LYNNE WALSH looks forward to a unique festival in the town where, it’s said, the red flag was first raised
THE name of 19th-century ironmaster William Crawshay elicits a variety of responses in Merthyr Tydfil, the town he ruled over as “Iron King.”
While some older residents spit at mention of his name, others offer that old expression of disgust in the area “Ach y fi!” It equates to “yeuch” but it’s a lot more splenetic and damning.
The Merthyr Rising festival in this ordinary yet extraordinary town which runs from May 22 to 28 is an expression of the time when the tide turned against this quasi-feudal lord.
In May 1831, his workers were sick of low pay, terrible conditions and demoralised by unemployment all around them. They protested, sacking the local debtors’ court and taking back property that had been taken from them, shouting “Caws a bara!” (“Cheese and bread!”)
They marched to local pits, persuading men to stop work. The government sent in the army. The stand-off, at the Castle Hotel, led to fighting in which protesters seized the troops’ weapons.
The order was given, it seems, to abandon the town to rioters. A soldier was stabbed, activist Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) was framed and sentenced to hang at Cardiff Market. A plaque marks the spot.
Merthyr’s response in the 21st century is a week-long festival of “music, art, ideas” and general shenanigans. It’s the celebration of an uprising that saw the red flag raised — for the first time, it is said — as the emblem of a workers’ revolt.
Backed by the Morning Star and supported by the Unison union, it celebrates a town where working people fought, starved, survived and thrived.
What began as a small one-day affair four years ago has grown to a weeklong series of events attracting thousands from all over Britain and Europe.
Among the speakers this year are former ambassador, historian and human rights activist Craig Murray, Stop the War’s Lindsay German, CPB general secretary Rob Griffiths, Unison’s Roger McKenzie, stand-up comic and writer Francesca Martinez and Rock Against Racism’s Roger Huddle.
And there’s a tremendous line-up of performances and music, including Breathe, a new play by Anthony Bunko about “this lottery called life,” a radical film festival, comedy, art exhibitions and children’s entertainment.
The music programme is to die for, with radical folk singer David Rovics, punk Tenpole Tudor and rabble-rousing stompers Thee Faction on the bill.
The blurb for headliners Alabama 3 gives an idea of what’s in store: “We make sweet pretty muthafuckin country-acid house music. Alabama 3 is a pop band, a punk rock, blues and country techno situationist crypto-Marxist-Leninist electro band. We never went on X Factor or Pop Idol.” Can’t wait.