Saturday, 25 July 2015

8 Saunders Lewis

8. Saunders Lewis (photos: ‘The Royal Bed’ actress, Saunders Lewis) – 25 July 2015

University College Swansea was placed in a dilemma in 1937: a Welsh lecturer who was a pacifist had been imprisoned for nine months for arson – should he be re-instated afterwards?  His two fellow-conspirators – a teacher and a nonconformist minister - had been permitted to return to their jobs, but the Council of the University was evenly split over whether the lecturer’s contract should be renewed.  Then an armaments company threatened to withdraw its annual financial support for the University.

So by a vote of 13 to 12 Saunders Lewis was dismissed as lecturer in Welsh at University College, Swansea, where he had worked since the College opened in 1922, and he moved to Llanfarian near Aberystwyth.

Saunders Lewis was one of the outstanding Welshmen of the twentieth century, a co-founder in 1925 of what became Plaid Cymru, an eminent Welsh poet, dramatist, critic and essayist.  He was born not in Wales but in Wallasey in 1893, the son of a Calvinist Methodist minister.  He grew up in a Welsh-speaking family - at that time the Welsh community in Liverpool numbered as many as 100,000, with some speaking little or no English. 

During the First World War his father moved to Swansea, while Saunders Lewis served as an officer with the South Wales Borderers.  Influenced by the campaign for Home Rule in Ireland, at a public meeting during the 1923 Mold Eisteddfod he stated prophetically: “It would be a great blessing for Wales if some Welshman did something for his nation that caused him to be put in prison”.

After plans to site a R.A.F. bombing range in first Northumberland and then in Dorset had been thwarted by local opposition, in 1936 Pen-y-berth on the Llŷn Peninsula in north-west Wales was chosen.  It was an important area of Welsh heritage on the pilgrim route to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey).  The British government refused to receive a deputation, or a petition representing half a million Welsh protesters, and the historic Pen-y-berth farmhouse mentioned in mediaeval Welsh poetry was demolished.

On 8th September three senior Plaid Cymru members - Rev. Lewis Valentine, teacher D.J. Williams and Saunders Lewis - set fire to building materials at Pen-y-berth, before giving themselves up to the police.  The following month at Caernarfon assizes the jury failed to reach an agreement, and the trial was moved to the Old Bailey in London, where all three men were sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs.

Subsequently with a wife and daughter to support Saunders Lewis concentrated on writing plays, poems and political commentaries, drawing on the Mabinogion for material for his 1948 play “Blodeuwedd”.  In 1952 he was appointed a Senior Lecturer in the Welsh department of University College, Cardiff, and in 1962 he delivered the BBC Wales annual radio lecture “The Fate of the Language”, which was a major factor in the formation of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Cymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). 

His major 1956 dramatic poem “Siwan”, of which an English version entitled “The Royal Bed” was performed at the Taliesin Theatre in March, may be partly inspired by his time in Swansea.  It deals with the aftermath of an affair in 1230 between the wife of Llewelyn the Great and a William De Breos, of the family that held the former De Breos estates in Gower.  Similarly some of the 1930 novel “Monica” – deemed controversial in those times – is set in Newton. 

Although Saunders Lewis’s association with this area may have ended nearly fifty years before his death in 1985, this eminent Welshman’s connection with Swansea is maintained in the Saunders Lewis Memorial Fund, established in 1989 to acknowledge his contribution to the literary and cultural life of Wales             


No comments:

Post a Comment