Professor Meic Stephens

Elected: 2016

Area(s): Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, General - public service

Specialist Subject(s): Welsh Literature, Welsh Writing in English

Remembering Meic Stephens

Welsh was the ‘language of the gravestone’ to Michael Stephens in the summers of his youth when he worked as a gravedigger in his native Treforest. In time Michael became Meic, and the language became ‘the language of my hearthstone’. He described himself as a child of ‘industrial Wales, English-speaking but Welsh in character’and a son ‘of the working class’. In his life and work he combined that working class experience with linguistic Welshness by learning the language, writing poetry in it and having ten grandchildren, ‘every one who has Welsh as a first language- as is evident when they come to Blaenbedw for Sunday lunch and rampage around the house and garden afterwards. Not every Welsh-learner can swank as much – not every Welsh-speaker either.’

But although he played his part in the early campaigns of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, although he nurtured an interest in minority languages, raised a family of Welsh-speakers, and revived Gwenhwyseg as a literary language in his recent poems, he described his fundamental perspective thus:

I didn’t want to spend all my energy working for the language while the political battle remained to be fought. I didn’t agree with the analysis by Saunders Lewis which claimed that self-government  would follow once the fortunes of the language had been secured, although I still believed in direct action on its behalf.  Official status was a legitimate  aim, but it wasn’t really my business to fight for it if others, particularly Welsh-speakers, were prepared to bestir themselves. It was more appropriate for Welsh-speakers, especially those living in the language’s heartlands, to wake up from their long sleep and make more strenuous efforts on behalf of their own culture. I preferred to challenge the hegemony of  the Labour Party in the industrial areas. It may be this argument will be rejected by many of this book’s readers but there’s a limit to what one person can do and it’s prudent to share  the work rather than try to fight on several fronts.

He sensed a risk to Welsh culture if a self-confident Welsh identity were to grow with no place or respect for the Welsh language. The importance of Meic Stephens’ contribution was that he ensured a distinctive Welsh cultural voice for non-Welsh speakers – as well as supporting the Welsh language and giving it a central place in the nation’s culture.

No one worked harder than he to create institutional frameworks for publishing, studying and respecting Wales’ literary cultures. As an author, editor and executor for several writers, he worked tirelessly to establish and ensure the survival of our country’s literary life, particularly in English. There are important pieces of Wales’ cultural history in his autobiographical writings: the establishment of the Welsh Academi and its English wing; the creation of The Arts Council and frameworks for funding literature in Wales; the internal politics of Wales’ cultural institutions; the establishment and continued existence of Poetry Wales; the failure of the journal Arcade; the success of Planet; editing the Companion to Welsh Literature in both Welsh and English, and so on and so on.

He also kept an eye on the political sphere, and stood for Plaid Cymru in Merthyr in the 1966 General Election. He was a central figure in Plaid Cymru’s political and cultural activities in Merthyr in the sixties, activity that led ultimately to control of the council in 1977. It is hard to believe that Plaid does not have one councillor in Merthyr today. In his autobiography he expressed the hope that Leanne Wood’s leadership would change things, but admitted that Plaid in Cardiff North, where he had lived since the seventies, was lazy, populated by Welsh speakers from the professional middle class that ‘belong to Plaid Cymru for reasons mainly to do with the Welsh language’. While his wife Ruth remained very active, Meic noted that ‘holding a garden party once a year isn’t the same as entering the political arena, in my book’. Meic Stephens was not a garden party man, but one to roll up his sleeves and put his shoulder to the wheel. Welsh life will be the poorer without his vast experience, his infectious enthusiasm and his warm character.

The quotations are from My Shoulder to the Wheel; An Autobiography by Meic Stephens (Y Lolfa, 2015) a translation of Cofnodion by Meic Stephens (Y Lolfa, 2012).

This obituary first appeared in O’r Pedwar Gwynt in Welsh:

Professor Daniel G Williams FLSW