Here’s a snippet from my upcoming book; “To get out of a Headlock”. The section below is still unedited, and I’m sure the Welsh grammar is deeply lacking, but it should give you the gist…
To be honest, you can understand why they harp on about the language.
Before the Rise, you’d have never expected the people of South Wales to choose Welsh as their lingua franca. After all, barely 20% of the population spoke it, and almost none as their first language. However, you can never underestimate the capacity of the British Government to screw things up…
As I recall, things came to a head in March. Not sure exactly when, but I know it was a significant chunk of time before the floodweek. Frankly, after that dramatic week of unbelievably fast flash-flooding in November, everything fell so completely apart that contingency plans and politics became completely meaningless.
You can imagine the thought process. England is sinking under the waves, especially the heavily populated bits. It’s becoming pretty clear that the entire East coast is going under too. Society is becoming scared and restless, starting to come apart at the seams… and then someone looks at a map – “What’s that country there, just over the border? The hilly one. Doesn’t that look like a good place to head for!”.
So it’s spring, and some bright spark is sat in an office, somewhere in the heart of England’s green and pleasant land. They put together a plan to promote wholesale evacuation to “our western neighbours”. A brief, poorly thought-out campaign announces the idea to the world with a simple, bold statement:
WALES: A new England!
I suspect the person in charge of that one was having an off day. Even so, they still deeply, deeply underestimated the amount of lingering anti-English resentment in this ancient Celtic land.
Response to the ill-advised geographical appropriation was swift and defensive. Wales-first groups, alongside members of the devolved Welsh parliament, protested loudly and visibly. Green Plaid Cymru colours became de rigeur, with several MPs from other parties jumping ship to the Welsh independence party. Several violent clashes occurred, especially in towns along the England-Wales border. During one demonstration in Oswestry several protestors died, blame being laid at the brutality of the English police in attendance.
The most definitive reply came from a small hamlet in the foothills of Snowdonia: Capel Celyn. A video went viral, starring a passionate Welshman in front of a lake, unleashing a vicious tirade in fluent Welsh. After a few minutes, during which he pretty accurately described the unfairness of the latest piece of English oppression, he finished with a statement: “Croeso i Gymru: Tryweryn newydd?”. Referencing the desperately unwise government slogan, he’d scathingly parodied it: “Welcome to Wales: a new Tryweryn?”
Capel Celyn is, or used to be, a village in north Wales. Back in 1965, in an act of extraordinary political insensitivity, the entire Welsh-speaking village was destroyed in order to build a reservoir in the Tryweryn valley. The water was to supply the needs of Liverpool, an English city, almost 70 miles away. The residents were not given a voice; in fact the entire project was passed through Parliament in London to avoid needing planning permission from any tedious locals. A classic story of the Big Man stomping on the Little Guy.
Sixty years on from that ruling, a bitter resentment towards the officialdom of English rule remained. It lay submerged, just inches beneath the surface of that reservoir. As a result, with the latest thoughtless assault on Welsh statehood, “Cofiwch Dryweryn!1” became the rallying cry for home-grown opposition.
Welsh print media became dominated by editorials tripping over themselves to prove their loyalty, their dislike of a distant, oppressive, Anglo-Saxon government, and above all, their Welsh-ness. Almost overnight, papers, conversations, football crowds, radio stations; all of them became Welsh. Even people’s names changed; Thomas pointing out that “It’s spelt ‘Tomos’”, Rebecca pretending she’d always been “Beca”.
Apparently, according to Eres, it was almost funny how bad the average person’s Welsh actually was. She once joked to me that the highest selling book that year was “How to learn Welsh almost instantly so that no one mistakes you for a saes2”. Neighbours would greet each other in the street with a cheerful “Shwmae!3”, none of them quite sure of the correct pronunciation, and none of them acknowledging the fact that they’d entirely spoken to one another in English for the past 20 years.
Welsh wasn’t just the language in Cenedl; it was an identity. The defensively fragile identity of a nation who knows they aren’t being completely truthful about their heritage.
I zoned out the radio’s Celtic echo-chamber, and took stock of our surroundings. Our boat was just passing round the headland. Whilst the following wind had made the first leg of our journey a breeze – if you’ll allow the pun – I wasn’t looking forwards to the narrow parts. My plan was to pull into Trecastle and not move on until I was one hundred percent sure of the best time to leave…
1. “Remember Tryweryn!”
2. “Saxon”, derogatory term for an English person.
3. An informal Welsh version of “Hello!”