Wales celebrates its national saint’s day in 2013 in a mood of growing national self-confidence. Hyfrydol! ‘Wonderful!’ as they say in Wales. Not only is its Rugby team playing well again, having defeated France and Italy on their travels in a bid to retain the Six Nations’ Championship they won so magnificently last year, but last weekend saw Swansea City AFC triumph in the League Cup at Wembley, in their centenary year, and Cardiff City AFC beat my team, the Wolves, to go eight points clear at the top of the Championship (the old division one). The fact that a third of the rugby team were born in England, with its captain hailing from King’s Lynn, and that Wolverhampton Wanderers AFC have more Welsh international players in their first team than Cardiff or Swansea, plus a Welsh team coach, hardly seems to matter. Neither should it, though it would have done in the past. There’s a renewed confidence about Wales which doesn’t simply come from returning exiles or ancient into modern Iberian connections. The Welsh Rugby team used to do better when the coal industry was booming, but there’s hardly any industry left to boom in the south Wales valleys, and, whenever the British economy catches a cold, Wales gets influenza. When England gets flu, Wales gets pneumonia, and the current general economic malaise is no exception to this pattern. However, in recent years, Wales has developed a strong government of its own, controlling its Health and Education services, able to follow its own policies in response to the needs of its people, independently from the Westminster Parliament.
All this seemed light years away when I left Wales three decades ago, having studied for two degrees in both North and South, representing its students as the Chair of UCMC (the National Union of Students, Wales) and training as a teacher in the West Wales (notice the capitals). During my eight years as a student there, I learnt Welsh, climbed all its mountains over 3,000 feet and a few more besides, lived in three of its fine cities, visited many of its valleys, watched its sporting successes, socialised 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. In fact, I’m still writing about the country and its people today, albeit from a safe distance!
St David, Dewi Sant, 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 dedicated to the Celtic saints whose Christianity predated the arrival of the Papal envoy in Canterbury to covert the pagan Saxons. I once 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.
However, by the mid-eighth century, these three ‘British’ heartlands of the ‘Cymru‘ or ‘Compatriots’ had become separated by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, to whom they had become known as the ‘Welleas’, the ‘foreigners’ in their own land. Little is known of David himself, except that he became Primate, or Archbishop of the Church in Wales, then independent from Rome, and that he established a monastery in what is now called St David’s, still no more than a village in population, but now the smallest city in Britain, due to the Cathedral which stands there today, dedicated to the patron saint, and a place of pilgrimage since the Norman Conquest of England and south Wales in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The other surviving stories about David, and there are 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 1500 years, his people have never stopped singing since, nor could anyone or anything stop them. A poem in Hungarian, written by János Arany in the mid-nineteenth century, Walesi Bárdok (‘The Bards of Wales) draws inspiration from this determination to maintain independence from the invading Normans, whose Edward I built the castles which surround the country.
Besides Rugby, which the Welsh did not invent but turned into an art and craft, the other great ‘Cymric’ institution is the ‘Eisteddfod‘ or ‘Settlement’. It is a purely Welsh invention, and not as old as it seems, with its processions of white-robed druids. It dates from the Romantic Revival of the late eighteenth century and the Royal National Eisteddfod is an 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. The Archdruid of the 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’. The language of the National Eisteddfod is Welsh, and besides the main competitions there are many ‘side-shows’ from folk concerts to political gatherings, both of which I attended as a student in Wales, also speaking, in my faltering Welsh, to a meeting of Welsh students in 1979.
When I arrived in Wales 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, 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.
By the time I left Wales in 1983, I was so in love with these events that 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, but am sure that there are already magnificent displays of them below the castle walls around Wales, as well as beneath the city walls in Canterbury, where I sojourned last in Britain.
Blwyddin Dydd Gwl Dewi! A Joyous St David’s Day, wherever and however you celebrate it!
Heddwch i chwi gyd! Peace be with you all!
Related articles/ Sources:
The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History
- Wales News: National Eisteddfod chief attacks permanent site proposal (walesonline.co.uk)
- Need to Read: Castle that hosted Wales’ first Eisteddfod reveals its historic secrets (walesonline.co.uk)
- Richard Burton’s St David’s Day star (bbc.co.uk)
- The Top 5 Beaches in Wales (epicatravel.com)
- Wales News: Prince Charles to visit Cardiff for St David’s Day ceremony (walesonline.co.uk)
- Saint David’s Day: 15 Facts (gonedigging.co.uk)
- Showbiz: Top Welsh chef Angela Gray wins Blue Peter badge after 40-year wait (walesonline.co.uk)
- Rugby News: Six Nations 2013: Wales coach Howley hails Welsh scrum show (walesonline.co.uk)
- Showbiz: Welsh chef’s lifelong wait for Blue Peter badge (walesonline.co.uk)
- Welsh speaker needed for Eisteddfod (blogs.abc.net.au)