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Chwedlau o Abergwaun i Ddulyn | Folk Tales from Fishguard to Dublin

Published onMar 25, 2021

The Mermaid and the Shoemaker

‘Breeches, peticoats, shirts, shifts, blankets, sheets (for some received the news in bed), have been most woefully defiled in south Wales lately on hearing that a thimble-full of French men landed on our coast. I hope that you will have the goodness to compassionate our unfortunate wash-women.’

Iolo Morganwg to William Owen Pughe, 7th March 1797

In 1922 the Great Western Railway published a booklet called Legend Land, a collection of folk tales designed to encourage people to use the train to explore the mythology of south-west Wales and Cornwall before taking the ferry to Ireland. A similar ploy was attempted by Visit Wales in 2017 which they designated as Blwyddyn Chwedlau, the Year of Legends: this involved Cerys Matthews opening a major exhibition at the National Library and a firework display on Aberystwyth promenade to accompany the return of the drowned inhabitants of Cantre’r Gwaelod. The author of Legend Land, Lyonesse, writes sweetly in the introduction, ‘All people should like the old stories; all nice people do.’

Lyonesse was the pseudonym of George Basil Barham, who worked for the East Midlands Electric Wiring Co., the National Telephone Company, the Ministry of Food, and was author of The Development of the Incandescent Electric Lamp, along with several novels set in the west Midlands. Perhaps not the usual qualifications for a writer of folklore, but he included a selection of famous Welsh folk tales, including The Lady of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach, St David and his Mother, The Vengeance of the Fairies (Pennard Castle), The Old Woman who Fooled the Devil (Devil’s Bridge), How Bala Lake Began, and The Women Soldiers of Fishguard.

The latter is the well-known tale of the three-day invasion of Wales by a raggle-taggle army of 1400 soldiers from revolutionary France on 22 February 1797. The story is so famous in Pembrokeshire that it has been documented in history books and children’s literature, re-enacted on major anniversaries, made into a tapestry inspired by Bayeux, turned into a miniature wargame, and built out of lego. It’s the stuff of fairy tale, an endlessly changing story that for two hundred years has bonded a community and continues to attract armies of tourists to invade Legend Land.

The history of the invasion is usually told from the point of view of military leaders, while the folk tale focuses on the heroism of the local shoemaker, Jemima Nicholas, colloquially known as Jemima Fawr, a formidable woman renowned for breaking up bar-fights, who reputedly rounded up twelve drunken soldiers and locked them in St Mary’s Church. There is, though, another story that lurks in the darker recesses of the folkloric mind, of a mermaid who lived on the very same cliffs where the invaders landed.

Early in the evening of 22 February 1797, she hauled herself onto the rocks at Carregwastad Point, shook herself dry, and watched as four ghostly ships with glowing white sails loomed out of the twilight from the direction of Strumble Head. They anchored offshore, and a flotilla of boats crammed with soldiers and equipment rowed towards the shore. She pulled out a bottle of madeira and took an indelicate swig. She had stashed several crates in caves and crannies all over Carregwastad after rescuing them from a Portuguese wine ship called ‘Friends’ that sank in a storm the December before. She combed her tangled seaweedy hair with a crab claw borrowed from one of Mr James’s pots, stared at her reflection in a green glass lobster float, and realised she was a little drunk. Maybe that was why she didn’t look like the mermaids with flowing golden-hair so beloved of picture-book illustrators.

The mermaids of Bae Ceredigion have had an alcohol problem ever since a local farmer acquired a magic handmill from the devil in exchange for a suckling pig. He was a man of simple needs, so he made three wishes, for beer, women and a little salty fish for his tea. The handmill began to grind and his kitchen filled with beer and fish-women but he didn’t know how to stop it. The door burst open and a river of beer and mermaids flowed down into the sea, where he drowned. The mill is still on the seabed to this day, grinding out beer and salt, which explains why swimming in Cardigan Bay sometimes feels like you’re diving with drunken mermaids. Some 90 years before, she had been caught in a net by some fishermen who kept her captive in Mr Mortimor’s wine cellar at Trehowel farm. She slept in an iron tub filled with sea water, and was forced to perform like a sea lion in a peepshow, in exchange for fish soup to which she added sweet milk to make it more palatable. They called her Morforwyn. She never had a name.

One night, one of the men touched her where he shouldn’t, and she lashed out with her tail and flattened him against the wall. She told him he had no right to keep her imprisoned and he must return her to the sea, or he would be cursed horribly. And anyway, she might look virginal but mermaids are long-lived and she was over a hundred years old and had been around. He realised he had been cruel and inappropriate with an octagenarian, so he carried her down the cliff and released her into the sea where she was warmed in the embraces of her sisters from Llanina, Llanychaearn, and Gwbert. In return, she promised to warn the farmers and fishermen of storms, plagues or invasions.

And here she was, Morforwyn, another century later, her belly warmed by wine, tail curled around her shoulders for comfort as she watched a flotilla of small rowing boats approach Carregwastad. An army of soldiers climbed out and crawled around the cliffs like confused ants, some wearing British uniforms dyed dark blue, with enough muskets and equipment for two armies. Though one small boat was plundered by her sisters, and its cargo of ammunition stashed in an underwater cave for later use.

She had little interest in wars over who owned what land. The sea has no borders, only sharks and poisonous anemones whose personal space she avoided. She would have left these irrelevant men to kill each other, were it not for the promise she made to the James and Mortimer families of Trehowel and Trenewydd to warn them of impending danger. And that included invasion.

She lured the farmers and fishermen to the clifftop with a sweet siren-song which was actually a rude sea shanty, but no one noticed the difference. They looked down on the masts of the four phantom ships and the gathering blue army and knew this was the invasion they had feared ever since the Black Prince bombarded Fishguard with cannonballs 20 years earlier, thinking the locals wouldn’t fire back. They did, though.

A girl, a quick runner, was sent with a message to Tregwynt Mansion where the local gentry and militia were engaged in a ballroom dance. The commander of the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry excused himself and rode to the Fort to inform his superior that the French were invading, while the wealthy folks barricaded the doors and windows, and buried their treasure and jewels in the manicured gardens. And this is where history follows one misty path, and folk tale another.

Morforwyn finished her madeira, wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, belched and scrabbled around in the clefts in the rocks in search of another bottle. As she bit off the cork with her teeth, she noticed a couple of soldiers hauling a chest up the cliff below her. She sang her sweet shanty, lured them closer and offered them a drink. Their eyes blazed with lechery, but silly men like these could easily be enchanted, and soon they were drunk as her sisters, who were busy dragging more soldiers to watery graves in the sea below.

The wine loosened the tongues of the two men who explained they were from La Légion Noire, a regiment of criminals, prisoners, deserters, sex-offenders, activists, innocents and general scum under the command of William S. Tate, a Wexford man who had emigrated to America to serve with the 4th Artillery Regiment of South Carolina during the War of Independence. He fled to Paris where he met Wolfe Tone, and inspired by the ongoing revolution, they decided a similar republican government would work in Ireland. After a failed attempt at invading England in December 1796, they set off again two months later, but were blown off course. The soldiers couldn’t understand Tate’s orders because he spoke no French, only an indecipherable American Irish. It was shambolic, so they decided to go pillaging and looting instead. Exhausted with drink and talk, the two men fell into a drunken stupor.

As dawn broke on the morning of the 23rd, Morforwyn wrapped herself in a blue cloak borrowed from one of the soldiers, and set off for town. She passed a burning hayrick, watched a cottage being plundered for provisions, noticed a small battalion being marched by Jemima the shoemaker and her pitchfork, and heard gunfire as a grandfather clock at Brestgarn Farm was shot when its ticking was mistaken for the cocking of a firelock. She lured a group of soldiers to Trehowel Farm, and locked them in the cellar where she’d been imprisoned all those years ago and where she stashed some Portuguese wine in preparation for John Mortimer’s wedding. It all seemed a bit Whisky Galore until she found herself consoling a farm-girl who had been raped, and helped bury her husband who had been shot trying to save his wife. It was time to call her sisters.

The following morning, 24 February, two armies lined up on Goodwick Sands. There had been a number of battles and the Welsh found themselves outnumbered 2 to 1, so the soldiers were ordered to walk round and round to give the impression there were more of them than there were. Tate knew the French were being tricked, but what concerned him more was the 400 women with blue and red woollen shawls covering their heads and shoulders, standing and staring, and carrying weapons and ammunition from the boat that sank during the landing. He had been told Welsh women were noted for their ferocity, but even more terrifying was the fact that protruding from beneath the women’s cloaks were –  tails!

Believing his troops to be inefficient and outnumbered, Tate surrendered his sword at the Royal Oak Inn to bring an end to the two and a half day war. His soldiers, many of them ‘very ill of a flux’ after being defeated by a heady mix of madeira and mermaids, were loaded into boats and taken to Fishguard, and then to jail in Haverfordwest to await deportation.

This film of the 150th anniversary in 1947 comes from Richard Hughes’s parents who ran the Fishguard and Goodwick Historical Society for many years. It came into their possession in the 1980s from Huw Thomas of Dyffryn, Dinas cross who may have acquired it from a chemist in Goodwick just after WW2.

Many thanks to Mr Hughes for giving permission for the use of this film.  

A hundred years passed in the time it takes for a mermaid’s heart to beat once, and Morforwyn watched again as the centenary of the Last Invasion was celebrated with a marching band and a procession of 89 women dressed in long red cloaks and tall Welsh hats, which Mrs Mason of Prospect House had borrowed from Nanny Ffynnon Carn. Morforwyn’s memory might have been a little imperfect after a century of drinking Portuguese wine, but she was sure most of the women wore blue cloaks during the invasion. Red cloaks only appeared in Wales around the mid 1800s, while tall hats were worn mostly by gentry on horseback. Nor did Jemima’s army of women march round in order to fool the French into thinking they were Redcoats. They just stood there looking menacing, slapping their tails on the sand.

In the 1950s, in the aftermath of yet another war, Morforwyn became weary of men and their violent ways, and decided it was time to leave the Welsh utopia. She wrapped herself in the long blue cloak she had worn throughout the invasion, dug up the gold and jewels that had been buried by the wealthy folk at Tregwynt Mansion, packed the last few crates of Portuguese madeira onto a tramp steamer, and emigrated to America like so many dispossessed before her. She jumped ship at the entrance to the Hudson, crossed the border with no need for a passport, and booked into a room with an en-suite bathtub at the Chelsea Hotel. She wandered around Greenwich Village where the cats were too stoned to notice her tail, she drank beer in the White Horse with Dylan the poet, sipped cappuccino in Reggio’s with Dylan the protest singer, and when her money ran out she swam up the Elizabeth River and settled in New Jersey.

And she may still be there, for when a construction crew demolished a wall at the nearby Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University a few years ago, they discovered a hidden stash of bottles of Portuguese madeira from 1796, the same year the wine ship sank off Strumble Head. And wherever there’s Portuguese madeira, there’s sure to be a Fishguard mermaid close by.

References and Reading

The Last Invasion Tapestry
The story of the invasion as a miniature wargame
Lego version
Michael Freeman, 1797 the Fishguard Invasion (Welsh Costume website)
Britain’s Last Invasion, The History Press
Phil Carradice, Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard, 1797 (Pen & Sword History, 2019)
Brian John, Pembrokeshire Folk Tales (Newport: Greencroft, 5 vols)
Pamela Horn, History of the French Invasion of Fishguard 1797 (Preseli, 1980)
John Kinross, Fishguard Fiasco An Account of the Last Invasion of Britain (Tenby: H.G.Walters, 1974)
‘Lyonesse’ (George Basil Barham), Legend Land (GWR, 1922)
Daniel Rowlands, The Fishguard Invasion or Three Days in 1797 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892)
Peter Stevenson, Ceredigion Folk Tales (Stroud: The History Press, 2014)
Peter Stevenson, Welsh Folk Tales (Stroud: The History Press, 2017)
J.E. Thomas, Britain’s Last Invasion Fishguard 1797 (Stroud: The History Press, 2017)

25 March 2021

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