WHO THE FOLK Dances with Mari?
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
In this interview, I speak with Anne Abel and Pat Smith, members of Llantrisant Folk Club, who keep the tradition of the Mari Lwyd alive in their community. I met with Anne and Pat for a cup of tea at the latter’s house, before inevitably ending up down the local pub.
The following was adapted from a recorded interview.
RW: No thanks, sweet enough! So there’s Mari, on your sofa… tell me about the decorations and what they mean…
PS: Well, the bells are there so that you can hear her coming. People think “Oh Lord, here comes the Mari Lwyd!” Scared the kids to death, back in the day. The ribbons are there just to make her look pretty. Now, the colours of Llantrisant are black and gold, so originally, our Mari only had black and gold ribbons, but she’s acquired more over the years.
(She shakes Mari about, jingling the bells)
AA: I put some extra ones on to make her look more “jolly”.
PS: These days people put lights in her eyes, and so on. Hopefully, when we get the new one, Anne could add something like that.
AA: She also has a rosette that she got when she went to a gathering of Mari Lwyds over at Chepstow.
RW: So how many of these horses are there?
AA: Right, well- let’s get one thing straight- this is a “skull-and-pole horse”, and it’s a “long pole”. There are horses with shorter poles. This one is held above the head- you never have the carrier’s head inside the skull.
PS: No. So the taller the better, for Mari!
AA: You hold her, go on…
RW: Right, okay… oh yes, she is heavy!
AA: Now, you would have to hold that above your head…
RW: For how long?
PS: Oh, we’d be out for hours! When we go out with her on the Sunday Solstice, the Sunday before Christmas, we leave at midday and we don’t get back until about five o’clock, so whoever’s got the horse is under her all that time.
RW: See, now this is one thing that confuses me- I originally thought the Mari Lwyd went out at Christmas, then I was told it was New Year’s Eve…
PS: It doesn’t matter, it’s the turn of year- she can go out any time from Halloween.
AA: The story goes that back in the day, during the winter, the local men didn’t have any work, they didn’t have much money. So what they did was they went from house to house, essentially begging, but using the pwnco, where they’d say something along the lines of “Here we are outside your house, we are marvellous, give us a drink!”
PS: And then you’d say something like “You can’t come in, you’re horrible, bugger off!” but eventually they’d get a drink.
AA: But the more houses they visited, the drunker they got, so the church didn’t like it. It was too much fun! The modern-day version that Pat and them reintroduced in the Seventies- this horse was made back then- involves going around collecting money for charity. The only time we do the pwnco is at Chepstow Festival.
PS: Because people around here don’t know the pwnco anymore, see.
AA: I don’t know it. It’s done in Welsh, of course…
RW: Yes, well, I was going to ask about that, actually… how much engagement do you get from the public?
PS: People don’t remember the pwnco because the Mari Lwyd tradition died out in this area. My father remembers it as a child, used to scare him to death! It died out everywhere, really. The only place it didn’t die out was at Llangynwyd, in Maesteg. And it still goes on there, as far as I know, on New Year’s Day. The Cardiff Welsh Dance Team have a horse and they take it there for that.
RW: Now, a pwnco, to my understanding, is a “Battle of Rhymes” of sorts…
PS: Its is, yes, they hire a poet for it. Here in Llantrisant, we sing “Wel dyma ni'n dwad, Gyfeillion diniwad, I ofyn cawn gennad i ganu.” That means “here we are our friends, we’re coming, asking for your permission to sing.”
And they’re supposed to come back at you then with their own verse telling you why they don’t want you to come in. But we don’t do that when we visit the pubs, we go straight into the next verse: “Mae Mari Lwyd yma, A ser a ribanau, Yn werthu rhoi golau nos heno.” That means “The Mari Lwyd is here dressed up in her ribbons, giving you light and asking for your permission to sing.”
Then, traditionally, they would go onto something else, then we would say: “Mae Mari Lwyd lawen, Yn dod yn y dafarn, I ofyn am arian a chwrw.” Which is: “The Mari Lwyd has come to the pub and is asking for your money and beer.”
Then we sing: “Wel tapwch y faril, Gyllongwch yn rhugl, A rhenwch e'n gynal Y Gwyliau.” Which means: “Tap the barrel, clear all the beer out and we’ll all have a good holiday.”
And that’s the version we sing at the pubs, but if you do it round the houses, you never know what they’ll come back at you with!
RW: And would people genuinely be trying to beat the horse in a pwnco, then?
AA: Oh, yes, very much so! But what happens these days is that I wait outside with the horse and we’d have a few musicians with us, a couple dressed as Punch and Judy…
PS: Stock characters.
RW: And do they ever change?
PS: Well you’ve always got the Merryman, the fiddler. Then Punch and Siwan, Siwan always being a man dressed as a woman.
AA: …then I lead the horse inside, ‘cause the person can’t see very well, you see, and we go around all the tables. But I’m always on the lookout in case people get scared and what have you. Children are often worried by it. But if they look interested, we engage with them.
Now, most people know that when you go under the horse, you adopt the spirit of the horse, and some people can do it better than others. PJ (Paul Holdsworthy) was the best, wasn’t he?
PS: Oh, yes!
AA: PJ was brilliant. The last time we went out with PJ, he ran across a field acting like a horse! Haha!
PS: It’s like theatre. You go under that horse and you become the horse. I remember once we went to a shopping centre and he sat amongst a display of teddy bears! Haha! And another time, there was horse-racing on at the pub, and he got up and began racing around the room like one of the horses!
RW: Brilliant! Now, when you say that you adopt the spirit of the horse, does that mean Mari Lwyd herself, or just a generic horse? I mean, does Mari have a personality?
AA: Oh, yes, very, much so, yes. Very mischievous. That’s part of the fun. It’s great when you’ve got a whole bunch of horses getting together! We rest Mari’s head on unsuspecting people, we try drinking their beer… although, you’ve got to do it within reason! For the most part, people like us being there, but we have had people say “Get that filthy thing off me!” and that sort of thing.
RW: Oh, right! And do you need permission off the council or anything like that?
AA: Oh no, no… now, you asked how many horses there are…
AA: Now, funnily enough, I found this fascinating article about how these horses have proliferated, and what you’ve got now are horses popping up over at America.
PS: They’ve got one in Delta, Pennsylvania; we used it when we went up there. There’s a strong Welsh community over there, you see… the street names are all carved on Welsh slate with little dragons on them, the church services are in Welsh… mind you, the Welsh they know up there is all from books, so the pronunciation can be a bit strange! Haha!
AA: ...what happened was, Mick Widders… well, that’s not his name, but we call him Mick Withers…
PS: Mick Lewis, his name is!
AA: …of Chepstow, has a Morris site called “The Widders”. And he set up this event to celebrate Morris-dancing and the Mari Lwyd. So they have this festival in Chepstow on the third Sunday of January, when it’s bloody cold! Pat, I think you might have gone to the first one…?
PS: Yep, I did! It was us there with the Chepstow horse, just the two of us.
AA: First there were about 3-4 horses, then it eventually got to 35 plus… it all got too much, really, and they couldn’t handle it the same way. So they had a procession of horses, ending up at the Guildhall, and the meeting on the bridge with the English. Rockets were going off, there was music, it was all very exciting! But it got pretty scary with over thirty horses there…
PS: Last time we had thirty horses and a squirrel.
RW: A squirrel?!
AA: That’s the other thing; we then had a group come up from Cornwall all done up in different costumes, and it stopped becoming about the Mari Lwyd, really, it started to become about all sorts of animals! I mean, it’s great fun, but it’s sort of lost sense, a little bit.
PS: There’s also the Wassail Cup, which gets passed around and re-filled with different alcoholic drinks whenever it runs empty. I never drink from it! Haha!
(Pat then gets out some photos of the club’s outings with Mari Lwyd, pointing out various characters as she goes)
PS: Some of these people aren’t with us anymore. He’s not with us, she’s not with us… David Pitt! David makes flat-pack Mari Lwyds for schoolchildren.
RW: Oh, wow!
PS: I mean, it’s not easy to get a skull these days, what with health and safety and what-not. So, David has a cardboard skull that looks just like the real thing.
RW: You know, I don’t think we spoke about the Mari Lwyd once in school, growing up!
PS: That’s because you’re from North Wales!
RW: Is it a southern tradition, then?
PS: Yes. Mainly Glamorgan.
AA: Well, not entirely… it’s spreading, and was traditionally done in Pembrokeshire, as well. Now, this is the book you need to read if you want to know more about the Mari Lwyd and similar traditions; the book is called The Hobby Horse and other Animals Masks and it’s by Violet Alford, twenty pounds on Amazon.
RW: I’ll be sure to check it out… so what do you think has re-ignited this interest in the Mari Lwyd, then? And why is it spreading to other places?
PS: I’m not sure. For us, we started the folk club in 1980, and with that came restoring the town’s customs and traditions. I’d say that it’s only in the last twenty-five years or so that the Mari Lwyd has taken off in other places.
AA: There was a big folk revival in the Seventies- a lot of it comes from that.
PS: Tell you what, though, I can see why it died out in places what with young people leaving; you’ve seen how heavy she is, we’re struggling now and not sure what to do…
RW: What’s your plan?
AA: It really is a struggle… there was a woman, wasn’t there? A woman, down the guildhall, but we didn’t catch her name…
(She looks me up and down)
AA: …do you want to do it?
PS: Yes! You’re tall, you’re strong, you’re a nice young man…
RW: I see now- you were sizing me up when you had me lifting her up earlier, weren’t you?! Well it’s nothing I’ve done before, but never say never, I suppose! No strong young local men willing to do it, then?
AA: Not a lot of people about the Mari Lwyd still, unfortunately. Plus, it’s bloody hard work, I’ll tell you that much!
PS: A lot of these festivals, people use paper mache skulls, and such! But it’s hot under that horse, even at winter! Gosh, we’ve been out in all sorts of weather as well, haven’t we?
RW: Have you ever had to cancel due to bad weather?
AA: Only one year, when it was too icy for us to safely walk anywhere. Now, would you like to know how our Mari was made?
RW: Yes, please!
AA: I spoke with Ian Jones (the only thatcher left in South Wales at the time), who made it. It was all the rage in the late Seventies. His neighbour had a slaughterhouse and he obtained the head of a horse from him. Back then, it still had the flesh attached. This was about 1978. This is what he told me when I rang him to ask:
He cleaned the flesh off then buried it, knowing that the residual flesh would disappear over time. Also, this way, the skull would not become brittle. It was buried in manure for twelve months then put it hot water so that the maggots rose up to be removed.
Ian then devised the internal structure, putting a pole up the horse’s head and building a handle to pull the jaw. He then gifted the skull to the folk club, where Pat decorated it, though she did complain that a few maggots remained. Ian was a member of the folk club and carried the Mari for a number of years. He loved misbehaving and causing mayhem with the horse and once got kicked out of the Penny-Farthing because everyone had left and he didn’t want to leave. He knew that to carry the horse was to become the spirit of the horse…
So, that’s the traditional way of preparing the skull. If you washed it in bleach or something, the bone would become brittle.
RW: Is there any maintenance involved? Or once you’ve done that, you’re sorted?
AA: That’s all you need to do. Just don’t drop it!
AA: Here’s a piece I wrote on Ian’s preparation of the skull, which I read to the folk club…
(Anne reads out a small piece she wrote on the creation of their Mari Lwyd, which lasts a few minutes, which mainly focused on this idea of “becoming the spirit of the horse”)
RW: That was great!
(Anne then points out a painting that’s hanging on the wall, which leads to Pat showing me the various pieces of art she owns based on the Mari Lwyd, some of which the folk club commissioned)
RW: Right. Let’s get back to basics a little; where does the name “Mari Lwyd” come from, then?
PS: Ah, well, that is the question! She’s the Grey Mare, the Grey Mary… no one really knows!
RW: One theory I’ve heard is that it comes from the English tradition of the “merry lude”.
AA: Hmm… no. One popular theory, that I don’t really buy into, is that it refers to the Virgin Mary. But this isn’t a Christian tradition. But why “Mary”? Who knows… I tend to go for “Grey Mary”, myself.
Now, I want to tell you about something else Mari and some other hobby horses do, as well, and that’s visiting someone’s house when they are ill to cheer them up. When I had my brain haemorrhage, Mari came to see me.
RW: Oh wow, that’s lovely!
AA: It was quite scary when I first saw her, to be honest!
PS: It’s the Magic of the Mari, see!
AA: I loves a hobby horse, I do!
RW: Yes, I can tell! Haha! Well thank you very much for speaking with me tonight ladies, and thank you for the tea! Shall we take this party to the pub?