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The Black Chair and the death of Hedd Wyn

Phil Carradice

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Every August the National Eisteddfod of Wales takes place, alternating between the northern and southern parts of the country.

This year, 2010, it is being held in Ebbw Vale. In 1917, with World War One still raging, it took place in Birkenhead.

The month of the Eisteddfod has changed, the days for the awarding of certain prizes may be different, but the importance of the Eisteddfod remains exactly the same. And the year 1917, in particular, retains a significance that is unique in Welsh culture.

By midday on Thursday 6 September 1917, the crowds around the Eisteddfod pavilion were standing three or four deep. There was no room to move and it seemed as if the whole of Wales had come to Birkenhead to find out who had won that year's Bardic Chair.

Thursday at the Eisteddfod was known as Lloyd George's Day and, as always, the famous politician - the only Welshman ever to become Prime Minister of Britain - had made his speech. Now it was time for the judgement.

But when the trumpets sounded and T Gwyn Jones stood up to announce the decision nobody moved. In bald, understated prose, the Western Mail later said:

"The name of the successful competitor was called and no response was forthcoming - the Archdruid, after consulting the records, announced that the successful competitor was Ellis Evans, Trawsfynydd, who had sent his composition in July last.

Since then he had been sent with his draft to France and there, like so many others, had laid down his life for his country."

Ellis Evans, writing under his bardic name of Hedd Wyn, had been killed on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele as it is better known.

Ellis had already made a name for himself in Welsh poetry, having come second in the previous year's Eisteddfod and won several local Eisteddfodau at various places across the country.

His death in battle shocked not just those present at the Eisteddfod but the whole of Wales.

A stunned silence fell over the Eisteddfod field as the news finally began to sink in. The Archdruid summed up the feelings of the gathering when he said, simply "Yr wyl yn ei dagrau a'r Bardd yn ei fedd - the festival in tears and the poet in his grave."

There could be no question of any form of investiture and amidst a funereal silence the Bardic Chair, the Chair that now belonged to the dead poet, was solemnly draped in black cloth.

Afterwards the Chair, still covered in its black cloth, was taken in solemn procession to Ellis Evans' home, the farm of Yr Ysgwrn where he had lived with his parents, brothers and sisters and where, until his enlistment in the army, he had worked as a hill shepherd.

The Birkenhead Eisteddfod of 1917 has gone down in Welsh history and folklore as "The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair."

The empty Chair, draped in its symbolic black pall, was then - and is now - seen by many as representing the thousands of other empty chairs in houses across Wales. A grieving nation took the story of Hedd Wyn and his tragic death to its heart.

The death of Ellis Evans, or Hedd Wyn to give him his bardic name, undoubtedly robbed Wales of a significant talent but it is as a symbol - of loss, of untimely death, of the futility and barbarity of war - that his story really hits home.

It is a story that still has the power to move, to cause emotion to well up in any sensitive reader. He was not a "war poet" as such but the war and its consequences were significant factors in the writing he produced just prior to his death.

The final words of this short article should, really, be Hedd Wyn's, albeit in translation. Written in 1916 they remain a poignant reminder of what had been lost and were almost a foreshadowing of his own demise barely a year later:

"The lads' wild anguish fills the breeze.
Their blood is mingled with the rain."

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