On Being Welsh - Old and New Shape Wales' Identity

By Halpert, Jane H. | The World and I, March 2001 | Go to article overview

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. …

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