The Dying of the… A Look at Welsh Identity

John Idris Jones examines history and modern culture as he searches for a definitive Welsh Identity.

Of course ‘Wales’ is not one thing; it is a collection of things.  It is a name for a place on the map, a label for a parcel of phenomena – land, culture/s, economy and so on.A ‘Welsh person’ is, at its simplest, a designation for a person who lives in Wales.It does not stand for characteristics.This is not Plato, who believed in qualities behind words; this is variability, changeableness, all struggling in their myriad ways with the simplicities of nomenclature.‘Wales’ exists but ‘Welshness’ does not; it is an iteration word, part of the word-flow, and often part of our desire to locate ourselves in culture, to withdraw to the safeness of belonging.

When the kings of Gwynedd came out of their fastness on the shore of west Anglesey in the fifth and sixth centuries, they did not do it to enter battle and shed blood, probably theirs; they did it to extend their influence; to acquire land by hook or by crook; to negotiate an agreement over income from the peasants; to find suitable husbands among the rich for their daughters.They fought only as a last resort, and the history of early Wales is full of last resorts; many kingdoms lost, much blood spilt; a diminishing set of rulers fighting over property, land and acquisition.To the victor the spoils.But none of them fought to acquire Wales:this was hardly there; it was too abstract and far away; away from the farm next door with its meat and eggs; too far away from the fire in the hearth and the comforts of home.

It was too grand a vision, this Wales; too political, with no gain; politics as chimera. Until Glyndŵr, with his self-regard and his spat with de Grey (that Marcher of the Ludlow family) invoked it as part of his ambition. Glyndŵr had vision and an ability to raise an army.He wanted ‘Wales’. He failed.  Some twelve years in the making, after parliament, after battles, the vision, the chimera vanished, as did his body.

And was Wales worth winning? What was it, and what is it, but a poor place full of bad land? Most of the land in Wales is upland, full of rock and poor soil; hardly good enough for sheep to thrive.It is hardly worth owning: what is the value now of a sheep’s carcass? In Wales there are only two patches of Grade One agricultural land; one in the Vale of Glamorgan and one in the Vale of Clwyd. England is rich; she is built on the value of land. The King owned it and parcelled it out among his supporters; thus came earldoms, dukes, knighthoods and vast estates; they kept the peasants down and charged rent. The Church charged tithes. So for two thousand years England exploited its land’s fertility:the more corn a field grew, the richer the owner. The hunter-gatherer became a capitalist.

But in Wales? The Romans are said to have valued Anglesey for its corn. But where is our rich land? Where are our agricultural assets? Where are our grand county estates based on land values? There were a few, and they had their private armies.The rest suffered and starved, and when Nonconformity came, they found a voice. The old Anglicanism was eased out and Methodists and Independents built their thousands of chapels out of local price and religiosity; they are now mostly empty (but strangely not neglected). The language of Nonconformity, Welsh, is dying, despite huge monetary sums spent on trying to keep it alive. But in the streets of Merthyr, Cardigan and Ruthin, the slide to English continues. A condescension exists towards Welsh. An order of the mind is replacing an order of the tongue. The language has acquired Virtue, to its cost. The old order pertains in the fringe areas of Gwynedd and Cardigan but the fight to preserve it is all but over. A language cannot be artificially maintained; sooner or later its spirit will depart and it will become as a preserve in a bottle, cut off, examined, kept as an exhibit – ‘…this is how it used to be’.

The Assembly of Wales has an income of around fourteen billion pounds from the UK parliament. Of this, most of it is spent on the administration of Health. Coal and slate dust have their legacy; we are a sick people, if we are a people. We have lost vigour. Wales is no Catalonia. Cardiff is no Barcelona – which is tied in to the culture and economy of its hinterland. We are diversified into nonentity. At its heart, situated squarely in the old Language/Nonconformity nexus, is the National Eisteddfod, that symbolic institution which reveres the past and knows not where to go in the new future. It carries on year after year like an ocean liner which has lost its way. The same people come through its gates; the same people act as adjudicators; the same people run it; and the Assembly, out of pity and obligation, contributes increasing sums of public subsidy. The Eisteddfod is dyed in the wool. And dyeing is close to dying in the vernacular.

Modern Wales is struggling.Too small, too poor, too much created by its past, too unambitious, too diversified, too much rainfall, too rocky; and not at heart fooled by enthusiastic sports fans, yea-saying politicians or singing stars.

I have lived through the decline of the culture/language. When I was a child in Llanrhaiadr-ym-Mochnant and in Ruthin, my Welsh-speaking parents took me to chapel, sitting in their own pew, on Sunday mornings, and after the service I was required to walk to the front row and recite my learned verses to the congregation. At home my mother played hymns on our piano and my father read his Bible in preparation for his Sunday School class. They went to Chapel again in the evening.

I left Wales when I was nineteen and I have never been back to this Wales, although I have lived here.

In 1960 there were five Welsh Nonconformist chapels in Ruthin; fine stone buildings. Each had an active congregation of over 200 souls, with its own Minister.Now there are hardly 200 members between all five and Ministers are responsible for a clutch of chapels.

But what about the renaissance? The Welsh schools; Welsh television…? Failures, almost entirely. They have cost the nation a great deal of money and made us poorer.Our children are generally badly educated; their standard of Welsh low and their English little better.

And TV? The ‘soap’ Pobl y Cwm is emblematic, its action set in some social no-man’s-land, its dialogue a mish-mash of Caernarfon/Cardigan patois. It belongs nowhere. The real Wales passes it by; it does not connect with anything. It has sub-titles in English so it has a viable audience.

And books in Welsh? Over two hundred new titles are published each year, each one heavily subsidised by Assembly money through the Welsh Books Council.Without this subsidy, the business of Welsh-language publishing would collapse overnight. The average sale of a Welsh-language title is seldom over 500 copies.

It is hard not to recall R.S. Thomas’s wonderful lines about a people ‘…sick with inbreeding/Worrying the carcase of an old song.’ 

Our only hope is to jettison the past and start again with a new view and policy, with conviction.But where do we start, and who will do it? Before then, there are going to be many disappointments, losses, failures and tragedies.