He wrote the best known and most often heard Welsh words ever, sung by internationally-known Welsh singers from Bryn Terfel to Tom Jones, from Cerys Matthews to Shirley Bassey. Yet he is remembered for little else and only a handful of poems by this prolific poet ever lit up a printed page during his lifetime or for many years after.
On Wednesday, October 14, at the Caerphilly Rugby Club, the story of the life of Evan James, author of the words of the Welsh National Anthem – [Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau] – will be told in a words and music portrayal of his life.
The music will be mostly in the form of 19th century airs for which Evan had written words to be sung at Eisteddfodau and the money-raising functions of the Welsh language charitable organisation, Urdd y Gwir Iforiaid (the Order of the True Ivorites), named after Ifor Hael, the patron of the great Welsh medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym.
The initial performance by the local dramatic society Cwmni Cwm Ni will take place on the exact 200th anniversary of Evan's birth, close to the place he was born in the centre of Caerffili (Caerphilly in English), which is twinned with Lannion.
In 2006, three years ago, the 150th anniversary of the anthem for which Evan's son, James James, composed the music, was celebrated in Pontypridd. Present were distinguished representatives from Brittany and Cornwall – both countries have also adopted the anthem as their own – in a week of celebrations which included an ensemble of 100 harpists performing the anthem.
However, 2009 is Evan James's turn and while he and his family lived in Pontypridd when the anthem was composed, his birthplace was Caerphilly.
The story of its translation into Breton is well documented. W. Jenkyn Jones a Welsh Protestant missionary in Quimper, published a translation in book of hymns, Telen ar C'Hristen(Harp of Christians).
Translation by W. Jenkyn Jones, first verse and chorus :
Doue ha va Bro
Peb Breizad tomm-galon a gâr, sûr, he vro,
Bro Arvor 'zo brudet dre 'r bed tro-var-dro,
Er brezel calonnec, hon tadou ervad,
A skeuliaz evit-hi ho gwad.
O va mamm-bro! Cared a rann va bro,
Keit ma vo 'r môr 'vel mur en dro,
Ra vezo libr atao va bro.
The first two verses are more or less translations of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, then he becomes more religious. The third verse is an attack on strong drink and the fourth calls on the Bretons to free themselves from their captivity – presumably from the Catholic Church.
Soon after, the young Breton poet Taldir (Fañch Jaffrennoù) published his own translation which is very similar in the first two verses but continues more in the spirit of Evan James's original words. As a wine merchant he took a more tolerant view of alcohol – Evan, too, as well as being a weaver, had been an inn-keeper.
The first verse of Taldir's version and chorus:
Bro goz ma zadou
Ni Breiziz a galon, karomp hon gwir Vro!
Brudet eo an Arvor dre ar bed tro-dro.
Dispont kreiz ar brezel, hon zadou ken mad
A skuillaz eviti o gwad.
ChorusO Breiz! Ma bro, me gar ma bro
Tra ma vo mor 'vel mur 'n he zro
Ra vezo digabestr ma bro!
The music, sung to Taldir's words, was accepted as the Breton National Anthem in 1902, which was celebrated in 2003 in Lesneven. The words have also been translated into all the Celtic languages and into the Khasi language of north-eastern India, translated by a Welsh missionary, named John Roberts.
A Mrs Vera K. Lowe, writing to the Welsh magazine Country Quest in November 1973, recalled attending a Fest Noz in Suscinio (Brittany, Morbihan) in the summer of 1970 and at the end of the evening everybody sang Le pays de mon père. While she does not make it absolutely clear whether it was sung in French or Breton the suggestion is that it was sung in French.
A long and sympathetic report of the Llanelli National Eisteddfod of 1895 appeared in Le Ménestrel by an M. O. Berg-gruen (?) under the title Bardes et Druides Gallois which ends with a translation into French of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, which Berg-gruen describes as "the Welsh Marseillaise". There is no attempt at rhyming, although it could probably be sung:
Translation given by M. O. Berg-gruen
O pays de mes pères, O pays des hommes libres
Que tes poètes et ménestrels sont doux.
Tes guerriers courageux, obéissant à la Liberté,
Sont tombés dans le combat pour leur vieux pays.
Chorus Galles, Galles! Je t'aime, O mon vieux pays
La mer est un rempart autour de son sol,
Si longtemps que la vieille langue subsiste.
O chers rochers des Cambriens pays des bardes,
Chaque vallée, chaque montagne est chère à mon coeur
Le bruit des rivières qui coulent vers la mer
Est une mélodie chantée par des langues d'or.
Malgré les ennemis qui nous ont enchaînés,
Notre belle vieille langue existe toujours
Le barde ne s'est pas tu sur l'ordre du tyran
Ni la douce harpe natale.
I have also found two French translations of Taldir's Bro Goz Ma Zadoù.
I will just quote the first verse and refrain of both. The first, which I assume was translated by Taldir himself, was published in Ugent Kanaouen (Twenty songs) under the title Vieux pays de mes pères published in 1936 by Henry Lemoine, Paris, is as follows:
— Nous, Bretons courageux, aimons la Patrie,
Cette Armor qui partout est au premier rang,
Pour elle nos aïeux ont versé leur sang
Pour repousser la barbarie!
Refrain: Pays Breton, j'aime l'Armor,
Un mur de mer te garde encor
Libre sous le grand soleil d'or!
The second version appeared in 20 Chansons Bretonnes (20 Bretons songs) by the same publisher, first printed in 1933 under the title Vieille Terre de Mes Pères:
— Bretons, coeurs fidèles, tous à pleine voix
Chantons la Bretagne, ses coteaux, ses bois
Et ses beaux rivages, ceinturés d'argent
Par les flots des deux Océans.
Refrain: Arvor, Arvor nous t'aimerons
Tant que les mers t'entoureront
Sois libre au sein des nations!
I wonder whether any of these versions were ever sung? There have been many attempts at translating Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau into English and by some distinguished poets but none has never caught on. Long may it continue thus.
Gwyn Griffiths is publishing a comprehensive collection of Evan James's poems with English translations to be released in time for the poet's 200th anniversary.
(voir ABP 16131): translation in French.