Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 27

Bangor — Edmund Price — The Bridges — Bookselling — Future Pope — Wild Irish — Southey.

BANGOR is seated on the spurs of certain high hills near the Menai, a strait separating Mona or Anglesey from Caernarvonshire. It was once a place of Druidical worship, of which fact, even without the testimony of history and tradition, the name which signifies “upper circle” would be sufficient evidence. On the decay of Druidism a town sprang up on the site and in the neighbourhood of the “upper circle,” in which in the sixth century a convent or university was founded by Deiniol, who eventually became Bishop of Bangor. This Deiniol was the son of Deiniol Vawr, a zealous Christian prince who founded the convent of Bangor Is Coed, or Bangor beneath the wood in Flintshire, which was destroyed, and its inmates almost to a man put to the sword by Ethelbert, a Saxon king, and his barbarian followers at the instigation of the monk Austin, who hated the brethren because they refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, whose delegate he was in Britain. There were in all three Bangors; the one at Is Coed, another in Powis, and this Caernarvonshire Bangor, which was generally termed Bangor Vawr or Bangor the great. The two first Bangors have fallen into utter decay, but Bangor Vawr is still a bishop’s see, boasts of a small but venerable cathedral, and contains a population of above eight thousand souls.

Two very remarkable men have at different periods conferred a kind of lustre upon Bangor by residing in it, Taliesin in the old, and Edmund Price in comparatively modern time. Both of them were poets. Taliesin flourished about the end of the fifth century, and for the sublimity of his verses was for many centuries called by his countrymen the Bardic King. Amongst his pieces is one generally termed “The Prophecy of Taliesin,” which announced long before it happened the entire subjugation of Britain by the Saxons, and which is perhaps one of the most stirring pieces of poetry ever produced. Edmund Price flourished during the time of Elizabeth. He was archdeacon of Merionethshire, but occasionally resided at Bangor for the benefit of his health. Besides being one of the best Welsh poets of his age he was a man of extraordinary learning, possessing a thorough knowledge of no less than eight languages.

The greater part of his compositions, however clever and elegant, are, it must be confessed, such as do little credit to the pen of an ecclesiastic, being bitter poignant satires, which were the cause of much pain and misery to individuals; one of his works, however, is not only of a kind quite consistent with his sacred calling, but has been a source of considerable blessing. To him the Cambrian Church is indebted for the version of the Psalms, which for the last two centuries it has been in the habit of using. Previous to the version of the Archdeacon a translation of the Psalms had been made into Welsh by William Middleton, an officer in the naval service of Queen Elizabeth, in the four-and-twenty alliterative measures of the ancients bards. It was elegant and even faithful, but far beyond the comprehension of people in general, and consequently by no means fitted for the use of churches, though intended for that purpose by the author, a sincere Christian, though a warrior. Avoiding the error into which his predecessor had fallen, the Archdeacon made use of a measure intelligible to people of every degree, in which alliteration is not observed, and which is called by the Welsh y mesur cyffredin, or the common measure. His opinion of the four-and-twenty measures the Archdeacon has given to the world in four cowydd lines to the following effect:

“I’ve read the master-pieces great Of languages no less than eight, But ne’er have found a woof of song So strict as that of Cambria’s tongue.”

After breakfast on the morning subsequent to my arrival, Henrietta and I roamed about the town, and then proceeded to view the bridges which lead over the strait to Anglesey. One, for common traffic, is a most beautiful suspension bridge completed in 1820, the result of the mental and manual labours of the ingenious Telford; the other is a tubular railroad bridge, a wonderful structure, no doubt, but anything but graceful. We remained for some time on the first bridge, admiring the scenery, and were not a little delighted, as we stood leaning over the principal arch, to see a proud vessel pass beneath us in full sail.

Satiated with gazing we passed into Anglesey, and making our way to the tubular bridge, which is to the west of the suspension one, entered one of its passages and returned to the main land.

The air was exceedingly hot and sultry, and on coming to a stone bench, beneath a shady wall, we both sat down, panting, on one end of it; as we were resting ourselves, a shabby-looking man with a bundle of books came and seated himself at the other end, placing his bundle beside him; then taking out from his pocket a dirty red handkerchief, he wiped his face, which was bathed in perspiration, and ejaculated: “By Jasus, it is blazing hot!”

“Very hot, my friend,” said I; “have you travelled far today?”

“I have not, your hanner; I have been just walking about the dirty town trying to sell my books.”

“Have you been successful?”

“I have not, your hanner; only three pence have I taken this blessed day.”

“What do your books treat of?”

“Why, that is more than I can tell your hanner; my trade is to sell the books not to read them. Would your hanner like to look at them?”

“Oh dear no,” said I; “I have long been tired of books; I have had enough of them.”

“I daresay, your hanner; from the state of your hanner’s eyes I should say as much; they look so weak — picking up learning has ruined your hanner’s sight.”

“May I ask,” said I, “from what country you are?”

“Sure your hanner may; and it is a civil answer you will get from Michael Sullivan. It is from ould Ireland I am, from Castlebar in the county Mayo.”

“And how came you into Wales?”

“From the hope of bettering my condition, your hanner, and a foolish hope it was.”

“You have not bettered your condition, then?”

“I have not, your hanner; for I suffer quite as much hunger and thirst as ever I did in ould Ireland.”

“Did you sell books in Ireland?”

“I did nat, yer hanner; I made buttons and clothes — that is I pieced them. I was several trades in ould Ireland, your hanner; but none of them answering, I came over here.”

“Where you commenced book-selling?” said I.

“I did nat, your hanner. I first sold laces, and then I sold loocifers, and then something else; I have followed several trades in Wales, your hanner; at last I got into the book-selling trade, in which I now am.”

“And it answers, I suppose, as badly as the others?”

“Just as badly, your hanner; divil a bit better.”

“I suppose you never beg?”

“Your hanner may say that; I was always too proud to beg. It is begging I laves to the wife I have.”

“Then you have a wife?”

“I have, your hanner; and a daughter, too; and a good wife and daughter they are. What would become of me without them I do not know.”

“Have you been long in Wales?”

“Not very long, your hanner; only about twenty years.”

“Do you travel much about?”

“All over North Wales, your hanner; to say nothing of the southern country.”

“I suppose you speak Welsh?”

“Not a word, your hanner. The Welsh speak their language so fast, that divil a word could I ever contrive to pick up.”

“Do you speak Irish?”

“I do, yer hanner; that is when people spake to me in it.”

I spoke to him in Irish; after a little discourse he said in English:

“I see your hanner is a Munster man. Ah! all the learned men comes from Munster. Father Toban comes from Munster.”

“I have heard of him once or twice before,” said I.

“I daresay your hanner has. Every one has heard of Father Toban; the greatest scholar in the world, who they, say stands a better chance of being made Pope, some day or other, than any saggart in Ireland.”

“Will you take sixpence?”

“I will, your hanner; if your hanner offers it; but I never beg; I leave that kind of work to my wife and daughter as I said before.”

After giving him the sixpence, which he received with a lazy “thank your hanner,” I got up, and followed by my daughter returned to the town.

Henrietta went to the inn, and I again strolled about the town. As I was standing in the middle of one of the business streets I suddenly heard a loud and dissonant gabbling, and glancing around beheld a number of wild-looking people, male and female. Wild looked the men, yet wilder the women. The men were very lightly clad, and were all barefooted and bareheaded; they carried stout sticks in their hands. The women were barefooted too, but had for the most part head-dresses; their garments consisted of blue cloaks and striped gingham gowns. All the females had common tin articles in their hands which they offered for sale with violent gestures to the people in the streets, as they walked along, occasionally darting into the shops, from which, however, they were almost invariably speedily ejected by the startled proprietors, with looks of disgust and almost horror. Two ragged, red-haired lads led a gaunt pony, drawing a creaking cart, stored with the same kind of articles of tin, which the women bore. Poorly clad, dusty and soiled as they were, they all walked with a free, independent, and almost graceful carriage.

“Are those people from Ireland?” said I to a decent-looking man, seemingly a mechanic, who stood near me, and was also looking at them, but with anything but admiration.

“I am sorry to say they are, sir;” said the man, who from his accent was evidently an Irishman, “for they are a disgrace to their country.”

I did not exactly think so. I thought that in many respects they were fine specimens of humanity.

“Every one of those wild fellows,” said I to myself, “is worth a dozen of the poor mean-spirited book-tramper I have lately been discoursing with.”

In the afternoon I again passed over into Anglesey, but this time not by the bridge but by the ferry on the north-east of Bangor, intending to go to Beaumaris, about two or three miles distant: an excellent road, on the left side of which is a high bank fringed with dwarf oaks, and on the right the Menai strait, leads to it. Beaumaris is at present a watering-place. On one side of it, close upon the sea, stand the ruins of an immense castle, once a Norman stronghold, but built on the site of a palace belonging to the ancient kings of North Wales, and a favourite residence of the celebrated Owain Gwynedd, the father of the yet more celebrated Madoc, the original discoverer of America. I proceeded at once to the castle, and clambering to the top of one of the turrets, looked upon Beaumaris Bay, and the noble rocky coast of the mainland to the south-east beyond it, the most remarkable object of which is the gigantic Penman Mawr, which interpreted is “the great head-stone,” the termination of a range of craggy hills descending from the Snowdon mountains.

“What a bay!” said I, “for beauty it is superior to the far-famed one of Naples. A proper place for the keels to start from, which, unguided by the compass, found their way over the mighty and mysterious Western Ocean.”

I repeated all the Bardic lines I could remember connected with Madoc’s expedition, and likewise many from the Madoc of Southey, not the least of Britain’s four great latter poets, decidedly her best prose writer, and probably the purest and most noble character to which she has ever given birth; and then, after a long, lingering look, descended from my altitude, and returned, not by the ferry, but by the suspension bridge to the mainland.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50