Ben ’Blow’ Whelan: An Irish Life in Wales

This is a transcript of a tape recording made in March, 1976.

It is divided into 4 parts

Part 1

Q: Mr. Blow, could you give me your name and address, please?

BBW: Benjamin ‘Blow’ Whelan.

Q: Address?

BBW: Tŷ Clyd – Home for the Aged – Bargoed.

Q: Mr. Whelan, where and when were you born?

BBW: Waterford, Ireland. 1893.

Q: What was your principal occupation?

BBW: Mining.

Q: Mining?

BBW: Mining.

Q: Here in Bargoed Can you give me the names of your parents?

BBW: James Whelan, and Sarah Whelan. They were born in Ireland – Mullinavat.

(Although quite close to Waterford City, Mullinavat is in County Kilkenny – Ed.)

Q: Their occupations?

BBW: Father – colliery labourer. Mother – housewife.

Q: Your father was a colliery labourer? Was there mining going on in Ireland?

BBW: Oh no.

Q: Where was he a labourer? Where was your father a colliery labourer?

BBW: Bargoed colliery.

Q: Oh, he came to work here also?

BBW: Oh ye yes, yes.

Q: Fine. When and why did your parents move to this area?

BBW: Come from Ireland to work.

Q: When?

BBW: 1899.

Q: Why did they come here?

BBW: For work.

Q: Why did they leave Ireland – there was no work in Ireland?

BBW: No work in Ireland.

Q: Why did they pick this area. Why didn’t they go to London or? Why didn’t they go to England or Scotland?

BBW: At that time the work was in Wales. They was opening collieries They always flocked from Ireland to the mining districts. Different they do today. They flock up to London.

Q: That’s right So they came to Bargoed Did you have any brothers and sisters?

BBW: None.

Q: There’s a question on the Welsh language now. Do you speak any Welsh, Mr. Whelan?

BBW: Well, I couldn’t say that I do. I understand a small bit but not to converse in it neither did my parents or grandparents.

Q: So when they came to work here in 1899 it wasn’t necessary for them to learn Welsh?

BBW: I beg your pardon?

Q: When they came here to work they were able to get by without Welsh?

BBW: Oh yes, yes, yes.

Q: Fine. What school or schools did you attend?

BBW: Bargoed schools.

Q: How old were you, Mr. Whelan, when you came here?

BBW: Eight year old.

Q: So you came as a child, a young child. So you went to Bargoed School? Was it a Catholic school?

BBW: No, There was no Catholic schools here at the time. The nearest Catholic school to here was Pontlottyn.

Q: I see. Pontlottyn was a place where – there were a lot of Irish people in Pontlottyn?

BBW: Oh yes – owing to the iron works.

Q: So they had a Catholic school there?

BBW: Oh yes.

Q: But you went to the ordinary –?

BBW: ‘Board School’ as they call it – yes.

Q: Now, can you describe the life in your home at that time, when you were a boy?

BBW: Yes. Very happy. Very happy.

Q: What kind of life was it? Did you was your father working all the time?

BBW: Oh yes, yes.

Q: Would he be at home at weekends or?

BBW: Oh yes, he was at home at weekends.

Q: No Sunday working then?

BBW: Oh no, you wouldn’t get Sunday work then.

Q: Did you have any entertainment at home?

BBW: I did – the fiddle, and singing.

Q: Now, who played the fiddle?

BBW: I did.

Q: You did. So you can still play a fiddle?

BBW: No.

Q: No? Your hands have gone. And singing – who did the singing?

BBW: Well, I competed in all the golden prizes around here. Up till this took me – until I was 80 year old. And I’d sing with the best of ‘em.

Q: Until you were 80?

BBW: Yes, and I’d sing with the best of ‘em.

Q: I see. Now you played the fiddle. What kind of music did you play?

BBW: Jigs and reels. All traditional step dancing

Q: I see. Well now, who taught you to play the fiddle?

BBW: A man by the name of Tom Mackey.

Q: It wasn’t your father?

BBW: No. A friend of his who used to come to the house, name of Tom Mackey.

Q: But he was Irish? Tom Mackey was Irish?

BBW: He was.

Q: And you got your music from him

It says also “ Any games? ”

(Editor’s note: the interview was based on a questionnaire)

BBW: Well, we played all games as was going at the time I never played football or anything

Q: What was the food and cooking like?

BBW: Marvellous – I was well fed – plenty of bacon and cabbage. Fat bacon and spuds in their jackets.

Q: The Irish style?

BBW: The Irish style.

Q: Mother was a good cook then?

BBW: Marvellous!

Q: Did she make any bread at home?

BBW: Yes.

Q: And they called it ‘ cake ’?

BBW: Yes.

Q: Soda bread was it?

BBW: Oatmeal.

Q: Oatmeal bread?

BBW: You do see them in Ireland – the flat oatmeal cakes. And soda bread as well.

Q: But not the yeast bread that people make here?

BBW: Oh yes. My mother made the bread with yeast in it as well.

Q: What type of oven did she have?

BBW: Ordinary fireside oven.

Q: Would that be what we call a ‘range’?

BBW: No, no, no, no. Ordinary fireside oven. I’d be like a box about say, 15 inches square – cast iron – beside the fireplace and there was a damper on that – you know, to regulate the heat.

Q: This was a box oven?

BBW: Yes.

Q: Now, what was it like to be sick then?

BBW: Until two year ago I was never a day bad in my life, thank God.

Q: Were your parents ever ill?

BBW: Oh, they wasn’t sick, no.

Q: No doctors ever came to the house?

BBW: No, no doctors came to the house!

Q: Now this time you were growing up. Were you allowed to smoke or dance or gamble or drink or anything like that?

BBW: I wasn’t allowed to smoke. That was the biggest offence ever against my father to see me with a pipe and an ounce of twist – a twenty year old. But a seventeen year old I can go with him and drink all the beer they fetch me! He never said anything about that.

Q: Never said anything about drink?

BBW: No.

Q: That was an Irish family, it was an Irish family?

BBW: Yes.

Q: A Welsh family at the time didn’t really approve of drink?

BBW: Ooooh, at that time, at that time you were all to pieces if you started drinking that! It was on the table for supper as long back as I can remember.

Q: When you were a child?

BBW: Yes. A small little drop. You’d get a quart bottle for fourpence and that would be fetched home every night for supper. My little glass would be there back as far as I can remember – as I was growing the glass would be growing!

Q: Now what was this you’d be drinking – beer?

BBW: Beer.

Q: What kind of beer? What was the company? Rhymney?

BBW: Rhymney – Andrew Buchan’s

Q: That was the man who started it.

BBW: Yes. Andrew Buchan’s – thruppence a pint

Q: In the bottle or over the counter?

BBW: Over the counter – you’d get a quart bottle for fourpence.

Q: It was cheaper by the bottle then?

BBW: Aye I can remember when you could buy a quart bottle of whiskey or rum for five and nine (28p – Ed.) – a quart bottle, not a pint bottle – and they’d fetch it to the house for that! But the five and nine took some finding.

Q: Were you allowed to dance?

BBW: Traditional dancing

Q: You were doing traditional dancing from your childhood. Now where did these traditional dances take place – in the homes?

BBW: Yes.

Q: And who’d be there – just the family?

BBW: Just the family – I learnt all my own family – I learnt my own wife and all to dance Q: And you played the fiddle for them?

BBW: No, I didn’t play the fiddle – we had gramophone records.

Q: What kinds of music were on these records – Irish music?

BBW: Oh yes, yes, yes, yes, – and only for the leg I’d dance with the best of them today!

Q: Were you allowed to gamble?

BBW: No – that’s alright so long as I done it on the sly!

Q: It was done obviously. It was done

BBW: Not a lot, no – you could say nil as far as that goes.

Q: Do you remember the ‘Band of Hope’?

BBW: I was never a member of it but I remember it well and the young people’s ‘guilds’ and the ‘penny readings’. I can remember them well.

Q: Now, you remember them. Did?

BBW: I never took part in them.

Q You didn’t go to any of these

BBW: No, because they was a Protestant

Q: Was there anything for you, for Catholic children?

BBW: No.

Q: Well, ‘Sunday School’ is also a Protestant thing

BBW: They were very popular then, mind. Oh yes – you’d see them going in crowds – you’d see them going in crowds. Their parents would make them go.

Q: But you wouldn’t go?

BBW: Of course not, I was going to a Catholic church.

Q: And there was nothing like that for the children of the Catholic schools?

BBW: Oh no.

Q: ‘Annual outings’ The churches, the chapels, would take the children to Barry Island, Porthcawl or something like that once a year.

BBW: Oh, I remember them well

Q: Did you ever go on one of them?

BBW: Of course I did.

Q: With the Protestants?

BBW: Yes, yes, yes

Q: Can you remember any good one that you could describe? Can you remember any particular Sunday outing that you would like to speak about?

BBW: Oh, I couldn’t remember any particular thing you know

Q: Where would you go to?

BBW: Barry. Barry was the popular place then.

Q: How did you get there?

BBW: Oh, by train.

Q: Was that expensive? Did it cost a lot to go by train?

BBW: No. Of course the chapels were paying for them but I had to pay because I wasn’t going to the chapel. The chapels would pay for their children. And if the parents went the parents had to pay.

Q: Now which way did the train go? – because the lines are all closed now

BBW: It’d go from Aberbargoed (1–2 miles from Bargoed – Ed) and there used to be a big viaduct crossing at Llanbradach (5–6 miles south of Bargoed – Ed).

Q: It’s gone now the stone is still there

BBW: You see, it had blown down. That was owing to the they wouldn’t pay the collieries to leave the coal underneath – they’d rather blow it down.

Q: They blew it up with dynamite then?

BBW: You see, the collieries wanted to leave the coal under them places the same as under a church, Church of England. They got to leave the coal under the Church of England. I worked on the boundaries of that church up there and I worked on the boundaries of the church in Bargoed. They’ve got to leave the coal under the

Q: So as not to cause subsidence?

BBW: So as not to cause subsidence.

Q: But they dug under the viaduct?

BBW: No.

Q: But how did it come down?

BBW: Well, they carried on after the viaduct was pulled down

Now the coal is under the viaduct in Bargoed I worked on the boundary of that as well.

Q: Now this train that went over the Llanbradach viaduct, where did it go from there?

BBW: Oh, they’d go out around through Maindy

Q: Oh that’s where it went, did it, into Cardiff?

BBW: Yes, it left Cardiff, you know, on the left hand side and cut off – it’d go through Maindy and cut out towards Culverhouse Cross way

Q: It did? That was very zig zag!

BBW: If you turned up part of the old line – out on the Tongwynlais side – there’s part of the bridge there now. I think it’s used now, in case of repairs in the tunnel at Caerphilly, they go back round that way and down through Maindy into Cardiff.

Q. But you didn’t cross the viaduct at Radyr, the old Taffs Well line? You know – there used to be a viaduct at Taffs Well in Radyr.

BBW: Oh no, we used to go across that one.

Q: And then down across St. George’s and into Barry Dock way?

BBW: That’s it!

Q: It’s all closed now.

BBW: I know the viaduct

Q: Do you remember local concerts?

BBW: Oh yes, yes. There was local concerts and dramas, brass band concerts and eisteddfods.

Q: Can you talk about any of those?

BBW: I can give you a little bit about the last eisteddfod that was near here. It was in Ebbw Vale in 1958. I had the first prize there!

Q: You had the first prize?

BBW: Yes.

Q: For?

BBW: Timbering. I’m the last Champion of Wales and there’ll never be another one

Q: That’s timbering underground?

BBW: Like we used to do underground. Of course they don’t do it now. But I won I won the National Eisteddfod in Aberdare in 1956 and I won the one in Ebbw Vale in 1958. Three times running, three years running in Ystrad Fawr. And I hadn’t done it for almost thirty years!

Q: Now, how did you win? Did you win it on speed or did you win on precision or...?

BBW: Your speed was counted. In this last eisteddfod now in Ebbw Vale I had 24 minutes spare in the time, and 22 points in front of the man next to me. In my young days you was given 20 minutes to do it. But you had 45 minutes in Ebbw Vale and they started grumbling and I said Why, what’s the matter? It can’t be done in 45 minutes. But I said, You watch the 2 kids on No 8 I said, I intend to do it in a half hour. And my son made one little slip and he cost me a couple of minutes. The judge stood there by me. and he could see I was in front. As soon as you’re finished he said, call time. I said, Time! as soon as he said it. And I’m the last, I was the last Champion of Wales and will be I have a photo with him, no, there’s a photo of Ystrad Fawr in there.

Q: This timbering, when did they stop timbering in the mines?

BBW: Oh, it carried on for a few years after the steel arches come in.

Q: Which was?

BBW: About 1919 the first new arches come in. timbering carried on then say for a matter of 10 years. It had to be done in odd places, you know, but there was very few could do it then.

Q: But you had done it

BBW: I had done it I daresay I put the last pair of timber up in the colliery where I worked Groesfaen, in Deri, about three miles north of Bargoed. It’s finished now of course. I did 52 years at Groes Of course, as for these pits around here I remember them all sinking. They were sinking the Bargoed Colliery when I came into Bargoed. They started sinking it in 1897 and they struck the coal in 1901. You see, that time all the holes had to be bored with a hammer and drill. Now you’ve got the boring machines. You see, you had to be a good borer One time with the blast machines they’d put a six foot hole in half hour. They put them in three minutes now

Q: No skill now, no skill required BBW: No skill It was skill on a hammer and drill, mind.

Q: Were there any street games played by the children?

BBW: Yes, ha, ha, ha!

Q: I’ve only put a few in here

BBW: There was school games played by them: ‘hoop and guider’, ‘handball’, ‘bat and catty’, ‘quoits’, I’ve played them all! That’s one thing I’ll never forget is the games we played when we was children on the street ‘whip and top’ was a famous game.

Q: What did you do for the whip and top?

BBW: Ah, you had a top, it’d be a matter of that round, see, they’d be whipping that around – which could keep up the longest.

Q: That was the object?

BBW: Oh, that was a very popular game, the ‘whip and top’. And the roads weren’t in as good a condition then as they are today. They were rough. Oh, rough! If you had a tarmac road with a ‘whip and top’ I often thought before this took me to make one and try it! We didn’t have so much traffic on the road all those years ago, we were playing

Q: Was there any other game – were there any street games played by adults?

BBW: Oh yes, yes, oh ‘bat and catty’ – ‘dog and catty’ we used to call it, oh, that was played – you got men, and boys , it was always a great game then

Q: Did you have a handball alley in Bargoed?

BBW: No. The nearest handball alley was Nelson. It’s there today.

(see article by Joe Moore in The Green Dragon, No 1, p.27 – Ed.)

Q: But how did you play handball without an alley, against the walls of houses?

BBW: Up again the walls! We had a fine hurling team in Bargoed one time too, boy!

Q: Oh, I see, that was another game. Well, if you had a team in Bargoed where was the nearest team to play against?

BBW: We had teams in Cardiff, Pontypridd, Merthyr – all around. And this kid would take a bit of catching on the field then mind!

Q: It was a tough, fast game then?

BBW: A fast game? It was more than fast

Q: Was there any Rugby played?

BBW: Oh yes, yes and soccer.

Q: Did you play any Rugby yourself?

BBW: Very little and very little soccer. But I played in the hurling team mind – we went up to London and beat the London Irish!

Q: Did you ever play in Ireland?

BBW: No, I didn’t, no – only what when I’ve been00 over you know

Q: I meant did the team ever play?

BBW: Oh no, no, no, no.

End of Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Links St. Patrick’s Day / Gorgysylltiadau Gŵyl Padrig 2004

First published in The Green Dragon No 8, Spring 1999.