REVIEW by John Barnie

NWR Issue r33

John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?

by Wyn Thomas

In his pioneering study, Hands Off Wales (2013) Wyn Thomas examined militant responses to the political and social challenges of the late 1950s and ’60s, concentrating on the activities of the Free Wales Army (FWA) and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (MAC). In John Jenkins, The Reluctant Revolutionary?, he narrows the focus to the man who reorganised MAC in 1967 and directed the most sustained and effective bombing campaign in modern Welsh history. Based on interviews with John Jenkins over a number of years, it is what might be called a ‘directed autobiography’, the author asking probing questions which are followed by Jenkins’ often extensive responses.

There is an inherent problem with this approach, of course, in that memory tends to become channelled into stories told to oneself again and again as a means of giving coherence to the chaotic nature of actual experience. Given the intense secrecy surrounding MAC, however, the testimony provided by Jenkins is often the only evidence available, and with this limitation in mind John Jenkins provides a fascinating insight into the nature of what, today, would be called a terrorist who acted from a profound sense that militant action was the only way to make the English establishment pay serious attention to the predicament of Wales.

John Jenkins was brought up in a Valleys mining community in the 1930s and ’40s. By nature a loner, he preferred reading Welsh history and listening to choral music on the radio to his contemporaries’ obsession with football and rugby. He was also engaging with his own brand of Christianity, which has remained with him through a long life. Dissatisfied with grammar school, he left at the age of thirteen, became apprenticed to a blacksmith, but not long afterwards joined the Royal Army Dental Corps, rising to the rank of sergeant. His work took him to postings abroad, most significantly to Cyprus during the independence movement spearheaded by EOKA and Archbishop Makarios. He studied this carefully, observing how a handful of determined men could take on a far superior force, providing they won the tacit support of their compatriots.

Back in Wales, he was profoundly affected by Tryweryn and the way in which Welsh objections were brushed aside by the British state. Militant protests there were, of course, but Jenkins felt they only succeeded in producing ‘martyrs’ who could easily be ignored by Westminster. What was needed was a concerted campaign of violence which would make the authorities take notice. When approached by the fledgling MAC, therefore, he declared himself willing to join, but only if the movement was placed on a professional footing under his leadership.

Jenkins realised the need for secrecy and began organising covert cells of not more than three men, each cell working separately, with only the leaders known to him personally. This proved so effective that most of the members of MAC active between 1967 and ’69 have never been identified, despite intensive police investigation. John Jenkins had been right, the British government did take notice, and a special police unit was established to track the bombers down. The hunt intensified during the build-up to the Investiture in 1969, culminating in Jenkins’ arrest.

Tried and found guilty, he was sentenced to ten years as a Category A prisoner, the same status as members of the IRA who he met, and fraternised with, in gaol. In prison he studied for a social sciences degree and, on release in 1976, worked for many years in social services in and around London. He also came to terms at this time with his latent homosexuality.

Wyn Thomas is clearly sympathetic to John Jenkins, but doesn’t skirt around some of the disastrous consequences of his actions – the deaths of Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, MAC operatives, who were blown up when the bomb they were priming exploded at Abergele; the injuries suffered by a child, Ian Cox, at Caernarfon; the traumas suffered by his own two boys, Vaughan and Rhodri.

Was it worth it? Many in Wales will say it was not; that violence of this kind is ‘not the Welsh way’. To some extent this is true. Yet any national movement needs action across a range of fronts from the conventionally political (Plaid Cymru), to pacifist protest (Cymdeithas yr Iaith), to militancy of the kind practised by Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru. The influence of the latter can never be quantified but that doesn’t mean it was negligible. MAC made the English state fear the rise of an IRA-style campaign in Wales. It was pressure of a kind England understood, and it helped pave the way, or so it seems to me, for the gains Wales has achieved during the past fifty years.

John Barnie is a poet and essayist and former editor of Planet. His latest book is a collection of poems, Departure Lounge (Cinnamon, 2018). A new collection, Sunglasses (also from Cinnamon), will appear in June 2020.

The views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of New Welsh Review Ltd or its staff.


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previous review: The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry 1966–2018
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