John Ceiriog HUGHES

“HUGHES, JOHN CEIRIOG, though not a native of Montgomeryshire, was born not very many miles outside its borders, and lived long and died and was buried within the county, so that on these grounds we may be allowed to claim him as a “Montgomeryshire Worthy.” John Hughes, in after life universally known among his countrymen by his bardic name Ceiriog, was the youngest of eight children of Richard and Phoebe Hughes, of Penybryn, in the lonely and romantic vale of Llanarmon, Denbighshire, where he was born on the 25th of September, 1832. His parents were thrifty, industrious, and highly respected among the farming class to which they belonged. His mother, in particular, was rather superior in intelligence and attainments to most of her neighbours, and doubtless made up in some degree for the want of local advantages for the education of children. John attended the village school until he was about fifteen, and then for a time assisted his father on the farm. It soon became evident, however, that he would never make a farmer. After trying a printer’s office at Oswestry for about three months, and a grocer’s shop at Manchester for about the same period, he found a situation as clerk in the railway goods office at London Road Station, Manchester, where he remained for sixteen years, and finally attained a responsible position. He was at this time of a very studious turn of mind, and before he was twenty wrote several pieces of poetry which attracted some attention. He won his first prize at a literary meeting held in Grosvenor Square Chapel, Manchester. This was about 1852, and for the next fifteen or sixteen years he was a constant competitor, and generally a winner, at Welsh Eisteddfodau. It was, however, at the great Llangollen Eisteddfod, in September, 1858, that he at once secured a foremost position among the lyric poets of Wales, by his successful pastoral poem on “Myfanwy Fychan” — an exquisite composition of not quite 400 lines. This is generally considered his masterpiece, and its chaste and simple beauty cannot be matched by any other poem of its kind in the Welsh language. In 1860 a small volume of his poetry was published
under the title Oriau ‘r Hwyr (Evening Hours), which has since gone through many editions In 1862 his second volume of poems appeared under the name of Oriau W Boreu (Morning Hours). Another volume came out in 1863 under the title of Cant o Ganeuon (One hundred Songs), and this was followed ere long by Y Bardd a’r Cerddor (the Poet and Musician), and some years later by Oriau Eraill (Other Hours, 1868) and Oriau ‘r Haf (Summer Hours, 1870). He also published a collection of choice extracts from his own and other works, adapted for public recitation, under the title of Gemau’r Adrodcwr (the Reciter’s Gems). Besides these his published works include the librettos of a cantata on “The Siege of Harlech,” for the Swansea Eisteddfod, and another on “The Prince of Wales” for the Carnarvon Eisteddfod, 1862. This last led to the composition of the popular air and words, “God Bless the Prince of Wales ” As there has been some misapprehension on the subject, it may not be out of place to give here Ceiriog’s own account of the circumstances: —

“The National Eisteddfod, held in Carnarvon Castle, August 26th to 30th, 1862, was brought to a close by performing Cwain Alaw’s ‘Prince of Wales Cantata.’ I had written this cantata at the request of the General Council of Yr Eisteddfod, to commemorate the birth of the first Prince in that castle, referring to the coming of age of His Royal Highness Albert Edward, our present illustrious Prince. On the morning following the Eisteddfod Mr. Brinley Richards and myself happened to call at the same time at the offices of the Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald to obtain that day’s paper containing a full report of the National Festival and the evening concerts. He congratulated me for having written the words of the cantata, which he stated had given him some satisfaction. I replied that my share of honour could be but small, and attributed the immense success of its performance — firstly, to the composer of the music; secondly, to the enthusiasm then existing generally throughout the United Kingdom on the advent of the coming of age of H.R.H the Prince of Wales. The ability of the choir and the historical associations of the place where the cantata was performed were also referred to. This led to further conversation, during which one of us said that His Royal Highness was not only coming of ago but was reported in the papers to be married shortly to the Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The Principality since its union with England had no appropriate National Anthem, but the high tide of overwhelming enthusiasm was approaching, and we decided to have something to launch, for there was a tide for songs as well as fortunes. I then expressed a wish that Mr. Richards would kindly compose music suitable to words for a national song, which I woiild endeavour to furnish him. The words were forwarded in due course, and were shortly returned to me with the music. Llew Llwyfo and several friends of mine sang them in public concerts for two months before the English version was written. In fact, the song was intended to be a purely Welsh one, and the idea of obtaining an English version was an after-thought, wliich naturally suggested itself to the composer when he was about arranging with the publishers to buy the copyright. Mr. Brinley Richards and myself had many English versions to select from before we decided on Mr. George Linley’s, and I believe Mr. Richards himself wrote the whole of the chorus part commencing ” Among our ancient mountains,’ &c. A writer in the South London Press, February, 1870, asserts the amende has to be made to Mr. George Linley, the real author of the words, or rather the gentleman who ‘did them out of the Welsh,’ and hence the reason I have entered into these details, showing that the song existed for some time purely as a Welsh one, and was becoming popular in the Principality before the English version was composed. The third verse was written at the request of the publishers, and has only appeared in their latest editions of the music.”

Mr. Richards, it seems, received £10 for the copyright of the song, and, in consequence of its popularity, was subsequently presented with £100 by the publishers. He presented Ceiriog with a ring, which was all he obtained for his share in it. In a similar way Ceiriog wrote a great many other songs and lyrics, some of them very charming, for old Welsh melodies, arranged by Messrs. John Owen, Brinley Richards, and other popular musicians, as well as for new compositions. About fifty of his songs are published in Brinley Richards’s Songs of Wales, which first appeared in 1878. He thus rendered to the national airs of Wales service similar to that done by Burns to those of Scotland, and by Moore to those of Ireland. Several of his compositions appeared also in the Traethodydd and other Welsh periodicals. Among Ceiriog’s prize compositions, not already mentioned, are an epic poem on “Sir Rhys ap Thomas,” written for the Carmarthen Eisteddfod, 1867, and a love-song, Catrin Tudor, for Bangor Eisteddfod, 1874. He also wrote a heroic poeni on Helen Luyddawg. These, and a few songs, appear to be about all the poetry he wrote during the last fourteen years of his life. During all that time, much to the regret of his countrymen, his muse was nearly silent. His hitherto unpublished works were after his death collected and published in a small volume under the title of Yr Oriau Olaf (The Last Hours, 1888). Ceiriog was also a facile and vigorous prose writer when he liked, as his excellent article on Dafydd ab Gwilym, in the Gwyddoniadur; his frequent contributions to Baner Cymru, as its regular correspondent for twenty-seven years, and one article on Dyffryn Ceiriog Folk-lore, which appeared in the Montgomeryshire Collections, abundantly testify. Ceiriog married, on the 22nd February, 1861, Anne, daughter of Thomas Roberts, chemist, the Lodge, Chirk. Of this union there were two sons and two daughters, all of whom are living. Tired of city life, and longing for a home among the Welsh mountains, he in 186-5 sought and obtained the appointment of station- master at Llanidloes. In 1870 he removed to Towyn, but did not remain long at that place. The following year he was appointed manager of the Van Railway, then just opened, and took up his residence for a short time at Trefeglwys, and afterwards at Caersws, where he spent the remainder of his days. In November, 1886, he went up to London to take part in the ceremonies attending the proclamation of the National Eisteddfod to be held there in 1887. His last public appearance was at the Holborn Town Hall, on the 11th November, 1886, when he received quite an ovation from the large gathering of his countrymen who were present. During his stay in the metropolis he caught a severe cold, which, unhappily, developed into a serious and painful illness, which finally proved fatal. He was confined to his house for several months. He died at Caersws on Saturday, the 23rd of April, 1887, and was buried the following Tuesday, at the parish church of Llanwnog. Wales has produced during the last fifty years four eminent lyric poets — Talhaiarn, Mynyddog, Islwyn and Ceiriog — but the greatest of these undoubtedly, and perhaps the greatest of all Welsh lyric poets, was Ceiriog. Some of his poems have been translated into English by himself and others; but such translations necessarily convey but a faint idea of the charm and beauty of the originals. A few months after his death the Government recognised his claims to the gratitude of the nation for his eminent services to Welsh literature, by granting to his widow a Civil List pension of £50 per annum.”

Taken from: Montgomeryshire Worthies (1894) by Richard Williams

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