This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

October 2001


20 October 1836:   Daniel Owen, Welsh novelist, born.

For a man who would be described as Wales’ greatest and most prolific novelist, Daniel Owen’s literary career had hardly an auspicious beginning.

Born the youngest of six children to a coalminer in Flintshire, young Daniel soon lost his father and two of his brothers to a mine flood. As the miner’s youngest son, however, Daniel by tradition would not be sent down into the mines, but would instead have to find a job elsewhere. Despite being related on his mother’s side to the great Welsh bardic poet Twm o’r Nant, there were no financial means with which to provide the boy with a formal education, and instead he was packed off at the age of twelve to be an apprentice to a tailor. But, making use of such educational opportunities that came his way, Daniel took the path of many self-made Welsh intellectuals before him and became a Methodist lay preacher.

For many Welsh people in those days, the local Methodist “chapel” (by law it could not be called a church) was more than a place for Sunday worship, but was the main social and educational center for the community. This was very inportant at a time when there was no universal free education, and when education in Owen’s native Welsh language was still frowned upon and discouraged by more official institutions. Gaining literary skills through chapel evening classes, Daniel’s very first publication would be, fittingly enough, a Welsh translation of the American Temperance classic “Twelve Nights in a Bar-Room.” After a short stint in a local college, Daniel went back to tailoring and preaching. He continued to contribute short sketches to various Welsh-language publications, but was apparently destined to be no more than a minor regional man of letters.

This would change when in 1876 his health failed him and he was forced to quit his tailoring business. Taking up writing in an attempt to make ends meet, his efforts soon blossomed into an extraordinary output, producing in quick succession the novels Rhys Lewis, Enoc Huws, Y Dreflan (the Dribble), and Gwen Tomos before his death on 22 October 1895.

These books had a great impact on Welsh-speaking Wales. Though already well-developed as an art form in the English-speaking world, the novel was still something of a new frontier in Welsh-language literature. There had hitherto been relatively little book-length popular fiction written in Welsh: much fiction published in Welsh were translations of English-language books such as the popular Welsh version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As quality novels based in Wales and written in Welsh, Owen’s books were therefore something of a revelation. They were not only written and published in Welsh, but were based on Welsh themes as well. Drawing on his experience writing descriptive pieces for Welsh-language magazines, Owen located his novels in Welsh village and country life, and he worked into them a wealth of detail and acute observation of people and folkways that lifted them well above the ordinary run of nineteenth century popular fiction. The work of Daneil Owen was a significant factor in the preservation and revival of the Welsh language.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from 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 2002 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

For more stories, click the links below:

Previous Month            •            All Months            •            Next Month