This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo
THE STAR OF GOMER
1 January 1814: Seren Gomer, Welsh periodical, first published by Joseph Harris.
Wales today supports a lively publishing scene, with some 80 or more newspapers and periodicals published in the country. But the newspaper was a late arrival on the Welsh scene. Even though Wales entered the 1800s with a highly literate population, conditions within the country slowed the development of a native newspaper industry.
Back then, even more so than today, newspapers depended on the sale of advertisements to make ends meet, and the widespread poverty in the country made it difficult to generate a dependable ad revenue. Sales were also hurt by the tax (a version of the Stamp Act that the Americans had revolted against) which boosted the price of a newspaper by 4 pence, making the cost prohibitive to most working people. The very geography of Wales worked against newspapers - the rugged terrain in many parts of the country plus the lack of good roads severely limited the ability of a publisher to get his papers distributed over a wide area.
Demographic and economic realities dictated that such papers that did come out would be in the more populated southern parts of the country. In 1804 the first weekly paper in Wales, the Cambrian, was published out of the developing commercial center of Swansea, from which it could be sent by boat to towns along the coast as well as up into the valleys of Glamorgan. The modest success of the Cambrian soon inspired other English-language papers: the North Wales Gazette printed in the town of Bangor in 1808 and the Carmarthen Journal in 1810.
Finally, on 1 January 1814 Joseph Harris took the bold step of launching a Welsh-language weekly, Seren Gomer (the Star of Gomer) in Swansea. A Welsh-language poet as well as a Baptist minister, Harris had taken the biblical name of Gomer as his Welsh bardic name, and in turn gave the name to his newspaper.
Harris' ambitions for his paper were big ones, considering the obstacles he faced. Apart from being the first-ever Welsh-language weekly, Seren Gomer was intended to be a national paper, covering the whole of the country instead of just a single region or county. And being a man of the cloth, Harris intended that Seren Gomer would devote space to religious matters alongside domestic and foreign news, though he also saw to it that the paper regularly included literary compositions as well as reports on the emerging network of Welsh-language literary festivals known as Eisteddfodau.
Despite a chronically poor cash flow, Harris managed to keep his venture alive for nearly two years, at last closing down his press with the 85th issue. It wouldn't be until the mid-1830s that the idea of a Welsh-language newspaper would be revived through some more short-lived publications. Only in 1843 would the first truly successful Welsh newspaper be launched. Ironically, Yr Amserau (the Times) wouldn't be printed in Wales at all, but instead was published out of Liverpool.
But the contribution of Joseph Harris wouldn't be forgotten. In 1838 an elegy composed in his honor won a medal at the national Eisteddfod in Abergavenny, and the name of Seren Gomer would eventually be taken as the name of a long-lived and very influential Welsh-language literary magazine.
For more information on Wales, see the Welsh Nation Page.
The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.