Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Life in the Old Country

I’m afraid the title of this blog is a bit misleading. It sounds like I really know something about the old country, Wales—that I know specifically what it was like for the Jones clan, the Evans clan, the Hughes clan or the Eynon clan. I don’t. In fact, I can only imagine what it must have been like in mid-nineteenth century Wales. I can get a rough idea, though, from a piece by Chris Evans (a distant relative?), who in 2012 wrote a for the BBC on mid-nineteenth century Wales. Evans describes the most difficult of living conditions, living conditions that, even if they were not quite as harsh in Llwynhendy, a hamlet contiguous with Llanelli, as they were in Merthyr Tydfil, were undoubtedly hellish nonetheless.

How do I know? They left. By “they,” of course, I mean the Jones’ and the Evans’. The Jones’ didn’t bring much with them—just the contents of a black trunk marked with the name of Lucy Jones on the lid. But they most certainly did leave, and to cross an ocean, surely never to return, takes more than courage.

Courage is only the first step. It is not borne out of a desire to see the world or a quest for new opportunity. Rather, it requires a desire to get away from something, a strong desire. And what would the Jones’ and Evans’ have been fleeing? Well, if the article cited above is correct, it was the oppressive industrialization of Wales, from coal to ironworks, and the concomitant lack of opportunity for even the brightest to break out of the virtual caste system that they had been born into. If your father was a miner, you would almost certainly be one, too. If your father worked in the iron industry, chances are, were you a young man, you would, too.

And if that were not push enough, add to it a notable lack of educational opportunities. Now I’m not talking just about a robust liberal education, the kind I wrote about last week—the kind that allows the student to learn English literature, mathematics, science, art, and offers two years (at the very least) of language study. Rather, I’m actually speaking about education on a much smaller scale—what we would refer to as a basic high school education, or even a technical education that permits the person who receives it to move up the social ladder one or two rungs, not ascend it all at once. But to say that such educational opportunities were scarce in the mining towns of Wales would be a gross understatement. They simply did not exist. Yet how did David Evans, whose musical influence upon the family was profound—my daughter owns and still plays his violin—learn to play the violin, you might ask, and how did he get his hands on such an instrument in the first place?

The answer to that is shrouded in a bit of mystery, but suffice it to say that David would seem to have been born in America; whether his mother or father had been able to play the violin in Wales, we shall never know. But we can imagine. While we can imagine that he was likely not to have been the first person in the family to have musical ability—any Welsh miner could sing good Welsh hymns at Sunday service or even as he walked to work on a weekday morning—it is likely that David Evans was the first person in the family to play the violin, or even to be able to afford one. He would, himself, go on to write lovely Welsh hymns, one or two of which he co-wrote with a certain Reverend Hugh Griffith, whose name figures prominently in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes.

After such struggles, the descendants of David Evans, through the Jakes line, have had the great privilege of studying music at a major university in Texas with an excellent school of music and liberal arts. Sadly, even as I write this, however, that very university’s college of liberal studies is considering severely reducing its core requirements—the pitiable indulgence of the constant Sirens’ call for “practical” education. Hopefully, as there is more at stake merely than joi de vivre and simply beauty—there is, too, at stake truth, not the Keatsian parallel of truth and beauty but the truth that lies deep in a man’s soul, the profound truth that a woman like Lucy Hughes Jones was willing to travel across the sea to obtain—that truth is at stake, as it is, and must always be, the central goal of true liberal education. It needs to be preserved for a new set of dreamers, a new generation of immigrants longing to discover through music, art, science, mathematics, literature and language study the eternal Truth that has formed us and continues to shape us, and ultimately that binds each and every one of us together in complex, yet profoundly simple, humanity.

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