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Bibliographical Information
Last of the Onion Men, The
Gwyn Griffiths
ISBN: 9780863817830 (0863817831)Publication Date September 2002
Publisher: Llygad Gwalch Cyf, Llanrwst
Format: Paperback, 209x147 mm, 144 pages Language: English Out of print Our Price: £5.50   
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An English-language version of Llyfrau Llafar Gwlad: 53. Sioni Winwns, a fascinating account of the life and work of the 'Onion Men', Breton farm men and women who travelled to Wales, England and Scotland from 1828 to the late 20th century, spending many months selling onions, and becoming an integral part of the community. 84 black-and-white photographs and 2 maps.

Fersiwn Saesneg o Llyfrau Llafar Gwlad: 53. Sioni Winwns, sef hanes hynod ddifyr bywyd a gwaith y gwŷr a gwragedd fferm o Lydaw a deithiai i Gymru, Lloegr a'r Alban o 1828 hyd flynyddoedd olaf yr 20fed ganrif, gan dreulio misoedd lawer yn gwerthu winwns, a chael eu derbyn fel rhan annatod o'r gymuned. 84 ffotograff du-a-gwyn a 2 fap.
Shoni Winwns - although 'Johnny Onions' is the name used in this book - is still a familiar figure in some Welsh towns in the autumn, as he was in our childhood; so familiar as to be taken for granted with his bicycle and strings of gleaming onions. Gwyn Griffiths tells his story here, charting the origins and growth of the onion trade, which began 170 years ago. He is very well-qualified to do so, since the 'Johnnies' came from Brittany and he is fluent in both Breton and Welsh and has helped to found a museum, 'La Maison des Johnnies' in Roscoff, in 1995. (This book is also available in Welsh.)

We may think of the Johnnies as surrogate Welshmen but, as Gwyn Griffiths relates, they travelled all over Britain, as far north as the Orkneys and Shetlands. Even so, Wales is where they were most at home since Welsh and Breton are 'sister languages'. Some of the older men interviewed by the author were fluent in Welsh and nearly all spoke some Welsh. But wherever they went the Johnnies identified themselves with local interests: he found 'Ingan Johnnies' who had translated Robert Burns's poetry or who were fanatical supporters of the Celtic Football Club. But the trade is now in decline: whereas, at one time, as many as 1500 onion-men came annually in the 1930s, now there are only about a dozen.

There are many photographs, and especially interesting is the cartoon featuring the Channel Tunnel breakthrough in 1990 with a stream of Breton onion-sellers cycling through. Equally fascinating are the evocative illustrations by Ralph Partridge on the cover.

There are tales of disaster and shipwreck: in the worst, that of the 'Hilda' in 1905, seventy-four Johnnies were drowned. In the days of sail it could take three weeks to reach Aberdeen and a week to reach Swansea. The trade prospered, however, in spite of difficulties like the restrictions on imports imposed at various times, in the 1930s and following the second World War, for example. But exceptions were always made, eventually, for the Bretons.

Gwyn Griffiths is to be commended for recording and preserving a detailed picture of this long link between our two countries.

Susan Passmore

It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgement should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

Gellir defnyddio’r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
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