David Griffith's painting of Rhodri Morgan and his labrador William Tell, displayed at Rhodri's funeral service, showing Rhodri leaingin against a fence in the countryside near his home

Rhodri Morgan, “Giant of Welsh Labour,” Dies

Out campaigning last April, Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, predicted positives for the Labour Party in the recent British election, when Theresa May was “expected to surf a blue tide” to an overwhelming win in June. Maybe ‘underwhelming’ is the term, as he saw Labour’s strength in Wales spreading, reminiscent of his classic “clear red water” speech from 2002. He never saw the result, unfortunately, as he died on 17 May while cycling near his home in Wenvoe, Wales.

Born in Cardiff on 29 September 1939, Hywel Rhodri Morgan was First Minister of Wales and political leader of the Welsh Labour Party for a decade from 2000 to 2009. Representing Cardiff West, he served as the Assembly Member from 1999 to 2011 and Member of Parliament from 1987 to 2001. Even in retirement he was a powerful force. As David Williamson of WalesOnline put it, “He might have been out of office but he was never out of the tribe.” At his death, he was Chancellor of Swansea University.

Rhodri was the son of T.J. Morgan, professor of Welsh, and the brother of Prys, an Emeritus Professor of history, both at Swansea University. After meeting Cardiff-born Julie Edwards in 1962 and campaigning there locally in 1965 for James Callaghan (later prime minister), they married in 1967. She later stood for Cardiff North and served as MP, from 1997 until 2010, and, since 2011, as Assembly Member.

His ceremonial funeral, the first national funeral in Wales, held on 31 May, was celebrated by humanist Lorraine Barrett, a former Assembly member. The family opened the service to the public at the Welsh Assembly Senedd, with the three Morgan children, Stuart, Siani, and Mari, and eight grandchildren helping. The emphasis was on Rhodri’s focus on his family, politics, and his “number one passion,” sport. As Julie noted, he wouldn’t “like us to be maudlin or sorrowful. He always looked forward.”

On sport, his daughter Mari remembered her mother saying, “You can’t have a conversation with Rhodri during the Olympics, his mind is elsewhere.” He dearly loved the rugby matches at Arms Park. “He got very emotional about it.” His love of music led him into learning piano in retirement, so his recent practice piece, the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was played. And his grandson Efan, wearing a red Wales shirt, led the mourners in singing “Calon Lan.”

On politics, Kevin Brennan, Morgan’s successor as Labour MP, said the London “establishment” never took to his “very Celtic way of communication.” They seemed to think he was joking when he was serious and that he was serious when he was joking.” He reused his good lines, too, such as to the BBC about government difficulties in 1998, in his 2009 party farewell speech. “We have temporarily mislaid that magic recipe for blending the mushy peas of Old Labour with the guacamole of New Labour.”

On a personal note, here in New York, the St. David’s Society was honored to have Rhodri as a special guest at our annual dinner on 1 March 2002 when I was president. Later that August, I tried to reach the Eisteddfod in St. David’s by public transport on a Sunday, but the train ended miles short at Carmarthen, forcing me to join a reporter in a cab for the final drive to the maes. My complaint, from “the American visitor, James Thomas,” made the Monday front page of the Western Mail. Rhodri recognized me that afternoon at a reception with “Only here in Wales for twenty-four hours and already causing trouble.”

In 2007, Society President David Morgan presented First Minister Rhodri Morgan with the Hopkins Medal – given “to persons of Welsh descent for distinguished services in the preservation and advancement of Welsh genius in every field.” Rhodri had promised to come back, wearing his medal.

Carolyn Hitt in WalesOnline claimed that he embodied the best of what it is to be Welsh – the lack of pretension, the love of the language and culture – and he liked sport the way “Picasso liked picking up a paintbrush.” As Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM said, “Those who didn’t get Rhodri, didn’t get Wales,”