St. Piran’s Day in Penryn – A Tale of Two Extremes: Part III

In this, the final part of this short series about my experiences this St. Piran’s Day, I reproduce a second section of excerpts from the presentation I gave as part of paper at the Institute of Cornish Studies’ Keskowsow event at Penryn campus.

Breton Links:

Cornwall has long had very close established linguistic, industrial, and cultural links with Brittany, and these links form one of the integral parts of my research. 

A researcher at Rennes, specialising in Dialectology and Breton place names, Antoine Châtelier, has forwarded me a short sound clip of a ninety-three year-old native Breton speaker called Roger Allanic from Hoedic Island, off the coast of Lorient. Allanic reported to Chatelier that his Great Great Grandfather (who lived in the Napoleonic era) went to fish in Cornwall and was surprised to hear that fishermen there “spoke in Breton” (Châtelier: 2016). At this point one can assume that this may just have been instances of local fishermen counting their fish in Cornish, but it is something to examine further. It will also be fruitful to see if any other fishermen on Hoedic Island have any related hereditary tales.

It is known that archives in Brest, Quimper, Rennes and Vannes also contain documents related to exchanges of letters between Cornwall and Brittany in the nineteenth century, the language context of which needs further exploration. One such Breton example is Jean-Francois le Gonidec, a nobleman who published a work on Breton grammar in 1807 and a Breton-French dictionary in 1821 (see Piette: 2008). As an eighteen year old, it is known that le Gonidec:

” …escaped the guillotine in Brest during the suppression of Brittany’s autonomy (and) sought refuge with friends in Penzance…within a mile or so of where the last remains of the language still lingered” (Berresford Ellis: 1974: p 122).

What sort of linguistic links did he have with the area, could he make himself mutually understandable in Breton to the local people? Berresford Ellis suggests not. However, this does seem worthy of further investigation as Cornish language researcher Barnaby Carver believes that “Exchanges between Brittany and Cornwall throughout the 1800s isn’t something that I am aware of being investigated before” (Author email exchange: 23rd November 2017).

Documents unearthed in the Archives departementales du Finistere at Quimper highlight communications between John Hobson Matthews and Francois-Joseph-Claude Jaffrennou, editor of a Breton periodical, and co-founder of the Goursez Vreizh in the same year in which Hobson Matthews wrote a letter, an extract from which states:

“If I do not mistake, I am the only person that has hereditary link to Cornwelsh at all. I have learned a bit from the mouth of the late Dr. Stevens, who was a cousin of my father. He learned it from his father, Andrew Stevens, who learned it from his Grandfather, Andrew Stevens from Trevegia-Warha in the parish of Towednack” (Hobson Matthews: 1899a – translated into English by Alban Roinard)

Jaffrenou himself was a fascinating character, whose file in the archives of Archives départementales du Finistère is worthy of further exploration for wider Celtic and Cornish links. Active in the Breton Regionalist Federation and writing extensively on Breton matters, he was Grand Druid of the Goursez Vriezh from 1933-1955, a period during which he  was arrested and accused of wanting to make Brittany an independent country within Nazi Europe (adapted from Reece: 1977). 

The same archives have also revealed another piece by Jaffrennou, this time writing under his Goursez Vreizh bardic name ‘Taldir’(Wall of Steel). In it, he talks of the Cornish “patriots” he met at the 1904 Inter-Celtic Congress at Carnarvon. Within this list, he mentions J.D. Enys (Penryn), Sir. Trelawny (Liskeard), T.R. Bolithe – an error on Jaffrennou’s part, should be Bolitho – (Trengwaiton, Madron), Peter Thurston (Redruth), J.B. Cornish (Penzance), Rev J. Percy Treasure (Cheshire) and Duncombe Jewell. Jaffrennou remarks “there was an element…who made praiseworthy efforts to resume the broken thread of tradition” (1927: p 293).

It is also reported in The Western Morning News on 1st May 1924 that Trelawey Roberts, who we have already heard mention of in relation to the London Cornish Association, sent a postcard written in Cornish by an eleven year-old girl which appeared in the Breton Autonomist Party periodical Breizh Atao (Brittany Forever/Brittany Always) – this is another archive worth exploring to discover who the girl may have been.

A separate finding from France came within the archives of radical republican newspaper Le Rappel, which was founded on the initiative of Victor Hugo. In a piece entitled ‘Chez les Celtes de Cornouailles’ in dated 1902, Charles Hancock writes about the similarity of the Breton and Cornish languages, as well as the territories’ shared history and characteristics. The periodical also contained a piece by Victor Hugo, albeit published posthumously on 28th May 1889 which mentions further links between Cornwall and Brittany (ibid). The importance of these historic cultural and trading links is perhaps summed up in a contribution from the readers’ letters section of Le Rappel on 16th September 1903. Hugues Destrem from the Côtes-d’Armor port town of Treguier writes of the possibility of “peasants from Cornwall coming to Brittany” if the financial hardships being suffered across Cornwall continued. Brittany would be a chosen location for these people as a result of this shared history and language roots. It appears that further documents of interest and importance are likely to be discovered within the Breton territory.

William Barnes

Recent unpublished research by Alan Kent has brought to light the work of William Barnes, who was a Church of England priest, poet and language scholar who lived between 1801 and 1886. Barnes, Kent writes, “viewed positively the influence of Celtic and Anglo-Celtic languages and literatures.”

The Barnes Archive, at the Dorset County Museum reveals that Bernard Jones thought that Barnes had translated three poems which were originally in Cornish. The first of which, is believed to have come from the Ordinalia, and reads:

All we pray young and old,

To God always mercy with pity

That we may be preserved from the evil one

And all saved without end.

Kent believes that neither Bernard Jones or Barnes appear to have identified what the original piece of work is, but potentially the appeal to them may have come from their original rhyme and rhythm in Cornish:

Ol ny a pys yowynk ha hen,

War thu pup prys mercy gan ken,

May fem guythys rak an bylen,

Hagh ol sylwys trank hep horfen.

It is also suggested by Kent that Barnes is likely to have reproduced the version of the Ordinalia that Norris translated, which makes one assume that Barnes did little or no knowledge of the Cornish language himself.

The second extract that appears in Barnes’ work appears to come from the poem Delkyow Savy (Strawberry Leaves), which was first compiled by Thomas Tonkin in 1698. The excerpt used by Barnes is:

Where are you going, little fair maid,

With your rosy cheeks and your golden hair?

I am going a-milking, sir, she said.

The strawberry leaves make maidens fair.


Pelea era why moaz, moz, fettow, teag,

Gen agaz bedgeth gwin, ha agaz blew mellyn?

Mi a moaz tha’n venton, sarra wheag,

Rag delkiow sevi gwra muzi teag.

Note the translation of the above refers to a white face and yellow hair, and going to the well rather than milking. Again, it is thought that Barnes came through earlier work by Tonkin, Gwavas or Pryce.

The final extract, comprising of short two lines:

Hai down. Ho! Down derry, derry down.

All among the leaves so green. O!

Kent cannot find any record that this was either originally written or translated into Cornish, and indeed feels that the composition of this piece is “resolutely English”, although it was sung within Cornwall. However, potentially the most exciting find relates to a poem from 1877, ‘A British Earthwork’. The piece speaks through an archaeologist who has excavated an area. The archaeologist goes on to imagine the lives and experiences of people who would have been around the location in the past – and they appear to be speaking a form of Cornish. Three verses end in Cornish and the third verse in Welsh. Interestingly, eight years later, Thomas Hardy’s short story ‘A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork’ appeared, which has close parallels with the events of Barnes’ poem, although no use of Cornish! Kent notes that, as far as he is aware, “Cornish literary scholarship, as a whole, has failed to note this piece”, and, perhaps, more importantly, that “Cornish was not dead in the nineteenth century.”


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