This summer has swept up storm of attention for the Welsh Government’s Year of Legends, thanks to the Iron Ring debacle at Flint Castle. How a Welsh Government minister – along with the Arts Council of Wales – sought to celebrate Wales through a symbol of our subjugation is beyond me. Thankfully, the plan to build a rusty crown has been put ‘on hold’, but it shone a light on an interesting quandary. How do we in Wales define ourselves, and how familiar are we with our own history?
We Welsh-speakers are immersed from an early age in the legendary tales of the Mabinogi, and related stories from all over Wales. There’s the enigmatic lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, and the tragic tale of Rhys and Meinir at Nant Gwrtheyrn. Over the years Harlech Castle has been the setting of countless re-tellings of the epic story of Branwen, and Bendigeidfran the giant, her brother.
These tales are ingrained in our DNA, and form the basis of our day-to-day lives. We do not tend to question the fantastical elements; after all, our national flag bears a picture of a dragon. On occasion, however, it is healthy to challenge the myths, to see if they stand up to scrutiny.
One popular myth – Cantre’r Gwaelod from the Ceredigion coast – is currently riding the crest of a wave. The drowned kingdom that – legend has it – lies not far from the seaside village of Borth, recently inspired ‘Seithenyn’, a fine North Walian craft ale. The legend also lent its name to one of New York’s hippest bars, The Sunken Hundred on Smith Street in Brooklyn.
So where better than Aberystwyth for a fortnight-long feast, to celebrate the local myth through theatre, music, and poetry? Under the artistic direction of Jeremy Turner at Arad Goch, the Far Old Line festival (which began July 21st, and continues until August 5th) has already proved a great success, incorporating community-based activities all over town. And as an ex-Geography, Welsh and Theatre Studies student at Aberystwyth University, I was drawn to an evening of discoveries, which promised to get to the bottom of the local legend, once and for all…
The Pink Ladies – Vivienne Vaughan (Mari Rhian Owen) and Susan Reynolds (Ffion Wyn Bowen)
BlAGur and AGwedd, two of Arad Goch’s youth performing groups
Eurig Salisbury, Hywel Griffiths, Sampurnaa Chattarji, Subhro Bandopadhyay and Nicky Arscott
Seeking Cantre’r Gwaelod was a ‘theatrical experience’, a psycho-geographical tour, and poetic pub-crawl around Aberystwyth. We were led by two ‘Pink Ladies’, the chatty ‘locals’ Susan (Ffion Wyn Bowen) and Valerie (Mari Rhian Owen), down to the basement of the Richmond Hotel. There, we were presented to two Welsh National Bards – one of whom, Dr Hywel Griffiths, is also a Geography lecturer, who specializes in the field of flooding. Both he and Eurig Salisbury – winners of the Crown, and Prose Medal, two main prizes at the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales – shared some insights into the original myth.
The story itself is a simple tale, based ‘many moons ago’. Seithenyn was the gate-keeper of Cantre’r Gwaelod, a fertile lowland between Llŷn and Ceredigion, that was constantly under attack from the Irish Sea. One day, he got very merry at King Gwyddno’s daughter’s wedding, and neglected the sea-defences. A storm came in from the west , and drowned the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod, and to this day you can still hear the church bells ringing under the sea.
Hywel Griffiths placed the tale in the context of rising sea levels, and invited other poets – from India and Wales – to share their own experiences of climate change; the sandstorms of Calcutta and monsoons of Mumbai offered interesting parallels . He also invited Eurig Salisbury to share details from the original text, the Black Book of Carmarthen, which dates from the mid-13th Century. The Middle-Welsh poem placed the blame for the flooding on a femme fatale – the enigmatic Mererid, and not Seithenyn.
We walked on, past the Prom – where members of local theatrical troupes BlAGur and AGwedd portrayed the endless, thrashing waves – as we were led to the buzzing Medina cafe. Once seated, we were treated to the Pink Ladies’ vocal talents, as they sang Welsh sea shanties, that are popular to this day. We were also presented with an absorbing mini-lecture by Sioned Llywelyn. A PhD student in the Geography Department, she sought to explain the legend’s local landscapes. These included Ceredigion Bay’s (recently celebrated) underwater forest, and the startling Sarn Cynfelyn, a naturally formed ridge which runs for many kilometres into the sea.
As a geographer thoroughly versed in empirical facts – and in a way, the villain of the piece – she insisted that without archaeological evidence, we must accept that Cantre’s Gwaelod is only a myth. Boo hiss!! But she did not succeed in putting a dampener on the eve, as we swayed onwards towards one of the town’s oldest pubs. At the Old Black Lion – or Yr Hen Llew Du, established in 1700 –the Armagh Rhymers, a Northern Irish theatre troupe, entertained the crowd with Fiddle and Celtic Pipes.
Following other contributions, Hywel Griffiths brought this thought-provoking theatrical event to a close with a poem dedicated to his first-born daughter. He promised, through his work and love for his land, to protect her from all incoming forces. A call to arms perhaps, from the perspective of the Sais. But for the Welsh, in his eloquent, soft-spoken way, he reached back in time to an age of legends, and spoke for us, one and all.
Has my un-wavering faith in this popular Welsh myth been rocked by these new revelations? Not at all! If we are, as a nation and language, unable to consider a critical take on ourselves, then we really are lost at sea. Thanks to this community-based event that gave voice to other cultures, my belief now is water-tight.