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The Bardsey Boat Lament

D. Roy Saer.

I heard a shout over the deep salt water –
It was a cry full of sadness from Bardsey –
A shout above the roar of a cruel wind
And the great tumult of the sea;
The shout of widows and orphans,
A throng of the weak: the lives
Of [their] husbands and fathers ended in the waves,
On the eddies, rocks and cross-currents.

The last day of November,
Chilled by a rough wind,
[In the year] eighteen hundred and twenty two
Brought news of a thwarted journey;
A swift boat under sail,
Stoutly outfitted with the best craftsmanship
[Sailed] from Porth Meudwy towards Bardsey
Over the roaring watery flow.

Twenty people
And their valued possessions
[Were] in the boat when they set out
Along the frighteningly steep shore;
Pen–y–cil sheltered them,
Gave them a westerly haven;
They reached the southerly mouth of the Sound,
And sailed past, a difficult passage.

See, the sun's light was fading,
The moon was rising, its visage pale,
The wind was blowing from the west,
A terrible storm, a dreadful hour,
Like a boiling cauldron, the swollen sea
Defeated the skill of the sailors. Who can know
The full measure of their exhaustion?

A turbulent foaming sea wailed;
Mighty waves reared,
Then crashed down;
Higher its [the sea's] roar than thunderclaps
Or the sound of gunfire in battle:
Let not a storm such as this ever reach Bardsey,
Flourishing island!

Now the boat has very nearly
Reached the sanctuary of the Cafn;
Here is Death opening
His dreadful rapacious maw;
He, [our] captain on land or sea –
He will gain his ends;
Unto him all are equal,
Chance kills them, the grave swallows them.

There was scarcely an anchor's length of rope
Between [the boat] and its landing–place
When, in a great tumult of confusion,
It struck against a great rock;
Its side was shattered by the blow,
Hideous grief, sad wound;
It is everyone’s duty to be always vigilant –
Oh how blessed the Christian faith!

Why, oh breeze, do you bestir yourself?
If you should bend and break the Supply
And destroy such a tiny ship,
[You] will be met with anger, complaint and disgrace;
Throw the rocks into the tempest,
Scatter them, oh roaring wind;
Be a helpmeet to the sailships:
You will be praised on your well–deserved journey.

The wind and waves are [simply] servants;
Undoubtedly they fulfil the law
And the will of our Creator;
The sound of His strength is in their being;
When he says "Be you valiant!"
They obey His powerful word;
And if they must, in causing affliction,
Also drown [people], they obey.

Six were sucked into Death's jaws
[But] Providence allowed fourteen
To gain the shore –
They fared well, God took their part;
In their nature, such bitter accidents
Show the sons of men
So very, very clearly
That Death may come in any guise.

Thomas Williams, the ship's captain
Has today reached journey's end,
His career it has ended
On the sea floor, such chilling work;
His daughter Sidney’s fate was similar,
Exactly so in time and place;
How pitiful for her to lose her life,
A cruel blow, in sight of shore.

If human strength or ingenuity,
Or exertion, had aught availed,
Ellis Gruffudd would not have perished
In the vehement stormy seas,
Nor Dafydd Thomas of Pantfali
In the wild and salty water;
The sea threw those of lesser promise,
At its height, to the safe slope.

The bodies of these four were rescued
And received into their graves
This is where we all shall travel –
Oh how pitiful death's visage!
But even if the flesh shall perish,
There’s a House held in reserve
For the just by divine grace:
From the tomb they will be freed.

But John Jones and William Williams,
Blameless names, are in the waves;
Such further cause of pain and suffering,
Oh! so sad, in many a breast;
There their bones they will be scattered:
Gathered, carried, every one
When the trumpet sounds above the deep,
"Rise, you dead! 'Tis Judgement Day!"

Merciful Father, full of gentleness,
Your true and tender habit is
To bless in full life's tribulations
As a warning to those still alive;
May those who survived the voyage
Live in awe and fear of Thee,
And let the holy Word be to them
A rule and counterbalance to their conscience.

Widows have been given a plenitude
Of your blessings, gifts of grace;
To bewildered widowed men
You have been a tender and faithful Father;
Let the same mercy once again
Swiftly dawn in [your] gentle countenance;
May the widows and orphans of Enlli
Experience it and its peace.

May soberness prevail through the island,
To your Word, success and easy praise;
Draw its people to the true refuge
[That’s] in the peace of justification by faith;
May their prayer be, every second
[Sailing] the tumultuous sea:
"Lord, close your fists
On the wind and waves, keep the door fast".

Turn sailors' hearts
In the four corners of the world
To acknowledge and to believe
That all power resides in you;
Show them there is no other sanctuary,
No other haven, but the Man
Who knows the names and number of the stars,
The number and the weight of the drops of water.


The Bardsey Boat Lament

SFNHM Tape 820. Collected 7.10.64 from William Jones (blacksmith, b. 1906), Aberdaron, Caernarvonshire.


Stanza 11 was the only one remembered at the time by the singer but the complete text was later obtained from a nineteenth century 'ballad' leaflet.

The song is a lament for six people drowned on the last day of November 1822, when the local boat 'Supply' sank near Bardsey Island, some four miles out from Aberdaron. The first part stirringly recounts the journey and accident; the remainder moralises upon the tragedy as a fulfilment of Divine ordinance and mourns each of the dead in turn, before closing with a prayer. A profusion of internal rhymes and often intricately ordered alliteration displays the cynghanedd embellishment which has been prominent in Welsh verse for centuries; however, preoccupation with these phonetic devices appears to have made the elegy verbose and pompous. Its author was Evan Pritchard (1769–1832), better known by his bardic designation, 'leuan Lleyn'. A native of Bryncroes, just a few miles inland from Aberdaron, he fulfilled an acknowledged role as a local poet; he also competed at eisteddfod meetings further afield, and some of his hymns eventually gained national popularity. Cf. the melody with the 'Diniweidrwydd' tunes in JWFSS, ii, 171–3, and especially the Caernarvonshire example (alongside the text of 'Y Pren Gwyrddlas') in JWFSS, i; 36.


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