So time moved into the winter when I was nearly eight. That Christmas time a girl down the road, Elizabeth Ann Spedding,who lived with her aunt Jane and her uncle Dai, who was a gardener at the Gogerddan mansion beyond Bow Street, said to me: “Why don’t you come and recite at the eisteddfod in the chapel?”
She had learned the piece for reciting for the under‑eights, she said, and it was called ‘Y Llygad, y Trwyn a’r Spectol’ (‘The Eye, the Nose and the Spectacles’). These talked to each other in the verses.
That night as we were hugging the fire I announced: “I’m going to recite at the eisteddfod in the chapel at Christmas.”
“Why not?” said our mother before our Da had realised what I had said.
Then he said: “No son of mine will ever enter that goddamn chapel.”
“Wot’s wrong with it?” asked our mother.
“I want to win the shilling,” I said. “None o’ them prayers,” said Da.
“No,” said I. “Just singing and reciting.”
“And yer’ll not let them Welsh childer beat yer?”
“I’ll try hard to win.”
He gave in because, he said, I would be reciting for Ireland.
Elizabeth Ann went to Davies schoolmaster and asked him to teach her how to recite the piece. I went to Dewi. I had often seen him going off with his bag, which had his initials DM on it, when he went to judge elocution and poetry in the eisteddfodau in other villages.
He beamed when I told him my mission. Only a few days before in the warm stable he had asked a cluster of us children what we were going to do when we grew up and I had said promptly: “I’ll write a book.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised at that,” he had said.
Memorable nights by the kitchen fire at Garnhouse. I standing in the middle of the stone‑flagged floor saying the piece, Dewi sitting on the settle. First time I rattled it off. He was hard to please.
“Speak with your face and your eyes,” he said. “Watch your breathing. Bring the picture out. And your voice – it must carry.”
Sometimes his lovely, white‑haired old mother listened to me, and one night she said: “You’d think he was a little Welsh boy, Dewi.”
The suppers I had there. Plenty of butter on the bread. And boiled eggs.
“You got to be strong to be a reciter,” she said.
I whispered the piece by our own fireside, in bed, on the way to school. Some of the children mocked me. ‘Think you’ve got a chance, Tommy tins, against us?” You’re not even Welsh. You’ve never been on an eisteddfod stage – you’ll be scared to hell.”
It became known that Johnny tins was sending his Tommy bach to recite against the Welsh children, God, the cheek!
On the night before Christmas Dewi didn’t once pull me up as I went through the piece.
“Very good,” he said.
I knew then that I had reached the mountain top. As I was leaving his mother gave me threepence. It would cost that to go in to the eisteddfod.
At home they shone my boots, brushed my hair, scrubbed my face and nearly washed my ears off that Christmas Eve before I went to Garn chapel.
I paid my threepence. I sat in a polished pew. The chapel was full of people. My palms sweated as I listened to a bunch of girls and boys, all under eight, reciting the piece. Little madams and misters, shining in their best clothes. Not one looked nervous. I was trembling when I went on the stage. My knees half buckled. The audience became a blur. I spoke with my eyes and my face. I made a few gestures. I heard the ring in my voice… Finished. There was a tremendous crash of applause and I knew I had done well.
The judge was a stocky, long‑haired man. He sat looking at his notes while the children under eight were at the singing competition. I thought they would never end, and when they did my heart hammered because the recitation judge was talking. On and on. He came to Cymro bach (the little Welshman) and that was me. His words burned into my mind and I would remember them all the days of my life.
“What a delight it was to listen to Cymro bach, the perfect little actor. He made the nose and the eyes and the spectacles talk. This is a voice that someday should fill a Welsh pulpit. Indeed, the last shall be first, for I find no flaw in his recitation. He is a born actor.”
The people roared. I went up to the stage in a haze. A girl pinned a white rosette on my lapel and somebody gave me the shilling. As I walked from the stage the crash of applause went on and on. It followed me through the door. I could stay no longer. Out in the street I ran. I crashed through the door of our house and slid on my bottom bang into the middle of our kitchen. They all jumped up, startled.
“I won,” I shouted.
Great bouts of laughter and my mother kissing me… she rarely kissed me. My Da talking:
“So yer knocked the skite outer ‘em. Yer winned fer Ireland. They’ll never stop talking about it.”
The village looked at me with new eyes. Old Mrs. Huws next door smiled at me. Mrs. Jenkins came a few feet inside our door and said: .“There’s lovely he was Mrs. Macdonald fach.” Dai bach’s mamgu, wrinkled like a walnut, patted my head. Dewi’s mother asked me to tea; we had it in the parlour, best china and all. And even old Morgans conceded at last that I was a person to notice. Old Edwards Gwynfa (Paradise), who walked around with an everlasting smile, gave me a whole packet of sweets. He always had something in his pockets for children, a few peas or beans in season or the odd sweet.
I was somebody at last and I began to understand then that the Welsh could even forgive a man his sins if he were a good reciter, singer or poet for they put these arts equally to the ability to make money.
There was a bit of a new strut in my walk. But what pleased me most was the shine in my mother’s blue eyes. I had leapt a stile into respectability, and although she didn’t understand the Welsh, and didn’t want to, she knew that I had opened a door for myself and I could now build golden dreams in our shabby world.
I bought a small notebook and wrote my first verse about a robin that came to our garden and stuttered a song even in winter.
I started to live two lives. At our hearth I was Irish. Out in the Welsh world I was Welsh and the language was sweet on my tongue. But I worried about my Irish soul…
©: Tom Macdonald. Taken from his book of childhood memories ‘The White Lanes of Summer’ (Macmillan, 1975). The son of poor Irish parents, he grew up in rural Cardiganshire over eighty years ago. He died in 1980. We are grateful to his publishers for permission to print this piece.
Published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter 1997