There is obviously an extra force where two rivers meet. The Cynon River joins the Taff at Abercynon and it is no exception. It has a fascinating history that is not widely known. In the 1990s, a friend of mine told me that he was thinking of moving to Abercynon. I asked him why – it seemed a strange choice. Like so many towns in the Valleys, it has its fair share of closed shops, unemployment and general deprivation. My friend told me that Abercynon is a holy place. This came as a complete surprise.
My grandparents had had a little hardware and china shop in the town in the 1920s. It was where their children were born, including my own mother. Could he tell me its story? I wanted to know.
In the 1920s, the coal-mining industry was at its height and people had come to the town from different parts of Wales, from Ireland, Italy and Poland. The O’Shea family was such a family. One of the children, Gerald, aged just 3, went missing one day. His mother was not over-worried at first – children played outside for hours. When Gerald eventually returned, he was soaking wet. His mother asked him what had happened and he told her that he had fallen into the well. The well was very deep – about 6’ and she asked him how he’d managed to get out. ‘The Lady brought me out’ was his simple answer. Then he pointed to the medallion around his neck. The Lady he was referring to was the Virgin Mary. Gerald’s mother was worried and tried to get him to keep this to himself. But Gerald repeated the information and his mother went anxiously to see the priest.
The small child was interrogated by the priest and never changed any details of his story. Other priests from as far away as Ireland were consulted and Gerald was questioned again and again. He kept true to his experience. For such a young child, his life would have been much easier if had let the story go. But it had happened to him and he couldn’t deny it. When I heard this story, there was initially a natural reluctance to take the story literally. I was cautious. Then other things began to fit together like a jigsaw and I took the story to heart. Apart from Gerald’s experience, there was little for the immigrant miners to do during the Depression in the mid- twenties. They were determined and devout men and took up the task of building their own church, brick by brick. St. Thomas’ Roman Catholic Church is the fruit of their labours. They also worked on a pathway leading from the left of the church to a little shrine and, beyond it, to the well and the river. This was important as pilgrims had started to visit the place in search of cures for their ailments.
There were several accounts in the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo of the time which reported on the coachloads of pilgrims who visited the shrine and the river. Some of them were healed. To my amazement, I recalled a story that my mother had told me. I’m afraid that I had not really taken it on board. Apparently, when they were living in Abercynon, my mother was unable to walk properly. Her father must have heard about Gerald’s experience and the claim that the water in the river had ‘healing properties.’ He was a devout Welsh Baptist at a time when there was great suspicion between denominations. Nevertheless, he took my mother down to the river and bathed her in its waters. He did this several times and as a result, she was able to walk properly.
My mother could never recall this event without becoming very emotional. Peter and I took her back there a few years before she died. She was overwhelmed. So it had really happened and the timescale fitted into the events about which I had just been told. I went to Abercynon on the train to visit and the shrine was indeed still there. But it was neglected and the access to the river was dangerous. It was so dangerous that the gate leading down to it was locked with a warning notice to anyone who wanted to go further down. I thought that this was a great pity and wondered what could be done about it.
At the time, there was something called the Sacred Lands Project. Its aim was to do exactly this – to restore ancient shrines. I contacted them and two members came down from Birmingham to see it. Amongst the ladies who provided them with a very generous tea, including a pile of Welsh cakes, was Teresa (Gerald’s sister), Tessa and a lovely lady called Margaret Phillips. I hoped that the Project would provide some financial help but something different – and more wonderful, happened. The local parishioners were inspired to renovate it themselves. I went over a couple of times at first with Robert (the friend who had told me the story), Teresa, Tessa and Margaret and we tried to tidy up the little garden around the shrine.
From then on, local parishioners have worked hard for years to recreate the shrine above the river to its former glory. By 2011, the garden had been planted with bulbs and shrubs and was kept in good condition; the statues and the railings had been cleaned and repainted. The slippery pathway had been powerwashed to make it safe again, the invasive Japanese knotweed had been cleared from the banks; the crumbling Stations of the Cross had been removed and replaced with new ones.
There was even a bench so that visitors can rest, ponder, and listen to the surging sound of the river below. It’s impossible to visit the shrine without hearing its lively flow. It is very much part of the entire experience. In St. Thomas’ church, there are post-cards of the shrine on sale. The profit goes into the maintenance of the shrine. What happened to Gerald? After many years of being questioned and sometimes humiliated, he left Abercynon. But when he died and no-one could disbelieve him anymore, he was brought back to Abercynon.
A couple of years ago, the shrine was vandalised but the determined parishioners installed CCTV – so often an ugly necessity in today’s world. Visit it if you want to find peace – and maybe more.
– Diana Morgan