Tomos the Islandman [Tomos o Enlli]

Jones, Jennie

A beautifully made and beautifully written bilingual book with woodcuts of fisherfolk life by Kim Atkinson and a very funny introduction by John Rees Jones whose own family lived for generations on Ynys Enlli or Bardsey Island off the Llŷn peninsula of Wales.

It is the memoir of an old islander, Tomos Jones: ‘a small, gracious man with the salt of the sea in his voice’. The story is the story of so many places in Europe: the dissolution of a culturally homogenous community.

The memoir itself reminds us of strong and hardy men making a living from the sea, of wonderful home-made bread baked from their own barley and yeast ‘with a crust as yellow as a sovereign’ and possibly not-so-wonderful boiled dried herring over jacket ’taters but ‘eaten from wooden bowls with brass rims’.

Tales of shipwrecks and of bully-beef and brandy gathered by the island scallies, of mad old spinster women hoarding and hiding their money and desperate younger ones like ‘Siân… nearly dead from wanting a husband’. This is the authentic voice of an isolated people with a rich and gossipy subculture where folk were delineated into separate male and female cohorts, as in traditional societies generally. As Tomos himself puts it, ‘Life was very interesting on Enlli in my time, going to each others’ houses, listening to and telling old stories and tales’.

Needless to say ghosts and fairies roamed at will in such a time and place and for old Tomos Jones, interviewed in his eighties for a book first published in 1964, today’s powerful slant of scepticism had not yet entered.

The last few chapters of Tomos the Islandman are a sort of gazetteer of place-names including ‘Ogof Morgan’ (‘Morgan’s Cave’) where the legendary pirate supposedly left some loot and certain cliffs where both men and horses fell to their deaths at various times. One of the beauties of Jennie Jones’ account of Tomos’ memoir is how things there happen in that (to us) wonderfully vague time before clocks or scheduling.

In Tomos’ day the islands lived mainly on fish; the proverbially abundant herring that, along with cod, salted or dried, once fed Poor Europe both East and West and sometimes there were also such monsters of the deeps as a nine-foot skate that almost capsized the fisherman’s boat (or so his story tells). The forty-six woodcuts are a real treat in themselves. RK


Fish were a large part of our food on Enlli. We used to dry herring and ‘gwrachod’ (wrasse — a rock sh) in the sun, and when they were hard, put them on a line and hang them from the kitchen ceiling to be used when we wanted. Boiled herring or ‘gwrachod’ like this, on top of jacket potatoes were delicious. I preferred the ‘gwrachod’. Wooden bowls with brass rims were what everyone had for eating.

Duwc annwyl! I must tell you how to make ‘potes Penradell’ (Penradell Broth) — dough made with barley our, salt and water. Put it into boiling water and boil it on the re until it becomes like pudding. When it had boiled enough, everyone

would be waiting with their wooden bowls. The bowls were called ‘hodad’. At the bottom of the bowls we would have bacon fat, and then break pieces of the hot dough into it, and beat it well with wooden spoons.

I remember, once, Wil Huws ying into a rage. He had beaten the dough so hard that there was a hole in his ‘hodad’. He was so furious that he threw the bowl and its contents into the farthest corner of the kitchen, and out he ran through the door and refused to eat for days. A new bowl was found for him and he came to himself in his own good time. 35