Sion Eirian (1954-2020)

Wales feels a poorer, diminished place following the death in June of playwright, poet, novelist and scriptwriter Siôn Eirian. We have been deprived not just of his multi-talented artistry and creative energy but also of a special human being. Born in Hirwaun at the top of the Cynon valley, raised in Brynaman on the flanks of the Black Mountain in Carmarthenshire and then Mold in the heart of Flintshire, matured at Aberystwyth University on the Ceredigion coast, and finally settled in urbane Roath in the Welsh capital, he was that increasingly rare person in modern Wales: an authentically pan-Wales figure for whom Wales wasn’t a peripheral backwater or an interim stepping-stone or an escapist bolthole or a scenic playground; it was the subject, the object, the question and the answer. He knew instinctively that the centre of the universe isn’t elsewhere; it’s right here, right now; it’s your home.

We Welsh are encouraged, indeed inculcated, to perceive Wales not as a whole entity with its own dynamics and needs but as a fragmented, hyper-local, unconnected non-entity. I never cease to be amazed, for instance, by the number of Cardiffians I know who have never ventured further north than Coryton, further east than St Mellons or further west than Rhoose (the airport) and who consequently know nothing and care even less about this endlessly fascinating and deeply multi-layered and multi-faceted country. As a Welshman who has lived in Powys, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire as well as Cardiff, and spent time in a host of Welsh places, from Caergybi to Cas-gwent, Point of Ayr to St Anne’s Head, I have gradually discovered that the more I know Wales, the more I realise how little I know, how I have barely scratched the surface, and how Wales is a fully sufficient world in itself. Siôn Eirian’s upringing meant that this awareness of the centrality and importance of Wales was part and parcel of his birthright. He was blessed with seriously cultured, engaged and radical parents: Jennie, nee Howells (1925-1982), highly effective Plaid Cymru activist and editor of Y Faner, and James Eirian Davies (1918-1998), acclaimed poet and Methodist minister. Thanks to his acute intelligence and passionate devotion to Wales, he built on those marvellous foundations and proceeded to maximise a multitude of precious contributions to the Welsh cause.

Since Welsh was his mother-tongue, he was completely bilingual. He wrote with sublime skill in both English and Welsh and his range across genres was astonishing. As a poet he was the youngest ever to win a bardic crown (at the 1978 National Eisteddfod in Pentwyn, Cardiff) for his series of luminous love letters to his Brynaman spiritual home, Aman Bach. As an author his 1979 novel Bob yn y Ddinas , the first work of Welsh-language fiction to explore the underbelly of Welsh urban life, is among the finest of all novels set in Cardiff. As a playwright he created a string of tragi-comic productions of striking resonance and originality from Kipper in 1983 through to his adaptation of the Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) classic Blodeuwedd, Woman of Flowers, in 2018 (Fienna, which would have been touring Wales now were it not for the pandemic, and Byd Dan Eira, his last completed play, are posthumous treats for the future). As a TV writer he created many of S4C’s best series, such as Bowen a’i Bartner (Wales’ first TV police procedural), Mwy na Phapur Newydd, Y Glas and Pen Talar as well as writing many episodes of the long-running soap Pobl y Cwm, in the process inventing and developing a distinctively Welsh televisual voice and perspective from scratch. As a screenwriter, he was behind two of the few pinnacles there have been in perpetually pauperised Welsh cinema Noson yr Heliwr and Gadael Lenin. On top of this he was a tremendous supporter of other writers in Wales, a stalwart of the writers’ trade union and a tireless facilitator, encourager and inspirer – all executed with charm and generosity and without ever compromising his anti-establishment instincts or becoming one more ‘British’ stooge. Siôn Eirian was the beating heart and inquiring brain of the arts in Wales and in so many ways he is simply irreplaceable.

Despair and distress are healthy, congruent reactions when reality is actually desperate and distressing. It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to an insane world. In his last years Siôn would have suffered the anguish all sentient, informed people of decency and conscience are currently suffering as wicked, cruel, ignorant bigots and their shock troops wreak havoc across the planet. Moreover he would have been conscious of the clear and present danger posed to Wales by the neo-imperialist little Englander hooligan hooray-henrys in Westminster, for whom the very existence of Wales is an affront to their megalomaniac, authoritarian inadequacies. But he would also know that the deepest despair always contains within it a solution, a way out of the nightmare. And in one of his powerful late works, the 2017 stage play Yfory set in the miserable aftermath of the Brexit referendum, he showed Wales the way through the darkness to a different tomorrow, guided by the ever-flickering dream of a Cymru that is free. Let that be the legacy of Siôn Eirian, Cymro mawr.

NOTE: For some reason I can’t get WordPress to put a circumflex over the ‘o’ in the header. Apologies.