Over the years at family dinners I’d heard snippets of anecdotes about our Welsh roots from my grandmother, Mary Jean (Smith) Madigan. The information I learned was intriguing, but I never really had paid much attention to figuring out littler details like who married who, and who came from exactly what city, and so on. Now, since I’m going to be engaging with Welsh poetry so closely, I suddenly became entirely compelled to have a straightforward conversation with my grandmother about our Celtic lineage.
Briefly, this is what I learned from my grandmother:
My Welsh great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann (nee Rees) Smith was born on March 6 1881, in Pontypridd, which was then County Glamorgan. Pontypridd was known for its coal mining within the Rhonda River Valley, located north of a town called Cardiff. Mary Ann had two sisters, Sarah and Blodwyn, and a brother, Gordon. Their family emigrated to Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, around 1890. This was where Mary Ann Rees married my great-great-grandfather, Robert Murray Smith, with whom she had 13 children.
Here’s where Pontypridd is located:
This is the “Old Bridge” of Pontypridd.
Pontypridd, or “Ponty,” as its locals have nicknamed it, is Welsh for “bridge by the earthen house,” a reference to the Old Bridge (pictured above) for which it is known. And my grandmother’s recollection was spot on: sure enough, Pontypridd is mostly known for its coal and iron mining. It is also the a center for coal transportation between the surrounding valleys, therefore making use of the port at Cardiff, the city that my grandmother mentioned. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontypridd)
Robert Murray Smith was born in 1871 in Cleator Moore near Penrith, in the North of England, which was a center for iron mining south of the Lake Country and Scottish border of Glasgow. (His mother, Isabelle Campbell, was Scottish.) The Smiths emigrated to Nanticoke in the late 1880s.
Here’s Cleator Moore on the map:
It turns out that my great-great-grandfather’s town of Cleator Moore was situated in a rich history. In the 1870s, for instance, Cleator Moore experienced sectarian turmoil between supporters of the Protestant Orange Order and supporters of Irish Catholics when Cleator Moore miners invaded Whitehaven, a nearby town, to attack the Anti-Popery leader William Murphy. Then, on July 12, 1884, the Orange Lodges of Cumberland marched through Cleator Moore to commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in a rebuttal against the Catholics. (The Battle of the Boyne was fought by the Catholic King James on one side and the Protestant King William on the other; William’s victory helped Protestants gain power in Ireland). (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleator_Moor & en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Boyne)
My grandmother grew up in Nanticoke among a large Welsh population in the mining towns close by. She sang in a Methodist church junior choir and remembers how the church’s Welsh director took the choir to sing in the Welsh Eisteddfod, a song and music competition, at the Edwardsville, PA, church.
Interestingly enough, Nanticoke’s history links to some of the Celtic economic and commercial trends. For instance, Nanticoke’s economy centered heavily on coal mining in the late nineteenth century, for which it used Welsh immigration labor. It seems that my family joined the surge of Welsh immigrants a little on the later side, for, according to the town of Nanticoke’s historical records, many Welsh came in the 1840s. Additionally, Nanticoke saw an influx of Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine. (Source: www.nanticokecity.com/history.htm)
Finally, I did a little research into what, exactly, an “eisteddfod” is. The Eisteddfod is a music festival taking place in Wales (North one year and South the next) to promote Welsh culture. (Source: www.eisteddfod.org.uk/english/faqs/). Eisteddfod refers to a group of people “sitting together;” in ancient times this gathering of people meant a group of bards performing in a search for patronage from nobles. Clearly, then, the Eisteddfod has been around for a very long time: it was first held at Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd’s castle in Cardigan in 1176! By the end of the nineteenth century, the eisteddfod was not only poetry but also a variety of folk celebration. The first National Eisteddfod was held in Aberdare in Mid Glamorgan in 1861, and in 1880 the National Eisteddfod Association was founded with the mission to make the Eisteddfod an annual event. (Source: www.abergavennyeisteddfod.co.uk/english/eisteddfod-tradition.php)
The Eisteddfod my grandmother attended was most likely the Cynonfardd Eisteddfod, held annually since 1889 in Edwardsville, as she remembers. In fact, many other Eisteddfods take place throughout the United States as well as the world! To me, this reflects not only the presence of the Welsh language globally but also the effort to champion it. (Source: www.herald-dispatch.com/news/putnam/x2070312859/Eisteddfod-a-centuries-old-celebration-of-song-and-poetry)
I looked around YouTube for a little while to find some samples from Eisteddfods in the past few years. The song this choir sang at the Genedlaethol Eisteddfod in 2013 was pretty catchy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I93uN3awODE
And here’s a bit of Welsh folk dancing at the Swansea Eisteddfod in 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIOS19WzEZM
YouTube has tons more of Eisteddfod samples, should you want to explore more. Enjoy!