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A short history of the Celtic Congress

Mari Ellis

The Celtic Congress first met in 1917, convened by E. T. John M. P. during the National Eisteddfod at Birkenhead. It’s true that there were gatherings of Celts at the very beginning of the century. The Celtic Association invited Celts to Dublin in 1901 after the successful meeting at the ’national Eisteddfod in Liverpool in 1900. The Welsh contingent included the Gorsedd of Bards. Wales issued an invitation to Caernarfon in 1904, and again, grand ambitious gatherings were held. There was, however, no central organisation, an that is what E. T. John had in mind when he issued an invitation to all the Welsh societies to send delegates to the Birkenhead meeting, and he organised lectures by leading Celtic scholars. After much correspondence, he finally secured S. P. MacEnri, a lecturer in modern Irish at the University College, Galway; the Reverend G. W. Mackay of Killin, Perthshire; Pierre Mocaer of Brest and T. Gwynn Jones.

E. T. John was President of the Birkenhead Eisteddfod, and he was also President of the Union of Welsh Societies. It was with the machinery of this Union that he organised the meetings of the Celts. He told the secretary, D. Rhys Phillips of Swansea that he did not like the term Pan-Celtic, and would prefer to talk of a Celtic Conference and an ultimate Celtic Union or League. He was ambitious in his ideas, having two Lords and an Honourable to preside at different meetings, issuing invitations to 300 people, including both Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, Members of Parliament, all the Welsh ministers of religion from Merseyside, besides the editors of all relevant newspapers. At the Reception, Scottish Pipers, a harpist and vocalists entertained the guests. Delegates from Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Brittany and Wales came to the conference. It was decided to form a Celtic Union and provisional committee was elected to make the arrangements for the next conference. The annual meeting was to be held during the National Eisteddfod.

The Congress came into being during the National Eisteddfod, and continued for some years in close connection with it. Some leading Breton and Irishmen were already members of the Gorsedd of Bards and used to attend regularly. Lord Ashbourne of Trinity College, Dublin addressed the assembly in Welsh at Corwen in 1919. Henry Jenner, a Cornishman who worked in the British Museum Library was received into the Gorsedd in 1904 with the Bardic title of Gwas Myhal. The Breton poet Taldir, Francois Jaffrennou had already headed a delegation seeking permission to found Gorsedd Llydaw in 1900.

A group photograph was taken at Birkenhead, but unfortunately it has not been traced. A photograph which has survived is one taken in the Isle of Man where the Congress met in 1921. It was a grand assembly. Among those who can be identified are Mr. and Mrs. E. T. John, Miss Agnes O’Farrelly, Miss Mai Roberts, Miss Mona Douglas, Dr. Douglas Hyde and the Reverend J. Dyfnallt Owen. These are names which occur frequently in the correspondence between E. T. John and the secretaries of the various countries. Miss Mai Roberts was E. T. John’s Private Secretary from 1917 until his death in 1931. Her letters reveal a most pleasing personality, tactful, efficient and humorous. Her sister, Miss Priscilla M. Roberts was later to become the secretary of the Welsh Branch and an active member for many years.

Miss Agnes O’Farrelly took a prominent part in early arrangements, and in 1925 she was appointed Honorary General Secretary. Up till then, D. Rhys Phillips had acted as secretary, but presumably he did not attend committee meetings, and he was dismissed by E. T. John, according to a summary of his achievements. Agnes O’Farrelly had two assistant secretaries, A. O. Roberts of Penrhyndeudraeth and Pierre Mocaer of Brest. The latter was a well-known literary figure, writing in his native language, in French and in Welsh. Agnes O’Farrelly was a lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin. She had been on the executive committee of the Irish League and of the Ulster Gaelic Union and had published works in Irish and in English. Her voluminous correspondence, in her flamboyant handwriting is in the E. T. John collection at the National Library of Wales. IN a group photograph taken during the Bangor Congress, 1927, she can be seen as a middle-aged lady in a cloche hat, in contrast with Mona Douglas, a much younger person, also in a cloche had, and a very youthful, pretty Mai Roberts.

In 1925 the Congress was held in Dublin, where Agnes O’Farrelly had secured the services of Dr. Douglas Hyde, the future President of …ire, and Dr. Osborne Bergin as speakers. She asked E. T. John for the names and addresses of the principals of the four colleges of the University of Wales. “You will see they are an extraordinarily non-Celtic crowd” was E. T. John’s comment when he sent her the list. M. Jaffrennou and his wife were anxious to attend, but could not afford d the expense, as in France everyone was “hit hard over the present financial crisis”. Ireland was prepared to give them hospitality if money could be found to pay their travelling expenses. “They are the most picturesque figures we can have,” wrote Agnes O’Farrelly with her usual enthusiasm. Replying, E. T. John agreed that funds should be available for their travelling expenses, but he had had to promise their fares to Ernest Rhys, Dr. Vaughan Thomas and Saunders Lewis, as well as free accommodation in Dublin. Immediately after the Congress, demands for expenses came pouring in. Dan Matthews who had brought his drama company across, wrote complaining at the delay, and in August, Ernest Rhys was still awaiting his cheque from Dublin. Jaffrennou was particularly aggrieved, casting doubts on the sincerity of the officers. Agnes O’Farrelly sent a cheque for £45, (“which we all think excessive, but to which we are committed, alas…”) to E. T. John, asking him to send it on to the Bretons, who were “a heavy charge, but we have learned a lesson, and in a way it was worth getting them”.

The Treasurer of the Congress was Lachlan MacBean, editor of the Fifeshire Advertiser and author of many publications. One of the most useful reference books he compiled was The Celtic Who’s Who (1921). In the Preface he states that the need for such a compilation arose when the Congress was held in Edinburgh in May 1920.

Although Cornwall had been admitted as a member country of the Pan-Celtic Association in Caernarfon in 1904, no Cornish representative was invited to the initial meeting in Birkenhead in 1917, and no mention of the country occurs in the early letters. This was probably because no one spoke the Cornish language. However the matter had evidently been brought before the Congress and accordingly E. T. John wrote to R. Morton Nance of Carbis Bay asking for a venue for the Congress to meet in 1926. Nance was taken by surprise, and asked for further information about the Congress, and was told that Miss Mona Douglas of the Isle of Man would come to help and advise them. Later Nance wrote to say that an Old Cornwall Society had been formed in Penzance, and he promised to organise a Congress. But in July, at the height of the “Cornish season” he foresaw great difficulty in accommodating the Members. Writing to Professor W. J. Gruffyddof Cardiff, E. T. John invited him to address the Congress, at the same time acknowledging that “You regard the area as to negligible a factor to merit this measure of attention”, but he had two things in mind. The first was to pay a compliment to Dr. Henry Jenner, Gwas Myhal of the Gorsedd and the author of the Handbook of the Cornish Language (1904) among other books and pamphlets of Celtic interest. The second factor was that Wales required another twelve months in which to prepare for an adequate Congress. W. J. Gruffydd was unable to oblige, so E. T. John wrote inviting the Reverend G. Hartwell Jones to speak on Early Celtic Missionaries. The choice of subject, he explained was unusually difficult, as the main interest of the Congress was in the Celtic languages, and “that is so irrelevant to local conditions”. Despite all the preparations, the Congress had to be cancelled because of the General Strike in May.

Cornwall was to send a representative to the Bangor Congress in 1927. Charles Henderson wrote to Mai Roberts about “a remarkable man named Watson who lives at Redruth… who has the right pronunciation and accent. Unfortunately his position—a working gardener—does not enable him to travel on the score of expense.” He had learnt French and Breton by associating with the onion-sellers.

While the preparations for the Bangor Congress were in full swing, a query reached Mai Roberts from Scotland; was the Congress to be held in Bangor or in Brittany? they Audi nominated delegates to a Breton festival. Mai wrote back stating categorically “The official Congress is the one that meets in Bangor July 18-27… the Brittany Congress is a whim of M. Jaffrennou and most unimportant… Scotland is the only Celtic area which is to be represented there.” Nevertheless such was the appeal in Scotland of the Breton organisers, that Neil Ross of Laggan maintained that they “had stolen a march on Bangor.” Dr. Mary Williams of Swansea wrote regarding Jaffrennou’s “opposition” Congress: “I feel I ought to say that from the Breton scholar’s point of view, he would rank in Brittany with such men as Morieu or Cadrawd in this country, good Welshman, but not of the first rank.”

In those spacious days, the meetings of the Congress usually lasted about ten days. Mai Roberts was surprised that Glasgow proposed to contain the Congress of 1929 inside one week. “I explained to them,” she reported to E. T. John, “that the delegates from other Celtic countries would never come as far as Glasgow for such a short time, and that we generally found that ten days were far too short for all that required to be done.” Scotland were inviting 28 delegates, ten each from Ireland and Wales, six from Brittany and one each from the Isle of Man and Cornwall. The National Party of Scotland made tentative enquiries before the Glasgow Congress, whether anything could be done there to further the interests of the Party. E. T. John explained the non-political nature of the Congress, but inviting those interested to come to hear the new President, Dr. Douglas Hyde. However, when he was discussing whom to invite to speak for Wales with Mai Roberts earlier in the year, he concurred the choice of Saunders Lewis, “the most capable critic of Modern Welsh Poetry”, and added that his visit to Glasgow might “enable him to come into closer and fuller touch with the Scottish Nationalist Movement.”

Ambitious meetings of the Congress continued to be held during the thirties. De Valera consented to become Patron and Agnes O’Farrelly continued as secretary. In 1935, when Cardiff was the venue, Mortimer Wheeler gave a lantern lecture on Maiden Castle. During a Banquet at the Park Hotel, the B. B. C. Western Region broadcast the proceedings.

In Edinburgh conference in 1937, Dr. Pol DiverrÈs represented Brittany and read a paper on The Situation of the Breton Language. He had been on the staff of the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and was then on the staff of the University College, Swansea. Mme DiverrÈe was a Welshwoman and a notable singer. Mrs. Eluned Bebb had a snapshot photograph of them, with their son Armand taken at the Quimper Congress in 1924. With them is Ambrose Bebb, wearing a broad-brimmed Breton hat; and Mai Roberts. Dr. DiverrÈs delivered a lecture on The Isle of Man in early Welsh Literature at the Congress on the island in 1938, and R. Morton Nance spoke on the Cornish language. At that Congress, simultaneous meetings were held in different halls, so that members had a choice of lectures, debates and discussions. It was a very well-attended Congress, with a large Welsh delegation.

Cornwall was particularly unfortunate in the choice of dates. After the cancellation in 1926, the next date chosen was September 1939. It was not until 1950 that Cornwall managed to act as host to the Congress. A group-photograph of the assembly at Truro was printed in the Souvenir Programme of the Penzance Congress 1982. The Cornish Gorsedd, however had been inaugurated at Boscawen-Un in 1928 by the Archdruid Pedrog, when Henry Jenner was installed as Barth Mur.

During the fifties the Welsh Branch ceased to function for a while and no delegates attended the Congress at Truro in 1956. A deputation went to the National Eisteddfod at Langefni, in 1957, seeking to revive interest. Professor J. E. Caerwyn Williams was appointed President, Mrs. Eluned Bebb, Treasurer and Miss Priscilla M. Roberts, Secretary. Since then the Branch has been attending Congresses regularly and acting as host in Aberystwyth 1960, Cardiff 1967, and Bangor 1972, Carmarthen 1978 and this year again in Aberystwyth.

Mari Ellis


From the Proceedings of the 1983 Aberystwyth Congress. Grateful thanks to Mary Ellis for her kind permission to use this article to promote the Celtic Congress.
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