And so, as some kind of foreword, it is worth our while to get a description of what was expected of a compere and there is nothing better than the explanation given during an adjudication in the National Eisteddfod at Bangor in 1943. There was a competition at that festival for an essay on the subject, Old Eisteddfod Comperes and the adjudicator was Caerwyn Roberts – himself an outstanding compere, the Chief Librarian of Anglesey and a native of Cynwyd. A street in Llangefni was named after him. The winner of the competition was the Reverend Daniel Williams and his essay was published as a booklet. Here is what Caerwyn Roberts in his adjudication said were the requirements of eisteddfod comperes:
"Their main task is to keep good order and control of the activities, to supervise the stage and the thousands who gather around it and to get through the job smoothly and faultlessly. The job calls for special style and talent. Not everyone who is called is granted the graces, the instincts and the gifts of nature required to fulfil the role in an acceptable manner."
Following on from such a foreword I will now go on to talk for a while about one of the most talented eisteddfod comperes that Wales has ever seen, namely Pat O’Brien.
On Saturday the first of September 1956 in the cemetery of the remote parish of Llanfihangel yng Ngwynfa in the old county of Montgomeryshire a memorial in the form of a Celtic cross was unveiled in memory of a man called Edward David O’Brien or ‘Pat’ O’Brien as he was known to all except to the pupils of the school, Ysgol y Green in Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, where he had been Headmaster for nigh on twenty years.
I will come back to the memorial later on but who was this Pat O’Brien who became in turn a compere at the National Eisteddfod and the darling of a nation? In a letter to me last year (2003) the Reverend Huw Jones described him as:
"Yr anwylaf, y ffraethaf a'r medrusaf o arweinyddion 'steddfod a welodd Cymru."
(“The most loved, the most witty and the most able eisteddfod compere that Wales has seen.”)
There you have a truly remarkable statement and every word of it is true.
His father was an Irishman of the name James O’Brien and he is the kernel of the whole mystery that surrounds this story and that is also the reason why I am delivering this lecture under the auspices of the Irish Forum in Cardiff, namely the Wales Famine Forum.
Mary O’Brien, the mother of Pat or ‘Edward Davey’ as she used to call him, was one of the Arthur family in the parish of Llanfihangel yng Ngwynfa. Her own father, David Arthur, had married Margaret Morris from a neighbouring parish, Llanfyllin, but it was in the parish church of Llanfihangel that the couple had been married, the very same church in which the hymn writer, Ann Griffiths, had had her own wedding and who had been buried in the cemetery of that church.
Ten children were born to Margaret and her husband, Arthur, the first four in the 'Waun', Pentre Isa, in the parish of Llanfyllin. By June 3, 1881, the family had gone to live in a nearby parish, namely Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, because it was there, in Pwllwrach, that the fifth child, Mary, the mother of Pat O’Brien, was born.
Within three years of Mary being born the family had moved again, this time to 'Topllan', a house near the church in Llanfihangel and five more children were born there. So over a period of twenty years Margaret, the mother, had given birth to ten children and a number of her descendants are to be found in the same district to this day.
Later on, one finds Margaret Arthur and her husband David Arthur (Pat’s grandmother and grandfather) as well as their daughter, Mary, living in 'Poplar Cottage' in the centre of the village of Llanfihangel between the famous church and the not entirely unknown pub, the 'Goat', where, in the sixties of the last century, the celebrated choir, Aelwyd Penllys (‘The Hearth of Penllys’), with their brilliant compere, the late Reverend Elfed Lewis, would socialise after their practices.
But it was at the end of the nineteenth century that the whole mystery began. You will remember that the well-known Llanwddyn Dam had been opened in 1896 after years of preparation and the drowning of that valley in order to lay pipes to carry water from the new lake to relieve the thirst of the inhabitants of the city of Liverpool.
That is how the valley and village of Llanwddyn were lost completely. Where there had once been a cultural buzz, chapel, school and homes and where at least one of the early eisteddfodau of Talaith a Chadair Powys (‘The Province and Chair of Powys’) had been held everything had been turned into a lake. As John Evans said in his ode Yr Argae (‘The Dam’) that won the Chair at the Ystradgynlais National Eisteddfod in 1954:
“Llanwddyn yn llyn heddiw — dinodded
Ei anheddau chwilfriw;
Tan genlli tonnog unlliw
Allorau bro'n y llawr briw.
Troi'r cwm yn fedd rhyfeddol — yn rhwth gell
Wrth y gaer gadarnaf;
O ffoi'r hud, ni ddeffry haf.
Hen ias ar Gynonisaf.”
(“Llanwddyn is a lake today — faceless,
Its homes are all lying broken:
Below the monochrome of flood and wave
The altars of a people lie on their shattered floor.
The valley has become a strange grave
— a gaping cell —
And where stands the mightiest stronghold,
Since all the magic has now gone away,
Summer will not reawaken —
Cynonisaf has the shivers.”)
After the dam had been built maintenance work went on for years afterwards. Hundreds of Irishmen were employed as labourers on behalf of Liverpool corporation to build the dam and then to carry out the maintenance work. Among them, it seems, was a man by the name of James O’Brien who turned up eventually as a lodger in 'Poplar Cottage' where Mary was living with her mother, Margaret Arthur, since by then Margaret the grandmother was a widow because her husband, David Arthur, had died in November 1908.
Within a year after that, on the 10th of November, 1909, Mary Arthur had married James O’Brien, the lodger, in the church of Llanfihangel yng Ngwynfa with Canon J.R. Roberts officiating. The marriage certificate was signed by Maggie Arthur, the mother, John Lloyd Davies, Maurice Arthur, a brother of the bride, and Elizabeth Elen Arthur, a sister of hers. On the certificate is the name of James O’Brien’s father, namely David O’Brien, ‘Farmer’, but there is no evidence that he had been present at the wedding.
Evan Arthur, another brother of the bride, had gone to the South to work as a miner during the last decade of the nineteenth century and in 1901 we find him living at 37 Trebanog Road, Porth, Rhondda, with Richard Roberts and his wife, Ann, the two of them being from Anglesey. Evan had married Margaret, the daughter of the house, and they had three children. Not long after that Evan and his wife moved to Abertridwr, near Caerphilly, where we find them living there at 20 King Street. Evan was working at the Windsor Colliery. It was to that house that James O’Brien and his wife, Mary, went to spend their honeymoon. One day James O'Brien left the house saying he was going to look for work so that they could settle in the ‘South’ where there was plenty of work opportunities at the time. James O’Brien did not come back to the house and, so the story goes, the family never saw him after that. He had vanished!
By then Mary, his wife, was pregnant and she had to go back to her mother in Llanfihangel and get on with her job of carrying the post around the big and scattered parish. On the 21st of the month of August 1910 a little son was born to Mary O’Brien and he was christened as Edward David O’Brien in the local church by Canon J.R. Roberts. The father was not in the registration nor at the christening but he is named as the father in the documents.
Since the mother was taking the post around the very large and thinly populated parish it is more than likely that Mary O’Brien would be starting her duties early in the morning and returning to her home late in the afternoon. In her absence the boy was looked after by his grandmother, Margaret Arthur, who has been described by Rays T. Davies in Y Faner (‘The Banner’) as "one of the most interesting and original characters of Llanfihangel."
Her own job was "to look after and clean the local school as well as to mind a number of children who went to her house" (as Rhys T. Davies goes on to say): "to enjoy our midday snack and to listen to the tasty talk of Mrs. Arthur.”
Old ‘Maggie’ Arthur, as she was known in the locality, was also a registered midwife and consequently she knew the ups and downs of every child born in the district. It is probable that Edward David her grandson had come under the influence of his remarkable grandmother and that he had inherited the wit and humour of the Irish from his father, even though there is no news whatsoever of him, as far as we know, after the birth of his son.
Edward David O’Brien was brought up by his mother and grandmother but the local people knew that his father was Irish and it was not long before everyone came to know him as ‘Pat’ and it is as 'Pat' O’Brien that he was referred to during his short and industrious life. The disappearance of his father, James O’Brien, remains a mystery to this day.
Although Mary O’Brien (the mother) had a job carrying the post one can be sure that the financial resources of the family were scarce. In spite of that Pat O’Brien was brought up in a rich cultural and religious atmosphere. Not only did his grandmother, Maggie Arthur, bring him up in the cultural background of the district, but Pat attended the local church school and the family attended the nearby church.
The Headmaster of the school was a man of the name Charles Edward Shimmin, a monoglot Englishman from the Isle of Man who had come to the village after teaching at the St. Thomas School in Bury, near Manchester. He had a great influence on the boy though there is not a single reference to Pat in the school log book. It is difficult to believe that Edward David O’Brien was a perfect pupil as one of his contemporaries refers to him as “a devil, mischievous, a trickster.”
The Rector of the parish was Canon J. R. Roberts, musician, poet and the mainstay of the local culture. He had a children's choir in the village which became famous throughout all of Wales by winning numerous trophies including the National (Eisteddfod). These two men were a support for the family and I imagine that they were a help to Pat during his boyhood.
Since he had been brought up in that cultural and religious background he would also, it is certain, have been aware of of the contributions of other famous people of the district, Ann Griffiths the hymn writer, John Davies Pendugwm who had been a missionary in Tahiti, John Hughes Pantrobert and Thomas Williams, ('Eos Gwynfa') not to mention Harri Parri Craig y Gath, who taught the skills of poetry to the Blessed Ann.
By the time he went to the Llanfyllin Intermediate School Pat was ready to face the two who would be his headmasters, namely E.T.Griffiths and the remarkable John Lloyd Thomas, a son of the minister of Capel Gibea, Brynaman. As far as I know all the records of Llanfyllin School are either in private hands or have been lost. Consequently I have not been able to take advantage of what had been noted in them about Pat and I am certain that Lloyd Thomas would have done so. We know, in any event, that he was exceptionally droll, very creative and that he did very well in the final examinations. It was Lloyd Thomas who gave him his first chance to present an eisteddfod when he asked him to act as compere for the Saint David’s Day eisteddfod at the school in 1927.
It is interesting to note that Lloyd Thomas had been headmaster at Llanfyllin for about fifty years and he had also been a considerable influence on the careers of Elizabeth Vaughan the singer and Ryan Davies the entertainer, both of them pupils at the school.
Pat had set his mind on being a teacher and before going to a training college he had to get teaching experience and we find him serving his apprenticeship first of all in Llanerfyl School in 1928 where R.W. Jones (‘Erfyl Fychan’), the founder of the Cymdeithas Cerdd Dant (‘Society for Penillion Singing’) and the author of Bywyd Cymdeithasol Cymru (‘The Social Life of Wales’) and Rhigwm i'r Hogiau (‘A Rhyme to the Young Lads’) was headmaster.
The following year he went to Llangadfan School as a ‘pupil teacher’ where another exceptional man, David Pierce Roberts, was the headmaster. A native of Maentwrog, he was the father of Dr. Enid Pierce Roberts, of Nest Davies, Welshpool and of the late Luned, the wife of Ambrose Bebb. During his time in Llangadfan he got an opportunity to shine in the cultural life of the area and his talents were revealed in the various meetings that took place there.
In November 1929 the Board of Education recognised Pat O’Brien as an uncertificated teacher and the following year he became a student at Trinity College, Carmarthen, where he again distinguished himself in the Welsh language cultural life, winning a number of competitions in the college eisteddfodau. There is a reference to him in the college magazine such as:
"We were tickled by the wit of our friend O’Brien.”
One of his favourite tricks was to imitate famous Welsh people and it is reported of him as follows:
"Twm o’r Nant came to visit this world once again in the person of the O’Brien chap. Twm was as fresh and as original as ever, and an entertaining hour was enjoyed in his company. Hasn’t Twm developed into a splendid scholar."
In the college in 1931 he got another chance and it is recorded thus:-
"An interesting innovation this year was the Welsh chairing ceremony impressively conducted by E.D.O'Brien."
While at the college he would practise his teaching skills in the Priory Street School and his lesson notebooks are in my possession.
He made a very favourable impression on his teachers at the college and his final report reads:-
"A thoroughly good student, difficult to speak too highly of him. He has one of the happiest dispositions of any student ever at college. Good in his work, has a charming manner with a class. Well prepared lessons, good disciplinarian, above average in personality, excellent in Welsh, very popular with staff and students."
So it is no surprise that at the age of twenty one he was selected as Headmaster of Maentwrog Church School as successor to John M. Wilson, an out and out Englishman who had been headmaster there for 14 years and a teacher with the Merionethshire Education Committee for 47 years!
In the school record book in June 1932 Wilson, the former headmaster, is back and noting in the logbook:-
"Took charge of this school today during the absence of the headmaster. Mr. O'Brien has to return on account of the death of a relative."
Margaret Arthur, his grandmother and one of the interesting and original characters of Llanfihangel, had died and that was a great loss to Pat O'Brien. That also meant that his mother, Mary O’Brien, was living alone in ‘Poplar Cottage’. In July 1933 one finds the last entry made by Edward David O'Brien as headmaster in Maentwrog:
"Today, I resign the headship of this school having been appointed Headmaster of Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant C.E. School, Denbighshire."
So began a period of twenty years as Headmaster in the 'Llan' and two decades of hard work in every aspect of the religious, social and cultural life of the village, the district and the nation.
By now he had established himself as as an eisteddfod compere and there was a great demand for his services at eisteddfodau and every kind of concert.
He dressed smartly on stage wearing a black jacket and pin stripes trousers. His mother, Mary O’Brien, had come to live in the school house with him and she was a companion and carer to him (and he to her) for the rest of his life. Pat O’Brien was never married but he did have a number of girl friends, it seems, and he even got engaged to one of them but nothing came of the relationship.
Pat was a particularly helpful man and it was to him that the people of the 'Llan' would go when a form had to be completed or to get advice on this or that.
As well as being the compere at the eisteddfodau and keeping the crowds and the events in good order there was a need to keep the audiences in a good mood and there would sometimes be a need for a story to entertain them and to fill a quiet interval or while waiting for a competitor or an adjudicator to turn up on the stage to compete or to speak. That was when Pat would show his brilliance as a storyteller or as an compere. He would hold up a glove in his slender hand to ask if anyone had lost it and then, getting no response, he would ask the steward at the door to go out to see if there was anyone singing, "My tiny hand is frozen"!
Then there was that other occasion when his abilities as a compere were called on. During one eisteddfod in the ‘Foel’ there was quite a commotion at the back of the hall where there was a young chap from a nearby parish with ears bigger than the average. He was making more noise than anyone else. Pat knew who he was and proclaimed that he knew who was making all the noise but that he could not actually see him because the big ears of another guy were getting in the way! The guy with the big ears, highly embarrassed, went straight out as the crowd showed their approval.
Then again, during the eisteddfod at Llansilin, it was arranged that they would follow the usual pattern by holding the choral competition at the close the festival. The compere noticed that a choir from one of the local parishes had turned up a good while before their competition was due to be held and that some members of the choir, perhaps under the influence of the barley wine, were being quite noisy and were disturbing the proceedings.
Pat O’Brien immediately announced that the festival organisers had decided to change the order of the competitions by having the choirs compete earlier than usual. He invited the members of the choir who were standing at the back of the hall to come forward to the edge of the stage so as to be ready to compete.
The organisers had made no such change to the order of the competitions, of course, and the members of the choir had to stand by the stage for one and a half hours until it was their turn to sing. Pat had once again overcome the difficulty and had kept the audience in good order.
At another eisteddfod Pat introduced one of the soloists by announcing that he was going to sing "How vain is man" or, if you want to know the name of the song in Welsh, "Mor fain yw dyn" ('How thin is man' — 'f' in Welsh = 'v' in English).
He could be exceptionally funny and people were being drawn to eisteddfodau and to concerts by his wit and humour. More often than not he was the star attraction. He had a special kind of dignity and it was he who was responsible for introducing the eisteddfod presidents, the adjudicators, the choir conductors and so on. All of this was done without a scrap of paper in front of him nor any notes carefully typed out for his use.
As an compere he had no equal. He took the helm at eisteddfodau at every level and he was the favourite at the great eisteddfodau of Wales, such as those at Llanuwchllyn, Llangwm, Llanrwst, Llanderfel and as far afield as Cardigan and provincial ones such as the Powys and the Conway Valley. He also took charge at Urdd eisteddfodau, the Lewis Eisteddfod in Liverpool and at test concerts such as the famous one at Aberystwyth.
He was among the comperes at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod from the beginning. When the National Eisteddfod came to Rosllannerchrugog in 1945 he got his first chance to compere the nation’s great festival. When the eisteddfod was held in Caerphilly in in 1950, with him being one of the comperes, he spent the week in the company of his mother, staying at 20 King Street Abertridwr with his cousin, Gwladys Arthur, Evan’s daughter, in the very house where his parents had spent their honeymoon in 1909 and from where his father had vanished one morning to look for work. Pat’s cousin, now over ninety years of age, still lives in that house.
Pat O’Brien received an invitation to the Rhyl Eisteddfod in 1953 but he died in June of that year, causing great sadness. His death was announced on the radio on the very day that the Queen was crowned. A cloud of sadness came over the ‘Llan’ and the mourning lasted a long time.
Before the eisteddfod Gwilym R.Tilsley marked the event by composing a series of englynion (four line stanzas, each one being a complete poem) to Pat O’Brien under the heading, Hiraeth (‘Longing’). This is one of them:-
“Er i serch gwlad ei erchi – er ei wâdd
I'r wyl, ni ddaeth leni
Ni ddaeth er ei hiraeth hi
Yn y Llan, trwm yw'r llenni.”
(“Though a nation’s love commanded,
Though invited to the feast,
In spite of all its longing,
He didn’t come this year.
Back home in the ‘Llan’
The drawn veils are heavy.”)
The burial took place at the Llanfihangel yn Ngwynfa cemetery and more than six hundred people attended the funeral. Not long afterwards it was decided to erect a memorial to his memory in that cemetery and it was arranged to meet the cost by public subscription. All the arrangements were made by the Cymrodoriaeth Talaith a Chadair Powys (‘The Fellowship of the Chair and Province of Powys’) and within a very short time almost three hundred pounds had been collected. Among the subscribers were the Lord Lieutenant of the county, the local Member of Parliament, the choirs and chapels of the district and a large number of individuals from all parts of Wales.
The memorial, in the form of a Celtic cross, was designed and erected by a builder from Llanfyllin and it was arranged that it should be unveiled by Caerwyn Roberts, another of the great eisteddfod comperes. However, because of ill health, he was unable to be present.
In his absence the task was undertaken by the then Chair of the National Eisteddfod Council, W. Emyr Williams, who lived in Wrexham but had been born in Montgomeryshire.
On the memorial is an 'englyn' in memory of the compere composed by ‘Rhosier’, namely the Reverend W. Roger Hughes, father of Nia Rhosier:
“Arabedd îr a wybu, – a fynnid
Ar lwyfanau Cymru;
Ei law fain welw i fyny,
A'i ddawn fawr mor ddiddan fu.”
(“His was the freshness of wit
The stage of Wales awaited;
His pale and slender hand he raised,
To entertain was his great gift.”)
A great deal of poetry was written in his honour including memorial ‘englynion’ by Iorwerth Lloyd, an old friend of his, verses from the work of Caerwyn Roberts, a memorial cywydd (a poem in traditional metres) by Ben Jones Bangor, verses by Marged Mochnant and a bardic address from the work of Gwilym Rhys Llangurig which was presented at the opening of the Gorsedd Cadair a Thalaith Powys (‘Bardic Circle of the Chair and Province of Powys’) in 1956.
The fact that a memorial had been erected to the memory of Pat O’Brien within three years of his death shows how highly he was respected and how much his friends and the nation wanted to show their respect and their admiration for:
"Yr anwylaf, y ffraethaf a'r medrusa o arweinyddion 'steddfod a welodd Cymru."
(“The most loved, the most witty and the most able eisteddfod compere that Wales has seen.”)
The above is the text of the lecture as it was delivered but there remains a postscript, namely anenglyn to Pat O’Brien written in 1944 by David Pierce Roberts, Headmaster of Llangadfan School:
“O hen bry yw O'Brien – ei dafod
Sy'n deifio fel mellten,
Yn ei 'wits' mae'n ofnatsen
Ac un clws, mae'n hogyn clên.”
(“O’Brien is an old fly – his tongue
Dives in like lightning,
His wit makes him a terror
And jaunty with it, he’s a grand lad.”)
©: John Iorwerth Davies, Bridgend, August 2004.
The book, Pat O'Brien 1910 – 1953, written in Welsh by the speaker, was published in 2003 by Cymrodoriaeth Talaith a Chadair Powys ('The Fellowship of the Province and Chair of Powys').
On the front cover is a photograph showing Pat O'Brien in his prime.
Another photograph in the book shows Pat O'Brien (on the right) relaxing with the Revd. D. Jacob Davies, himself an eisteddfod compere.
We wish to express our gratitude to John Iorwerth Davies for preparing and delivering this lecture and for letting us have the full text with his kind permission to publish it on the web in both Welsh and English.
Translation: Barry Tobin, Wales Famine Forum, September 2004.
Llanrhaeadr ym mochnant: a short bibliography.
The Leek and the Shamrock
St.Patrick's Day links
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