This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

July 2002


9 July 1787:   Taliesin Williams, Welsh poet and editor, born.

Though outshone by the memory of his father Edward Williams, (better known by his Welsh bardic name of Iolo Morganwg,) Taliesin Williams was a key figure in his own right in the Welsh linguistic and cultural revival of the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Like most men of his day, Taliesin inherited his father’s trade, and in his early years worked alongside his dad as a stonemason and gravestone carver. But he also inherited his father’s intellectualism and Welsh patriotism, and soon left the stoneyard to become a schoolteacher at Cowbridge in the south of Wales. In 1816 he opened his own school at Merthyr Tydfil, which he maintained right up to his death on 16 February 1847.

Though a stonemason by trade, Iolo Morganwg’s true calling was the preservation of the literary heritage of Wales. To this end he spent most of his life traveling throughout Wales and collecting poetry and manuscripts. But his son Taliesin took little interest in the history and literature of Wales until about 1820, when he came into contact with local Welsh literary societies, who themselves had been inspired by the literary discoveries (and occasional forgeries) of Iolo Morganwg. One awakened, Taliesin’s enthusiasm for the Welsh language proved deep and enduring, and in time Taliesin became prominent in the Merthyr Tydfil Eisteddfod (Welsh language festival) as well as competing in a number of other local and regional eisteddfodau.

While his reputation as a poet and scholar grew, Taliesin assisted his aging father in the compilation of one of his last works, the Cyfrinach Beirydd Ynys Prydain (Mysteries of the Bards of the Isle of Britain) which was eventually published in 1829. But Taliesin increasingly found himself laboring both in the light of his father’s achievements and under the shadow of his father’s sometimes dubious scholarship. Anxious to present the nation with a full body of native literature, Iolo sometimes fleshed out his discoveries with additions of his own, and sometimes, as scholars were beginning to suspect, produced outright forgeries, presenting his own creations as medieval bardic poetry.

After Iolo’s death Taliesin spent years organizing his father’s collection of manuscripts and binding them into volumes, and brought out an edited selection of them as The Iolo Manuscripts in 1848. In the process he unwittingly perpetuated some of his father’s forgeries, the last of which would not be sorted out by scholars for another century. But despite the doubts and aspersions being cast on his father’s work, Taliesin nevertheless won a prize at the 1838 Abergavenny Eisteddfod for his essay Hynafiaeth ac Awdurdodaeth Coelbren y Beirdd (Antiquity and Authenticity of the Bardic Alphabet) which he published in 1840.

To Taliesin, it seems Iolo never ‘fessed up to his forgeries, and to his dying day Taliesin Williams continued to accept and argue for the genuineness of his father’s work.

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 2003 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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