St. David’s Day (Dydd Gwyl Dewi) is the first of the four national days or patron saints’ days in the British calendar. Saint David (Dewi Sant in Welsh) is the only of them to actually hail from the country for which he was canonised. Yet we know very little of a factual nature about his life. Apparently, according to the canonical records, David and his followers lived quietly in Wales, didn’t eat meat and drank only water. He became a famous teacher and an important monk in The Celtic Church. He died in 589, probably on 1st March when, according to legend, a host of angels bore his spirit to heaven with great singing to his glory and honour.
Thoughts of Wales from Abroad:
Wales celebrates its national saint’s day in 2023 in a mood of national self-confidence, despite its recent losses on the Rugby fields of the six nations. Hyfrydol! ‘Wonderful!’ as they say in Wales. The fact that, a decade ago, a third of the rugby team was born in England, with its captain hailing from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and that my team Wolverhampton Wanderers FC used to have more Welsh international players in their first team than Cardiff or Swansea, hardly seems to matter. Neither should it, though it might have mattered in the past. There’s a renewed confidence about Wales which doesn’t simply come from returning exiles, sporting or otherwise. The Welsh Rugby team used to do better when the coal industry was booming, but by the mid-1980s, there was hardly any industry left to boom in the south Wales valleys, and, whenever the British economy caught a cold, Wales got influenza. When England got influenza, Wales got pneumonia, and the continuing general economic malaise also followed this pattern.
On 1st March 1979, a Referendum on the setting up of a Welsh Assembly saw the proposal defeated by a margin of four to one across Wales as a whole. As a student leader in Wales, then based in its capital, I was on the national steering committee of the ‘Yes’ campaign and, like my fellow Welsh students, was greatly disappointed by the result. It was not until nearly twenty years later (fifteen after I had left the country) and a decade after gaining my PhD from Cardiff University, that in 1998, a second Referendum led to a narrow ‘Yes’ vote. Since the elections that followed, there has been a Welsh Assembly meeting in Cardiff, with the Welsh Government having responsibility over ‘devolved matters’, including education and health care. In recent years, Wales has developed a strong government of its own, able to follow its own policies, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in response to the needs of its people, independently from the Westminster Parliament.
All this seemed light years away when I left Wales four decades ago, having studied for two degrees, one in the North and one in the South. While studying for the second of these, I took a sabbatical year to represent its students as the full-time Cadeirydd (Chair) of UCMC (the National Union of Students, Wales). I also trained as a teacher in West Wales. During my eight years as a student there, I learnt Welsh, climbed all its mountains over three thousand feet and a few more, walked its coastal footpaths, lived in three of its fine cities and one of its oldest market towns, and visited many of its valleys. In addition, I watched its sporting successes, supped and sang in many of its pubs and worshipped in some of its chapels! Oh, and I managed to do a fair bit of discussing, debating, researching and writing along the way. In fact, I’m still writing about the country and its people today, albeit from a safe distance!
Yma o hyd! – Still here! Landscape, Peaks & People:
Wales is on the western side of the island of Great Britain, sharing a land border with England to its East and a sea border with Ireland to the West. The largest part of it is located along two great peninsulas, one in the south and the other in the north, with a long bay stretching between them. To the south is the Severn Estuary, now crossed by two road bridges, forming giant gateways into the country, at the end of which you used to have to pay a toll. Wales has so much natural beauty that some people call it ‘God’s own country’! It also has a unique and very beautiful language of its own, Cymraeg or Welsh, which some people call ‘the language of heaven!’ However, many other people would agree with the anglo-Welsh poet, Dannie Abse:
Much of the country is covered by huge mountains, like those in Eryri (Snowdonia) in the north, which rise to over three thousand feet from the coast. You can see these best from the large island of Anglesey, off the north Wales coast. In other areas, there are more gentle hills and valleys, sometimes with thick forests and woods. There are a large number of rivers, including the River Severn, which begins in mid-Wales as a trickle of water and then flows into England. These fast-flowing streams from the hills and mountains were what powered the early development of industry in Wales, though it was the vast mineral wealth discovered beneath them over the centuries, especially coal which led to the country’s development into the powerhouse of the industrial revolution. These attracted millions of workers to the mining and iron-producing areas of south Wales, not just from rural Wales, but also from the neighbouring counties of England.
Present into Past:
The Welsh people have a strong sense of their own identity as the first British people, going back to Roman times. They are proud of their past, which is the subject of many songs and poems and is very evident in their unique traditions and customs, different from many of those found in England. The National Anthem, Hen Wlad fyng nghadau (Land of My Fathers) is full of phrases remembering the heroic figures who fought to maintain these independent traditions and customs, as well as their distinctive language, still spoken by more than one in five of the population of just under three million. The majority of the population lives in the industrial south of the country, especially along the coastal plain with its major cities. There are also major centres of population in the north, especially in the north-east, which also became a centre of heavy industry in the last two centuries. The people living in mid and northwest Wales still work in forestry and agriculture, as well as in many small industries and businesses which depend on tourism, since Wales remains one of the most popular destinations for holiday-makers from the English cities, as well as from countries further away.
Who were the Welsh? – ‘Celts’ into ‘Cymry’:
One of the earliest westward migrations in Europe, between about four thousand and two thousand BC, was made by peoples from Celtic tribes, speaking similar languages, whose descendants now live in Cornwall and Devon (‘Dumnonia’ – south-west England), the Scottish highlands, Ireland, the Isle of Mann, Brittany (in modern-day France, hence the name Grande Bretagne), Galicia (north-western Spain) and Wales. These tribes, speaking something close to Scots and Irish Gaelic, became natives of the British Isles long before the English. The people of Wales call themselves Cymry in Welsh (Cymraeg), meaning ‘fellow-countrymen’, the name of their country being Cymru.
When the Romans successfully invaded what they called Britannia in 43 AD, adding it to their Empire, they quickly conquered most of the lowland areas of what we know today as England. However, they found it more difficult to take control of the ‘Celtic kingdoms’ in the north and west of the island. Caractacus, Caradoc in Welsh, the king of the Catavellauni, put up fierce resistance in battle until he was forced to flee further north, where he was arrested and handed over to Emperor Claudius in 51 AD. He was so impressed by Caractacus’ courage in defeat that he allowed him to live out the rest of his days as a free man in Rome. In 60 AD, the Roman Governer of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus attacked the Druids of Anglesey, the religious leaders of the Celtic tribes, and defeated the Rebellion led by Buddica (Boadicea). However, it wasn’t until 78 AD that the Roman conquest of Anglesey, and therefore their control of the western tribes, was completed by General Agricola.
However, large parts of mainland Britain were never fully conquered, including what we know today as Scotland, and the Romans never tried to invade Ireland. That’s why, to this day, the Scots and Irish Gaelic languages contain very few words used by the Romans, in their Latin language. The forts built by the occupying army, including Caerleon and Caerdydd (Cardiff), were small pockets of Roman culture in uncertain or hostile territory. The native population continued to live much as it had always done. Some Britons traded with the forts and even settled there, but most ignored the Romans, whose main interest was extracting mineral wealth from the hills. They did little to establish towns, which slowly grew around their forts, and most of the native population stayed on their farms. When the Romans began to withdraw from Britain in AD 410, four centuries of trade and settlement had left its mark on the remaining tribes, including their languages, which became Romano-British, but within a generation, they separated into competing tribal kingdoms once more.
Cymraeg is all that remains of a written language, Brythonic, which was spoken and written by the Romano-British who lived in several kingdoms from Cornwall to Cambria (Wales), to Cumbria (northern England) and on to Strathclyde (Scotland). It is from the last of these territories that the earliest known writings were made, dating from the sixth century. Welsh is very different from Scots and Irish Gaelic, but is similar to Breton, so much so that the traditional Breton onion sellers who used to bicycle through the Welsh valleys in the summer were able to communicate with their Welsh-speaking customers.
Britons, Saxons and Vikings:
It was the invading Saxons of the sixth century who used their word wealas to describe the people whom they made ‘foreigners’ in their own land, though the idea that there was a mass migration into the west is a myth. The chieftains and warriors may have retreated to their forts in the hills and mountains, but recent genetic tests have shown that most of the farmers remained on their land and mixed with the newcomers, gradually adapting to Saxon manners, customs and languages, and adopting some of them. The process was two-way. Many British place names continued to be used in the Saxon-settled territories, including Afon or Avon, for ‘river’ and cwm or combe, for ‘valley’. The placenames along the current border are a peculiar mix of Latin, Romano-British, Old Welsh, West Mercian (Old English), Norman French, Middle English and ‘early modern’ Welsh. However, in what became the Mercian territories and then the ‘marches’, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ languages eventually overwhelmed the native British tongues as ‘lingua franca’ (the language of trade).
The Cambrian mountains did give the retreating ruling families and their scribes a means to protect their language and culture from Anglo-Saxon influence for centuries. Despite the construction of a dike, or ditch, by the Mercian King Offa, mainly to discourage sheep-rustling, he was more interested in securing his dominant position over the other Saxon kingdoms, and the Welsh were more at risk from attacks from the sea, by Irish and Scandinavian raiders. But British monks recorded stories about the heroic battles fought by chieftains against the pagan Saxons. One of these British heroes, Artorius, or Arthur, became the basis for the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the legends of his magician Merlin (Myrddin). These monks also wrote down the stories and legends connected with the British saints, including David and Patrick.
There was no common form of ‘Aenglisc’ at this time, but rather three different Saxon languages or dialects, Northumbrian (the root of ‘Scots’ English), Mercian (which eventually became the dominant form), and West Saxon. It wasn’t until around AD 1,000 that the word Englaland began to be used, though the Anglii (Angles) themselves were a minority group among the settlers, as were the Jutes who settled in Kent. The Welsh word for the English people is Saeson or Saxon, and the English language is Saesneg. A fragment of an early Welsh folk song tells of a young man going “with a leaden heart” to live in “the land of the Saxons.” However, the Anglo-Saxon languages were far from evolving into a standardised, written language, even in the time of Cnut, the Danish King of England, and Edward the Confessor. Latin, together with Christianity, had been brought into the Saxon kingdoms through Aidan’s mission to Northumbria by multilingual British monks like Cuthbert, Cedd and Ceadda (Chad) by the mid-seventh century, and later by Paulinus through Kent in the seventh century. It remained the standard written language throughout the British Isles.
Who Was Dewi Sant?
David was born around the year 500, probably the illegitimate son of Sandde, a famous prince, and Non, who was also a Cymric saint. He grew up in the Christian faith and became an important churchman, taking part in great conferences and assemblies. He became the Primate, or Archbishop, of Wales. When he was thirty he founded a monastery at Glyn Rhosyn which was recognised as the centre of the Church in Wales. This became St David’s (Ty Dewi – ‘David’s House’) where the small cathedral city now stands, the smallest city in the UK. He founded many churches throughout Wales, fifty-three of which bear his name. By the time of the Norman Conquest of England, St David’s had become an important centre of pilgrimage. Little else is known of David himself, except that he became Primate or Archbishop of the western British Church, then independent from Rome, decades before the Augustinian mission to the English finally succeeded in gaining footholds in Kent, Sussex and Wessex.
David was the only one of the four patron saints of the four countries of the British Isles to be born in the country he represents, although it was then part of a much larger post-Roman British territory, stretching from Cornwall to Strathclyde. The rugged and picturesque Pembrokeshire Coast hosts many small chapels, like St Govan’s (above), dedicated to the Celtic saints whose Christianity predated, by centuries, the arrival of the Papal envoy in Canterbury to convert the pagan Saxons. On a two-stage personal pilgrimage around the coasts of Pembrokeshire in the late seventies, I camped by the chapel dedicated to Non, David’s mother, looking out to Ireland and the Atlantic. David was born near here in the time of the legendary Arthur, the early sixth century, a time when the Welsh still controlled much of the west and north of Britain, including modern-day Scotland, the north, midlands and south-western counties of England and, of course, Wales itself.
More than a century before David, his predecessor Patrick, was also a Welsh monk who introduced Christianity to Ireland. He was, in fact, an escaped British slave who was born in late Roman times, in about AD 389, the son of a small landowner at Banwen in Morgannwg (modern-day Glamorgan), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen a band of Irish raiders captured him and took him back to Ireland where he was made to look after the sheep of an Irish chieftain in Antrim. It was during these six years of captivity that he decided to become a monk, escaping by ship to the coast of Brittany. There he trained in a monastery, returning to his home in Britain, before beginning his mission to Ireland. Returning to Auxerre, he was ordained there, before sailing back to Ireland to commence his legendary mission.
The surviving stories about David, many of them in the Welsh tradition, are, as they say, the stuff of legend. Wells and mountains were said to spring up at his feet and he miraculously cured the blind, the lame and the sick. According to one of these legends, St David’s spirit was taken up to heaven by a host of angels amid great singing to his glory and honour, on 1st March 589. According to the history of the next fifteen hundred years, his people have never stopped singing since, nor could anyone stop them, not even Edward Plantagenet.
As with Patrick, many legends have grown up around the name of the Welsh patron saint. One of them tells how when David and his monks first arrived in the Glyn Rhosyn area, it was terrorised by a bandit named Boca. He was overcome by David’s personality and became converted to Christianity, although it took David longer to convert his wife! Another story tells of how when David prayed for fresh water a well sprang up at his feet. This useful miracle was repeated at several other sites, including Ffynnon Feddyg. A further tale describes a hill rising up under the saint so that all could see and hear him preach. The name of the village where this happened, Llanddewibrefi, also bears his name: The Church of St David.
By the mid-eighth century, the three ‘British’ heartlands of the ‘Cymry‘ or ‘Compatriots’ had become separated by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, to whom they had become known as the ‘Waleas’, the ‘foreigners’ in their own land. Despite later Norman incursions following the Conquest of England, St David’s was still no more than a village in population, and is still the smallest city in Britain, due to the Cathedral which stands there today, dedicated to the patron saint. It then became a popular place of pilgrimage from the late eleventh century, before the Edwardian Conquest of Wales at the end of the thirteenth century.
When was Wales? Norman Lords, Princes and People:
Following their Conquest of England from 1066-80, The Norman kings placed the security of the Welsh border in the hands of ‘marcher’ barons who were allowed to conquer new lands in Wales. They built castles and monasteries in south Wales, giving ‘manors’ for rent to both Anglo-Norman and Welsh tenants. They encouraged Anglo-Norman settlement of the countryside and created new, fortified towns such as Swansea. English place names were used for new settlements, such as Fernhill and Oxwich, which grew next to Welsh villages. Meanwhile, Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, expanded his territory into Powys. However, the Norman kings left the native rulers of north and south Wales in place, provided they paid him homage. However, when Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed by the Normans in 1093, they established lordships over Gower, Kidwelly and Pembroke.
Llywelyn the Great, or Fawr (1172-1240) was a Prince of Gwynedd in north Wales and eventually ruled over most of north and mid-Wales. Through a combination of war and diplomacy, he dominated Wales for forty years. He was the sole ruler of Gwynedd by 1200 and made a treaty with King John of England that year. Llywelyn’s relations with John remained good for the next ten years. He married John’s natural daughter Joan in 1205, and when John arrested the Prince of Powys in 1208, Llywelyn took the opportunity to annex southern Powys. In 1210, Anglo-Welsh relations deteriorated, and John invaded Gwynedd in 1211. Llywelyn was forced to seek terms and to give up all lands east of the River Conwy in the north but was able to recover them the following year in alliance with the other Welsh princes. He allied himself with the barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. By 1216, he was the dominant power in Wales, holding a council at Aberdyfi that year to apportion lands to the other princes.
Following King John’s death, Llywelyn concluded the Treaty of Worcester with his successor, Henry III, in 1218. During the next fifteen years, Llywelyn was frequently involved in fights with Marcher lords and sometimes with the king, but also made alliances with several major powers in the Marches. The Peace of the Middle (March) in 1234 marked the end of Llywelyn’s military career, and the agreed truce of two years was extended year by year for the remainder of his reign. He maintained his position in Wales until his death in 1240 and was succeeded by his son Dafydd ap Llewelyn.
If Wales can be described as a nation in any sense in the late thirteenth century, it was certainly a divided one, divided into four parts; the marcher lordships established by the Anglo-Normans, mainly along the border and in the southern coastal plain, and the native princedoms of Gwynedd in the north, Deheubarth in the west, and Powys in the middle of the country. There was no overall kingdom, and the rivalry between the three princedoms was a cause of increasing concern to the English crown. So, in 1267, Henry III recognised Llewelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd as ‘prince of Wales’, the overall ruler of the three native princedoms. However, Llewelyn did not want to accept the overall right of the Norman ‘Plantagenet’ kings to control Wales. He took advantage of their problems with the barons to expand his territories at the expense of both the marcher lords and the rival Welsh princes.
So in 1277 Edward Plantagenet began a campaign to bring Llewelyn under control. Marching his army into north Wales, he quickly seized Flint, Rhuddlan and Deganwy, forcing Llewelyn into a negotiated peace. He was forced to surrender these lands between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a crippling fine on Llewelyn, which he had no chance of ever raising. Edward then waived this fine, demonstrating the control that he now had over the prince of Wales. However, in 1282, his brother Dafydd began a revolt against the Plantagenets, annoyed by his lack of reward for supporting the English crown. Edward then launched a full-scale war of conquest from the lands he now controlled in the north. He took control of the whole coast, including Anglesey, pushing Llewelyn into Snowdonia. Attempting to break out to the south, he was ambushed and killed at a bridge near Builth Wells. Edward’s troops then pushed into Gwynedd, capturing and brutally executing Prince Dafydd in June 1283.
Castles – Places to Show off, or Symbols of Oppression?
From the beginning of the twelfth century, the Norman lords had begun to build permanent stone castles. Kidwelly Castle (below), like Llansteffan in modern-day Carmarthenshire, began as a walled enclosure, to which round towers and an outer wall were added in the thirteenth century and a large gatehouse was added after 1300.
King Edward saw castles in the eastern Mediterranean during his crusade (1270-2) and introduced the ‘concentric’ design into Britain in the 1280s. It relied on a ring of walls and towers around an open bailey, or courtyard, with a strengthened gatehouse. His Welsh castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech are classic examples of this design. As well as encircling Wales with these castles, some, like Conwy, provided a good way of setting up new towns under his control, within the outer walls. The Conquest was then completed by the remarkable string of castles which also included Flint, Rhuddlan, Beaumaris on Anglesey, Criccieth, Aberystwyth and Builth. They stood both as bastions of military might and symbols of Plantagenet rule. However, the cost of his nine castles in Wales almost bankrupted him.
The military occupation of Gwynedd was followed up by a constitutional settlement in 1284 imposing the Statute of Wales, which placed the former principality was placed under the direct jurisdiction of English law. Further revolts were ruthlessly put down by 1295. The King then went on a great circular march through Wales to reinforce his authority and then made his eldest son Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle in 1301. This was a reminder that the rule of the native princes was over, and the only important Welsh family to keep their lands were the former rulers of Powys. Other Welsh lands were ‘parcelled up’ and granted to English lords. Wales has remained a ‘Principality’ within an English kingdom ever since, though gradually including all the lands west of the border with England until the inclusion of Monmouthshire (Gwent) as late as 1973. The former Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, was invested with the title in Caernarfon Castle in 1969, despite attempts by extreme nationalists to disrupt the ceremony.
A poem in Hungarian, written by János Arany shortly after the Austrian Empire’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Walesi Bárdok (‘The Bards of Wales’) drew its inspiration from this determination of the Welsh to maintain independence from the invading Normans, whose King Edward built a ring of the castles to control the country. The poem tells of the refusal of the bards to sing Edward’s praises at Montgomery Castle after his invasion of the country and the slaying of Llewelyn, the last Welsh-born prince of Gwynedd and Powys, and of how Edward, according to legend, had every last one of them put to death as a punishment.
Symbols of Wales – The Red Dragon, Leeks & Daffodils:
The dragon is a popular mythical beast in the folklore of the British Isles as a whole. In fact, the first dragon standard to be flown in battle, according to dark-age records, was the white dragon of the first Saxons to land on the eastern coasts of Britain around AD 450. The Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) of Wales comes from the Mabinogion, the cultural epic of Wales, which tells the story of the battle between the white dragon and the red dragon for control of Britain. According to the tale, the pained shrieks of the fighting dragons caused women to miscarry and crops to fail. The British king Lludd consulted his wise brother Llefelys, who told him to dig a pit and fill it with mead (a strong liquor made with honey). When the dragons drank the mead and fell asleep, Lludd imprisoned them both in the pit.
The story is continued by the ninth-century monk, Nennius, in his Historia Britonum. He tells of how, centuries later, King Vortigern tried to build a castle at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, but each night the walls collapsed. A boy who grew up to be the wizard Merlin told the king about the two Dragons, who had continued their battle underground. The dragons were released and continued their fight until the Red Dragon triumphed. Later, in his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) wrote that this victory was a sign of the coming of King Arthur, also known as Arthur Pendragon. In Welsh, Pen Draig means ‘Chief Dragon’. Nennius also wrote about the legendary Artorius and his battles against the Saxons, in which he halted the Saxon advance at the Battle of Badon Hill in about AD 515.
Over the next thousand years following the Arthurian ‘period’, many British kings used the dragon standard. The legendary seventh-century king Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd used the Red Dragon as his standard. Alfred The Great flew the White Dragon when his army defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. Both Aethelstan and Harold II also flew it, and in 1191 Richard the Lionheart, who popularised the ‘long cross’ of St George, is also said to have carried a dragon standard on the Third Crusade. Henry V flew the Dragon standard at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which large numbers of Welsh archers fought. Henry VII, who claimed Cadwaladr as his ancestor, raised the Red Dragon on the background of Tudor white and green colours, giving rise to the Welsh flag still flown today.
Apart from the mythical dragon, Wales has two national emblems – the leek and the daffodil. The leek is a herb of the onion family, and it was worn as a battle emblem by the Britons against the Saxons, and again by Welsh soldiers at Poitiers in the Hundred Years’ War. In legend, the leek was said to have the property of carrying its wearer, uninjured, through battle. It became the official emblem of the Welsh Guards Regiment, worn on St David’s Day. Over recent decades the leek has given way to the daffodil, seen as David’s flower, appropriately blooming around 1st March. St David’s Cross, yellow on a black background (see below), is paraded through Welsh cities and towns on St David’s Day. The name ‘daffodil’ is a corruption of Asphodel, which grew on the banks of the Acheron in ancient Rome, delighting the spirits of the dead. It also grew, according to legend, on the Elysian fields, which may explain why they are placed on graves. In Wales, if you are the first to find a daffodil in bloom in your village on St David’s Day, they say that you will have more gold than silver for a year.
St. David’s Day is not a holiday, but there are parades, special concerts and competitions, called eisteddfodau, all over the country on this day, especially in schools, when children still dress in national costume (largely an invention of two centuries ago, as shown in the postcard picture below from about the same time).
Past into Present – The Dragon’s Two Tongues:
Even at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the vast majority of the people still spoke Welsh. Despite the anglicising effect of intermarriage, education and industrialisation, the persistence of the Welsh language and culture is a remarkable story. At the beginning of the twentieth century, two-thirds of the population was bilingual, and at its end, one-fifth claimed to be Welsh speakers. This has declined slightly, according to the recently-published 2021 Census, possibly due to the death of the last monolingual speakers. At the beginning of this century, Welsh is used in education, with every child learning it to sixteen, and it has equal status with English in law and administration.
Road signs throughout the country are bilingual and the Welsh television channel is popular and successful. In the 1980s the Conservative Government, so often hated by nationalists, made it its policy to support and subsidise the Welsh language. By contrast, English writing in Wales did not receive the same level of subsidy through the Welsh Arts Council. The strength of the Welsh language culture has also influenced the development of the Anglo-Welsh language and culture. Actors such as Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Sheen have a rich, spoken English which combines the perfect accuracy of standard, or received pronunciation, with the fluency of melody, lilt and resonance supplied by Welsh-language intonation, with rounded vowels where most ‘Anglo-Saxon’ actors would flatten them.
Welsh also has a different word order, with the noun coming before the main verb, or the adjective coming after the noun. For example, a woman from the valleys, talking about a young man who had died, said “Pity it was that he died so early”. This was a direct translation of the Welsh structure into English. The (ungrammatical) use of the question tag ‘isn’t it?’ or the phrase ‘look you’ are further examples of direct translation in colloquial Welsh speech. Some Welsh words are used directly in English, like ‘cariad’ for ‘darling’ or ‘love’ and ‘cwtch’ for ‘hug’ (although the ‘ch’ phoneme in Welsh is a ‘guttural’ sound, as in German). You can also tell an Anglo-Welsh writing style by their use of hyperbole (exaggeration). This stems from the tradition of Welsh bards (poets) who recited to the warriors to work up their ‘hwyl’, or ecstasy, before going into battle.
A Nation Once Again? – The Tudor Revolution in Governance:
A century after the Plantagenet Conquest of Wales was complete, a Welsh nobleman named Owain Glyndwr lost a legal dispute with an English marcher lord. He turned to violence and his immediate supporters declared him to be Prince of Wales since he was descended from the princes of Powys. In June 1401 he defeated an English Army in an open battle and by 1404 had succeeded in driving the English lords out of Wales. He then set up an independent Welsh Parliament in Machynlleth in mid-Wales. In 1407, Prince Henry, later to become Henry V, began the re-conquest of Wales. Using the English Navy to stop French ships from bringing guns to the rebels, he took the towns and castles back one at a time, clearing the surrounding lands of Glyndwr’s supporters before moving on to the next town. But in 1412 Glyndwr led a successful ambush of the English Army at Brecon. However, he then vanished into the hills, never to be seen again. For these brief years under his rule, Wales became a truly independent country for the first and only time in its history. Still, the legends surrounding him inspired many subsequent ‘followers’ to campaign for a distinct political identity.
A direct descendant of Glyndwr, Henry Tudor, finally defeated the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and again at Stoke in 1487, ending the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII was Welsh-speaking, as were his two sons, Arthur and Henry. With his accession to the English throne, and with his son Arthur as Prince of Wales, it looked like the Welsh were on top again. One observer wrote that they…
“… may now be said to have recovered their former independence, for the wisest and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman”.
However, Wales had been ruled for centuries by the Kings of England with no clear legal basis. It wasn’t until the Tudors that the relationship was codified. Between 1535 and 1542, Henry VIII passed a series of laws that established a formal system of government over Wales. The local lords put in place under the Plantagenets were stripped of their powers, which were passed to the government. The marcher lordships were abolished, but Shrewsbury remained, in all but name, the administrative capital of the whole ‘region’ of the united realm of the former principalities and marcher lordships. The Council of the Marches, meeting there, was responsible for maintaining law and order both in Wales and the English border shires until it was abolished in the 1640s. Then, for the first time, Welsh MPs were able to sit in the Westminster Parliament, and the border was legally established and defined. Laws that discriminated against the Welsh were repealed and the counties of Wales were put on an equal basis as those of England. However, under the Act of Union of 1536, English became the official language to be used in all legal and government documents, though the majority of the people remained monolingual Welsh speakers.
However, one of the results of these changes was that the language of the ruling classes became English, but they at least ensured that justices of the peace and the men running the shires were Welsh, so that Wales was not simply seen as an extension of England. Even Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, was eventually returned to Wales in 1972. Previous to the Act of Union, there were frequent border disputes like the one that led to the Glyndwr Rebellion. The Welsh were often falsely accused of stealing cattle or sheep, as in the English nursery rhyme, Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef. No doubt as many Welsh sheep got transferred across the indistinct border after a night raid in the opposite direction across Offa’s dike.
Like her father, Elizabeth Tudor was also brought up speaking Welsh, and, as Elizabeth I, was the last monarch to have learnt the language. She also had several important Welsh scientists, like Dr John Dee, scholars and explorers at her court. Her family’s ancient Celtic Christian roots had become even more important after the Reformation. The Pope had excommunicated her, and she was constantly threatened by plots, rebellions and invasions. She claimed her right to be Supreme Governor of the Church through reference to the saints and chieftains of the ancient Britons, chronicled by Geoffrey of Monmouth and others before him, and the coronation oath still contains this reference. The Welsh adopted Jesus College, Oxford, founded in 1571, and the Inns of Court in London as the ways to complete their education.
Members of the Welsh elite were enthusiastic Renaissance people, building houses and art collections comparable with collections anywhere else in Europe. They were also keen supporters of the Reformation. Oliver Cromwell was so named because his ancestors had changed their name from Williams during the Reformation. Richard Williams was the grandson of a Welshman who had followed Henry Tudor’s red dragon standard to the Battle of Bosworth and then settled at Putney, where he married his son Morgan to the niece of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister. Richard helped his uncle-in-law to suppress the monasteries and was rewarded with former church lands in Huntingdonshire. He took his uncle’s name, and three generations later, in 1599, Oliver Cromwell, God’s Englishman, was born in a townhouse in Huntingdon. He might perhaps have been more accurately known as God’s Welshman.
The Cromwells were certainly strong admirers of Good Queen Bess, especially when the Scottish Stuart kings became unpopular, though they continued to be guided by the Welsh Cecil dynasty. Robert Cecil uncovered (perhaps initiated and manipulated) the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, then allowed King James to take the credit, increasing his ‘poll ratings’. It is easy to forget that Scotland was widely seen as a hostile, foreign country when Oliver Cromwell was growing up and for the rest of the century. It only became united with England, Wales and Ireland in 1707 and even after the death of Anne, many Scots remained loyal to the Stuart ‘pretenders’, becoming ‘Jacobites’. Oliver’s favourite daughter was named Elizabeth, no doubt after her mother, but also after ‘Queen Elizabeth, of famous memory’.
The Protestant Reformation took root in Wales, with Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer coming out as early as 1547. These were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. The first Bible in Welsh was published in 1588 and contributed greatly to the survival of the Welsh language. Catholicism survived, with St Winifred’s Well at Holywell in north Wales remaining an important shrine and centre of pilgrimage to today. Although most of the Welsh people enthusiastically embraced Protestantism, it was Nonconformity and Methodism which by the eighteenth century became more popular than Anglicanism. There was a close relationship between literacy and Methodism in the latter part of the century. In Caernarfonshire, those areas with the highest attendance at Gruffydd Jones’ circulating schools between 1741 and 1777 were also those with the most Methodist chapels by 1800.
Though it was excluded from administration, the position Welsh gained as the language of religion helped to ensure its survival. Grammar School education was in English, but basic literacy in Welsh became widespread in the eighteenth century, due largely to the efforts of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, Gruffydd Jones and others, who sought to ensure that the people could read the Bible for themselves. A growing market for Welsh language books led to the establishment of the first Welsh printing presses in the early eighteenth century. Welsh medieval texts were collected and preserved. This enabled a Europe-wide rediscovery of the Celtic past and identification with its Celtic past helped the Welsh to assert their different identity from the English.
Interest in the bardic traditions was reawakened in the late eighteenth century and, under the direction of Iolo Morganwg, eisteddfodau re-emerged as vehicles for regional and national cultural activities. Druidism, long extinct, was revived through colourful if invented, ceremonies. Celtomania went some way to convincing the English that the Welsh had something to offer the partnership. Until the mid-nineteenth century Wales remained an agrarian country, specialising in cattle-rearing, dairy products and cloth manufacture. The countryside was gradually enclosed and deforested, but settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer houses and lowland winter homes. Market and textile-manufacturing towns in South and mid-Wales became increasingly important in the eighteenth century.
People of the ‘Abyss’ – The Proud Valleys:
The history of Wales from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century was dominated by the growth and decline of the iron, steel and coal industries, and their social and economic consequences. Due to the demand for Welsh steam coal to power the industrial revolution and Britain’s expanding Empire, new and vibrant communities, with a unique lifestyle and culture, grew up in previously unpopulated areas of the two coalfields in the north and south of Wales. At its high point in 1913, the coal industry employed a quarter of a million men and women.
The valleys of south Wales span out across the hinterland from the coastal ports and cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea like the fingers of two linked, outstretched hands, from Monmouthshire to Carmarthenshire. The best-known valleys are those of the Rhondda Fach and Fawr (‘little’ and ‘great’) in central Glamorgan. By 1906, people were moving into these valleys at a rate second in the world only to those arriving in the northern United States. They mainly came from rural Wales so that Wales as a whole retained its Welsh population at a time when other parts of Britain and Ireland were experiencing mass emigration. As this supply of cheap labour began to dry up, many workers moved in from the English side of the River Severn and its estuary, especially from Somerset and Gloucestershire, both miners and farm-workers. Long terraces of houses were built in rows along the steep hillsides overlooking the pits and colliery winding towers.
These were societies dominated by one industry, Coal, though there were also iron and steel foundries at both the ‘heads’ and ‘feet’ of the valleys. From the age of eleven or twelve, then fourteen, most boys started work with their fathers underground, working eleven-hour shifts. They were called ‘trappers’, because they would take care of the doors on the tramways, opening and closing them for the horse-pulled trams full of coal, while their fathers would cut the coal at the coal ‘face’ using picks, loading the trams using shovels. They were called colliers. My maternal grandfather was one, working in the smaller Warwickshire coalfield, where the coalface was more accessible, and conditions were generally better.
Sometimes the boys would push or pull the trucks themselves, so they were called ‘hauliers’. Their wages were often decided by how much coal they and their fathers could get to the surface by the end of each shift.
Often the seams of coal were very thin and could only be worked by the colliers lying on their sides, and conditions were hot, ‘sticky’ (humid) and wet, with water running through the rock. At the same time, there was a lot of dust, from both the coal and the rock, so miners developed, and died early, from the effects of lung diseases like pneumoconiosis and silicosis. The amount of dust in the atmosphere would sometimes result in serious, spontaneous fires. Gases were released from the rock and, since explosives had to be used to blast open new faces, there were frequent disasters in which hundreds and thousands of miners were killed. The worst disaster happened at the Senghenydd Colliery in 1913, when 430 colliers were killed. Even a spark from the tools used was enough to cause a major explosion, and roof falls were also common, resulting in miners being buried alive or suffocating. The miners ate and went to the toilet underground in the same places underground.
Coming home was difficult because the moleskin trousers would be stiff with the mixture of sweat, dust and mud as they dried in the summer or froze in winter. The boys were so exhausted that they fell asleep over dinner, and then they would have to wait their turn to wash in front of a zinc bath in front of the fire. The women would be continually boiling water since there could be as many as eight or nine men and boys working in the colliery. While the men were at work, the women would be continually fighting a losing battle to get the dust and dirt out of the house, as well as out of the clothes.
The eldest daughter would stay at home to help her mother, while the others would find work as maids, in shops, or sewing. Social life revolved around the pubs, the miners’ clubs, or ‘institutes’ which included libraries and theatre halls, and the nonconformist chapels, where there were social and cultural events every night of the week, as well as services on Sundays. The children would also attend Sunday schools, which organised picnics and ‘outings’ in the summer. Many men belonged to Male Voice Choirs, which regularly competed against each other, and there were also Community Singing events, Gymanfa Ganu, in which whole chapels and colliery villages would take part.
In 1910-11 there were a series of strikes in the Cambrian Combine, in which many Rhondda miners worked. The company refused to increase wages, although they were making huge profits at that time. There was little strike pay at that time, and poor relief was restricted to those who lived in a rented property or were homeless. The miners organised soup kitchens, and communal lunches, and raised money for them by singing in the wealthier towns in south Wales. There were some riots and violent incidents at Tonypandy in 1910 when policemen from England were brought in to keep the miners ‘in line’. Churchill, then Home Secretary, sent soldiers to south Wales, though they weren’t used. In 1926 the mine owners tried to cut the miners’ wages and locked them out of the collieries when their Trade Union refused to accept this. Other Trade Unions decided to call a General Strike throughout Britain in support, but this only lasted eight days. However, the miners stayed out for six months before they were starved back to work. Others left the valleys for good to find work in London, Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford (Cowley), where car manufacture and electrical engineering were expanding, mainly concentrated in the Midlands. To begin with, there was a trickle of single, independent men, but this was soon followed by whole families.
Wage cuts, lay-offs and the forceful use of police during the 1910s and 1920s led to the development of strong traditions of trade unionism and socialist politics throughout the south Wales Coalfield, especially in the Rhondda. However, just as Wales had benefited from the ‘boom’ time in the coal industry before the First World War, it suffered more than any other region from the slump in world markets for coal, iron and steel. Average unemployment reached 31% by the end of the thirties. In the valleys, however, this figure often reached more than two-thirds of the working population in particular towns and villages and by the 1930s only Durham had more people on poor relief. Even those in work in 1931 were on wages which were far worse than they had been five years earlier. At first, the National Government tried to persuade people to leave the valleys for work in England, believing that anything they did to make life better for the poor and unemployed would only hurt migration.
However, by 1934, when Britain as a whole was recovering from the Depression, the government decided to try to tackle the widespread unemployment and poverty in south Wales by providing incentives to industries to move into the area. Most of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire became part of the ‘Special Area’. However, the effects of these measures were slow to develop and inadequate in scale. At the same time, the effects of the high levels of poverty had become devastating, especially the accompanying levels of disease and malnutrition, as well as infant and maternal deaths. The incidence of tuberculosis was 130% above the natural average. Added to this, the results of outward migration meant that the number of Welsh speakers, which had increased and then remained stable over the previous decades, now went into decline. Local shops and services were no longer viable, and shopkeepers committed suicide rather than collect the money they were owed by customers who had no money to pay for essential food and clothing for their families. Others sold up and left for England to join the younger miners in their families. They were often deacons and elders in chapels, which were therefore now losing the leaders of their already dwindling congregations.
Between 1920 and 1940 Wales lost about 450,000 people, permanently, due to migration, 90% of whom were from the three counties of Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Breconshire. Since about 10% of migrants failed to settle in the ‘new industry’ towns and cities of the Midlands and South East of England, the number of those experiencing ‘the exodus’ may have been well over half a million, a figure equivalent to one in five of the people of Wales in 1921. Very few of these went with the bribes offered by the Ministry of Labour, or under their control. Most of those who found their way to Cowley, Coventry and Birmingham did so with the help and organisation of their own families, or the friends they knew through Rugby, Boxing, Gymnastics and other sporting clubs, chapels, brass bands, choirs, and a whole ‘heavenly host’ of other cultural institutions.
It wasn’t just the individuals and families who migrated, therefore, but many of the organisations which they had set up in the valleys, and now transferred to the new places to which they moved. Membership in these traditional Welsh cultural institutions helped the migrants to settle and integrate. Fifty years later, the Welsh immigrants to Oxford, Birmingham and Coventry still retained the accents of the particular valleys in which they grew up and began work and their active membership of the remaining clubs and societies with Welsh origins and associations in these cities. Many had served in prominent positions in voluntary organisations and civic life, even becoming Lord Mayors. Among their children, there were a significant array of local sporting and musical ‘celebrities’.
Sport – Fields of Dreams:
Rugby may have been invented by an English public schoolboy, but it was the Welsh who turned into an art and a craft, not to mention a mass spectator sport, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Gareth Edwards was the greatest Rugby player in the world during his career, which spanned fifteen seasons. Still a student when he gained his first cap for Wales against France, this was the start of a run of fifty-three consecutive international appearances.
He captained his country thirteen times from his position behind the scrum (scrum-half). During his career, he helped Wales to win seven Championships, five ‘Triple Crowns’ (victories over the other British countries) and three ‘Grand-Slams’ (victories in all four, now five matches). He also scored what most experts still agree was the finest ‘try’ (touch-down) of all time when appearing for the invitation Barbarian team in 1973. He also toured Australia and New Zealand with the British Lions three times, also playing against the visiting ‘All-Black’ team in 1971, the Lions’ first-ever series win against New Zealand. A more recent Lions team, with a core of Welsh players including George North and Leigh Halfpenny (pictured below), emulated the earlier successes in their tour ‘down under’ in 2013.
Although Rugby is still the most popular team sport, Wales has two Premier League teams, Cardiff City (‘the bluebirds’) and Swansea City (‘the Swans’). In 2012, the Cardiff team was promoted to the Premiership after a gap of fifty years outside the top division. Swansea had a great team in the 1980s and won promotion again in 2010. They finished high enough in the 2011-12 season to win a place in European competition. Since then, the twin ‘cities’ have struggled to retain that form and positions but last year, the national team took part in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, their first time in the finals since 1958. Unlike John Charles’s side, however, who lost to the eventual winning Brazilian team (and Pelé), Gareth Bale’s team failed to progress beyond the group stage.
Land of their Fathers – Eisteddfodau & Other Annual Events:
Welsh people are proud of their country for a variety of reasons. Many regret the loss of independence and imposed rule, as many of them see it, from a foreign country, though they now have their own government in Cardiff. For the large minority who speak Welsh, a majority in many of the western and northern towns and villages, the Royal National Eisteddfod is perhaps their most important national institution. It is a major annual occasion when musicians, poets, artists and craftsmen gather during the first week in August on a site announced a year and a day before. ‘Eisteddfod’ literally means ‘being seated’ or, more formally, ‘Chairing’, referring to the ceremony in which the poet of the year is ‘invested’ or ‘installed’. The Archdruid of the ‘Order’ or Gorsedd of Bards presides over the chairing and crowning of the bard, which can only take place if the assembly answers his question A oes heddwch? ‘Is it Peace?’ in the affirmative by repeating the word ‘Heddwch’. But although the Eisteddfod is a purely Welsh invention, it is not as old as it seems, with its processions of white-robed druids. It dates from the Romantic Revival of the late eighteenth century.
Although this is perhaps the greatest ‘Cymric’ institution, smaller competitions, or festivals, are held throughout the year in towns, schools, colleges, churches and chapels the length and breadth of the country, especially on or around St David’s Day. The National Eisteddfod or Eisteddfod Cenedlaethol is held annually in a different place each year, announced a year and a day before. The Archdruid of the ‘Order’ or Gorsedd of the Bards presides over it and the mythology of the druidic ancestry symbolises that Wales is always ‘The Land of my Fathers’ (Hen Wlad fyng nghadau) and always, as the National Hymn goes on, a land of bards, singers and soldiers who spilt their blood for freedom. The language of the National Eisteddfod is Welsh, and besides the main competitions, there are many ‘side-shows’ from folk concerts to political gatherings. In fact, many visitors to the National Eisteddfod never go into the Pavillion, being able to view the competitions on the big screen (as pictured below). I attended the event in Caernarfon in 1979 as a student leader, and spoke, in my faltering Welsh, to a ‘fringe’ meeting of Welsh-speaking students.
When I arrived in Wales as an undergraduate student in 1975, an ‘eisteddfod’ was not a new concept to me. In fact, I had already taken part in one in Birmingham, winning singing, recitation and drama competitions. It was also known as a ‘Festival of Arts’ and the competitions were in English, but the nature of the event was based on earlier events held by Welsh exiles in the city for more than a hundred years, mostly connected with the Welsh chapels. In the 1960s the ranks of these exiles had been swelled by Welsh teachers who formed at least half of those who taught me, whether at school or Sunday school. They twice helped my father, a Baptist pastor in the city from 1965 to 1979, to put on a very broad festival of competitions between the Baptist chapels in the west of the city. So, when I was asked to compete as a Welsh learner in the Inter-College Eisteddfod, involving students from all the universities and colleges in Wales, I was happy to do so. I learnt ‘Cofio’ (‘Remembering’) by Waldo Williams (see below), and remember it to this day, though I still don’t know the exact meaning of all the words. Unfortunately, I got flu just before the event was to be staged that year, 1976, in Aberystwyth, and was unable to compete since I had lost my voice. However, I did take part in local ‘Noson Lawen’, ‘Happy Nights’, and ‘Gymanfa Ganu’, Community Singing.
The International Eisteddfod is held in Llangollen, a picturesque north Wales town on the River Dee, in July each year, an event that draws participants and competitors from all over the world. Its folk-dance competitions are particularly colourful, and singers can use any language, making it open to all. The Royal Welsh Show is held annually in Builth Wells and attracts participants from all over the British Isles. The whole of rural life is there, from combine harvesters to prize bulls and sheep-shearing.
Writers of Wales & the World:
Dylan Thomas has often been described as one of the greatest writers in the English language, certainly of the first half of the twentieth century in which he lived. This is not just because of his poetry, written between 1934 and 1952, but also due to his short stories and plays. He was also a radio broadcaster, so we have many of his own recordings of his work. His work appeals to readers of all ages, including children, for whom the autobiographical stories of his own childhood are particularly interesting.
His origins are firmly rooted in southwest Wales. He wrote that his mother “came from the agricultural depths of Carmarthen” and his father was the son of a railway worker, “Thomas the Guard” in Johnstown, a small Carmarthenshire village, described in his short story, A Visit to Grandpa’s. Both parents were Welsh speakers, but Dylan grew up with only a few words and phrases in the language, although his name is taken from The Mabinogion, the great collection of medieval Welsh tales. He was born in Swansea in 1914 and lived in Cwmdonkin Drive, in a modest, semi-detached house on a steep hill with panoramic views across the town and the bay. His father was an English master at Swansea Grammar School and Dylan was encouraged to use his library. Besides poetry books, young Dylan’s other passion was the theatre and he was a good actor at school. In 1932 he acted in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Little Theatre in Swansea
After leaving school, he worked briefly as a junior reporter for the South Wales Evening Post. His first poem to be published in a national magazine was No man Believes (1933), but more significant was the publication of his poem Light in The Listener (1934), which was praised by T S Eliot and Stephen Spender, two leading London poets of the day. His first book, 18 Poems was published just before Christmas in the same year. This led him to London and the publication of his second book by J M Dent in 1936. It was there that he met Caitlin Macnamara, a stunningly attractive Irish dancer. She was modelling for the Welsh painter Augustus John, who later painted Dylan’s two most famous portraits. Augustus introduced Caitlin to Dylan and within a year they got married in Penzance, Cornwall. Dylan had his work published in the US in 1939, and also began supplementing his modest income from writing by joining Wynford Vaughan Thomas at the BBC. He eventually made over eighty scripted broadcasts, some of which have become classics of the genre. The renowned Welsh actor Richard Burton was full of praise for Dylan’s broadcasting abilities.
Dylan, Caitlin and their young daughter Aeronwy moved to ‘The Boathouse’ in Laugharne from the Cardigan Bay town of Aberaeron in 1949. He had first visited what he called “the strangest town in Wales” in 1934 and had briefly lived there in 1938. Like many other writers and artists, including Edward Thomas, Augustus John and Richard Hughes, Dylan loved the town and felt secure there. His friend and fellow-writer, Vernon Watkins, described it as being Dylan’s “last refuge and sanity in a nightmare world.” Settled there, with some degree of permanence, Dylan had a new burst of creativity, producing some of his finest poems. In 1950 he published what became his most famous story, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an amalgam of two other stories, in an American magazine. Working high above the estuary in the primitive wooden structure which was his ‘workshed’, he also wrote one of his best-loved poems, Do not go gentle there, and worked on his radio play Under Milk Wood there, in between trips to the US.
These American trips were exhausting, but necessary, given his financial situation. Dylan prepared carefully for his readings, copying out each poem he intended to read into his best ‘copperplate’ handwriting. He travelled huge distances from city to city and from campus to campus. Not only was he expected to perform onstage, but also at the faculty parties which followed. Among those he met were Arthur Miller and Charlie Chaplin, whose films Dylan loved, identifying strongly with the character of the vulnerable little tramp. While in New York he fell into the Bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village with the same enthusiasm he had greeted Fitzrovia in London in the thirties. John Malcolm Brinnin chronicled these last years in his book Dylan Thomas in America, which came to be hated by Caitlin and Dylan’s friends in Britain because it described Dylan’s drunken behaviour. On his fourth and final, fatal trip to America, Dylan collapsed on the streets and died in New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital on 9 November 1953, in circumstances which remain disputed.
Although Dylan Thomas’ reputation was quickly established as a poet in the 1930s, he is now better known for his brilliant radio play, Under Milk Wood, and for his wonderfully humorous stories based on his childhood and adolescent experiences in Wales. He was fascinated by the small-town characters which surrounded him, especially in Laugharne, which he renamed Llareggub (spell it backwards in English!) Their conversations are gently mimicked, while the sounds, sights and smells of those seaside towns he describes so wittily are as fresh and amusing today as they were more than half a century ago.
R S Thomas was born in March 1913. His reputation as a poet has been international for more than a generation, but his heart and soul belong to the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales, where he was both poet and priest. There he was inspired by the rugged and challenging landscape as well as by the people he met and ministered to. He had been a priest in successive parishes in Wales before he reached the last parish before Ireland, Aberdaron. As you travel down the peninsula, the land becomes starker and starker, narrowing to the headlands at the tip where the sea takes over. Thomas’ poems and the views connect with each other, encouraging us to explore the questions which arise from both the poetry and the landscape. Few poets ask as many questions as R S Thomas. They invite us to explore and to take to mind and heart questions that have no easy answers, or that are unanswerable.
Waldo Williams (1904-1972) was a native of Pembrokeshire and, in between writing, a junior school teacher. His poems, written in Welsh, are very mystical and intense, always relating to his Christian vision of the oneness of all mankind. His mastery of the language in a great variety of verse forms, often original and individual, and his use of imagery, give an unusual force and freshness to his expression of ancient themes. A strong pacifist, he was once imprisoned for his refusal to contribute taxes for military purposes. He was a very reserved Welshman, greatly loved by many. Late in life, he received a long-deserved Arts Council prize. His one volume of verse, Dail Pren, won him an enduring place in Welsh literature. Here is one of his best-loved poems, first in its beautiful, original Welsh, and then (the first four verses) in translation:
“One short minute before the sun goes from the sky,
One gentle minute before the night starts on its journey,
To remember the forgotten things
Lost now in the dust of times gone by.
“Like the foam of a wave that breaks on a lonely shore,
Like the wind’s song where there is no ear to hear,
I know they call in vain upon us –
The old forgotten things of human kind.
“The achievement and art of early generations,
Small dwellings and great halls,
The fine-wrought legends scattered centuries ago,
The gods that no one knows about by now.
“And the little words of transient languages,
They were gay on the lips of men,
And pleasant to the ear in the chatter of little children,
But no tongue calls upon them any longer.”‘Cofio/Remembering’ by Waldo Williams
The upright bluestone on Rhos Fach near Mynachlogddu was erected in memory of the great Welsh Nationalist, poet, pacifist and Quaker, who lived and taught in the area. Pentre Ifan (below) was once a burial chamber, standing nearby and overlooking the north Pembrokeshire coast, one of the ancient sites which inspired the poetry of Waldo Williams.
Dai Smith is a historian and writer who was born in Tonypandy in the Rhondda in 1945. He supervised my PhD research and doctoral thesis from 1978 to 1988. As the son of a Yorkshireman and a Welsh-speaking woman, he grew up speaking English. “You did unless you were the son of the manse,” he told one reporter. Sons of the manse were bogey figures in the new Wales which began to emerge in the late seventies and early eighties when he began writing on Wales.
I was a Welsh-speaking Englishman and a son of the manse, so although I may not have been a ‘bogey man’, we had quite a ‘catalytic’ relationship. He remembered the sense of community that was left over from the Depression:
“You couldn’t survive as a family in the Depression. You were self-sufficient (only) as a street.”Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales?
He also remembered the street parties and the local jazz concerts. But even then, in the ‘fag-end’ of the tradition he describes in his books, it was not a ‘parochial’ society. It looked outwards. Dai had returned to Wales in the mid-seventies from a sojourn studying in New York, to find that although there was an enormous upsurge in the writing of Welsh history, industrial Wales had, so far, been largely ignored. The Valleys were in decline, with the mines closing down one after another and with them the miners’ libraries. Nobody seemed interested, because the influential people of Wales were what he described as ‘born-again Welshmen’, English speakers who had learnt Welsh, often pretentiously changing their names in the process. The Wales he knew was urban and English-speaking because, throughout the twentieth century, fewer than half of the Welsh had been able to speak Welsh. He believed that one of the greatest myths ever propagated was that the Welsh language was ‘murdered’ or ‘kicked in the teeth’ by the English state.
At the centre of this myth was the ‘Welsh Not’, the wooden placard hung about the necks of pupils heard speaking Welsh at school. In the myth, this is the size of a breadboard. In one of his TV programmes Dai Smith handles one of the few surviving ‘Welsh Nots’: it is the size of a matchbox. Nor is there any evidence of a directive handed down by an English bureaucracy to schools. The ‘Welsh Not’ was in fact a much earlier phenomenon than the advent of universal elementary education, introduced only in voluntary schools. Also in fact, it was the product of the ambitions of Welsh parents who asked for it to be used to encourage their children to use English as a medium of instruction in science and mathematics, alongside Welsh, in those local areas where little English was spoken outside school. In his book and companion TV series, Wales? Wales! (1984), Dai explored, provocatively, what it really meant to be Welsh. He argued that the myths around Welsh identity had been used and added to by a ‘Cymricising’ leisure industry as much as by nationalists. Wales was busy reinventing its past to serve the needs of the present.
Dai also wrote about the English-language literature of Wales, discussing poets like R. S. Thomas and Idris Davies as well as novelists like Lewis Jones and Raymond Williams. He ruthlessly dissected Richard Llewellyn’s hugely popular book, How Green Was My Valley, which became an Oscar-winning Holywood film in 1940, and a more authentic television series in the 1970s. As an English-Speaking Welshman, Dai Smith has often felt that the Welsh language has been put on a life support machine by the British Government. More recently, of course, it has been supported directly from Cardiff, by the Welsh Assembly. The heavy subsidy for writing in Welsh, he argues, ignores how life in Wales has been lived for more than a century by the majority of its population. Saxons called its people ‘wealas’, strangers. Ironically, Dai Smith claimed, this is what the Anglo-Welsh majority in Wales has been increasingly made to feel like in their own country, this time by their own countrymen, the Cymry Cymraeg.
By the time I left Wales in 1983, I was so in love with Welsh landscapes and cultural events that, at the first opportunity, I took a group of Lancashire kids from the school where I held my first teaching post, to the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, where we sang I like to go a-wandering in Valle Crucis Abbey and watched Hungarian folk-dancing by the picturesque River Dee. We also visited Welsh and Norman castles on either side of Offa’s Dyke, acting out sheep raids in both directions! I have yet to find a daffodil blooming here in Hungary on 1st March 2023 but am sure that there are already magnificent displays of them below the castle walls around Wales. I’m also sure they are blooming beneath the walls of Canterbury, the town founded by the Cantii and refounded by Romans, Britons, Jutes and Saxons and where I sojourned last in Britain.
Blwyddin Dydd Gwl Dewi! A Joyous St David’s Day, wherever and however you celebrate it!
Hwyl fawr i chi gyd!
Major Additional Sources:
The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History (2001).