Friday, July 23, 2010

The Girl's Choir of Gaiman in Capel Gad at Cilcain near Mold

Last night I went to Capel Gad in Cilcain near Mold. It's a long time since I've been in a chapel. I'd forgotten the attractive simplicity: the plain cream walls, the undecorated rectangular windows and the functional pulpit. Four lanterns hung down from the high ceiling and yet seemed to light the entire room. There were no balconies, few wall hangings, just the dark pews with hard wood seats.

I remembered the chapel services I'd endured as a child, and how they'd seemed to go on forever. I shifted in my seat and looked at the programme with Hodmandod Senior. It seemed quite long, and it was all in Welsh.

"Sorry," I said.

He smiled and pointed to where the words of a couple of hymns were written, in their entirety, in Welsh.

"Looks like we're going to have to do a Redwood." I said, remembering the notorious incident when John Redwood, as Welsh minister was forced to stand and show he didn't know the words of the Welsh National Anthem in front of a television audience of millions.

Gradually the place started to fill. The old pews took exactly four people each and creaked with the unaccustomed weight. Soon the ushers were having to pick out spaces and directing people to the front. The organiser, Edward Williams, had warned me they were running out of tickets earlier in the week, and so I'd asked him to keep a couple aside. We counted the number of heads: Hodmandod Senior estimated at least 240. The concerts in Capel Gad are often quite popular, but this one was proving to be one of the most popular so far. The attraction was the Ladies' Choir from Gaiman in Patagonia.

I'd already introduced them in Llangollen, and seen then how they fascinated. I'd been warned not to expect much from my audience, that people tended not to listen as well to outdoor speakers, so I had kept careful watch as I'd spoken, ready to curtail things if anyone showed signs of being bored. But they didn't, so I kept going. Clearly the story of how there came to be this settlement of Welsh people in the middle of a desert in Spanish-speaking Argentina intrigues others just as it intrigued me.

Most Welsh people have heard of their Patagonian cousins at school, but know little more about the early years of the colony, or even why they went there. It is an heroic tale and a triumphant one and as I listened to the choir last night I wondered how much the members of this choir knew about their ancestors that landed on a bleak beach almost 150 years ago - perhaps not any more than I know about the details of the lives of my own ancestors (that is very little).

Little is generally known about the lives of ordinary people, unless they leave diaries or tell their children tales of their lifetime adventures. Fortunately, some of the Patagonian settlers did both of these things, and I was able to interview some of the older descendants, who had heard the tales, when I went over to Patagonia in 2004. I've incorporated some of those stories in my novel, and used the facts I'd gleaned from accounts of their lives to reconstruct what happened.

Some of the themes of the story: 'Promised land', 'wilderness', 'suffering' seem biblical, and it seemed apt last night to be thinking of all this again in Capel Gad. The Patagonian Ladies choir, which at one stage was joined by the local choir from Cilcain, and also several talented Patagonian male soloists, sang the Welsh hymns I imagine the settlers could have sung. With the 160 settlers there were three ministers, so there must have been no shortage of services.

The choir also sang in Spanish - stirring folk songs and exciting modern songs composed for them by their accompanist Hector MacDonald, son of their director, Edith MacDonald. The time went quickly, and after a few minutes I didn't notice the hardness of the seat at all. All were spectacularly successful and strangely moving and the performers were given a standing ovation.

Billy Hughes from Patagonia sang the patriotic Cymru Fach and then joined a very good local soloist, Malcolm Williams, in a series of stirring duets and we all rose to sing the final three songs together including Calon Lân and Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. A woman in front of us waved a flag, and I don't think I've ever been prouder to be Welsh.

'Wonderful, isn't it?' I said to Hodmandod Senior, and he nodded - even though he is English.


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