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Save the Wales?

Outside Wales the Welsh are so inconspicuous that people don’t even know when they are insulting us. A friend of mine once told me that someone had “welshed” on a promise to him. He was stricken with remorse when I pointed out that this was about the same as my saying to him that someone had “jewed” me. The world knows us only by the Saxon word “Welsh,” which means foreigner or enemy.1 Centuries ago the English lost patience with our (to them) unpronounceable names and made us give them up for pallid English ones. This obscured the ethnic identity so effectively that the large Welsh part in American history has gone unnoticed, though several signers of the Declaration of Independence were Welsh, as were several presidents (including Jefferson and, on his mother’s side, Lincoln), one chief justice (Charles Evans Hughes), and a high lieutenant of Al Capone’s (Murray “The Camel” Humphries).

Before the Normans came to Britain the Welsh, a people of mixed Iberian and Celtic stock, after centuries of withdrawal in the face of the Saxons had consolidated a territory of their own within the boundaries of modern Wales. This nascent Welsh state immediately had to withstand the shock of Anglo-Norman military force, which it resisted with varying success for three hundred years. Lasting independence briefly seemed possible when the nation was unified under Llywelyn Fawr (the Great) who was recognized by the English as prince of Wales, a virtually independent ruler paying token homage to the king of England. But his grandson and successor Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was unable to avoid conflict with the English and was killed in a skirmish in 1282. In Welsh he is known as Llywelyn our Last Leader, for after his death Edward I built and garrisoned castles in Wales, began to replace Welsh law with English, and prepared the way for the Act of Union of 1536.

The Welsh were not quite done for. A century later they rose in a savage national rebellion led by Owain Glyndwacr (Shakespeare’s Owen Glendower), who expelled the English from Wales, had dealings as a king with the Avignon pope and the king of France, convened a Welsh parliament, and led a Welsh army deep into England. The suppression of Glyndwacr’s revolt in 1410 saw the end of Welsh military resistance. But less than a century later a Welshman seized the throne of England. Henry VII was of the Welsh family of Tudur (Tudor), and won the crown at Bosworth at the head of a largely Welsh army fighting under the banner of the red dragon, the old Roman legionary standard that had been Glyndwacr’s battle flag and remains the flag of Wales today. Welsh magnates and squires who could speak English rose high under the Tudors and one of them, William Cecil (an Anglicization of the Welsh name Seisyll), became de facto prime minister under Elizabeth I and founded the great dynasty of the Salisburys.

Welshmen have always continued to do well in England, including one Oliver Jenkins who became better known after he changed his last name to Cromwell. But this did nothing for the condition of the Welsh peasantry, Monoglot in a language as exotic to English ears as Hungarian or Finnish, they were firmly presided over by a squirearchy either English by race or, if originally Welsh, increasingly Anglicized. Wales was dragged along in this fashion for centuries—a sort of bizarre appendage of England, virtually unknown to the world until the mid-1800s when brief trips across the border became fashionable, leading ritually to genteel accounts of fearsome mountain scenery and the weird people who inhabited it.

In the late nineteenth century a series of legislative and social events released the long repressed energy and talent of the Welsh people. This revitalization and its aftermath are the subjects of Rebirth of a Nation by the Oxford historian Dr. Kenneth Morgan. The book will be indispensable because, while there have been many articles and monographs on aspects of modern Welsh history, this is the first scholarly attempt to offer a full account of the struggle for Welsh identity over the last hundred years.

The power of the Tory squires was broken in the 1880s by a broad extension of the franchise and the introduction of a modern system of local government by elected county and borough councils. The growing Welsh middle class of professionals and merchants rushed hungrily into this gap and the new local authorities in much of Wales were occupied by Welsh-speaking, often mildly nationalist, councilors most of whom were naturally drawn to the reformist Liberal Party. In the same way the majority of Welsh parliamentary seats soon fell into Liberal hands. This Welsh Liberal group often provided the party with its majority in the House of Commons and wielded a proportionate influence. Led by the brilliant Lloyd George, they successfully bargained, in the years before the First World War, for marks of recognition of Welsh nationhood from a series of Liberal governments.

In this period were founded the University of Wales, the National Library and National Museum, the Urdd Gobaith Cymru (League of Welsh Youth), and that curious, competitive, cultural festival, the National Eisteddfod. At the same time the huge consequences of the industrialization of South Wales were taking shape. By the late nineteenth century the Rhondda Valley had become the center of an enormous coal field; the port of Cardiff at one time handled one third of the world’s exported coal, while first the Welsh iron industry and later tin-plate production were among the most important in the world. South Wales enjoyed (or endured) a rate of industrial expansion and population growth virtually unmatched at the time in any other part of the Western world.

Some of the immigrants were from rural Wales but many were from England and Ireland. In the mining valleys and industrial towns of west South Wales the Welsh-speaking majority was strong enough to make use of the new wealth to give the language a fresh lease. Hundreds of solid chapels were built where services were conducted in Welsh and there was a boom in Welsh-language publishing. But in the east (near the English border) the language had already been receding and the influx of monoglot English speakers soon overwhelmed it.

Industrialization was mostly confined to a strip along the South Wales coast, but this soon accounted for four-fifths of the Welsh population. In the rural areas (and in parts of the industrial south too) the cultural revival was taking on a politically nationalist tone. Earlier, in the 1860s, a nationalist emigration had taken place to Patagonia with the aim of founding a Welsh state. (Many people of Welsh stock live there now, and concern was expressed in Wales during the Falklands war that the Welsh Guards might have to fight Welshmen in the Argentine military, the chief of whose air force at present has the common Welsh name of Hughes.) In 1892 a movement was founded calling itself Cymru Fydd (Future Wales) modeled on Young Ireland and similar nationalist groups in Italy and Hungary. It stood for the modest aim of a measure of home rule for Wales within the United Kingdom and with Lloyd George’s backing sought to make a formal alliance with the Welsh Liberal Party.

Dr. Morgan singles out the failure of this bid in 1896 as the crucial turning point in modern Welsh politics. Lloyd George easily persuaded the Liberal clubs in North Wales to support an alliance with Cymru Fydd, but was rudely turned back by the clubs of South Wales. The bitter division that was to tear Welsh life apart was already apparent, with industrial South Wales, dominated by English capital and less and less Welsh in speech, fearing that independence or even “devolution” might give excessive power to the Welsh-speaking rural counties that made up 80 percent of the territory of Wales. In the twentieth century the split has only widened. The ordeal of the Depression wrenched South Wales away from the Liberal Party and established the Labor Party as the only power in the coal fields and the coastal towns. Originally sympathetic to devolution, the Labor Party became strongly centralist in the 1930s and its Welsh leaders, including Aneurin Bevan, were implacably opposed to self-government.

It was inevitable that those devoted to the Welsh language or caught up in the same hope that haunted Ireland—to be a “nation once again”—would see the need for an independent political party. In 1925 Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Party) was founded with a program of constitutional political action in pursuit of the aim of dominion status for Wales within the British Commonwealth. Ineffectual in its early years, Plaid Cymru benefited in the 1960s and 1970s from discontent with the major parties and became an effective pressure group, which now holds two seats in parliament. Other less conventional movements abounded, of which much the most successful has been Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society); through propaganda and campaigns of civil disobedience it has wrung large concessions from London, amounting to the granting of official status to the Welsh language for many purposes. A cabinet office of secretary of state for Wales was created and Cardiff recognized as the capital of Wales.

All of this can be made to look very much like a “rebirth” but it is questionable whether this is an apt description. These acknowledgments have descended like honors heaped upon an octogenarian artist, ignored by the world until he is stretched out on his deathbed. The fact is that today fewer than 20 percent of the Welsh people speak Welsh (though it is still used in large areas of Wales) and the sadness of those who treasure the language and must watch it wither is palpable. Yiddish may be dying in dispersion but the Welsh are losing their language in their own country—a humiliating experience in which Welsh speakers in some parts of Wales gather in handfuls like exiles, foreseeing a land where children will not be able to pronounce the names of the places where they live. The sense of separation is not confined to Welsh speakers, for some who have little Welsh or only English are troubled by the flicker of a lost speech. If the language is an important index then the state of the Welsh nation calls for issuing a geriatric hospital bulletin rather than for handing around cigars, as suggested by the fanfare of Dr. Morgan’s title.

With or without the language, what does it mean to be Welsh? For a long time the English said it was to be treacherous and vain, boastful but cowardly, irresponsible and thieving. The old English rhyme, perhaps a relic of border cattle raids, goes: “Taffy2 was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief; Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef.” To the Welsh and their occasional admirers it is to have once been great (Milton’s “old and haughty nation proud in arms”), to be voluble and eloquent, open and gregarious—the Italians of Britain. It is also to be dramatic and even magical, to share a past with Myrddin (Merlin) and Glendower “calling spirits from the vasty deep,” or, in more recent times, to feel a kinship with the “Welsh wizard” of British politics, Lloyd George, who could beat the English at their own games and yet stand defiantly apart from them. John Maynard Keynes said that Lloyd George had no roots but he simply failed to realize that his roots were not English.

Medieval Wales, the Celtic Wales of the princes, based its social organization on the extended family, the cenedl, which is the modern Welsh word for “nation.” This life of the clan left its deposit in the minds of the people, and the communal cooperativeness and warmth of the twentieth-century mining village or chapel had their roots in a past that was not English. For centuries the Welsh have not been seriously oppressed by the English but they have been ignored, sometimes mocked, slowly stripped of their identity. (Dr. Morgan reminds us that the older editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica contained the infamous entry, “For Wales, see England.”) This experience has left a shared sensitivity, a half-rebellious communal prickliness that lacks coherence but certainly embodies a sense of difference, deprivation, and being undervalued. These are hard feelings to deal with and they account for the uneasy, almost neurotic quality of life in Wales today.

One foundation for Welsh consciousness has been the great poetic tradition issuing from a nonclassical world and style, a giant past of poets with Homeric names like Aneirin, Taliesin, and Cynddelw, whose words after 1,200 years can still be read by speakers of modern Welsh. There has always been and still is much good writing in Welsh but the Welsh poetic voice is also heard in English. It gave an early special tone to English verse through the Welsh metaphysical poets George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Herbert of Cherbury, and in recent decades Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, Vernon Watkins, and R.S. Thomas have become well known.

Dylan Thomas exemplified the fractured sensibilities of modern Wales. He came from a family of Welsh-language poets but his father, who taught classes in the Welsh language and gave his son an ancient Welsh name, at the same time carefully brought him up to speak only English. This linguicide, the experience of thousands of Welsh children of that generation, was a perverse expression of the Welsh respect for learning and culture. If English was now the language of art and science (not to mention worldly success) then it was better that one’s children should not risk their mastery of it by knowing Welsh.

The old Welsh reverence for the bard, the harpist, and the singer perhaps also explains in part the heroic struggle of the Welsh working class to educate their children—who have then been lost to Wales in large numbers as they become teachers, professors, and lawyers in England and elsewhere. The Welsh who stayed in Wales, lacking the grand emblems of English public life, sustained themselves with Protestant religion—Methodist, Baptist, and Congregationalist—and an emotional sense of the tragic which they had inherited from the early poetry of battle and the later poetry of defeat. For many the consciousness of being Welsh was finally sealed in the singing of melancholy but ecstatic hymns, utterly un-English—indeed almost Russian—in quality, at gravesides in misty mountain cemeteries.

How much of this sense of distinctness can survive a further recession of the language is very doubtful. Longfellow, in the palmiest days of empires, wrote that “the dead nations never rise again.” He was quite wrong in his particular reference (the line occurs in an elegy to those buried in the Jewish cemetery at Newport) and wrong too about many other once seemingly smothered but now raised-up peoples. But even if these matters are never quite certain, it seems very unlikely that Wales will make a millenary appearance at the United Nations.

There are those who blame the English for this or who think it right to try to save the Welsh people from themselves. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a sprinkling of bombings in Wales causing property damage and a few deaths and injuries. These have now subsided though there continues to be a campaign of arson against summer houses owned by English people in depopulated areas of rural Wales. These acts of violence cannot be justified by any supportable claims of oppression. The decline of Welsh culture and the weakening of Welsh consciousness cause anguish but it is hard to know how to count such losses when compared with changes in the material standard of living or even with access to new pleasures such as a wide selection of television offerings. People are entitled to make up their own minds about such matters, and anger at what may seem to be the coarse nature or heavy cost of their choice gives no warrant for violence.

Peering down the ages a legendary Celtic prophecy said of the Welsh that they would lose their land but keep their language. With their land (in the sense of dominion) long gone, for centuries they stubbornly fulfilled the second branch of the prophecy. But soon the living speech will be embalmed in the cold halls of scholarship. Without the language, which holds the history and the singularity of the Welsh people, there will be no born-again nation. Dr. Morgan’s theme is resurrection but the miracle didn’t quite come off. Before he could stand erect this Lazarus slumped back into the grave.

Letters

Wales’s End? February 17, 1983

Wales’s End? February 17, 1983

Wales’s End? February 17, 1983

  1. 1

    The Welsh word for the Welsh people is Cymry (meaning compatriots); Wales is Cymru and the Welsh language is Cymraeg

  2. 2

    Taffy” is an English mispronunciation of the Welsh name Dafydd (David).

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