I was particularly interested to see how the custom of Y Fari Lwyd (The Grey Mare) was performed at The Old House Inn at Llangynwyd – as it has been carried on here with an almost unbroken record, every New Year from the mists of time. The current leader of the revels being Gywn ‘Y Post’ Evans who took over from his father in 1996. His father Cynwyd Evans who was born in 1910 had first travelled with the horse with his own father in 1923, and the horse skull of the Llangynwyd Y Fari or Mari is as old or older.
I suppose the tradition ties in with the Mumming and Winter Visiting rituals, this particular one being very much concentrated on the Winter Solstice. The Mari Lwyd is carried from house to house – or now more generally from pub to pub – singing at the door in the old traditional Welsh verses asking for admittance with the intention of getting some seasonal cheer, and perhaps a gift of money, nowadays normally for charity – this year the Air Ambulance were the very worthy cause.
When I have read about the custom it was called the Mari Lwyd, which translates from the Welsh into English as Grey Mare, but getting to Llangynwyd it was called Y Fari Lwyd. Asking a Welsh speaker it is to do with the way the Welsh language is formed – so when there is a ‘The’ or Y in front the M changes to a F which is actually pronounced V – Well – I am glad I cleared that up in my mind!
The first few verses of the visiting group are set, as are the responses from those inside, but then traditionally it would have turned into a contest of wit in which the contestants mocked each other in impromptu verse and sung riddles, often referring disparagingly to their opponents singing abilities, drunkeness and so on. This is known in Welsh as the pwnco. Of course the eventual intention was to let the luck-bringing horse into the house, possibly to chase away any bad luck remaining from the old year and sweeping the way clean for the New Year and New Luck.
From memory there are many bad luck chasing customs involved with the Old/New Year, generally with the luck bringers entering by the front door and exiting by the back, often sweeping their way through the house and I did notice that one of the New Year’s Day party from St. Fagan’s was carrying a besom, plus one of the opening stanzas in the singing asks of the house owners – ‘What way the departure tonight’ , though both our horses came in and left by the same entrance.
And there were in fact two. The first is the traditional local horse which came in lead by Gwyn ‘Y Post’ who is a lovely guy. Now retired and moved a little way away he still has strong ties with The Old House Inn and you can tell he loves being able to maintain such a wonderful old custom carried on faithfully by his father and grandfather before him for so very many years. He is a wonderful strong singer, and in true Welsh fashion sings in the local choirs.
To see Gwyn and his horse check back to last year HERE
The second horse was brought on New Year’s Day by a party from St Fagan’s the Museum of Welsh Life in nearby Cardiff. Their horse was much more terrifying in appearance, with far more of the skull about it, and far more likely to cause mischief and nip the ladies with its big sharp teeth causing some squeals.
Both were great entertainment and it was wonderful to see such an old custom maintained. It would be sad if something which might date back to Celtic times, or even before, were just allowed to die away.
The folk myth of Y Fari Lwyd is beautifully told in words and music on this clip