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16 October 2014

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What's in a Name?

By Peter Prendergast
July 2001, Caernarfon
A digital story from Capture Wales

Welsh or not?

The painter, Peter Prendergast, questions notions of identity in his Welsh homeland, with particular reference to his surname.

"What's in a name? What is nationality? Prendergast is a Norman name taken in the 11th century to Pembrokeshire in Wales and then on to Ireland. My father, Martin Prendergast, was born and brought up in a peasant's cottage in the county of Wexford in Ireland in 1900. He had 11 brothers and sisters all except three emigrated, some to America, my father to Maesteg in Wales. They sailed by steamboat from Rosslaire harbour in about 1916. Sailing by night, they would have passed Tusca Lighthouse, the same lighthouse that years later would light up the bedroom and the bed that my brother and I shared with my Aunt Bridgie, both of us fighting not to sleep next to her, she was 70. Whilst working in Wales as a coal miner my father played hurling. He played hurling against America in Dublin. In the 1930s my father married my mother and moved to Abertridwr and worked in the Windsor Colliery. My big brother, Stewart, was born and then six years later my twin brother and I in the back bedroom one Sunday morning in October 1946.

The men in our family are all coalminers. In the 1950's our two weeks holiday was spent in Ireland. We walked in the lanes and spent our time swimming whilst our parents lay in the sand resting. In Abertridwr, my Grandfather helped build the Catholic church . The Irish attended Mass and socialised afterwards. Many were members of the local Conservative Club. There you could get a drink on a Sunday. In chapel-going Wales, Catholicism slightly isolated the Irish. On Whit Mondays, the chapels with their banners paraded through the valley. Catholics did not, they had their own party. A funny thing, this Christianity. My father worked for 46 years as a coalminer. He liked sport, walking and Irish music but he didn't like having to be a miner. Sometimes on the afternoon shift from 1.00 pm to 10.30 pm miners hardly saw the sunlight, especially in the winter. Our backyard had always been a tip full of rubbish.

The summer my father retired I went home from college. The backyard was full of flowers. My father said that he'd always wanted a garden but being a miner meant he had no energy or time. He had been working to support his family. When he retired, he spent his life watching sport, walking with my mother, and when the sun came out, sitting in his garden in his deckchair, he became a sun worshipper. So Prendergast isn't a Welsh or Irish name, it has no particular place, there are no borders. We don't own the land, we are all travellers. Roots are where we decide to put them. Culture is now, not then. The Irish think of home, but most stay where they've landed."

Peter Prendergast

Why is it important for you to question your identity?
I always considered myself to be half Irish, half Welsh, until I looked further into my own surname and realised the complexities of its Irish-Welsh-Norman origins as I explain in the story.
I think the question of Welsh identity is often based on language - who does and doesn't speak Welsh. Some people feel that outsiders threaten the language, though language and culture is important for human survival, nevertheless human beings are more important.

What was your experience in making the story?
I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making this story. But my clumsiness with things technical did make me rely on the good will of others! If I were to be given the chance again, I would do it differently and use all my own material, rather than photographs.

Did you find any similarities between telling a digital story and painting a picture?
Yes, these two processes certainly share things in common but I don't have the same level of fluency in the digital storytelling medium as I do in my own.

Your comments

"I met Peter when my art teacher at school, also a welsh artist, asked him to come over for a couple of days to do a workshop with the class.He was a great open minded man who was really enthusiastic about art (which i really took to being 17 and all!). Whilst out in the peak district which was about 10 mins up the road from School, he pushed me to realise that i worked great under pressure and produced some good work - which he did like and the little comments he did say gave me the confidence to progress into art further. I cant thank him enough and i would have been extremly happy if he was my teacher!I was saddened to find out he had passed away whilst trying to find a contact for him just to say thank you. My thoughts are to his family." Chelsea, Sheffield, Aug 2008.

"I knew Peter and his family, and, as a friend and fellow artist, he was a man who had a short tounge and a strange, slow South Walian accent but he had a heart of gold. Some of his works were mediocre but some of his works were pure, great and terrific. One of my children,who is a director in social services in Oxford, mean and hard, broke down and cried at finding out about Peter's death and blamed me for not telling him. My child knew Peter,Lesley and family and was in the same class as one of his children and Peter was always, to her, a "nice man" and always offered advice, if asked on the arts. Thanks, Peter, for the person "you was and is". " Bill Bethesda, Dec 2007.

"Peter always used to say that you didn't have to speak Welsh to be Welsh. He said by making Welsh art, he was expressing his Welshness. He was one of the most committed, kindest and - I now know - supportive people I ever came across during my education, both in school and further. " Mari Gordon, Cardiff, Sept 2007.

"My father left Co Wexford for South Wales about the same time as Peter's. The sense of loss that I am still feeling has been soothed a little by hearing his soft voice tell his story with the same candor as he painted his pictures - the pictures that he has left for us. " Kevin Sinnott, Garw Valley, Sept 2007.

"Following the sad news of Peter's death, we watched this modest film with some emotion. Peter's passionate regard for his own work and the creativity in us all will be a lasting and precious memory. " Mark and Irene, Halifax, Yorkshire, Sept 2007.

"This story reminded me of the summer we spent in a long hot wooden dormitory at Smedleys Peas in Spalding. You, Peter, were beginning your journey having been accepted into the Slade. Our love of art seemed to bond us. It is good to hear of your Irish connections." Noel Reid, Glengormley nr Belfast, Sept 2007.

"Some things run deep. I love and share the notion that we are what we are wherever we are - that it is people that matter. The rest is not worth talking about. The piece brought a lump to my throat and a warmth to my heart. Many thanks and best wishes to himself! " Jim Roache, Ottawa, ON, Canada, Sept 2007.

"It is interesting to follow the thread of something so common as a surname through the life of Peter and his family. I share his feelings and concept of identity and wanted to produce something along these lines. I have since changed my mind and found another thread to follow." Alan, Carmarthen, Sept 2007.

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