Friday, March 1, 2013
Dydd Gwyl Dewi Dedwydd! (That's Happy St. David's Day)
Happy St. David’s Day to the Welsh and the Welsh at heart. As a devotee of St. Patrick I have always enjoyed the honoring of our Celtic cousins.
The Cymraeg are not much on the international stage these days. There is no one of Richard Burton’s stature (with his nationalistic red socks), or Tom Jones who were defacto ambassadors of that distinct part of Great Britain. Although there are still good actors reaching Hollywood from their shores, including Christian Bale, John Rhys-Davies, Desmond Llewelyn (Q!), Roger Rees (which is a surprise because Robin Colcord was so bloody English), and Sir Anthony Hopkins, who does exude the "Welshness" that Burton did.
Wales doesn’t have the bloody history with England that infuses so much of the psyche of its Irish neighbors, and yet the Welsh were equally invaded by the English, under the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, their language equally ripped from them. A “formal Union,” as Wiki calls it, did not happen until 1536, as Welsh law was fully replaced by English law under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542. A big difference is that Wales followed the Reformation, circa 1533, thus bonding itself closer to England and further from its shared Celtic roots with Erin.
The symbols of the day are leeks and daffodils, both of which will be worn on the lapels of serious Welshmen today, sometimes even seen on the streets of New York. There is a thought that these symbols became confused over centuries because of the similarity of their words in Welsh: Cenin (leek) and Cenin Bedr (daffodil, literally " (St.) Peter's leek").
For earlier generations, Wales meant two things: the celebrated male choirs, seen on The Ed Sullivan Show; and How Green Was My Valley, the John Ford film of a novel by Richard Llewellyn, a Englishmen who researched and appropriated Welsh childhoods in the mining valleys!
For a later generation, the Princess of Wales was a touchstone that brought the great Welsh hymn “Cwm Rhondda” (its English words, “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer”) to the international stage at her funeral.
Why do Welshmen sing in large groups? The website of Treorchy Male Choir, one of the oldest and most celebrated, traces it to two late 19th century events: the fervor of religious nonconformity and the acceleration of the coal mining industry. It is testament to the human spirit that the men of the mines tried to improve the dreadful condition of their work by the beauty of their own voices singing. And so a national identity was born, still widely seen at rugby matches.
Fishguard, Swansea, and Cardiff
I’ve been to Wales twice. Fishguard, via train from Southampton England to get the ferry to Rosslare, Ireland. I had more of the Welsh experience in Mumbles, a town in Swansea, on the Gower peninsula, with a Welsh classmate of mine from Southampton University. I stayed with her family for several days, seeing the natural beauty of South Wales. Nobody sang.
And Cardiff. Well, that would be Cardiff, New York, where as a kid I saw the Cardiff Giant at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown. He is the great American hoax of 1869, the bright idea of a New York tobacconist named George Hull. An atheist, he was ticked off after an argument with a fundamentalist minister about Genesis 6:4 “There were giants in the earth in those days” unless you’re Catholic, then 6:4 says “At that time the Nephilim appeared on earth (as well as later) . . .”
Hull dreamed up this scheme to create a petrified giant man, bury him near a farm in Cardiff New York, and then a year later ask for a well to be be dug in that spot.
“The finished Giant was 10 feet 4½ inches tall and weighed in at a fraction under 3,000 pounds. His shoulders were 3 feet across and his feet 21 inches long. He would have taken a size 37 collar.”
Everything about this fascinates me. The sheer crazy strength of will of Hull to create the thing: quarried in Iowa, carved in Chicago, shipped to New York; the desire of the public to believe in something miraculous; the fact that the South is suffering through Reconstruction as this is going on.
But enough of American whimsy. Here is Tom Jones, a favored Welsh son, singing in a pub, with the Treorchy Male Choir as backup.
Oh, and "Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer" is also known as the "Welsh Rugy Hymn" sung in stadiums, like our "Take me out to the ball game." The Welsh are an interesting people, no doubt about it. This is from Wales v. England, 2007.