Eldra: A True Story Of Welsh Roma

It is a country known for daffodils, a passion for rugby, wonderful choirs, coal mining, Ryan Giggs, a unique language and place names that, when pronounced properly, could clear a throat.

And it is here, amid the charming valley-laden land of Wales that emanates an enchanting tale of a Romani girl called Eldra Roberts. Her story was captured in the 2002 film ‘Eldra’ which won five BAFTAs Cymru (British Academy Film and Television Awards for Wales) as well as numerous international awards, shot in Welsh with English subtitles.

The film is based on Eldra’s life in the 1930s and set near the picturesque Snowdonia region where Eldra grew up in the village of Bethesda on the River Ogwen.

Ogwen Valley near Bethesda, Gwynedd – home town of Eldra Roberts

Born in 1917 into a musical Romani family, she was a direct sixth generation descendant of Abram Wood, thought to be head of the most famous Romani family in Wales in the early 18th century.

Prior to this Romani people had been arriving in the country since the 15th century from two main groups: the Romanichelle and the Kale.

The latter arrived from Spain via France and South West England and settled mainly in North Wales. Here they spoke an authentic dialect of Kale which survived in Wales until the mid-20th century. The majority of the language comprised of Sanskrit words but carried various other ingredients including Arabic, Persian, Greek and French.

A significant amount of the Welsh Romani dialect remains absolutely alive in various other dialects of Romanes spoken across the world. For example, the words ruk (tree) and jukel (dog).

In the 1820s the Welsh magazine Seren Gome wrote a disparaging article on the Roma, claiming they lived in squalor without religion or morals. In reality, most Welsh Roma at the time were strict followers of the Christian faith.

This is an early example of the Roma being generalized and stereotyped in the written press.

At first the Woods lived in isolation from the Welsh community and spoke Romanes. However, as the years and decades passed they were embraced into Welsh rural culture to which their contribution was warmly acknowledged.

The story of the descendants of the family is told in depth in the excellent book Welsh Gypsies: Children of Abram Wood written by Eldra and her husband Alfred in 1979.

Eldra quickly developed an outstanding natural talent for the Welsh harp, something she inherited from her great-grandfather John Roberts of Newtown (1816-1894). He was known as the Harpist of Wales (‘Telynor Cymru’) and his talents were lauded not only in his native Wales but across Europe.

John performed for numerous foreign dignitaries in the mid-19th century including the Grand Duke of Russia and the King of Belgium.

During the Second World War, she joined the Women’s Land Army who worked the fields to produce as much food as possible for the allied war effort. Eldra was appointed as a rat catcher on the Isle of Anglesey in North West Wales.

Eldra travelled far and wide across the whole country and she would fall in love with a Professor of Welsh at University College in Cardiff, Alfred Jarman.

She soon gave birth to two daughters, Teleri and Nia, and she was adamant that they respect both the Romani and Gaje ways of life.

Her talents on the harp were never to be forgotten though and as she grew older she sought a fitting apprentice so that her musical majesty would not die with her.

As luck would have it she would meet the nationally acclaimed triple harpist Robin Huw Bowen and the pair quickly struck up a friendly relationship.

Robin Huw Bowen on stage in Lorient, France 2002

Eldra admired Bowen’s talent and taught him the old Romani tunes she had been passed down from her ancestors. Eldra’s pupil would emerge as a world authority on Welsh harp music and today is considered the greatest Welsh Triple Harp player on the planet.

Sadly, Eldra died in the year 2000 one year before the release of the film dedicated to her life. The score to the ‘Eldra’ was, appropriately, composed and performed by Bowen.

Of the five awards the film won at the BAFTAs (Cymru) the prize for Best Original Music might just have been the most satisfying as Eldra’s musical legacy lived on.