from the living place in the culture that enabled it to be reinvented unselfconsciously to meet the changing needs of the twentieth century, into a fascinating fossil. Sad as it may be, Salem exists now primarily as material evidence of a bye-gone age, an object of study by historians.

Peter Lord

Margaret Jones and the Art of Visual Storytelling

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 22-11-2019

In 1982, Margaret Jones received a commission from the Arts Council of Wales to illustrate Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi.(1) Through her lifelong love of mythology and folklore, she was aware that generations had grown up with an intimate knowledge of the characters in these culturally iconic stories, and she knew she could shatter dreams with a single pencil line. Voices from the past were warning her to tread softly.(2) She needn’t have worried. Through her imagination and skill as an illustrator and researcher, Margaret’s images have come to define Welsh mythology as much as the words of the ancient stories themselves.

Margaret was born in Bromley, Kent, during the ‘Golden Age of Illustration’, not long after the end of the first world war. She grew up inspired by the books of Arthur Rackham and the great illustrators of the early 20th Century. As a little girl, she drew on wallpaper, carved a face into the wooden mantleshelf, and sketched a man slipping on a banana skin. Every day she drew, all through her schooling in Birmingham and Southport, and her early married life in India. In 1954, she moved with her young family to Aberystwyth where her husband Basil had accepted a job as a methodist teacher. Passing through Tre Taliesin on the bus, she knew this was where she would raise her children, make puppet shows, and become an illustrator.

An exhibition of Margaret’s paintings at the newly opened Aberystwyth Arts Centre in 1979 led to a commission from Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru to illustrate a new edition of Y Mabinogi. This was her first book commission. She was sixty four, inspired, and apprehensive.

The manuscript arrived from the publisher. Margaret had learned Welsh from reading children’s books, using her eyes rather than her ears, for she found the written language much easier than the spoken. She had no contact with the writer Gwyn Thomas until the end of the project when they met at Yr Eisteddfod.

Margaret recognised that the characters in the stories lived in a real Welsh landscape. These are tales of the tribe, attempts to avoid conflict with Ireland in the Second Branch, of migration and displacement in the Third, and the cruel treatment of women in the Fourth. Margaret knew the role of an illustrator is to complement the text, not replicate it, so she included objects and images from the real world to enhance the magic.

She researched the costumes thoroughly until every shoe and brooch reflected the time, and she drew her own landscape. The picture of Manawydan catching a fish was drawn in Capel Bangor, while the animals and birds were influenced by Ladybird books illustrated by Ynys Môn wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe.

Like Rackham before her, she laid down washes of yellow ochre, prussian blue, or vermillion, which muted the colours painted over the wash, much to the displeasure of the publisher who demanded bright primary colours, as was the deluded fashion of the day. Margaret preferred to explore the darker boundaries between the sentimental and the grotesque, so she wrote to the Arts Council to tell them that Arthur Rackham would never have had this trouble.

The compromise was that she painted four bright introductory letters to each branch.

Margaret finished her paintings for Y Mabinogi in 1982 and it was published two years later after the usual ups and downs common to the book trade.

She went on to illustrate more books for the Arts Council, including her favourite Welsh story, Culwch ac Olwen, followed by Taliesin, which she imbued with her wry humour and understanding that there is an inherent wit and parody in some of these epic tales, which becomes clearer when the story is heard rather than read.

Maps were once seen as mirrors into the ancient world, so it was little surprise when Margaret produced her iconic map of the Mabinogion. This was followed in 1988 by a map of Welsh Folk Tales inspired by Robin Gwyndaf’s collection of stories in St Fagans Folk Museum, which were later published in ‘Chwedlau Gwerin Cymru / Welsh Folk Tales’. At the millenium, the National Library invited Margaret to illustrate a map of the life of Owain Glyndŵr. She even illustrated a map of Narnia which was never published. The National Library also have a set of 12 unpublished drawings for the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym which had been submitted to Gregynog Press as a calendar.

More tales from the folkloric world followed, Madog, Dewi Sant, Arthur, Twm Sion Cati, and her own story of the changeling Nat who leaves the fairy world for the industrial valleys. And she used her memories of her time in India just after partition to illustrate a set of Hindu Tales.

She won the Tir na n-Og Award in 1989, 1993, 2000, and 2003, then in 2008 she collaborated again with Robin Gwyndaf on Llyfr Datguddiad Ioan, which may yet be seen as her masterpiece, perhaps because the stories in the Revelation of John mean more to Margaret than perhaps any other. The book was published privately by Robin in 2008, and is an exquisite piece of work.

Margaret’s visual storytelling has become our eyes into Welsh mythology. Her understandable nervousness in those early days has been turned on its head. Her books inspire other artists and illustrators who are in turn imagining new visions of the ancient tales. And in her hundredth year, she fittingly takes her place alongside illustrators who define the visual mythology of their own countries, Arthur Rackham, Virginia Sterrett, John Bauer, Kay Neilsen, Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Lotte Reiniger, and so many more. And how fitting that the myths of Wales, known for the stories of Branwen, Blodeuedd, Arianrhod, Rhiannon, and Goewin, are defined by another inspiring woman, Margaret Jones.

Peter Stevenson

This is a brief extract from a talk on 20th November 2019 which places Margaret’s work in an international context of illustrators who define their country’s mythology.

(1) Thomas, Gwyn: Kevin: Y Mabinogi, (Welsh Arts Council, 1984)
(2) Jones, Margaret: It Came, To Pass (Apecs Press 20??)

Further reference

  • Cyflwyniad gan Robin Gwyndaf i hunangofiant Margaret Jones, (unpublished forewordto ‘It Came, To Pass’), 2007.

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The Moon-eyed People

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 25-10-2019

This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

A folk tale from Wales and Appalachia for Halloween

At the end of May 2019, an exhibition of Welsh folk art titled ‘Meddygon, Swynion a Melltithion / Curers, Charms and Curses’, featuring the work of eight illustrators, photographers, sound artists, doll makers, and crankie makers, went on show at the Monongalia Arts Center in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia. I had carried the artwork along one of the old nineteenth-century European migration routes, over the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains to the steel and coal city of Pittsburgh, and down the Monongahela River into Appalachia. Admittedly not in a storm-tossed schooner bound from Aberaeron or with belongings strapped to a covered wagon hauled by a pack-mule, but in a large backpack trolley on an environmentally unsound 747 and an overnight Megabus.

On arrival in Morgantown, I gave an in-depth interview about Welsh and Appalachian folk arts to West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s folklife reporter, Caitlin Tan, in the middle of which Larry, the cameraman, chipped in with an unexpected insight into the Mabinogion. He explained he had studied medieval linguistics at college, where he specialised in the ancient Welsh stories. At the opening night of the exhibition, Jesse Wright, head of WVPB news, filmed the entire event. A lady told me that her mother had organised a Welsh language eisteddfod in Morgantown until the early 1960s; JoAnn Evans from the St David’s Society of Pittsburgh gave me a bag of Welsh language vinyl collected by her father; the city museum discovered they had a pamphlet entitled Mining A career for Welsh Boys; Minister Bob Dayton from Pennsylvania performed the Snowdonia tale of Cadwaladr and the Goat with a bag full of sheep puppets. Something was stirring.

None of this was a surprise. I have family in Appalachia and I knew there were traces of the Welsh in the mountain state. Morgantown was founded by Zackquil Morgan, son of Morgan Morgan from Glamorgan, who arrived in what was to become West Virginia in the 1730s. The city graveyard is full of stones etched with the names Davies, Griffith, Evans, Jones, Williams, Price, and of course Morgan, yet there is little written evidence of their ancestors. It seems the forgotten Welsh vanished into the deep dark forests to become the lost Appalachians.

In the early 1800s, the Ceredigion commons were being bought by wealthy gentry, and the poor labourers who had farmed them for generations had little choice but to leave. They arrived in Appalachia as migrants and settled on land that was already lived and worked by indigenous people who were in turn forced to leave. By 1830, President Jackson’s ‘Indian Removal Act’ had become law, leading to the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee from Southern Appalachia.

Half the population died on ‘the Trail of Tears’ as they were marched under armed guard to Oklahoma. As the tears of the women soaked into the dry ground, a beautiful flower grew. The Cherokee Rose.

A hundred years later, miners and prospectors came to work in Osage and Scott’s Run on the outskirts of Morgantown, where Welsh was spoken alongside German, Spanish, Romanian, Greek, Italian and many more. The scrip system and company houses meant the colliers and their families were little more than objects owned by the mine owners – an injustice they thought left behind in Wales.

The Cherokee called the Welsh miners ‘The Moon-eyed People’, because they could see in the dark and lived underground.

Before the opening, little memory remained of the Welsh in West Virginia. After three or four generations, the sound of croaking frogs in the swamps and coal barges chugging along the Monongahela River had drowned out the Welsh language. Folks consider themselves Appalachian American now.

Yet their quiet voices have left a memory, not only in the coal culture, but in shared folk tales and folk arts. The exhibition celebrated the forgotten voices of the granny women of both Appalachia and Wales, who could charm, cure and curse, had remedies for every kind of ailment, and were treated with both suspicion and respect within their communities.

Beti Grwca of Cei Newydd was famed for her love potions, as was Nancie Gore, a Cherokee from the Ozark Mountains who loved horses, hated doctors, and had learned remedies from the old medicine men she knew. Agnes Dolan of West Virginia could cure fevers and curses by drawing a heart on a piece of paper and sticking it with pins, while Dark Anna of Llanfairfechan cursed by piercing a clay doll with her foster mother’s hatpin. A man in Clay County shot a raccoon in the leg and old Martha Pringle forever walked with a limp, while a farmer in Tregaron shot a hare with a silver bullet and a doctor pulled the same bullet from the leg of an old woman who lived nearby.

Both Appalachia and Wales share a tradition of quiltmaking. The exhibition features a blue and white quilt made in Oak Hill, Ohio in 1894, for the Rev. and Mrs J. Mostyn Jones, which includes the embroidered signatures of almost sixty Welsh women.

Folk tales and folk arts are archives of memories of those who carried knowledge and wisdom. They are our connection to the dead.

We remember them at Halloween.

Peter Stevenson

Adapted from

  • Stevenson, Peter: The Moon-eyed People, Folk Tales from Welsh America (Stroud, The History Press, 2019)
  • Stevenson, Peter: Chwedlau, Cwiltiau a Chranci / Stories, Quilts and a Crankie (Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, 2019)

T Llew Jones: King of Welsh Children’s Literature

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 11-10-2019

This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

One Friday afternoon, in a small school in the Teifi valley, a young boy was invited to the big children’s class to hear the headmaster read a piece of a story. The story was an exciting one. It spoke of a dark and stormy night and of a lonely tollgate in the country. The gatekeeper heard the sound of horseshoes approaching in the distance, and the rider calling ‘gate’. After venturing out to the gate, the rider handed him something – a parcel wrapped in a cloak – before riding off into the darkness. And what was in the parcel? The gatekeeper saw after returning to the house – a baby.

The young boy listening to this story was non-other than T Llew Jones. For some reason, he didn’t hear more of the story, but it left a deep impression on his imagination for a long time. Later, he learnt that the story was Y Golud Gwell 4557 (1910) by Anthropos (Robert Davies Rowland; 1853?-1944), but not before he’d written his own version and published it as Un Noson Dywyll (1973).

Excitement, romance, intrigue – these are the corner stones of the story mentioned above. These are also the cornerstones that feature often in T Llew’s children’s literature – in his poetry and his prose. This is the gentleman who used historical and semi-historical figures like the pirates Harry Morgan and Barti Ddu, and the highwayman, Twm Siôn Cati as his raw material. This is also the gentleman who created legends from his own life, with the poachers of Pentre-cwrt, the ‘Pishyn Padis’ gypsies and the adventures of the Cilie poets all a part of one larger colourful saga, which he used to entertain audiences of children and adults alike.

It’s easy to romanticise T Llew. He was a romanticist. In some ways, that honourable and heroic title bestowed upon T Llew – ‘Brenin Llenyddiaeth Plant Cymru’ (King of Welsh Children’s Literature) is just as romantic. But, bestowing such a title upon him highlights the magnitude of his contribution to the field.

In the period following the Second World War, the Welsh publishing industry was in a sorry state. In 1950, of the 100 books published in Welsh, only 13 were publications for children. Alun R Edwards, a librarian from Ceredigion, was all too aware of this crisis. In September 1951, he organised the first of a series of conferences during the 1950s in Cilgwyn near Newcastle Emlyn, with the intention of encouraging budding writers to create Welsh reading material for children. 48 teachers from the old Cardiganshire were invited to this special conference, and in their midst was T Llew – a young poet and headmaster of Tre-groes at the time.

In his biography, Yr Hedyn Mwstard (1980), Alun R Edwards refers to T Llew as ‘y pysgodyn mwyaf a ddaliwyd gan y Cilgwyn’ (the biggest fish caught by the Cilgwyn). He wrote these words at the end of his career, when T Llew had already claimed his place as one of Wales’ foremost children’s authors. T Llew died nearly three decades later in 2009, and between then and the first Cilgwyn conference in 1951, he published around 50 volumes – most of them for children.

As a teacher – in Tre-groes (1951-1957) and Coed-y-bryn (1958-1976) – T Llew was aware of the need to entice children to read, and the importance of exciting material which would educate and entertain. His stories Trysor y Môr-landron (1960), Corn Pistol a Chwip (1969) and Cri’r Dylluan (1974), which take pieces of Welsh history and turn them into adventures full of heroes and villains, belong to this category. His poetry for children – which was published in Penillion y Plant (1965) a Cerddi Newydd i Blant (1973) – venture out of the classroom to the great outdoors, and attempt to open the reader’s eyes to the wonder of the world around them.

In an interview for the magazine Llais Llyfrau in 1968, T Llew said that he felt “mai’r hyn oedd eisiau fwyaf ar blant Cymru oedd arwyr” (what Welsh children needed most was heroes). Heroes are created at a time of need. And in the Welsh speaking Wales of the twentieth century, there was a need for an author like T Llew Jones in children’s literature.

Endaf Griffiths

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Tryweryn masterpiece inspires a new generation to discuss its history

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 27-09-2019

This post is a part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

Every year, as part of the Education Service’s Outreach programme, a Masterpiece in Schools Day is held, when an original item from the Library’s art collection is taken to a school somewhere in Wales to be the focus of an educational workshop. In the last three years William Turner’s painting of Dolbadarn Castle has visited a school in Llanberis, and a series of Kyffin Williams’ artworks were taken to schools in Dyffryn Nantlle and Bro Lleu in Penygroes. These events are important because they are excellent examples of how the National Library’s collections can inspire a younger audience, and help them to learn about and interpret works of art and the history associated with them.

This year, guided by Sculpture Masterpieces in Schools Art UK (a charity aiming to promote works of art held by public bodies in Britain), we invited Ffederasiwn Cysgod y Foel – which includes Ysgol Bro Tryweryn, Frongoch and Ysgol Ffridd y Llyn, Cefnddwysarn – to participate in a project that focussed on one of the National Library’s most significant sculptures, Cofeb Tryweryn by John Meirion Morris. The sculpture was created with the intention of commissioning a full size version (30 feet tall) on the shore of Llyn Celyn to commemorate the drowning of the Tryweryn valley in the 1960s.

It was decided to invite Iola Edwards, a local artist and daughter of John Meirion Morris, to lead a session for pupils in Years 5 and 6. She visited the National Library to search our collections for artworks inspired by the story of Capel Celyn, which, alongside her father’s sculpture, would be used to prepare and provide suitable activities for the workshop.

On Thursday, 12 September, the sculpture was taken to the Bala area to be the focus for the day’s art workshop. The day began with an opportunity for the children of both schools to see the sculpture during the morning service.

To give some background to the memorial’s history, Iola showed the pupils some photographs taken by Geoff Charles. They tell the story of the drowning of Capel Celyn village, and the vigorous protesting that occurred in opposition to the plan.

The pupils’ first task was to study the sculpture’s form and make sketches of it, so that they could appreciate the dynamic shape of the bird reaching up from the water. They worked in charcoal that enabled them to leave a bold mark that flowed easily.

The children were given the opportunity to study the memorial very closely, and to see the detailed faces in the bird’s feathers. They discussed the feelings of the villagers that these faces represent, their sadness and their fears, all protesting against what was happening to them. After lunch the children went on to make 3D figures from paper showing faces shouting and screaming about the injustice suffered.

A part of the workshop looked at the village of Capel Celyn and the community that was lost under the water. Using their design skills, the pupils created an image of the village’s buildings, and made a collage of scenes of the area and the people using Geoff Charles’ photographs.

The last part of the workshop involved the pupils discussing how we remember the history of Tryweryn, and the iconic wall that stands near Llanrhystud in Ceredigion. Using the screen printing process, the children recreated the graffiti that has now been replicated at many sites across Wales.

This year’s Masterpiece in Schools Day was an opportunity for pupils to learn about and commemorate events that occurred a stone’s throw away from Ysgol Bro Tyweryn over half a century ago, in the presence of a sculpture created especially to commemorate the history. Under the guidance of Iola Edwards, the sculpture inspired a group of children to develop new art skills and create a mural as their own memorial to an extremely important event in the modern history of Wales.

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Rhodri Morgan
Education Service Manager

The Dictionary of Welsh Biography

Collections / News / Story of Wales - Posted 13-09-2019

This post is a part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

Developing an interactive timeline

Wales is a small but proud nation, a nation which has contributed more than its fair share of reformers, inventors and innovators to society. From Aneurin Bevan’s NHS to Edward George Bowen’s development of Radar, Wales’ contribution to technology and civilisation as a whole, should not be underestimated. And lets not forget, Wales too has entertained us with sporting greats, actors like Richard Burton and a plenitude of musical talent.

The Dictionary of Welsh Biography has for many years recorded the lives of our most celebrated people, so that we never forget their contribution to Wales and the world. Since 2004 all these biographies have been available bilingualy on the Dictionary of Welsh Biography website, and it’s regularly updated with new entries – over 5000 and counting.

In recent years, in a bid to make this resource as open and accessible as possible, the National Library has been sharing the data behind the website openly to Wikidata – a lesser known sister of the one and only Wikipedia, designed for sharing information as data, rather than prose, freely and openly with the world. Like Wikipedia anyone can edit and improve the data in Wikidata and we now have a rich resource of data about our 5000 VIPs. Wikidata lets us plot birthplaces on a map, it lets us connect data about people’s education with data for the schools and universities they attended, and we can see which other institutions hold relevant records, like portraits or archives.

Our volunteer team has also been busy using the Dictionary of Welsh Biography to create Wikipedia articles for the people, so that we effectively have two versions of every article – one a peer reviewed and carefully managed historical record, and the other, a community managed, constantly evolving article which anyone can contribute to and reuse freely.

Following the launch of a new website for the Dictionary of Welsh Biography last year, we secured funding to work with developers to add a new and exciting feature. Using the enriched data from Wikidata, and thousands of digital images from the library collections, we are developing an interactive timeline which will allow users to explore all 5000 people in the dictionary chronologically. Click on a person on the timeline and you will be able to see the relevant Dictionary of Welsh Biography entry and the Wikipedia article.

What’s more, the timeline will allow users to filter the records based on where they were born, where they were educated, their occupation and more. And these filters can be used in combination, so if you only want to see all the Footballers born in Aberdare, that’s fine! The Library has also carefully curated a timeline of important events in Welsh history which can be overlayed on the timeline to give more context to the lives of these people.

This level of interaction and customisation will help bring the dictionary of Welsh Biography to life. It will be easier than ever before to search and discover the lives of our most important citizens – the people who helped shape the story of Wales.

The timeline should be live later this year.

Jason Evans

National Wikimedian

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Welsh Identity, Symbols and the National Eisteddfod

Story of Wales - Posted 02-08-2019

This post is a part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

Dragons, harps, costumes and flowers: they all have something to tell us about the development of Welsh identity!

These symbols came to be essential ingredients when advertising anything ‘Welsh’, such as national events and traditional produce. Take, for example, Wales’s National Eisteddfod. Still held annually at the beginning of August, this festival; historically centered around literature, music, art and poetry, made a profound use of ‘Welsh’ symbols in its promotions.

Pageantry, symbolism and ceremony played an important role in a Welshman’s life during the 19th and 20th centuries. These customs fed into an effort to project Welsh identity, at a time when indigenous cultures were consciously displaying their distinctiveness.

In this blog, we will use the National Eisteddfod’s official programmes to show how meaningful symbols were used to project ‘Welshness’.

A brief history of the National Eisteddfod

  • The beginning: In 1176 Lord Rhys hosted the first known ‘eisteddfod’. He held two major competitions at Cardigan Castle; one in poetry, and the other in music.
  • A sudden decline: Similar tournaments were held in the 15th and 16th centuries. The phrase ‘eisteddfod’ was coined during this period. However, these gatherings declined during the reign of Henry VIII.
  • Revival: London based Welsh societies revived the eisteddfodic tradition at the end of the 18th century. Iolo Morganwg, inventor of the famous Gorsedd of the Bards ceremonies, played an important role in reviving the eisteddfod on a national scale by associating the Gorsedd with the institution.
  • Formalising the ‘National Eisteddfod’: At Denbigh in 1860 a Council and General Committee were elected to manage ‘Yr Eisteddfod’, a newborn national organization. The following year, at Aberdare, the first official ‘National Eisteddfod’ was held.

Popular symbols and their roots

  • The Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) is one of Wales’s most recognizable symbols. Believed to have been used by King Arthur and other Celtic leaders, it symbolizes Wales’s ancient roots and represents its formidable past warriors.
  • The Triple harp (Y Delyn Deires) is thought of as Wales’s national instrument. Used for centuries to accompany folk-singing, dancing and poetry recitations, the triple harp epitomizes Wales’s rich literary and musical heritage.
  • The Welsh Dress (Y Wisg Gymreig) was largely developed during the 19th century by a devoted cultural patron called Augusta Hall, or Lady Llanover. The most basic traditional Welsh costume consisted of a red woolen cloak and a tall black hat. Hall believed that such a custom would promote Welsh industries and identity.
  • The Mystic Mark (Y Nod Cyfrin), the symbol /|\ was devised by Iolo Morganwg. It represents the virtues Love, Justice and Truth. The symbol was widely used on Eisteddfod programmes and represented the Gorsedd’s presence at the event. The Gorsedd was once thought of as an ancient Druidic circle which glorified Wales’s rich bardic tradition.

Reviving Welsh Culture

The use of symbols on Eisteddfod programmes can be considered within a wider context of a general effort to revive Welsh culture. It is clear that such a movement looked to the past for inspiration and encouraged Welsh people to take pride in their heritage and history.

Elen Haf Jones, National Library of Wales

This blog post was created as part of the Europeana ‘Rise of Literacy’ project.

Setting foot in Patagonia

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 19-07-2019

This post is part of the Story of Wales series. Click on the Story of Wales category on the right to see all the posts. You can also subscribe to our blog on the right to receive weekly emails of all our posts.

A crowd of over 150 people on the deck of a ship surveyed the land that is to be their new home. It was Thursday 27 July 1865. The Mimosa had dropped anchor at last and the settlers waited eagerly to set foot in Patagonia.

It was almost exactly two months since they had begun their voyage from Liverpool docks, and it was a wonder that the venture had come this far. After years of negotiation with the government in Buenos Aires, the intention had been for them to sail to Patagonia aboard the Halton Castle, a ship twice the size of the Mimosa. It failed to return from its previous voyage and new arrangements had to be made. The settlers – individuals, couples and families from places such as Mountain Ash, Aberdare, Rhosllanerchrugog and Ffestiniog as well as Liverpool and Birkenhead – waited a month while the Mimosa was prepared for the journey.

As for the voyage itself, it began with stormy weather as they left Liverpool, there were strong winds on the way and other days when the sea was calm and the sun was scorching. Three children died on the ship and two were born, and there was a wedding too. Prayer meetings were held daily.

They had arrived in Patagonia despite all, and two leaders of the venture, Lewis Jones and Edwyn Cynrig Roberts, were there to greet them. Joseph Seth Jones, a 20-year-old printer from Denbigh aboard the ship, noted in his diary that Lewis Jones had come to them by boat and that he was welcomed with great joy. ‘His report was satisfactory in general and far beyond our expectations.’ he wrote, ‘He said that he had succeeded in the face of extraordinary barriers.’ The diary is a precious record of the voyage through the passengers, and it is held at the National Library.

A new chapter in the venture began with the landing in Patagonia; they would have to face another journey of 40 miles to reach the Chupat valley (later known as Dyffryn Camwy), not to mention the formidable challenge of making a new home for themselves in such arid and barren land. There would be times when the venture very nearly failed completely, but, to many people’s surprise, the Welsh language is still spoken in Patagonia today.

In terms of the number of Welsh people who went there (a total of about 4,000 by 1900), the story of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia is only a small part in the entire history of migration from Wales during the nineteenth century. Many more went to the United States and Australia, for example, and some of those people relocated again to join the community in Patagonia. But the fascination that surrounds Patagonia continues today and has brought attention to this chapter in the nation’s history. It stems from the romantic depiction of the South-American landscape, from the courage and persistence of the setles, and of course from the vision behind the venture: the desire to establish an independent state where the Welsh language was the primary medium for all aspects of life, including law, politics, education and trade. The ambition of the venture, both practically and ideologically, was both controversial and wondrous then as it is today.

The Library has materials available online to help you to discover more about the story of the Welsh in Patagonia. There is a selection of the 25 most important manuscripts relating to Patagonia, among them the diary of Joseph Seth Jones. There is also a list of books and articles on the Welsh settlement in Patagonia.

Dafydd Tudur,

National Library of Wales

Game of Thrones and Welsh mythology – what connects them?

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 05-07-2019

This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

The National Library of Wales is home to some of the key surviving manuscripts that contain some of the most influential texts in Welsh mythology.

These include the White Book of Rhydderch, within which we find the earliest version of the Mabinogi – the best-known tales in Welsh mythology.

Authors turning to Welsh history and mythology for their inspiration is nothing new. Just as Welsh coal powered the industrial revolution, our mythology has been mined by authors and has powered the boiler-rooms of some of the most popular fantasy series in the world.

The most high-profile of these is the Lord of the Rings, in which Wales has influenced everything from the Elven language, romantic unions between warriors and Otherworldly fair maidens, swords of destiny, and frequent journeys underground into Annwn-like subterranean regions.

The Harry Potter series, too, is full of parallels with Welsh mythology. I was particularly struck by the scene where the evil Lord Voldemort is resurrected from a cauldron in a plotline not too dissimilar to that of the Pair Dadeni, the Renaissance Cauldron, in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

The influence of Welsh mythology has stretched beyond the western world too – the Korean massive multiplayer game Mabinogi, which is based on the legends of the same name, has around 500,000 players.

The most high profile and lucrative fantasy series at the moment is, of course, Game of Thrones. The eight and final TV series has just concluded with more than 38 million watching the first episode. Two more books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, are still forthcoming and a number of spin-off films and series are no doubt in the offing.

There are a number of parallels between the Game of Thrones series and Welsh mythology and history, but here are a few that struck me while watching and reading.


Perhaps one of the most striking theme in the series is that of being under siege from an invading ‘other’ – in the case of Game of Thrones, the white walkers from ‘beyond the Wall’.

The closest analogue to this tale might be the walls built by the Romans to separate them from the Picts. But it also has parallels with how the coming of the Anglo-Saxon to Britain, which was portrayed as a punishment by God in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

Most notably, the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale had left themselves open to attack by acting immorally and quarrelling amongst themselves.

This is mirrored in how the different Houses in George RR Martin’s series weaken themselves during the War of the Five Kings, raping and pillaging as they go, not realising that a greater threat is on the doorstep of Westeros.

There are also parallels to British history in the way the ‘First Men’ who speak the ‘Old Tongue’ and worship Old Gods populate the peripheral parts of Westeros.

Meanwhile, the Andals from Essos, who have brought their ‘Common Tongue’ with them, have taken over much of the more fruitful, sunny and prosperous parts of the landmass.

‘My Kingdom for a dragon!’

George RR Martin has also confirmed that there are strong parallels between the plot of Games of Thrones and the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, in which Wales played a large part.

As with Game of Thrones’ Joffrey Baratheon, the Wars of the Roses included younger heirs to the throne – the Princes in the Tower – who were probably murdered so that another – Richard III – could seize the throne.

The role of Pembroke-born Henry VII, banished across the sea but out to seize the throne for himself, is taken up by Daenerys Targaryen.

As well as being of Welsh descent Henry VII landed in Wales and recruited military reinforcements there before marching to victory at Bosworth Field.

How are yew?

Trees such as the oak and yew were sacred to the Celts, as they are to the First Men who still worship the Old Gods in Game of Thrones.

It’s no coincidence either than the Weirwoods in the Godswood in Game of Thrones are white with red leaves. These are the colour of the supernatural in Welsh mythology.

When Pwyll comes across a pack of hounds at the very beginning of the Mabinogi – the Dogs of Annwn – they’re white with red ears.

The animal and tree-worshipping Children of the Forest mentioned often in Game of Thrones also have clear parallels with the Tylwyth Teg of Welsh mythology.


Incestuous sexual relationships, rape, and people turning into animals – Game of Thrones has all three in spades.

George RR Martin has however had a hard time topping the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.

After Gilfaethwy rapes his uncle’s servant, the powerful sorcerer turns him and his brother Gwydion into a pair of mating animals, first a stag and hind deer, then a sow and board, and finally a wolf and she wolf.

The two brothers mate as all three animals and have three sons, Hyddwn, Hychddwn and Bleiddwn (Stag-man, Tall-piglet, and Wolf-man).

In Game of Thrones, Joffrey is born of an incestuous relationship between his mother and uncle. Several characters can also take over the bodies of nearby animals.


There are continuous references throughout the Game of Thrones books and TV series to a war that happened in the past that installed Robert Baratheon as king.

The spark that set the war off was Rhaegar Targaryen’s (Daenarys’ brother) kidnapping of Edward Stark’s sister and Robert’s significant other, Lyanna.

Robert and Ned go after her, and this causes a civil war than brings down the Targaryen’s.

Some have pointed to Helen of Troy as the obvious inspiration – the face that launched a thousand ships.

But there’s a very strong similarity to the story of Branwen ferch Llŷr in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

Her mistreatment by the Irish King Matholwch sets off a war with Britain. Her brothers, King of the Britons Bendigeidfran and Efinisen, set off to save her.

As with Game of Thrones, there’s a very high body count. All the main characters are dead by the end of this war between Britain and Ireland, including Matholwch, Bendigeidfran, Efnisien, and Branwen.

What’s in a name?

A number of the characters in Game of Thrones have Welsh names which give some clue to their character or fate.

One of the most obvious is ‘Tyrion’ – whose name isn’t far from the Welsh word ‘Tirion’ meaning ‘considerate’.

The dwarf, although he can be cruel, is also one of the more sympathetic characters in the series owing to his own mistreatment.

However, the character of Bran Stark is the most obvious example of George RR Martin drawing inspiration from Welsh legend.

There are obvious parallels with the mythological figure of Bran, or Bendigeidfran as he’s known in the Mabinogi.

Bran in Game of Thrones develops psychic powers after being thrown out of the upper window of a castle and losing the use of is legs.

Bendigeidfran’s weak spot is also his legs and his own powers only grow stronger after he’s ‘killed’ with a spear to the foot.

Like Bran is carried around Westeros by Hodor, the Bran of Welsh mythology is carried around Britain before being buried on the White Hill (now the site of the Tower of London).


Game of Thrones is probably best known for the sheer amounts of gore and that too owes something of a debt to Welsh mythology.

Ramsey Bolton (played by Welshman Iwan Rheon) has a penchant for dismemberment that is very similar to Bendigeidfran’s villainous half-brother Efnisien.

The psychotic Efnisien likes nothing more than cutting ears and lips, crushing people’s heads with his bare hands, and burning small children alive.

Welsh history has also seen its share of violence. Some have pointed out the parallels between the Red Wedding, in which the Starks and the Tullys are butchered during a wedding hosted by Lord Walder Frey, and the Christmas Day massacre at Abergavenny Castle in 1175.

Them, the Norman Baron named William de Braose invited the Welsh chieftain named Seisyll ap Dyfnwal to a feast at his castle, before locking the doors and massacring him and his men.


It’s notable of course that while many people in Wales are familiar with these tales second hand from Tolkien, Martin and Rowling, but don’t realise their origins are Welsh.

There’s a lot of work to be done in Wales to get to know our own history and mythology. That’s why I wrote my third novel, Dadeni, in order to introduce many people in Wales to our own mythology.

If you haven’t done so already, visit the National Library or pick up a book about Wales’ history and mythology.

Who knows, it may inspire you to write the next Game of Thrones!

Ifan Morgan Jones

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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