My father was a Welshman, “the only living Welshman who can’t sing”, he often said, sadly. He was born in Conwy, North Wales, a town famous for the crenellated castle within which walls his grandfather owned and ran the Grosvenor, a bakery, confectionery, and catering business, in the early years of the last century.
Dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg efo Duolingo, which is to say, I’m learning Welsh with Duolingo. It seems determined to catalogue the obsession a character named Owen has with pannas, parsnips. He wants to buy them in Norway, eat them in New York, he eats them like a greedy bear. He even wants silver ones!
My mind wanders from Owen and lands on pannas being a root vegetable, a vegetable with Welsh roots so to speak. This leads me to my own, which I treasure as gold and silver, and have had to travel far and wide, in reality and online, to dig up.
Pulling Welsh roots
Dad was born in a part of Conwy called Gyffin in a brand-new housing project his grandfather, long-time town councillor and three times mayor, had worked many years to bring into being. But when Dad was nine the family moved across the estuary to Llandudno.
Dad said it was because of the shame he brought on the family when a rowdy classroom of children, taking advantage of the teacher having stepped out, were tossing a banana around with great gusto. He had the misfortune to be the one who heaved it just as the teacher came back. You can guess the rest.
A good story, but more likely they moved because my Grandad, my Taid, got a teaching post in Llandudno, eventually becoming Headmaster of St George’s School. He served at one point in a high position in the National Union of Teachers.
A much-faded newspaper clipping shows him with Prime Minister David Lloyd George during a visit to North Wales. For many years, on family outings such as the Sunday afternoon drive, we sang to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers” the endless loop “Lloyd George knew my father, father knew Lloyd George” until someone gave in.
Dad joined up when war was declared, his father’s war having turned out not to be “the war to end all wars” after all. He joined the RAF and his group was sent to Western Canada, where he met and married a civilian secretary, then was sent back to Britain. His wife followed in a huge convoy of ships, at least one of which was sunk by German torpedoes.
She was headed for the Llandudno home of her new father-in-law, his second wife, and their young son. She sent them a telegram saying, “Arriving on the train today”, having no idea that, unlike in her Canadian home, many more than one train arrived each day. They took turns meeting trains.
After being sent with ‘liberation troops’ to Germany, Dad was demobbed. Jobs were scarce for returning servicemen, and a position with the Llandudno public library didn’t pay enough to support three, for I was on the way.
So they returned to Canada, seeing more opportunities there. My mother was five months pregnant on the passage. I spent much of my childhood thinking it served her right for being so sick on that voyage, depriving me of my Welsh birth.
As I grew, I yearned to know more about the country which was supposed to have been my birthplace. Dad bought and played recordings of Welsh Choirs, singing We’ll Keep A Welcome In the Hillside, Men of Harlech, and glorious hymns.
Of course, we heard Dylan Thomas, especially A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and hiraeth, be-longing, entered my soul and became my lifelong companion.
Throughout my childhood, letters would arrive occasionally, flimsy blue, magically folded air letters, from Dad’s Uncle Fred, long a postman in Conwy. Ironically, it usually took us a few days to decipher the tiny scratches that were his handwriting.
When Uncle Fred died he left a meagre fortune to my father, who decided to honour his memory by taking us on a trip to Britain. We stayed in the now-long gone Gogarth Abbey in Llandudno, famed for its connection to the Liddell family, their daughter Alice, and their friend who wrote of her adventures in Wonderland.
We walked on the Great Orme, visiting the gravesites of my father’s parents in St Tudno’s Churchyard. We climbed up towards Sychnant Pass. I felt so at home, as if the very cells of my body danced in recognition and joy. I returned alone the following year, exploring, returning to sit in St Tudno’s, glorying in the view, the sea air, the quiet openness and ancient-ness.
My father didn’t know his mother’s mother’s name, nor anything about his father’s parents. His father had told him, “Our family goes back to the Princes of Powys.” Probably a great many Welsh families make that claim! I became intrigued, then hooked and, even in the pre-internet days of tediously winding microfilms, writing letters with self-addressed envelopes and stamps, began to unravel mysteries and find treasures.
The Welsh do wander so
I don’t know about Princes of Powys, but Dad’s father’s maternal roots were in Owain Glyndwr territory: Glyndyfrdwy, Carrog, Corwen. The paternal side came from the lead mining area of Ysceifiog, Flintshire. Those forebears then moved west to Yr Wyddfa country, mining copper in Dyffryn Nantlle, then slate for the next generations.
I found, many years too late that, with unbelievable odds, my father moved to a Canadian city where a great-uncle had settled long before, being so proud of his Welsh heritage that he founded the Calgary Welsh Society. To this day, they call him Morris Bach.
I met one of his daughters, my Taid’s first cousin, about whom we had known nothing, living in a nursing home, with a memory sometimes good, sometimes not. She gave me a photograph of her grandparents, my father’s great-grandparents.
I discovered family in the USA, descendants of two of my Taid’s Uncles who emigrated from the slate mines of North Wales to those of Vermont and New York. My roots got deeper and longer, as far away as New Zealand. The Welsh do wander so. But I was contacted by a man in Caernarfon whose DNA matched mine, assuring me I still have relatives in Wales.
My father grew up speaking only English, being born after the time of the infamous ‘Welsh Not’. I knew just a few Welsh phrases, including Cymru am byth! (Wales forever!); y ddraig goch (the red dragon); cae de geg (shut up, shut your mouth); and ach y fi, an expression of disgust. I loved being called “Jill-bach” and cariad.
Now, thanks to my Welshness, I’m learning Welsh, very slowly, and with no-one to practise with. But I’m determined, while questioning the utility of “Mae clwb nos Owen yn gwerthu pannas”, Owen’s night-club sells parsnips. These are deep roots indeed.