From an Acorn Comes the Oak: The Roots of Cymdeithas Madog
gan/by Sian Thomas
It must have been early in 1977 that Wyn Evans, then-minister of Dewi Sant United Church, Toronto, phoned to tell me that someone was organizing a Welsh course, and he expected me to sign up. I don't recall being given any choice in the matter. God works in mysterious ways. . . .
Poultney, Vermont came into my life like the bells of Cantre Gwaelod, ringing in the sea. Stories took shape of Welsh quarrymen of the last century imported--lock, stock, and families--to work the slate quarries. Ah, the romance! Now, in the dying embers of America's Bicentennial, the good people of Poultney had committed themselves to one last Bash--a Welsh course in celebration of their past.
Staff of Green Mountain College worked with Ann Cowie, a Welshwoman living in Baltimore, and the idea became reality. John Albert Evans, a well-known teacher of Welsh to adults, was brought over from Wales and Maldwyn Pate, a Welsh dancer working in New York, was signed on as back up. Publicity was circulated to all Welsh societies, and people like Wyn Evans all around North America took it from there!
What a gamble! Students showed up for that first-ever North American intensive course--enough for two classes. Most of us were rank beginners; anyone who had so much as heard the language before got slotted into the advanced class!
We sweated and we slaved. Half the problems arose, not so much from vocabulary and grammar, but from cultural differences. "Please, John. How do you say I've got a book?" "Mae gen i lyfyr." "But, John, that's - There's a book with me. How do I say, got?" Or when John would wheel suddenly on one of us Canadians screaming, "Quick, in your second language, what's *horse*?" And, being well-programmed Canadians, we replied, "Cheval." Miles away, Trudeau had goose bumps of joy.
OK. So the learning curve was steep for both teachers and students. But, oh, we didn't half laugh!!!
There was a bar in the village--I hope it's still there--and we went there to sing, relax, and use our Welsh every night. The first night, a generously proportioned young man was sitting at the bar in baseball cap and T-shirt. We started singing in Welsh. He leapt from his barstool and ran out the door, much to our shock. (Could we be that bad?) Twenty minutes later he burst through the doors followed by a man obviously his father wearing baseball cap and Cymru-Am-Byth T-shirt. Pops had been in the area's Male Voice Choir when it disbanded some decades earlier, and he stuck to us like glue throughout the week, sometimes in tears.
In this village, where the Language had slowly disappeared into the mist over the last century, small children still called old ladies, "Nain" as a mark of respect. One hot afternoon, many of us walked out to an even smaller village on the outskirts of Poultney to a small museum in an old chapel. There we saw Eisteddfod ribbons from 100 years since, all in Welsh. By the turn of the century, their inscriptions were bilingual. In 1977, there was no Eisteddfod at all. History in the making. This was the Course's heritage. Perhaps we did our bit to make it a living tradition once again. The Noson Lawen on the final night was open to the village. They laughed as heartily as the students did when I "got" John Albert Evans with a can of ReadiWhip in our sketch. (Oddly, John didn't. . . .) They listened as astutely as the renowned ethnomusicologist Phyllis Kinney lectured on Welsh folk music. They danced with us when Alexander Hamilton, an advanced student, played his accordion. And they all stood with us as we sang three national anthems to end the evening.
That week saw a rebirth, not just for Poultney, but for the Welsh language in North America, I do believe. Within weeks, five of us were in touch by telephone, discussing our hopes for continuing the work. Within months, Cymdeithas Madog was formed, and the future looked secure for a course in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1978.
Did we know where it would all lead? Probably not. Annual courses across the continent, local study groups, newsletters, scholarships, cultural grants - how could we have foreseen all this? The fact that Cymdeithas Madog is now a recognized institution on both sides of the Atlantic is testimony to all the volunteers, all the students, all the teachers who have contributed their own strengths since 1977. "Y fesen yn dderwen a ddaw." says the old Welsh proverb.
So, when Cantre Gwaelod's bells sing out this year, be there. Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And, as you return to your homes, start thinking how you too can play your part in making history.
Fel iar yn cario brechdan.
Like a chicken carrying a sandwich.