Post by Caroline Yeates
These are some thoughts on the use of Pwnco by Mari Lwyd parties today, inspired by a thread in the Mari Lwyd and Friends Facebook group.
Mike Lewis mentioned that there is more to the Mari than just her appearance and stressed the importance of what the Mari does, including the Pwnco. I responded to a question about this and was asked to contribute some thoughts. And these are thoughts, not an expert or scholarly view, but they may be of use or interest.
Who am I to undertake this? I am a fiddler, Welsh Dance musician and Border Morris Dancer and I play and sing for three Maris in three counties ( I’m not sure this is actually legal) and make up pwnco verses for two of them. I was born and grew up in an English speaking household in Swansea in the 60’s and 70’s with family roots in Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire with two Welsh speaking and two non-Welsh speaking grandparents. I learnt basic Welsh in school and later living and working in Carmarthenshire for 30 years, spoke and speak Welsh in work and socially, non-grammatically, colloquially with a mish-mash rather than any particular dialect. I learnt nothing about the Mari Lwyd in school but vaguely remember seeing photographs in I think my late teens.
My first real contact with the Mari was volunteering as a musician for Mari Troellog, the Carmarthenshire based Mari of Phil and Viv Morgan Larcher in 2013, at the time when TRAC was undertaking outreach into schools and communities about the Mari in conjunction with David Pitt’s Flat Pack Maris. Angharad Jenkins from TRAC came down to Carmarthen to do a workshop with Pat Smith from Llantrisant and we looked at songs etc associated with the Mari. Phil and Viv’s Mari, as many will know is a real penglog or skull, decorated with spirals, plaited mane, embroidered sheet and having a fondness for uchelwydd or mistletoe. Mari Troellog embodies the “frisky and frolicsome” nature of the Mari, dancing and chasing and flirting with inhabitants and pub customers once she gets in. And here we have the bones(yes) of the matter. The Mari Lwyd custom relates to “Y Gwyliau”, the period around Christmas, New Year and Epiphany and to getting admitted to houses for fun, food, drink and even money. Very like and often incorporating Wassailing. In return Mari bestows fun, luck for the coming year and may in the song of farewell and thanks invoke a blessing ( bendith Duw) on the house.
What is unique to the Mari is the custom of “Pwnco”or “Canu Cwnsela”, the rhyming contest to gain admittance to the house. This does not appear to have been universal though, in some cases the Mari party just sang at the door. The Pwnco being an exchange of verses between the Mari party and the inhabitants, with admittance depending on either superior verses made up on the spot or being able to remember more of already established verses, then maybe improvising when you ran out of these.
If you look at some recorded exchanges, the “inside” and” outside ” verses don’t always follow or relate to each other so I wonder whether the versifiers sometimes had a stock of insulting rhymes prepared which they could then fire off at each other.
So, what can we do today? Are we re-enacting or are we developing a tradition as it revives? I think the answer is both. We have the Mari, we have the Parti Mari. No longer exclusively made up of male members. We also have occasions where more than one Mari, maybe lots more than one are present – 34 at the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd in 2019, very far removed from the very local Mari visiting their own milltir sgwar with their own local customs, twists and dialect. It is worth remembering that the tradition was fading even in the 19th century and that calls for its revival were being made in the 1930’s. Social media and information technology have boosted the 21st century revival/regeneration beyond imagining.
The thing which seems to be common ( with variations in tune and words) is “Can y Fari”, the Song of the Mari which announces the arrival of the Mari with traditional verses and then can be used as the format for the pwnco contest. Here is the first verse of what appears to be the most common version:
“Wel, dyma ni’n dwad, cyfeillion diniwad,
I ofyn cawn gennad, i ofyn cawn gennad, i ofyn cawn gennad i ganu.”
Roughly translated to give a similar rhythm and syllable count we have:
“Well here we come calling in innocent friendship,to ask your permission,to ask your permission,to ask your permission to si-ing.”
Once you have this form and the tune in your head it is easy to make up words to fit and because of the repetition you don’t need to do too much.
It is also fine just to sing some verses of Can y Fari to gain admittance or indeed once you get in. Or indeed just to arrive with the Mari and not sing, just use music or make a bit of noise.
The Heb Enw Mari Lwyd from Pembrokeshire owned by John Tose and Sheila Furniss enters the pub accompanied by musicians and then we sing four verses of Can y Fari, no pwnco. Mari does her stuff and then there is more music and singing and everybody enjoys it.
Going back to the re-enactment mentioned earlier, this is valid I think and a way of displaying a flavour of the tradition though sometimes by bending the rules and having both sides of the pwnco done by the Parti Mari. For instance with Mari Troellog, Viv ( who has a family history with Mari and Pwnco) and I do the outside and inside respectively. I write verses appropriate to the place, about 3 inside and outside and after Mari arrives with musicians and singers there is banging on the door and the exchange of verses. We haven’t yet managed to get anyone from a venue to be a genuine “insider”. It works as a spectacle and achieves the objective of getting in but you sometimes need to get round it. At our recent outing in Ammanford where we approached an Art Gallery full of people waiting for us who could see us coming, I went in after we’d sung Can y Fari, shut the door, said “Have you seen what’s outside, shall we let it in?” and then we went on with a bit of Pwnco. All a bit of nonsense really, but it gives the feel of it.
To give an idea of the sort of silly and insulting verses you can do, for the Ty Cornel Gallery which had at one time been a betting shop, we had the Mari asking for admittance as per usual and then the inside response:
” Nid bwcis yw lle’ma,mae’n oriel o safon,
‘Sdim lle ‘ma am geffyl,’sdim lle ‘ma am geffyl,’sdim lle ‘ma am geffyl cwrs rasus”.
“,This isn’t a Bookie’s ,it’s a quality gallery,there’s no room here for a horse from the races”.
The Mari replied:-
” Y Fari Lwyd’dyw i,nid caseg sy’n rasio,
Brenhines ceffylau,brenhines ceffylau,brenhines ceffylau ers oesoedd”.
” I am the Mari Lwyd, not a racing mare, Queen of horses down the ages.”
Again, quite nonsensical, very colloquial with contractions to fit the rhythm – it’s not going to win any poetry awards or grammar prizes. It’s a bit of fun but with a bit of a nod to the age and lineage of the Mari. There must be people out there producing much better. Standard themes would be used- asking who the party were, how far they had come etc. so this gives plenty of scope.
Here’s another example which Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl is working on for a forthcoming visit to an award winning Cider Micro Pub. I’ll quote it in full.
MARI.:- Mae Mari Lwyd yma,tu fas Drws y Seler, i ofyn am seidr,i ofyn am seidr,i ofyn am seidr a chwrw.
INSIDE :- Cer o ‘ma ‘r hen geffyl,lle tawel yw ty’ma.’Sdim eisie hen gaseg,’sdim eisie hen gaseg, ‘sdim eisie hen gaseg mor swnllyd.
MARI:- Ni’n hoff iawn o ganu,mae’n lleisiau’n mor swynol. Agorwch y drysiau,agorwch y drysiau,agorwch y drysiau i wrando.
INSIDE:- Ni’n hoff iawn o ganu,ond chi dim ond sgrechian.Gadewch ni mewn llonydd,gadewch ni mewn llonydd,gadewch ni mewn llonydd nos heno.
MARI:- Mae Mari ‘di dod ‘ma i blasu eich seidr, Y gorau yng Nghymru,y gorau yng Nghymru, y gorau yng Nghymru mae’n tebyg.
INSIDE :- Wel dewch chi gyd mewn ‘te i blasu y seidr. Mae croeso i pawb ‘ma,mae croeso i pawb ‘ma,mae croeso i pawb ‘ma nos heno.
So we have Mari announcing her arrival and asking for cider and beer and being told to get lost as this is a quiet house with no need of a noisy old mare. The party respond that they are very fond of singing and ask the insiders to open the door and listen to their enchanting voices. The insiders say that they are fond of singing too but the Mari party are just screeching so should go away and leave everyone in peace. And then Mari says she has come to taste what is apparently the best cider in Wales and thus finally gets invited in.
Now would be a good time to suggest a visit to https://trac.wales, go to resources and click on Mari Lwyd where you will find a written history and encouragement, a video done by the project in 2013 and also a video done in 1966 of the Llangynwyd Mari – they sing some verses of Can y Fari and then start the pwnco to the same tune, saying how far the “Bechgyn a’r Fari” have come and, among other things that they would be better entertainment than whatever American programme is on the TV. Please watch it if you haven’t already.
So this is a framework of what you can do, bearing the tradition in mind and hopefully keeping the spirit. You don’t have to do the pwnco but it can be fun. Somebody in the Facebook group asked about language. Well, I think keeping as much Welsh as possible is the ideal but introducing some English where people really aren’t going to understand otherwise is valid. The family who took out Sharper, the famous Mumbles horse, did not speak Welsh so wrote their own song in English. It will vary from place to place. You can provide a translation or maybe do alternate verses in different languages for example. Back to the more modern developments where a pwnco occurs much more as a re-enactment. The two largest ones of which I am aware are the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd in mid January and the Dark Gathering in Boscastle, Cornwall at Calan Gaeaf or All Hallows. See The Dark Gathering on Google or Facebook for video of the pwnco at Boscastle. Both of these attract large crowds.
This year at Chepstow Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl and their Mari Afon Lwyd performed the pwnco at the GreenMan Backpackers, and a different Mari will be asked to do it each year. This took the form of two of us musicians waiting inside while Mari and the Dancers approached singing Can y Fari. We then used the Chepstow Verses which are spoken and alternate in English and Welsh ( I don’t know who wrote them). We actually broke some of the verses down and alternated two lines in each language as this made better sense.
At Boscastle a few Maris (Celeste and Seren from John and Sue Exton, Mari Trecopr with David Pitt, Mari Arianrhod with Eleanor Greenwood and Mari Afon Lwyd with Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl this year) gained entry to the Museum of Withcraft and Magic. We approached singing three verses of Can y Fari and then exchanged pwnco with the Cornish “inside” including their ‘oss Penkevyll. I wrote some Welsh verses a few years ago, and Laetitia and Cassandra Latham Jones organised Cornish language responses. Cake, beer and pasties feature. This is very much a “new old tradititon” and it is great to have that bit of Cornish in this special and particular situation.
For Mari visits in whatever context there are other traditional songs. There was also a “Can cloi’r pwnco”- the Pwnco closing song which marked the end of the pwnco and moving on to the rest of the festivities:
” Ond yn awr ‘rwy’n darfod canu
Rhowch i mi i ymborthi”
and then the Mari Ffarwel, sung before leaving,wishing well for the coming year and thanking for the welcome.
“Ffarwel ich’, boneddigion
Ni cawsom croeso digon”
And what you do in between well, Mari can be snapping and chasing the girls and the children, the rest of the party can be doing bits of business, for instance if you have a “Judi” figure who sweeps the floor in front of the Mari everyone can sing, dance, drink and generally have fun and that is very much open to what you want to do, where you are and who your audience is and what they can do; be it joining in with singing or doing their own party pieces. It’s the holidays and Mari is dressed in her ribbons and ready to party. It should be fun and alive but aware of its roots.
I hope this may have been of use or interest to some, this is just what I have picked up as I continue to learn and explore from and with the three Maris I am lucky enough to be closely involved with and from others more learned than me.