On Being Welsh - Old and New Shape Wales' Identity
Halpert, Jane H., The World and I
A passing car forced our minivan to jostle onto a dirt bank while the road hurried us over a mossy stone bridge and on toward the town of Caerphilly, home of some of Wales' best cheese farms. Yesterday was St. David's Day, and the capital of Cardiff had erupted in song and dance to celebrate the life of the nation's patron saint. Now, the bustling capital lay behind us, and we headed along narrow roads across the Welsh hills. But the patriotic glow of the feast day lingered in the conversation of my traveling companions.
"Yes, Saint David is a big deal for us Welsh," nodded Hywel Thomas, our driver. Born in the mid-Welsh village of Staylittle, Hywel recalled the costumes and choir competitions that made up his boyhood celebrations of St. David's Day. "But nowadays," he reflected slowly, "all over Wales, they like to do a lot more for St. David's."
Ireland has Saint Patrick, Scotland claims Saint Andrew, and England has Saint George. Wales reveres its patron, Saint David, whose voice is said to have thundered out the Gospel message, his robes swirling, as he waded up to his chin in icy waters as a penance. The sixth-century monk, abbot, and bishop was one of the earliest missionaries to spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of western Europe, and the Welsh cultural connection to his legacy runs deep.
Competitive choir concerts, dancing, and reciting--collectively known as the Eisteddfod--commemorate his feast day, March 1. On St. David's Day I rode a taxi through the crisp Cardiff evening to see the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform at the aptly named St. David's Hall. The evening culminated in the world premier of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins' magnificent Dewi Sant, featuring the 200-member Welsh youth choir. Daffodils, a national symbol, adorned the lapels of concertgoers. That night a taxi deposited me on the steps of Cardiff Bay's St. David's Hotel and Spa.
I came to Wales as an amateur genealogist, hoping to chart a few more branches of my family tree, and found myself spending a serendipitous night on the couch of long-lost cousins on the England-Wales border [see "Homecoming," The World & I, September 2000]. But Wales held more than a genealogical fascination for me. Along with my family tree and box of family photographs, I carried a rumor I aimed to test: that recent political and cultural changes were having far-reaching effects in the tiny land of my ancestors.
St. David's Day, with its colorful statement of Welshness, seemed to chart a shifting culture. After years of strained relations and near- assimilation with their English neighbors to the east, the Welsh appear to be reaching into the past to reclaim a heritage that cannot help but color the present tense.
An emerging identity
In the warm foyer of the Grange Country Home and Restaurant, I rubbed my hands together to banish the last hints of the outside chill. Therese Kimber, our hostess, ushered us to seats beside the fire. She disappeared for a moment and returned with a tray of Ty Hafod, a light and fruity local wine.
With its painted pink exterior, the Grange is a vivid landmark near Vardigan Bay and the wooded Teifi Valley of west Wales. Each upstairs bedroom has a unique decor, as if kept by four very different people. Maintaining a busy restaurant and hotel is a lot of work for one person, but when I dared to ask whether Kimber ever considers hiring some help, she snorted in Celtic indignation. "It's my home, after all!" she laughed.
A native Irish woman, Kimber moved to west Wales with her husband several years ago. "I've been in the hotel business for thirty years, and this is my preretirement," she explained. "It's really hard to give up a job where you meet and get to chat with people from all over.
"If I have a criticism of the Welsh," Kimber told me, "it's that given their beautiful country they don't market it as well as they should, especially when comparisons are made to how well Ireland is marketed as a holiday destination."
Kimber's criticism is only partly fair. A major triumph of the country's recently formed governing body, the Welsh National Assembly, is its success in returning to Wales the reins of its own tourism management. Promotion for an industry that supports over 100,000 jobs and employs more than 10 percent of the Welsh workforce had previously been under English control, and Wales' international reputation suffered as a result. Even today, many potential international visitors see Wales as something of a blank slate--a vague, albeit curious, extension of England.
As the number of visitors gradually increases, Wales, a country the size of Massachusetts, is coming to terms with its increasing international standing. My own journey fell under the heading of a large Wales tourism campaign, Homecoming 2000 (Hiraeth 2000), designed to welcome those with Welsh ancestry to rediscover their roots. And in October 2000, Wales hosted the annual meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers, which is expected to generate unprecedented coverage in the United States.
Boosting tourism is only part of the Assembly's mission. Approved in a 1997 referendum, the sixty-member body exerts control in the areas of health, education, and transportation. It has no power to enact laws or raise taxes, however; Wales remains part of the United Kingdom, and laws passed by the Parliament in Westminster still apply to the Welsh. Nevertheless, many feel that while much of the world seems on the steady path toward aggregation, Wales is easing into its own brand of nationalism.
The formation of a governing body is no small thing in a land still recovering from the sting of age-old subordination. Wales was officially incorporated into the English administrative and political system with the 1536 Act of Union. The monarchs Henry II, Edward I, and Henry VIII agreed that an independent Wales left England vulnerable to western attack. Lacking vocal leaders or a unified front, the Welsh became second-class citizens.
This history reverberates in matters as mundane as the food on the traditional table. Welsh rarebit, so loved by tourists, is for the Welsh another reminder of English dominance. The cheap fare of bread, butter, and cheese, eaten by those who could afford no better, was dubbed by the English "Welsh rarebit" in mocking contrast to their own access to affordable meat, including Welsh rabbit.
It is important to note that for the Welsh, hardship has also come from within--beneath their own soil, to be exact. The phrase "greening of the valleys" marks the move from a life colored black by coal dust to a restoration of the land's lush beauty. In the early twentieth century, nearly 250,000 Welsh were employed in south Wales collieries. While the valleys produced most of the world's coal and slate, the price paid in terns of human life and the destruction of the landscape was punitive.
The last Welsh coal was raised on June 21, 1983. Although heavy industry remains a strong source of revenue for the nation, those curious about the bleak shadows of the collieries must visit the museums of south Wales.
With the closing of the pits and the advent of the Assembly, attitudes are changing. "Now Wales is confident, for the first time in my lifetime," said Wales Tourist Board spokesman Raymond Mathias, 28, who credits the Assembly for helping shape his homeland's cultural identity. "It's given Wales a new identity, as opposed to being looked down upon and walked on."
A voice from the past
Give a people a taste of their heritage and they will soon turn to the wealth of their native tongue. Welsh, one of Europe's oldest living languages, possesses its own trove of myth and history. Nevertheless, the number of Welsh-speaking people has declined since 1901, when half the population spoke Welsh, to less than one-fifth today. Increased emphasis on the language in recent years seems to be boosting these numbers. Over the past three decades, Welsh-only elementary schools have sprung up in efforts to make Welsh an everyday language as opposed to an academic one. And the 1993 the Welsh Language Act required that every official document be bilingual.
The use of Welsh is not confined to classrooms and legal documents. One of the nation's primary musical exports, Super Furry Animals, has released a recording sung exclusively in Welsh. And the language is reemerging in everyday life. "I speak it at home with the wife, and all the kids they speak Welsh," explained Hywel, who lives in Newtown, a large town in mid-Wales. Although Newtown is predominantly English, Hywel's three children are Welsh speaking and attended Welsh primary schools. When Hywel's daughter Helen recently took her drivers training exam, "they brought in a special tester for her to do the test in Welsh. They'll do it for you if that's your language."
Welsh was Hywel's own first language until the age of 11. Today, at 57, he considers any effort to revive the language a good thing. "We've got to keep it. It's part of our heritage, isn't it? Even if you don't use it. I'm not a nationalist, but I'm all for keeping the language."
Not everyone is as thrilled with the changes in Wales, however, or links them to a blossoming national identity. For Juli Paschalis, events officer at the Museum of Welsh Life in St. Fagan, the idea that Wales is changing is "only a trip down memory lane."
"As far as I see it, we've been under siege since the Act of Union in 1536. We've given in too long to outside influence," said Paschalis. "Our purse strings are still controlled by Westminster. We have a measure of self-government, but it will be hard to have real changes until we can handle our own economy."
Rather than creating a unified Wales, Paschalis said, the reintroduction of the language actually divides the nation. Certain jobs, such as in media or museums, require employees to speak Welsh. "This has created its own trouble, as people [who don't speak Welsh] feel they're being discriminated against," she said. Others, like Hywel, take a more moderate approach. Their day-to-day lives continue largely unaffected, yet they acknowledge that political and cultural changes may indeed have an impact.
For now, Wales' identity is, as with any culture, a mix of the reality of the past and the emerging currents of the future. What those currents are, and whether they will persist, is up to the Welsh to decide. The long-term effects of the Assembly and the efforts to reclaim the nation's cultural heritage have yet to be seen. But as each St. David's Day approaches, the Welsh pay homage to their national pride, proving that at least the tips of a blooming Welsh confidence, like the daffodils of St. David's Day, are pushing through the thawing ground.n
Jane H. Halpert is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: On Being Welsh - Old and New Shape Wales' Identity. Contributors: Halpert, Jane H. - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 16. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 2001. Page number: 153. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.