R. S. Thomas

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Ronald Stuart Thomas was born in South Wales. His father, Thomas Hubert Thomas, was a seaman and frequently absent. Thomas, an only child, found himself in a close but uneasy relationship with his mother, Peggy. When he was five years old, the family moved to Holyhead, North Wales, the major port to Ireland. Although the county was largely Welsh speaking, Holyhead itself was English speaking, as were his parents, and the high school he attended from 1925 to 1931.

It was decided he should enter the church in Wales. To pursue this career, he first attended University College, Bangor, where he majored in Latin, and then spent a year at theological college in South Wales. His first post was in 1936 at Chirk, on the English-Welsh border north of Shrewsbury. While there, he met Mildred Elsie “Elsi” Eldridge, an artist and art teacher. They were married July 5, 1940. As an ordained minister, he was excused from wartime service. Later, Thomas became an ardent pacifist and antinuclear campaigner.

After another curacy in the area, Thomas and his wife wanted to discover a “truer” Wales, with mountains and speakers of Welsh. He thought he had found such an area in 1942, when he was appointed to Manafon, a small parish in mid-Wales in a secluded valley with hills all round. The couple’s only son, Gwydion, was born there in 1945.

Thomas began making rounds to visit the many hill farmers of the area and to learn Welsh. His poetry changed to focus on these very different farmers and villagers, and they formed the core of his earlier and better-known work.

However, Thomas began to feel the drawbacks of such a remote parish. He moved to Eglwys Fach, a small village north of Aberystwyth, the other side of mid-Wales. The scenery of estuary, sea, and mountains was stunning. An added attraction was the bird sanctuary, as by now Thomas had become an avid bird-watcher. His congregation was mainly older, retired English or Anglo-Welsh people, very different from the members of the farming community of Manafon. Opinions about him were divided. By all accounts, he could be a silent and difficult man, though an expert visitor of the sick.

Thomas stayed for thirteen years, from 1954 to 1967, before moving on to his final parish of Aberdaron, at the end of the Lleyn Peninusla in North Wales. The Lleyn is a twenty-five-mile-long neck of land sticking out into the Irish Sea. It is remote, has some of the world’s oldest rocks, and is predominantly Welsh speaking except for three summer months, when English tourists invade the area. He became increasingly pro-Welsh and anti-English, though he preached and wrote in English.

He retired in 1978 but continued to live in the parish in a small cottage, his output of poetry unabated. His wife, Elsi, died in 1991. After a short while, he started a relationship with a former parishioner from Eglwys Fach, Betty Vernon, also widowed. They married in 1996. By that time, he was suffering from a heart condition and had to curtail the traveling he had been doing as a recognized man of letters. In 2000, after a short illness, he died at the age of eighty-seven.

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