Eirwen Gwynn

Welsh nationalist and writer

Tuesday 30 January 2007 01:00

Eirwen Meiriona St John Williams, political activist and writer: born Liverpool 12 December 1916; married 1942 Harri Gwynn (died 1985; one son); died Tal-y-bont, Ceredigion 25 January 2007.

Eirwen Gwynn was a Welsh nationalist whose formidable intellect and forthright opinions were put to the service of Plaid Cymru, the political party which she joined in 1930, only five years after it was founded and when she was still a schoolgirl in the Anglesey market-town of Llangefni.

Her father, a self-trained dentist, encouraged her to read widely and take an interest in current affairs. By the time she was an undergraduate at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, she was a member of the fledgling party's executive committee and acquainted with its leaders, including Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams who, in 1936, were to carry out an act of arson on the Lleyn peninsula in protest against the Government's decision to build, despite outcry in Wales, an RAF bombing-school on the lands of Penyberth, a house with recusant associations.

She had seen the flames from the window of the cottage belonging to her parents in nearby Pwllheli and later witnessed the trial of the Three Men of Penyberth at Caernarfon when the jury failed to reach a verdict; the arsonists were subsequently found guilty at the Old Bailey and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

Eirwen St John Williams was born in the Newsham Park district of Liverpool, among the large Welsh diaspora of that city, in 1916. Welsh was the language of her comfortable home and she was brought up to take pride in her family's roots in north-west Wales. She learned early on to be bold and uncompromising in the face of bullying from pupils and teachers on account of her Welsh identity and considered herself a cut above her monoglot English classmates.

By 1928 the family were living in Llangefni, where her father had a practice and where she rebelled against the predominantly English education meted out at the County School. There, while still in a lower form, she was involved in an altercation with an English mistress who had referred to the girls in her class as "Welsh scum", an incident that left an indelible mark on her growing awareness of her own Welshness. She nevertheless did exceptionally well at school and, turning down a place at Cambridge, went up to Bangor to read Physics in 1934.

In Bangor she came out of the shell in which her family's middle-class respectability had confined her, a process in which she was helped by the man she was later to marry, Harri Gwynn, one of the most talented and debonair Bohemians of his generation. On one famous occasion she and Gwynn, who as President of the Students' Council always insisted on speaking Welsh at its meetings, walked out of a student hop while the band was still playing "God Save the King", much to the consternation of the college authorities.

Her feminism, avant la lettre, also dated from this time and from one incident in particular which she never tired of relating. As the only woman in her Honours class, she had to suffer the disparaging remark from a "prejudiced lout" of an external examiner: "And what on earth are you doing here?" She blamed him for the fact that she was awarded a degree in the upper second division whereas her lecturers had confidently expected her to get a First.

As the Second World War approached and Saunders Lewis, Plaid Cymru's right-wing and Catholic leader, began showing signs of sympathy with Franco and Hitler, Harri Gwynn and Eirwen St John William were among those who formed a new group known as Gwerin ("The Common People") which, from within Plaid Cymru, tried to reconcile the principles of socialism and Welsh nationalism. The initiative attracted support from a number of leading intellectuals but came to nothing, largely because the patrician Lewis kept an iron grip on the party's ideology, and with the outbreak of war it was wound up, its leader, Goronwy Roberts, being elected as Labour MP for Caernarfonshire in 1945.

After completing her doctorate at Bangor, Eirwen St John William took a job as Head of the Physics Department at the Grammar School in Rhyl but stayed only a year. Other jobs eluded her, once because the interviewing panel had expected to see a male candidate and were unwilling to accept that a woman could have a PhD in Physics.

In 1942 she married Harri Gwynn, by now working for the Ministry of Supply in Warwick, where she soon joined him, finding employment as an assistant accountant with the Exchequer and Audit Department. In the year following both ministry and department moved back to London, where it was thought the worst of the bombing was over.

Eirwen Gwynn wrote graphically and movingly about the years she and her husband spent in Earls Court during the Blitz, during which she gave birth to their only child. An English translation of an essay describing their experience of living under aerial bombardment can be found in the anthology Illuminations (1998). In it, she explains how a cheerful English woman, a Mrs Newbould, a missionary's widow who had a flat in the same building as the Gwynns, showed exceptional kindness to the young couple and helped them get through a difficult period of their lives.

In 1950, anxious to provide a Welsh-language education for their son, they returned to Wales, taking a smallholding near Rhoslan on the largely monoglot Lleyn peninsula. Neither had experience of raising livestock and conditions there were harsh, with no electricity, running water or telephone, but by dint of hard work they made a success of it, their meagre income supplemented by Harri Gwynn's earnings as a journalist and lecturer; he later became a distinguished broadcaster on the nightly BBC news programme Heddiw ("Today") and a well-known poet in the Welsh language.

His wife, too, found a new career lecturing for the Workers' Educational Association and in broadcasting, on both radio and television. She was highly articulate in both Welsh and English and soon became known for her trenchant comments on current affairs, especially those touching on scientific subjects, family planning, abortion, space exploration, alcohol abuse, diet, the environment and "the two cultures". Libertarian in her views, she remained in warm sympathy with young people and argued the case for doing away with the sexual inhibitions which had oppressed her as a young woman.

The subject that agitated her most, however, was the Welsh language, particularly its use in the media and schools. She detested slovenly language (whether Welsh or English) and, with a few others, fought long and hard to bring pressure to bear on the broadcasting authorities to ensure that Welsh was not bastardised by the use of English words and that its elegant syntax and rich idiom should not be affected by English usage. For a few years she refused to pay her television licence while the BBC refused to accommodate her views.

She also wrote many books on quasi-scientific subjects, notably I'r Lleuad a Thu Hwnt ("To the Moon and Beyond", 1964), Priodi ("Getting Married", 1966) and Bwyta i Fyw ("Eating to Live", 1987), as well as stories and novels such as Dau Lygad Du ("Two Black Eyes", 1979), Caethiwed ("Captivity", 1981), Cwsg ni Ddaw ("Sleep will Not Come", 1982), Torri'n Rhydd ("Breaking Free", 1990) and Dim ond Un ("Only One", 1997). More than 1,500 of her articles appeared in journals such as Y Gwyddonydd ("The Scientist"), The Observer, The Sunday Times, New Scientist, New Internationalist, The Listener and Scientfic American.

Eirwen Gwynn's autobiography, Ni 'n Dau: hanes dau gariad ("Us Two: the story of two lovers", 1999), is a straightforward account of her life told with typical candour and clarity but also with animus against those who, in her judgement, had not given her husband his due as a poet. Its penultimate chapter is a discussion of her views on religion in which, unaffected by her husband's Quakerism, she rejects the dogma of orthodox Christianity, unable to reconcile its insistence on a loving God with the horrors that mankind has to suffer, but keeping an open mind on the possibility of a life hereafter.

The Gwynns' son, Iolo ap Gwynn, who teaches in the Biology Department at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, like his parents is a prominent member of Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion.

Meic Stephens

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments