Dylan Thomas, a lemon, a World Record and Men in Dresses

Dylan ThomasI discovered a work by Dylan Thomas recently, that was totally new to me. Apparently he wrote the screenplay to an unremarkable film called, Rebecca’s Daughters. Despite having Peter O’Toole and Paul Rhys in the cast, the film has deservedly disappeared without trace. The interesting contribution it made to history was that it took 44 years from the time it was completed by Dylan Thomas in 1948, until its release in April 1992, which remains a world record for the longest time a screenplay has taken to be filmed.

What annoys me about the film is that it was a comedy. It was loosely based on the Rebecca riots which took place between 1839 and 1843 in mid and south Wales. Those riots were born out of poverty and injustice and were anything but funny. 

From 1815 Wales, like the rest of Britain, experience a post-Napoleonic war slump and agricultural prices remained volatile for many years and many farmers were unable to produce their crops profitably. At the same time a series of rent rises caused many farmers to lay off agricultural workers.  The rural counties of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire experienced a major increase in population during that post-war period from industrial workers who have had been laid off and returned to their rural roots[1].

The first of three situations which culminated in the Rebecca riots occurred in 1834 when an amendment to the Poor Law created workhouses – a degrading institution housing the poorest members of the community unable to support themselves and requiring them to do pointless manual labour.

The second factor causing anger in Wales and contributing to the riots was a government requirement to pay tithes – a tenth of a man’s income – to the established Anglican Church. As the population was almost universally Non-conformist, this was particularly resented at a time when prices were falling and people were living at subsistence level. An Act in 1836 allowed tithes to be calculated on grain prices averaged over the previous seven years. This led to an increase of 7 per cent in tithes at a time when farming incomes were at 50 per cent of their pre-war level.[2]

However, the main powder keg that exploded in south and south-west Wales related to the numerous toll gates encountered by farmers moving around their area in order to service their farms. Historians are agreed that a chaotic system in operation throughout Britain was particularly inefficient in Wales where they were numerous and operated over small districts. Even on relatively short journeys, farmers might encounter a number of toll gates, particularly near larger towns like Swansea and Carmarthen. Those who had to make longer journeys in order to buy lime to use as fertiliser, for example farmers in northern Pembrokeshire who travelled to the south for supplies from the kilns, were particularly disadvantaged by a multiplicity of tolls they had to pay on their journey.

Rebecca RiotsOn 13 May 1839, a newly erected toll gate at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire was wrecked by protesters. Although the owners rebuilt the gate, a mob of 300-400 met together on the night of 6 June 1839 and destroyed the gate again. The protesters had assembled under the identity of ‘Daughters of Rebecca’ or ‘Children of Rebecca’, many with blackened faces and wearing women’s dresses. From this beginning incidents of destruction of toll houses and toll gates began to spread westwards across the county and into Pembrokeshire. However, after a month the disturbances largely ceased and there was a quiet period until winter 1842 when a much greater wave of protests started affecting trusts in both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen. By 1844 the Rebecca rising had come to an end.

[1] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p.139

[2] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p146

North Wales’s University of Revolution and the Other Easter Rising

Easter means many different things to people. In Ireland at Easter, people think of two risings: the Christian resurrection and a different rising which happened 99 years ago at Easter 1916. It turned out that Wales was to play a major part in the aftermath of that aborted rebellion against British rule.

By 1916, many Irishmen grew tired of the failure of various Home Rule Bills in the British Parliament, the latest of which was the Government of Ireland Act 1914, which would have given limited home rule to Ireland. It was never implemented due to the outbreak of the First World War despite the efforts of Welsh minister David Lloyd George, then Minister for Munitions. On Easter Monday 1916, an insurrection took place in Dublin mounted by Irish republicans with the aims of ending British rule in Ireland and establishing an Irish Republic. The uprising was swiftly and brutally crushed by British military forces and 15 of the leaders of the uprising were executed.

Michael Collins

On 10 June 1916, Michael Collins (left) and more than 1,800 other Irishmen who had been captured following the Easter Uprising in Dublin, arrived at an internment camp in the tiny village of Fron Goch*, three miles from Bala in North Wales. None of the men had been charged with any crime and when it became clear that large numbers had been wrongly arrested, some simply being in the wrong place at the wrong moment, the number of detainees gradually reduced to between five and six hundred.

Internees at Fron Goch campThe camp was housed in a former whisky distillery which was made bankrupt in 1910. At the beginning of World War I, it was used as a prisoner of war camp for German prisoners who were subsequently relocated, except for a few who were too ill to be moved, to accommodate the large number of Irish prisoners. Initially, there were two camps at Frongoch; the South Camp and the North Camp. The South Camp was based in the former whisky distillery while the North Camp was a few hundred yards up the road in the direction of nearby Capel Celyn. Capel Celyn was another blight on the history of Wales when it was submerged, against the will of local people and all Welsh MPs, to form the reservoir on the river Tryweryn in1965. The North Camp was no longer used routinely when a major release of prisoners took place in June and the remaining prisoners were all located in South Camp. However, it continued to be used to confine prisoners charged with discipline offences.

Despite questions being asked in Parliament about the status of the prisoners, they were not properly treated as prisoners of war. For instance, POWs could write letters (subject to censorship) and they would not require a postage stamp. This privilege was not extended to the Irish prisoners. The censors of the camp were disadvantaged in that some of the incoming mail was written in Irish and prisoners were placed in the farcical position of having to translate their own letters aloud for the censors!

The Irish prisoners had considerable contact with Welsh people working at the prison camp and they were both inspired and impressed by their love for their language. One Irish prisoner, Batt O’Connor recalled,

“We marvelled at the fine national spirit of those men, and their love for their native tongue, that they should have been able to preserve it, and they living alongside the English without even a bay between.”

Many of the Irish protesters were highly educated men and started classes in the Irish language and also in Welsh, Spanish, French and even Latin. Welsh was a popular subject, second only to Irish. Many of those interned were ashamed that they could not speak their native language and one of the key leaders of the Easter Rising, Michael Collins, was a keen student of Welsh obtaining a dictionary from John Roberts, a 16-year-old who worked at the camp who subsequently became a great friend of Collins.There were also classes in bookkeeping, mathematics and shorthand. as well as in many other subjects for all those imprisoned at Fron Goch. It’s encouraging to think that Wales may have played a part in a renaissance of the Irish language.

Most significantly, because the men were left to their own devices during the day, it gave Michael Collins and the other leaders the opportunity to train men in guerrilla warfare and military strategy. Subsequently, Fron Goch, became known as ollscoil na réabhlóide – the University of Revolution or sometimes Sinn Féin University. In fact, it was at Fron Goch that the name Irish Republican Army was used for the first time, instead of the Irish Volunteers or Irish Citizen Army.

The prisoners were treated badly in Fron Goch. The food was particularly poor and the barracks were run by an authoritarian commandant. The camp was plagued by rats, there was inadequate heating as summer moved to winter and prisoners were not supplied with adequate blankets. There were a number of conflicts with the authorities at Fron Goch, on one occasion when they attempted to force prisoners  to clean the British guards’ quarters. The prisoners refused and several were taken back to North camp where they lost all privileges. There was a long stand-off but eventually the authorities capitulated and the men were sent back to the main camp. Another attempt was made to undermine morale when the authorities stated that although the Irish were exempt from conscription, those who had lived in Britain would not be exempt. Fortunately, the ludicrous position of forcing men into an army which they had already fought against was realised and the proposal was not followed through. The primary reason, though, was that the men had gone on hunger strike and a local doctor reported that because of the poor diet at Fron Goch many would not survive.

Public opinion was very much against the internment of the Irishmen and on the day after he became Britain’s first and only Welsh-speaking Prime Minister, 23 December 1916, David Lloyd George signed the order for the men to be released and all were back in Ireland for Christmas. History has shown that Fron Goch was a huge blunder and in Michael Collins made the point that the Irish were trained in military tactics at England’s expense. Thirty of those detained would go on to become TDs in the Irish Dail (Parliament).

Wales’s own Guantanamo Bay turned out ultimately to have created a huge problem for the British Government 60 years later.

Next year there will be huge celebrations in Ireland to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising and I hope that there will be a ceremony at Fron Goch to mark this significant Welsh connection with Irish history.

-oO0-

Further reading:

“Fron-Goch Camp 1916 and the birth of the IRA” by Lyn Ebenezer (Pub Garreg Gwalch, 2012)
“Frongoch: University of Revolution” by Sean OMahony (Pub TDR Teoranta, 1987)
“With the Irish in Frongoch” by W J Brennan-Whitmore (Pub Mercier History, 2013. Reprint of 1917 original.)

BBC Piece on Fron Goch
Some documents related to Fron Goch
Irish TV programme about Fron Goch on YouTube

*Fron Goch is the usual Welsh spelling for the village, but it is alternatively written as Frongoch or Fron-Goch in other documents.

The Future of Wales in a Broken Britain

general-electionSince 1970, which was the first year I could vote, I am proud to say I have voted at all 11 general elections and seen nine prime ministers come and go. The 2015 general election, however, is the first one I haven’t been excited about. I predict that it will produce confusion, division and weaken the United Kingdom hugely. 

In Wales, we have a number of choices of political parties – all of which are deeply flawed. As a committed socialist, I don’t believe there is an option that is good for Wales. My “in-depth” analysis of the options on offer are as follows:

  • Conservatives – a bunch of self-interested political elite, financially insulated from the realities of life that working people face. They are incapable of making policies that affect the vast majority of the population who live from month to month.
  • Liberal Democrats – an ineffective bunch of lying politicians who are not to be trusted with any promises more demanding than to get up in the morning abd who will vanish almost without trace anyway at this election.
  • Ukip – A bunch of racist, homophobic, bigoted Tories in another guise who make up policy on the hoof and who have no understanding of the implications of quitting the EU. They seem to forget that the open borders requirement is mandatory for countries like Norway who are not members of the EU but have a trading relationship. Deputy Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, said at a meeting in Porthmadog recently, “We are one country, the majority of people in Wales speak English, if people come here they should learn English.” Not the best way to win Welsh votes!
  • Green Party – I would have some sympathy with this broadly socialist party who have some good policies but no skill or experience (remember the leader’s recent radio debacle). The heart of the problem is that parties that are born out of a single issue attract people from left and right of centre but founder when their membership has conflicting ethos. Plaid Cymru has the same problem. The Greens are almost invisible here in Wales.

After dismissing four of the parties, we are left with Labour and Plaid Cymru which I believe are the only parties that offer anything for Wales. Unfortunately, I’m uninspired by both of them.

  • PartiesLabour – I have been a member of the Labour Party for many years and am clinging on by my fingernails, but not for much longer. I shudder to think what Nye Bevan and James Keir Hardie would make of today’s wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, appeal-to-all-people policies and their willing embracing of austerity. They support renewing Trident at a cost of £15-£20 billion, despite foodbanks having to deal with record numbers of clients. If the predicted rout of Labour in Scotland takes place, they will be decimated and I wonder if they will ever be a truly national party again.
  • Plaid Cymru – again, they declare themselves to be a socialist party, but I don’t see a great deal of evidence of this. They have three MPs at present and may pick up a seat in May. The problem is that they will only have a handful of MPs and in a hung parliament they may be able to do some good in a coalition. However, this is where my fear of divisiveness comes in. With a large SNP presence plus a few Plaid members and the strident Unionists from over the water, the national parties will require huge concessions which will contribute towards divisiveness and cause many English people to question if they really do want to be part of a United Kingdom. Plaid up here in its heartland is very negative towards non-Welsh speakers in general and England in particular.

As an aside, was a total advocate of proportional representation until I realised that it would mean that Ukip would have a lot of seats and that thought fills me with horror. Now I am not quite sure whether I think it’s a good idea or not to ditch the first past the post system. At least that will spare us from more than a handful of Ukip fruitcakes. Whatever happens in May, we are going to have a government which two-thirds of the population does not want and England is going to be full of resentment at the concessions that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will demand.

I’m going to keep banging the drum for the need for the UK to move towards a federal system, devolving almost everything except foreign policy and defence to the nations. We can but dream.