John Breese 1925 – 1994 John Breese, the oldest member of Comhluadar Caerdydd (the Cardiff Irish Language Group), was born in Machynlleth, Powys, in 1925. His father had a grocer’s shop. His sister, Noela, was a few years his senior and another sister, Marian, was born seven years later.
Music was a part of the life of the family from the outset and Noela and John used to play the accordeon and the piano at dancehalls in and around their home town. Noela married young but John, who never married, went to London where he studied at the Royal College of Music which he left with distinction after receiving their highest grade.
Wnen the war began John joined ENSA which provided entertainment for the troops. He spent the war in Egypt and the Middle East, surviving when a ship in which he was being transported was sunk by the Germans.
After the war he spent some time in Africa where he learned Arabic and read the entire Koran in the original.
Returning to Europe he spent some time in Paris where he lodged with a Chinese family. It is said that during this period he read the entire Bible in French!
Finally he returned to England where he taught music in a public school for one year. and acquired a reputation as a first class accompanist. However, he decided against music as a career and got a job with the Post Office in London. While there he learned Irish, in the the Irish community of Kilburn.
He was fortunate in getting a transfer to Swansea where he was to remained until his retirement in 1988. He then bought a little terraced house in Cardiff where he came into contact with a local group of Irish speakers.
At that time Barry Tobin was teaching an Irish class and began to organise a conversation group for learners and fluent speakers, such as Patrick Egan( who launched the Irish language magazine An Briathar Saor in 1994). At first they met in Tim Saunder’s house where a regular participant was John Breese – kindly, affable, humorous, who had a special regard for the people and heritage of the Blasket Islands. One of his achievements was an unpublished translation of Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s classic autobigraphy, ‘An tOileánach’ (The Islandman) from Irish into Welsh.
In 1989 the group moved to John Breese’s house. John put his own mark on the gatherings, and No. 2 Rolls Street took on the character of a ‘Rambling House’ for a while. However, John was more interested in the red wine of France than in the black wine of Ireland!
It was for that reason that the gatherings became known as soirees and later as ‘soireens’ (Irish: ‘soiríní’)! These ‘soireens’ continued until late 1993 when the decline in John’s health became evident and it was felt that it would not be right to continue what had become a tradition.
Those who were privileged to be his guests will long remember those ‘soireens’: the sincere welcome, the tray brought in from the little kitchen loaded with bread, cheese, cakes and other tit bits, the wine bottles and the glasses, the cups, the mugs, the kettle that boiled again and again, the ebb and flow of Irish, sometimes fluent, sometimes shaky. John would resolve all disputes. He would have Dinneen’s loveable old Irish‑English Dictionary to hand, Ó Dónaill’s brisk modern version, De Bhaldraithe’s English‑Irish Dictionary. Who can forget the laughter when the Reverend Patrick Dinneen had the last word one more time.The ‘soireeners’ sometimes headed for home as the sound of milk bottles heralded a new day.
When ‘Comhluadar Caerdydd’ was set up in January, 1994, John came to the inaugural meeting even though he was unwell. He gave wholehearted support to the idea of launching ‘An Briathar Saor’.
The ‘soireens’ were a thing of the past but everyone knew that there would be a welcome at No. 2 Rolls Street and every now and then a lone ‘soireener’ would call in to have a chat and to enjoy the easy fluency with which this Welshman spoke Irish. And a Welshman indeed, for he played his part in the political and linguistic activities of his time. He had been a loyal member of Plaid Cymru (the National Party of Wales) since his London days and was Secretary of his local branch. He was also a member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) although in his later years he was unable to take part in their regular protests and demonstrations.
A life-long Christian, he grew up in the independent Welsh tradition and every Sunday he would be present for services at ‘Ebenezer’, the chapel of the Welsh Independents, which is directly opposite Saint David’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Charles Street.. There he would sometimes play the piano in the absence of the Organist.
He was taken to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary on 26 November, 1994. It was characteristic of the man that he should have so amused and entertained his visitors that they were not aware of the seriousness of his illnes so that when he died on 21 December it came as a shock to us all.
The Irish speakers of Cardiff are deeply indebted to this kind and gentle man. May he rest in peace.
Following his death his sister, Mrs. Noela Williams of Llangefni (Anglesey), gave his collection of books in Irish to ‘Comhluadar Chaerdydd’. They remained in the home of one of the members until this year (1995) when it was decided to donate the collection to the Cardiff Central Library.
The 250 volumes are now in the stacks at the Central Library. All are now
available for loan. Please consult the catalogue then
consult the Cardiff Libraries Catalogue.
Enter the word ‘Gaelic’ in the box to the left of the box containing ‘Words or Phrase’.
This brings you to the ‘Gaelic’ catalogue which covers Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Irish.
At the bottom of the first page you will be able to click through to the ‘John Breese Collection’.
which begins on page 3 of the catalogue and continues to page 15.
You do not need to live in Cardiff to borrow any title or titles you may wish to consult as they may be borrowed through the inter library loans scheme.
For assistance email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (029)20382116.
availability before travelling!
Published in The Green Dragon No. 1, December 1996.
Alt sa Ghaeilge
An article in Irish.
John Breese Collection