With today being St David’s Day and me currently living in ‘exile’ in northern England, thoughts have inevitably turned to family and friends living back home. There’s also that twinge of hiraeth that affects every Welsh person away from the old land of the mountains. For now I have to console myself with listening to the Max Boyce cds that I brought with me, some Manic Street Preachers, and repeats of that glorious win over England in last year’s Six Nations Championship. It’s an aural landscape that keeps me focused on the article I’m currently writing all about South Wales and its centuries old relationship with our neighbours across the sea in Munster. Mind you, the less said about their rugby prowess the better!
Sat in the library this afternoon one of the books that I found myself leafing through was that written by my boss, Professor Paul Ward, on Britishness. Now, whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with Paul’s analysis of Britishness, I’m not really taken with the book mainly because I think Britishness is a whole load of rubbish and isn’t really worth spending time analysing or thinking about (as with most identities). Nevertheless it’s a thought-provoking book and one that stands as a rigorous challenge both to my own view of its subject matter and to those historians that Paul effectively counters with his work, and is more of a must read than Linda Colley’s recent interventions. Even on my fourth reading of the book, though, I’m not convinced enough to care about Britishness. I suppose I’ll never be. My reading brought to mind again the work of my PhD supervisor, Martin Johnes, namely his recent book Wales since 1939 – which I misjudged when I first read it, but that’s another story. Martin shows how Wales has been shaped by and has helped to shape Britain since the Second World War. It too is focused on the question of identity, examining the shifting patterns of Britishness and Welshness, and the persistence of a duality in Welsh society.
My own Welshness, such as I care to think about it, reflects several journeys that have occupied me in the last ten years. It is, inevitably, bound up with my academic career. To say that the history of Wales – more properly the history of South Wales – has become an obsession over the years is to hint at something close to the truth. It began as an undergraduate at Oxford when I made a habit of making Wales my first port of call in my ‘British’ history tutorials. It got me into trouble several times, but it also got me a mention in the examiners reports for my finals because I was the only person sitting British History VI in 2007 to choose to do the ‘Celtic fringe’ question. They called my defence of Welsh individuality in nineteenth century politics ‘spirited’. That might be Oxford-speak for ‘not quite what we were expecting’! And so the transition from a budding historian of the medieval ‘Celtic fringe’ to an actual historian of twentieth century Wales was made.
All of which serves as an extended introduction to the topic of today’s post: Welshness. It is a bit of a cliché, although one that is but only a century or so old in truth, that Welshness is bound up with rugby union. Admittedly, if you grew up in Wrexham or Bangor or even Aberystwyth attitudes might well be different but that’s the joys of a ‘true’ identity for you. The 1960s were a clear turning point in the fortunes of Welsh nationalism: the election of Gwynfor Evans in Carmarthen at a by-election in the summer of 1966, the creation of the Welsh Language Society in the aftermath of Saunders Lewis’ rallying cry Tynged yr Iaith broadcast on BBC Radio in the spring of 1962, and there was a remarkable incident during the 1968 Five Nations Championship. If the former have enjoyed pride of place in the annals of Welsh nationalism, the latter has been remarkably overlooked. They are, of course, intimately linked with each other.
But let’s start with a novel, rather than political speeches or sport. Nearly sixty years ago, the novelist Islwyn Ffowc Ellis penned a remarkable piece of science fiction which he called Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in Future Wales). It is a tale of a time-traveller, Ifan Powell, who finds himself in a Wales of 2033. This is a Wales fully bilingual, with self-government, and people who are prosperous and happy. Eventually Powell returns to his own time in the 1950s but finds himself pining to return to the future that he had witnessed. But time-travel is a risky business and the second Wales that Powell travels to is not a happy one: Wales no longer exists and is now merely called ‘Western England’. Written by a Plaid Cymru activist, the novel is a blatant piece of propaganda but it is no less effective a piece of propaganda than, say, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward or anything from the pen of H. G. Wells. In his book, Wales since 1939, Johnes positions Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd in the context of an emerging youth culture, the kind of culture that we fully associate with the 1960s rather than 1957. This is undoubtedly true. For although it is not the kitchen sink dramas that populated English literature of this period – think Alan Sillitoe, for instance – it did provide a voice to an oft-unheard group in British society. Having never been translated, unlike Islwyn Ffowc Ellis’ other novels Cysgod y Cryman (1953, trans. Shadow of the Sickle) which tells the story of a conscientious objector during the Second World War, or Yn ôl i Leifior (1956, trans. Return to Lleifior) which aimed at depicting change in rural Wales, Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd is pretty much unknown outside of Wales and more to the pity.
If Ffowc Ellis caught a kind of zeitgeist with his novel and his message in it that the people of Wales are responsible for its future, Saunders Lewis proved himself the master of spectacular come-backs. For by the time of his speech in 1962, Lewis was a figure not of admiration but of derision – and rightly so given his fascistic views and denunciations of the ‘deluge’ into South Wales – and he had gone into a kind of exile. 1962 saw him return to the stage, however, with what the historian Gwyn Alf Williams later referred to as the most radical manifesto after the Miners’ Next Step of 1912. Lewis began his speech at the moment of union with England and the policy contained within it that aimed at eradicating the Welsh language. Nearly two hundred years later, Lewis reflected next (and this time in English), a government official had remarked ‘it has always been the policy of the legislature to introduce the English language into Wales’. A century later again, again in English, Lewis draws on the writing of Matthew Arnold who called the destruction of the Welsh language ‘an event which is socially and politically so desirable’. The Welsh, so popular opinion ran in the nineteenth century, lived in an underworld of society which progress ran completely by. That was certainly the impression given by the Commissioners who wrote the blue books of 1847. You can hear the broadcast here:
What followed Lewis’ broadcast was little short of a screeching u-turn, a waking up of a particular section of Welsh society. Direct action was launched against road signs and other official symbols of ‘English rule’. Cymdeithas yr Iaith held their first protest, a sit-down strike, on Trefychan Bridge in Aberystwyth in January 1963, an event captured by the intrepid photograph Geoff Charles, whose photographs provide a fascinating backdrop to the recent book I’r Gad: Hanner Canrif o Brotestio dros y Gymraeg (my trans.: To Arms: Fifty Years of Welsh Language Protest) published by Y Lolfa just before Christmas. Pictures tell a thousand words, so even if you can’t read Welsh, it’s worth checking out. 1963 also saw the planting of a bomb in Capel Celyn in Meirionnydd, the intended site of a new reservoir to serve Liverpool’s need for improved water supply. Without involving ourselves in the story of Tryweryn here, suffice it to quote John Davies’ great history Hanes Cymru: ‘Liverpool’s ability to ignore that fact [that not a single Welsh MP voted in favour of the reservoir] confirmed one of the central tenets of Plaid Cymru – that the national Welsh community, under the existing order, was wholly powerless’. When the chance came in July 1966, then, Plaid took it.
For Gwynfor Evans, the President of Plaid Cymru, had been a leading light in the extra-parliamentary campaign to prevent the flooding of Capel Celyn, and it is not a coincidence that just a year after it happened, Evans was elected in Carmarthen. Days after his victory, Evans sat down and recorded the following message (it was scripted by Islwyn Ffowc Ellis, no less), in which he gives his sense of its impact:
On the face of it 1968 is not a year that seems to stand alongside those that I’ve thus far talked about. In many ways it was a positive one: the swimmer Martyn Woodruff won silver in the 200m butterfly at the Olympic Games in Mexico City and was crowned Sports Personality of the Year in recognition, Cardiff City reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, HTV is launched, whilst over on the radio the first Welsh-language pop music programme is launched ‘Helo Sut Dach Chi?’ (trans. Hello, How Are You?), and Tom Jones scores a major hit with ‘Delilah’. She’s still standing there laughing, by the way. The year marked the passing, however, of Arthur Horner, David Grenfell and Ness Edwards, as well as Arthur Henderson Jr who had represented Cardiff South in the two inter-war Labour governments. And yet, when Wales faced France at the Arms Park on 23 March, this happened:
You can hear the surprise in the voices of the French commentary team. ‘It’s the first time this has ever happened here at the Arms Park’, they say. Not surprisingly some of the national press reacted with extreme horror. Most notable was the ex-Welsh international turned journalist Clem Thomas, writing in the Observer. ‘The match started rudely in typical Welsh rain’, he begins, ‘with the Arms Park a glistening and sorry mess. There was an astonishing Nationalist demonstration during the singing of the British national anthem which was drowned in loud and sustained booing. A pity that those involved are unable to differentiate between sport and politics. After all, the Welsh anthem was also played and sung more fervently than ever’. It’s easy to hear his embarrassment. The matter took a more serious turn the next day when, on the 24th, a bomb exploded at the Inland Revenue offices in the city, the second in a matter of months. The matter came to Welsh questions a few months later leading to an angry exchange between Gwynfor Evans and leading Welsh members of the Labour Government including George Thomas the virulently anti-nationalist MP for Cardiff South. James Griffiths, MP for Llanelli, encouraged Thomas with statements such as this: ‘Does not he share the view of many of us that it is time Plaid Cymru spoke to some of these people and stopped some of this anti-English hatred propaganda which is inducing the young people to do these things?’ To which Thomas replied: ‘My right hon. Friend is quite right. Anti-English hatred which is being fostered, and the talk of separatism, have created an atmosphere that makes deeds of violence likely’. And so it went on. The BBC reported on the bombing campaign here and you can read more about the campaigns in Wyn Thomas’ fine book, Hands Off Wales: Nationhood and Militancy published by Gomer Press last year.
Whether or not there was a direct relationship between the booing of God Save the Queen and events in Capel Celyn perhaps rests in the realm of speculation, though it seems quite likely. What is especially striking, however, is the unambiguous expression of disgust focused at the voice of the British establishment from a rugby crowd then, if not now, largely comprised of working-class South Walians. What difference did the flooding of a North Wales village make to them, exactly? Who’s to say they were all booing for the same purpose? That’s the effect of the 1960s on Wales, though. It’s easy to remember the language protests and the resurgence of nationalism because they had a tangible effect on the Wales we now see. The other side of it, the side that most affected South Walians in the crowd that day, was the continued withering away of the South Wales that so many historians of Wales have written about – the Wales of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, of a genuine internationalism, of coal. You won’t find that on YouTube, though. For that story is scurried away in the string of 5 elegiac novels published by Ron Berry of Blaen-y-Cwm in the Rhondda Fawr: ‘We’ve been fighting losing battles since the industrial revolution’, he wrote in his fine novel of 1968, Flame and Slag, ‘Will Paynter took on a scrapheap when he became sec of the NUM. […] Miners have always quarrelled, against dictatorial bastards sitting in offices and amongst themselves. We’ve had to quarrel of live like yobs. Now the NUM’s beaten by facts and figures, profit and loss statements flowing like bum fodder from Hobart House. We’re almost on their side now, competing against gas and oil and nuclear power’. A flood in North Wales mirrored the receding wave of industrialisation and modernity in South Wales. A boo by another name, as the bard might have put it.
And so, to bring this post to a close, I leave with but a few thoughts. Sport is clearly not immune from politics, not the least because national sports teams are held up to be emblems of a wider nation of eighty (or ninety) minute patriots. But then that’s as it should be. Similarly, there are those for whom language is the biggest factor in determining their identity, hence the protests over the last fifty years and the direction that Wales has taken as a consequence. Saunder Lewis certainly had the last laugh there. But if I shrug off identity as a form of analysis, it’s because that’s not the kind of questions I’m really interested in or concerned by. Rather, I trouble myself with the bigger question that faces Wales and the Welsh: whether to adopt an Irish, Scottish or independent route to self-determination. Such a course is not, to be sure, inevitable: it does not have to be the fate of Wales to do what Ireland has done and what Scotland may yet do. It’s the cursed fate of an exile, I suppose. There’s an old Welsh saying that runs cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon (a nation without a language is a nation without a heart) – it’s not one that I’ve really much agreed with. Instead I prefer to think of it this way: cenedl heb gobaith, cenedl heb dyfodol, a nation without hope is a nation without a future. Diolch yn fawr.