The Rosa Parks of the Welsh language movement

Meic Stephens says Eileen Beasley was a campaigner of remarkable resilience

The Rosa Parks of the language movement in Wales was a polite but steel-willed housewife who, with her husband, refused to pay rates on their house in Llangennech, Carmarthenshire, while Llanelli Rural District Council issued demands in English only.

In this Eileen and Trefor Beasley had, at first, the support of nobody but themselves. They reasoned that as they lived their lives through the Welsh language, and their village was Welsh-speaking, as were the majority of Council members, it was reasonable that they should be able to use the language in their dealings with officialdom.

But the Council, like most others in Wales in the 1950s, had never thought of providing services in Welsh. They flatly refused to comply with the Beasleys’ request, continuing to communicate with them in English only. In this they greatly underestimated the couple’s strong wills.

Bailiffs began calling at their home and removing household goods such as chairs and tables, and then the family’s piano, the carpets, the bookcases and even food from the larder, distraining goods to the value of the rates that remained unpaid.

Having bailiffs in the house was, for the law-abiding Beasleys, a distressing experience, especially as they would arrive without warning and, without consultation, take items of furniture that had been wedding presents.

Legal proceedings for the non-payment of rates were taken against the Beasleys on twelve occasions but still they would not accept demands in English. They could hardly afford to pay the fines, especially as they lived on a coal-miner’s wage and had two small children, and they stoutly refused to do so as a matter of principle.

The campaign that had begun in 1952 came to an end in 1960 when the Council grudgingly issued a Welsh form and the Beasleys promptly paid their rates. In 1958 Eileen was elected as a Plaid Cymru member of the same District Council, where she continued to press for a degree of official status for the language.

In 1962 their determination proved a stimulus to the activities of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), especially as Saunders Lewis, in his famous radio broadcast of that year, Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), singled out the Beasleys for praise and urged supporters to emulate their civil disobedience.

His aim was to persuade Plaid Cymru to adopt ‘direct action’ techniques which would win for Welsh the legal status it had enjoyed before the loss of political independence, a condition he considered essential if the language was to be saved from extinction. But Plaid Cymru felt unable to contemplate unconstitutional methods, preferring to use electoral methods only. Lewis’s other aim was to make the governance of Wales impossible while the authorities, both local and central, refused to employ Welsh for public purposes.

The challenge was taken up instead by the Cymdeithas which, over the last half-century, has played a leading role in the achievement of many important goals in such areas as broadcasting, education, the law, and local government, while Plaid Cymru has been left free to concentrate on its political agenda. Today the language is much more visible and used in an ever-increasing variety of contexts.

The Beasleys’ stand inspired a generation of young Welsh nationalists to challenge the law, for which many were fined and some imprisoned, and they remained heroes of the movement ever after. Trefor spent a week in prison for refusing to acknowledge an English-only fine for the non-payment of road-tax.

Like her husband, who was the very type of a cultured miner, widely read, politically aware and radically inclined, Eileen was highly literate; she published a selection of her short stories as Yr Eithin Pigog (The prickly gorse) in 1997.

At this year’s National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan there was an empty stall, representing the Beasleys’ living-room stripped of its furniture, which was meant to be a tribute to the courage and dignity of a couple who were well-liked and generally admired. It was a poignant reminder of what sometimes has to be done to persuade officialdom on a point of principle whenever it is a question of the public use of the Welsh language.

Catherine Eileen James, teacher and Welsh language campaigner, born Henllan Amgoed, Carmarthenshire, 4 April 1921; married Trefor Beasley (died 1994; one son, one daughter); died Henllan Amgoed, Carmarthenshire, 12 August 2012.

Meic Stephens is a poet, author, Professor Emeritus, and journalist whose autobiography, Cofnodion, was published in in August. This obituary first appeared in the Independent.

4 thoughts on “The Rosa Parks of the Welsh language movement

  1. An excellent article. Deserves to be read by all Welsh people everywhere.
    As an aside is Yr Eithin Pigog in print?

  2. The usual suspects will no doubt be along shortly to blame everything from an inconvenient pimple on the left buttock to the Fall of the House of Usher on nasty nashies “forcin’ the langwich down our kiddies’ froats!”, but the quiet, persistent dignity of the Beasleys in the face of the arrogance and cloddishness of the State apparatus should give even such nay-sayers pause for reflection.

    The Beasleys’ actions were the trigger for all of what followed, which has saved our cultural identity from being eradicated by what would at best have been a form of benign neglect. Whilst some might think the comparison with Rosa Parks a little far-fetched (after all, Welsh-speakers never were actually lynched, although the people who took part in the early Cymdeithas protests in and around Aberystwyth might have wondered if they would be the first), theirs was an act of consciousness raising which has always been – and will always be – an essential factor in any struggle for human rights, be they cultural, racial, sexual or social.

  3. Fine obituary Meic. The great problem is that the complacent Anglo historians who stalk the corridors of our universities, and the sycophantic Brits who control our media, deliberately ignore the cases of people like Eileen Beasley, who stood up for human rights, and basic provisions and respect. Like Hywel Dda, our ancient princes, Glyndwr, Tryweryn, and other seminal moments and characters, Eileen simply didn’t tick the boxes of respectability that our educational curriculum demands. She didn’t conform to type, and was therefore scratched from history. Remember, always, it is ‘their’ history not ours! If the Assembly has anything about it, it will celebrate Eileen’s life through some form of commemoration. Somehow, however, I doubt this will happen, as it would ‘upset’ the conservative apple-cart, and we can’t have that, can we?

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