Ceri Shaw



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An Interview With Eirug Davies Author of 'The Welsh of Tennessee'

user image 2012-08-30
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: welsh american history

AmeriCymru: Croeso i AmeriCymru Eirug and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What prompted you to write The Welsh of Tennessee ?

Eirug: Back in the late 1990's, and when I started to contemplate the possibility of retirement, I found that my life long enthusiasm for micro-electronic research was gradually being replaced by a curiosity over what had been published in Welsh within the United States. One of the things that became immediately apparent was a need to compile a list of such publications, both books and pamphlets, and the fruit of that labor eventually appeared in the 2003 issue of Llen Cymru. Often noted at the beginning of copies of such books in Harvard University's possession were the names of former owners, many being well known figures in Welsh American circles of the 19th century, but invariably residing in the northern states. What eventually led to the present study was a curiosity over the surprise finding that a significant number of the donated books had come from a relatively unknown miner who happened to reside in Coal Creek, Tennessee.

AmeriCymru: Do you think that the Welsh contribution to the building of the United states has been adequately recorded or recognized?

Eirug: To a large extent the Welsh are an unknown factor. Take the early Quakers as an example, and while their 40,000 acre Welsh Tract is often referred to in older historical texts, no mention is made of how their ill-fated attempt at preventing its break up led to a far more democratic way of governing Pennsylvania. Occasionally one hears of how many signers of the Declaration of Independence were Welsh but nothing is heard of how their background had propelled them to take such a perilous step.

AmeriCymru: Your book introduces the reader to a number of fascinating characters. The name Samuel Roberts springs to mind. What can you tell us about him?

Eirug: Even though Samuel Roberts remains as a much admired figure in Wales, it appears that he was not the most practical of individuals. Given that he had relatives in Cincinnati it is not unreasonable to find that he should visit the city on the way to Tennessee. What is more difficult to figure out is why after sailing to Maine he would make his way to Cincinnati by travelling through Canada.

Worthy of the same recognition as him, but unfortunately long forgotten, would be their second minister in Knoxville, Iorthyn Gwynedd. His lone stance on behalf of Wales in the 1847 government report referred to as The Blue Books is remarkable and it stands as a fore runner to what The Welsh Language Society are still striving for in present day Wales.

On the mining side, one of the more appealing individuals was the Phillip Ffransis whose expertise was called upon during the Fraterville disaster and when over 200 miners lost their lives. In one passing remark he mentions how he and two or three others would occassionally gather to socialise outside one of their Dowlis homes. Sometimes I cant help but speculate how I would have fared if only I could have sneaked up and joined in their discussion. Presumably all would be well, but then not coming from their area of Wales, the odd unfamiliar word would creep in and become the subject of some humorous ridiculing.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the 'Dixie Eisteddfod'?

Eirug: Poetry competitions are an important feature of any eisteddfod and the failure to locate the winning entries at both Knoxville and Chattanooga proved to be a bitter disappointment.

What is quite remarkable is the distance some were prepared to travel to get to Knoxville or Chattanooga, and without the attraction of an eisteddfod, many would never have visited either city. With many an eisteddfod in other parts of the country, it was not unusual to find that they had managed to get the railroad companies to issue half price tickets.

AmeriCymru . To what extent have Welsh traditions been preserved in Tennessee?

Eirug: The Welsh Society in Knoxville, which dates from the 1890s, still exists and many of its members, who take great pride in their Welsh background, have been extremely forthcoming with their information. With the aid of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation the historic Welsh Church in Briceville has recently been restored and several historic markers have been placed in its vicinity.

Students at Briceville Elementary School still hold their Dixie Eisteddfod competitions, the next one to be held on May 17, 2013 as described at Fort Anderson Dedication  to dedicate the listing of Fort Anderson on Militia Hill on the Natural Register. Students will participate in an essay contest to document the oral history of the Coal Creek War and a recitation of The Snark.

AmeriCymru: Do you have plans to embark on any further historical research?

Eirug: Here I'll take the liberty of mentioning what is already available. Though written in the Welsh Language, the first of the titles, Y Cymry ac Aur [Gold] Colorado, could prove suitable for learners. This was folloed by Gwladychu [Pioneering] y Cymry yn yr American West and more recently Helyntion [Tribulations] y Cymry yn Virginia.

One of the many problems encountered on writing in English is that the original Welsh eventually gets lost. One of the first American poems to be written in Welsh is a song of rejoicing on being in Pennsylvania. It dates from 1683, a year after the Quakers first arrival, but all that remains available is a very non inspiring translation. For such reasons the original Welsh quotations have been retained in the present volume, and for those learning the language, it could prove an interesting challenge to come up with an improved English translation As to any future writing, and whether it be in Welsh or English, well just have to wait and see.

Interview by Ceri Shaw