Why our children need to know about Aberfan

(I wrote this post in 2016 and have been sharing it every year since. I still think it’s incredibly important our children, and indeed all of us, know about the disaster at Aberfan. Since this article’s original publication, I have discovered one of my great uncles was involved in the rescue mission and have visited the memorial garden with my children’s school… it made me cry as the children walked around looking at the graves, realising these children were their age. Another poignant reminder of the sheer horror of a tragedy that should never have happened.)

I’ve written and deleted this post on Aberfan a hundred times over the last two days.

I wanted to say something on my blog about the 50th anniversary of the dreadful tragedy.

But I wasn’t sure if it was my place.

I have no direct connection to Aberfan. I don’t want to patronise those who survived or who lost loved ones by presuming for a moment to know how they felt. We can never come close. You don’t need me to write a synopsis of what happened – because there are people who can do that far better than me, because they were there, or they have spoken to the people who were. You’ve probably read the stories over the last few days (if you haven’t, please do). With every word I’ve written and deleted, I’ve questioned whether it’s my grief to share. I have spent the last couple of days in tears as I read the tribute articles, the survivor stories and watched the news reports. I know from Facebook that many of my friends have too.

But then two things happened and it helped me realise what it was I wanted to say.

The first was the minute’s silence held by my children’s school, at around 9.15am yesterday morning. Parents were invited to attend, and lots of us did.

We dropped our children off as usual, they went in for registration and then they came back out onto the yard. They were running around, playing, laughing, just like children should do. Just like the children of Aberfan probably did on that fateful day, unaware of what was about to happen. Just like 50 years ago, here we were on the Friday before half term. In a school about the same size as the one in Aberfan.

One of the teachers rang the bell and every single child on that yard, some as young as four, stopped still and stood in absolute silence for a minute. All of them had been told, in an age-appropriate way, why they were doing this.

“Aberfan” said the teacher loudly after the minute was up, and the older children began to recite in unison the T Llew Jones Welsh language poem, Aberfan.

It was a deeply poignant and moving moment, not least because these children were the same age as many of the pupils who died at Pantglas school. 116 children and 28 adults. It’s difficult to comprehend. Standing on the yard, looking at the children and thinking it equated to half of them, took my breath away.

The second thing to happen was a status from a Facebook friend. He was a young boy at the time, at a primary school in a neighbouring village to Aberfan.

He recalled hearing the dreadful news and his neighbours helping with the rescue efforts.

He wrote, “I remember, even then as a child, the dawning realisation that something terribly wrong had been done and that the authorities were busy trying to cover it up.

“I remember all that and I suppose I assumed everybody did – everybody in Wales particularly. But then, yesterday, I was talking to my son about it and he said he’d never heard of Aberfan, that it had never been mentioned during his Cardiff schooling. 

“And then it struck me how little it has been talked about. Where are the songs, the book, the films? Why is Tryweryn lamented over and over and Aberfan forgotten? Why did I never tell my son about it? Is it because it happened in the context of a nationalised industry under a Labour government? Is it just too distressing to dwell on?”

His words really made me stop and think.

I learned about Aberfan when I was about eight years old, at my primary school in Barry. I remember vividly talking about it in class and I remember crying when I thought about those poor children and their families. As a journalist working in Wales, perhaps I have read and researched more than most over the years, because that is the nature of my job. This year, the coverage both in Wales and nationally, has been exceptional because it is the 50th anniversary. But it has been there in other years too; perhaps not everyone saw it.

Like my friend, I thought everyone knew about it, but talking to friends, some of them didn’t. Some of them are only hearing about it now for the first time, or perhaps they had heard about it vaguely but had no real idea of just how horrific it really was or the way the people of Aberfan were betrayed by the coal board, who firstly didn’t listen to their concerns that the tip was dangerous and who then didn’t accept any responsibility for what had happened.

When the school messaged us parents about the minute’s silence, I talked to my children about Aberfan. They are too young for the full details but I told my 6¾-year-old and five-year-old the basics of what had happened, and why it was important for us to take time to remember and to let the people of Aberfan know that we, across Wales and indeed the world, were thinking of them. I cried as the words left my mouth. As much as I tried not to, because I didn’t want to overly upset them, I couldn’t hold back the quiver in my voice or the tears in my eyes.

Because looking at my children’s beautiful, innocent faces, I felt such an overwhelming pain for the mothers and fathers of Aberfan who lost a generation of children on one morning. The children who lost siblings and friends and who were deeply traumatised by what they witnessed. The teachers who died alongside their pupils and the other residents who died when their houses were smothered. A whole community shattered.

The year 4s at my children’s school are currently learning about Aberfan. They have visited the graves of the children who died, and they have written their own poems. I sincerely hope my own children will do this too, when they get further up the school. I’m so proud of my children’s school for doing this and for the minute’s silence. I’m not sure how many other schools in Wales did the same, but I hope some of them did.

I want my children to understand the realities of the coal industry in South Wales – we see it celebrated so much, how Cardiff was one of the big biggest coal exporters in the world, the jobs it provided across South Wales, the people who flocked to Cardiff from all over the world. But they need to know it came at a very high price.

I want them to know that the people in authority aren’t always right and sometimes need to be challenged.

I want them to have empathy and compassion towards other people.

I want them to know about the history of the regular people of Wales, y werin as we say in Welsh.

It’s always struck me how well we in Wales discuss the history of the everyday folk. Yes, we must know about the kings and queens, the knights and soldiers, the politicians and leaders. But I’ve always thought that here in Wales we pay great attention to the experiences of the regular people too. We have a whole museum dedicated to telling these stories at St Fagans National History Museum – or in Welsh, Amgueddfa Werin Cymru. Here, you’ll find the Valleys miners’ houses, the miners’ institute, the village school, the grocery store, a chapel, medieval round houses. A visual experience of how people like us lived through the ages.

It’s not easy talking to our children about such an awful event. It makes me sad that the innocent little bubble they used to live in is slowly fading as they realise the world isn’t always a safe place. But it’s something we need to talk about in memory of those who died and to show those who survived and who have spent a lifetime living in grief that we stand in support of them.

It might not be our personal tragedy, but we all have a duty to make sure it is never forgotten.

8 Comments to Why our children need to know about Aberfan

  1. Well said Cathryn. I never learned about it, in primary or secondary school and I think we should have. History is important, local history more especialky xxx

  2. This is excellently written and I will definitely share it. It’s so important to keep history alive, the good and the bad. And you’re so right about Wales being great at celebrating social history. The day to day minutiae. I think it’s because we’re a nation of working folk. There’s no glamourous royalty stories. Just hard graft with songs in our hearts. And that is very much to be celebrated.

  3. Paul O'Shea

    Spot on, we’ve taken our 8 year old to Big Pit and she loved it. Aberfan is part of our heritage and you can never be too young to be told a little about it.

  4. Kate Collins

    Another excellent blog post. Thank you. I think you’re right; everyone – young and old – should be educated about what happened so that we will never forget it and we will remember to question authority whenever we should in the future. Sadly, I don’t think my (4-year-old) son’s primary school in the valleys observed the minute’s silence but I had told him about what had happened before yesterday to give him a little understanding in case it was mentioned. I’ve cried a lot for the people of Aberfan over the past couple of days and you have made me cry again. x

  5. It’s so important to remember this tragedy, that children like yours and mine died in this awful incident. It’s so important that we learn to question authority too and that people in authority are not always right.

  6. This is a lovely piece and I agree it must never be forgotten. Not only the tragedy but the history behind it. I was about 10 and living in England at the time of the tragedy. I wasn’t taught about Aberfan, it was a part of my life. I have also met people who were there that day, helping to dig the children out. I too have watched some of the programmes this week with tears in my eyes and until then never knew the depths of deception and personal cowardice that also happened that day by those in authority. It must never be allowed to be forgotten.

  7. This is beautifully written Cathryn. I’m so shocked that I didn’t learn about Aberfan in school, it was never mentioned. The first I heard of the tragedy was when I became a journalist, and it saddens me that it’s not mentioned as part of Welsh history.
    It’s lovely that your children’s school chose to mark it.

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