Welsh Diaspora

An A-Z of the Welsh Diaspora

Whether through historic links or genealogical ties, cultural exchanges born out of mutual desire to reach out beyond borders, legendary figures, or more trivial connections, Wales has always interacted vigorously with the rest of the world. Dylan Moore and Jim Morphy present Wales Arts Review’s far from definitive A-Z of the Welsh Diaspora.

It would be disingenuous, perhaps, not to start in the Americas, the original New World, which has long been home to Diaspora communities from across the globe. Wales is unique in that despite its rich and extensive connections across North America, outlined below and explored further by Cath Barton in her interview with Lorin Morgan-Richards, its most famous ‘colony’ is that at Y Wladfa in Patagonia, Argentina. The 150th anniversary of the area’s settlement by those original Cymric pioneers in 2015 will mark the end of Y Wladfa’s obscure pub quiz question status and lead to wider recognition of the reality and wonder of Welsh-speaking communities halfway across the world.

Closer to home, in north-western France, a language similar to Welsh is also spoken. The connections between the nations on the Atlantic fringes of Britain and France are not only linguistic, however. Of the Seven Founder Saints of Brittany – St Malo, St Brioc (Briog), St Samson of Dol, St Padarn, St Tug dual (Tudwal), St Pol Aurelian and St Corentin – six were Welsh (or so it’s said), and were taught at the Llancarfan and Llanilltud monasteries. Each year, The Festival Interceltique de Lorient celebrates Breton ties with the cultural traditions of Celtic nations, with Wales being represented along with Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, as well as Asturias and Galicia in northern Spain.

If Wales’ Celtic connections are based on millennia of cultural exchange, that forged with Chonquing in south-west China epitomises the new global age of mutually beneficial partnerships. Recommended by Premier Wen Jiabao during his visit to Wales (as Vice Premier with responsibility for the Western Provinces) in 2000, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Chongqing Municipal Government and the Welsh Assembly Government was signed during the visit to Chongqing by First Minister for Wales Rhodri Morgan in March 2006. The MOU promises the strengthening of ties in a number of areas, including cultural exchanges and trade. Earlier this year, then Culture Minister Huw Lewis launched an exhibition in association with the National Museum of Wales entitled ‘Wales, Land of the Red Dragon’, an acknowledgement of the powerful symbol the country shares with many Asian cultures.

Desolation is the name of the island Corporal Abrahams and his wife have lived on for fourteen years. He and ‘twelve soldiers, young merry fellows, from Wales and Surrey’ have been sent there as garrison because ‘an important and dangerous man’ has been exiled on the nearest island, St. Helena. ‘Desolation is the loneliest island in the world’. They ‘live in four wooden huts, two of which are caved in’ at Aberdare, which one of the Welshmen insisting on naming after his hometown. Holywell Cave is two miles away. In times before the garrison arrived, savages carved signs and idols in the rocks of what’s now called Mount Snowdon. The island of Desolation can be found by reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table.

Eisteddfodau have been instrumental in forging a shared sense of Welsh identity and culture, from at least as early as the twelfth century (Lord Rhys organised a famous example at his Cardigan castle in 1176). From their role in rehabilitating perceptions of the nation in the wake of the Treachery of the Blue Books in the mid-nineteenth century to their ubiquity in Welsh schools today, within Wales the celebration of poetry and music together with the chairing ceremony have been at the heart of a sense of uniquely Welsh tradition. It is therefore no wonder that Diaspora communities the world over have sought to retain the Eisteddfod as a signifier of Welshness.

AmeriCymru founded a festival in Portland, Oregon under the banner ‘Left Coast Eisteddfod’, which has since morphed into the West Coast Eisteddfod hosted in Los Angeles’ Barnsdall Arts Park, designed by the great Welsh-American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Edwardsville, Pennsylvania meanwhile lays claim to the longest-running music and poetry competition outside of the National Eisteddfod; its Cynonfardd Eisteddfod is in its 123rd incarnation. Eisteddfodau are also held across Y Wladfa in Argentina with competitions held in Welsh and Spanish, with translation prizes for prose in French, Italian and English underscoring the internationalism also inherent in Llangollen.

Staying on the ‘Left Coast’, John Ford’s 1941 Oscar winning How Green Was My Valley (adapted from a Richard Llewellyn book) forms the enduring image of Wales. Despite everything that might be levelled against it, the film nevertheless manages to retain an uncommon power in the popular imagination with its depiction of a Wales of hardworking, chapel-going families, grinding poverty, exploitative mine-owners and tragic pit disasters. Although Ford wanted to shoot his adaptation of Richard Llewelyn’s novel in technicolour, on location, the fact of the Second World War meant the mining village that features in the movie was in fact a reconstruction built at Fox Ranch in Malibu Canyon, California.

Ford’s film, like so much of Hollywood cinema, was prefigured David Llewelyn Wark Griffith, a man who, so it’s said, used to boast of his Welsh ancestry going back to, so it’s said, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, King of Wales. Ford was a fan, as were Cecil B. De Mille, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. ‘No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man,’ said Orson Welles. Griffith was director of The Birth of a Nation (which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light) and Intolerance and bequeathed his name to the biggest park in Tinseltown, over which the famous Hollywood sign looks out. The Father of Film or stinking racist; which is he? Both, most likely. As much as he’d like to claim a part of us, perhaps we’d rather have no part in him.

No celebration of the Welsh Diaspora would be complete without mentioning hiraeth, the pull of Wales for those abroad. The word has cognates only in Portugal (‘saudade’), Romania (‘dor’) and Galicia (‘morrina’) and retains within its two syllables ideas of loss and longing, nostalgia, wistfulness and yearning, an earnest desire for the Wales of the past along with a simple homesickness. In The Paris Review, no less, Pamela Petro’s essay ‘Dreaming in Welsh’ also rightly equates Orhan Pamuk’s treatment of Turkish ‘hüzün’ with our own explorations of hiraeth. ‘To read Pamuk on hüzün and Jan Morris, the celebrated Welsh travel writer, on hiraeth, these emotions are to the inhabitants of their nations as soil and climate are to fine wines: an integral part of the terroir that makes them who and what they are. An affliction or a gift of home.’

Wales has had a long and interesting relationship with the nation of Israel. Judaism was the first non-Christian faith to emerge in Wales in the Christian era, with a presence in Swansea from the 1730s. Synagogues later appeared across the coalfield in the wake of the industrial revolution with sizeable Jewish communities in Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd and Tredegar, where there were anti-Semitic riots that form the backdrop to the 1999 film Solomon & Gaenor. Wales’ Jewish community have made a significant contribution to a number of fields, not least the arts. The only Welsh Booker Prize winner, Bernice Rubens, was the daughter of a Lithuanian Jew and Dannie Abse, interviewed for Wales Arts Review by Phil Morris this summer, has said: ‘As long as anti-Semitism exists, I will be a Jew.’

Back in America, Jackson County has been known as the Little Wales of Ohio since 1818 when six extended families from the Cilcennin area of Cardiganshire arrived in search of a better life. Followed by many others seeking to escape the grinding poverty of early nineteenth century Ceredigion, by 1850 Jackson County and its neighbour Gallia had become home to an estimated three thousand Welsh people, a community which doubled in the second half of the century.

Despite such deep-rootedness in some areas, it is an interesting phenomenon of the Welsh Diaspora, particularly when compared with the Irish and the Scots, that it is marked by assimilation into local culture. How many specifically Welsh pubs are there, worldwide? Cerys Matthews complained recently that in comparison with our Celtic neighbours, Welsh culture is invisible in America, a theory that seems to be borne out by a curious passage in A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick:

‘What nationality is that?’

‘Welsh,’ Fred said curtly. He could barely hear; his ears had blurred out, and one by one his other senses as well.

‘Are those the people who sing about the men of Harlech? What is ‘Harlech’? A town somewhere?

Americans would have no such problems identifying Liverpool, de facto, by proxy and sometime actual capital of North Wales. The city’s geographical proximity to Y Gogledd is at the root of many historic links – not least the etymology of the city’s name itself, derived as it is from ‘llif’, Wlesh for ‘flood’. There is an annual civic service on St David’s Day, the ‘Welsh Streets’, currently under threat of demolition, explored further in this issue by Jim Morphy, and a festival to mark the sailing of the ‘Mimosa’ – the ship that took Welsh settlers to Patagonia in 1865. Along with the city’s Irish, Scottish, Chinese and Carribbean communities, the Welsh in Liverpool have been a contributing factor in its feeling not so much English and more a world city in itself, a theme explored in Real Liverpool by Niall Griffiths, possibly the arts world’s leading contemporary Welsh Scouser.

The voyage of the S.S. Mimosa is not the only famous journey of Wales to the Americas, prefigured as it is by 700 years by Madoc, whose legendary ‘discovery’ also predates Christopher Columbus by over three centuries. Having its roots in medieval romance and its currency boosted by Elizabethan colonial propaganda, the tale of a son of Owain Gwynedd taking off from Rhos-on-Sea and landing variously at ‘Mobile Alabama; Florida ; Newfoundland; Newport, Rhode Island; Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; Virginia; points in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean including the mouth of the Mississippi River; the Yucatan; the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Panama; the Caribbean coast of South America; various islands in the West Indies and the Bahamas along with Bermuda; and the mouth of the Amazon River’ is a great idea, even if its historical veracity is difficult to maintain. Apparently Madoc’s descendants intermarried with the natives, creating a Welsh link with the Americas that predates anything else on this alphabet and leading to a long history of claims – some more obviously bogus than others – of encounters with ‘Welsh Indians’.

A more recent and less spurious example of Welsh settlement in the farthest corners of the globe is in the Australian state of New South Wales. It is believed that the eastern coast of Australia reminded Captain James Cook of the coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan, which he knew well. The area became the first European colony in Australia (1788) and Welsh people numbered amongst these first settlers, many of whom had been subject to penal transportation. The Eureka Stockade rebellion in 1854, an early expression of nationalist sentiment in Australia, was part-led by the Welsh-born Chartist John Basson Humffray. Mass emigration from Wales to Australia got under way in the early 20th century with New South Wales and Victoria being particularly popular destinations. Today Welsh-Australian links remain strong, and not just on the rugby field: according to the 2006 Australian census, 25,317 Australian residents were born in Wales, while 113,242 claimed Welsh ancestry.

Ever watched the American soap opera One Life to Live? No? Well, no worries, because Wales Arts Review hasn’t either. But we hear that this hugely successful show, which ran on the ABC network from 1968 to 2012, was set in the fictional place of Llanview, Pennsylvania. Llanview was apparently part of the so-called ‘Welsh Tract’, a portion of the state settled largely by Welsh-speaking Quakers, resulting in there being many places with Welsh names. There never has been a Llanview, but there still is a Lower Merion, a Bala Cynwyd and a Radnor. There has always been a strong Welsh influence here. In 1700, Welsh settlers accounted for one third of Pennsylvania’s 20,000-strong population. Outside Philadelphia’s City Hall, there is a plaque ‘commemorating the vision and virtue of the following Welsh patriots in the founding of the City, Commonwealth, and Nation: William Penn, 1644-1718, proclaimed freedom of religion and planned New Wales later named Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, third President of the United States, composed the Declaration of Independence. Robert Morris, 1734-1806, foremost financier of the American Revolution and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Governor Morris, 1752-1816, wrote the final draft of the Constitution of the United States. John Marshall, 1755-1835, Chief Justice of the United States and father of American constitutional law.’ Not a bad line-up by any standards.

If Wales’ illustrious history of participation in the global village is clear then its future ambition is no less astonishing. The oil-rich desert emirate of Qatar may have little in common with our rainy post-industrial principality but that has not stopped fourteen organisations from Wales joining forces to forge links with the country. Led by the University of Wales: Trinity St David, who have a long-standing archaeological research project, it is hoped that economic issues (such as Milford Haven’s status as UK port of entry for liquefied natural gas imports) can be supported by fostering cultural links between the two small nations. Artist Iwan Bala joined the mission this summer to investigate research opportunities in relation to the creative industries, and in particular, Islamic art and design markets with a view of introducing Welsh art and design to Qatar through such commercial outlets as galleries, educational and cultural institutions.

Bala’s willingness to facilitate a two-way dialogue is an echo of many other cultural figures down the years. Welsh artists have often made their fame and fortune somewhere else; in other cases those from elsewhere have taken Wales to their hearts. This has never been in finer evidence than in Paul Robeson’s affinity with Valleys miners, which began during the 1920s when he starred in Showboat at the Savoy Theatre in London and culminated in The Proud Valley. Here he became aware of the hardships faced by Welsh miners and realised that working-class struggle transcended race. He joined them on the hunger marches of 1927 and 1928. Robeson said it was the ‘first time he felt human dignity’ because of the lack of racial prejudice. He was once recorded as saying about Wales: ‘[It was there I] first understood the struggles of white and negro together – when I went down into the coal mine in the Rhondda Valley, lived amongst them.’

Separado! was reviewed in a very early issue of Wales Arts Review by Jon Gower. Dylan Goch’s film, described on the Internet Movie Database as ‘Star Trek meets Buena Vista Social Club’ is Super furry Animals’ frontman Gruff Rhys’ psychedelic version of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? as the singer goes on the trail of his long lost uncle Rene Griffiths. In a tour that takes in ‘theatres, nightclubs and desert teahouses of Wales, Brazil and the Argentinian Andes,’ Rhys scours Patagonia for the musical legacy of the Welsh Diaspora as well as what became of his ancestors.

Another notable who was well aware of his ancestry was the Welsh-American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who called each of his successive homes Taliesin. Built in 1911 by the architect himself, the first incarnation was consistent with the design principles of the so-called ‘Prarie Scool’, its flattened lines emulating the Mid Western landscape that surrounded it. Now operated by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation as a museum, the property is being considered as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site. Named after the sixth century Welsh poet, the estate has a chequered history, being the scene of a series of murders by an employee and an infamous fire.

One uncertain aspect of present-day Wales’ is its future within the United Kingdom. As Scotland goes to the polls next year in an independence referendum, Wales will be bracing itself for the ramifications of a result that will have consequences in Wales whether the answer to the question on Scottish ballot papers is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Being part of a greater ‘England, Wales and Northern Ireland’ seems an unsatisfactory prospect and even the unionist political parties have started manouvering for a post-Scotland settlement that includes at the very least more devolution of powers from Westminster. It seems that whatever happens, a growing sense of Wales and Welshness is the destiny of our national story, both at home and abroad.

If the future holds any degree of greater independence, the work of Visit Wales will be vital. Next year’s Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations and the renaming of stands in both the Liberty Stadium, Swansea and the Cardiff City Stadium are signs that the Welsh Government sees tourism as one of the country’s strong suits, with our ever-increasing strengths in both sport and the arts employed to serve economic as well as social good. Those Dylan Thomas celebrations will emphasise the importance of the world-famous poet in our national ‘brand’ and no doubt there will be a series of events at the White Horse Tavern, New York as well as around Wales. ‘The Horse’ was known as a longshoreman’s bar until Thomas began to frequent it in the years (and hours) immediately prior to his early demise, paving the way for its reincarnation as a centre for the bohemians and beats of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 60s, becoming to the Village Voice what Ye Olde Murenger House is to Wales Arts Review.

The legendary city of Xanadu, (present-day Inner Mongolia) has a rich literary history of its own, from Marco Polo to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and for at least one theorist has its own connection with Wales. It is known that Coleridge visited Hafod, the dwelling of a Colonel Johnes, on 29th July 1794 as part of a walking tour in the region of Tregaron. Could it be that the A4120 from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge is the road to Coleridge’s Xanadu? Could it be that he based his ‘Kubla Khan’ on his opium-addled visions beside the River Alph (Ystwyth)? Was the magnificent estate of Colonel Johnes the ‘pleasure dome’ to which the poet refers? Or were we simply struggling for an ‘X’? You decide

We certainly weren’t struggling for a ‘Y’, given that Y Drych, is the oldest ethnic language newspaper in America. Surviving under its own banner for over one hundred and years, the paper served the dwindling Welsh-language communities of America before being incorporated into Ninnau, an English-language Welsh publication in November 2003.

One last and lasting representation of Wales and Welshness, tying together this alphabet’s cinematic thread with its reference to Wales as the land where we sing ‘Men of Harlech’, is Zulu. Whatever the future holds for our nation, the film documents part of the role Welshmen played in maintaining the British Empire. Whether you think, as argued last year in Wales Arts Review by Philip Morris, you think reassessment of the film’s apologist agenda is long overdue, it will still be on television – and worth watching – this coming Boxing Day and every other.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis