Discovering Wales and Welsh: first steps
Discovering Wales and Welsh: first steps

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Discovering Wales and Welsh: first steps

1 Who are the Welsh?

A little over three million people live in Wales, which is roughly five per cent of the total UK population. However, around 27% of the people resident in Wales were born outside the country, which in Europe puts Wales second only to Luxembourg in this respect.

Recent survey evidence, as well as Census data, suggests that feelings of Welsh identity (Welshness) have been becoming stronger. In the 2011 Census, two-thirds of respondents ticked the box recording them as ‘Welsh’, rather than ‘British’ or some other category. The highest proportions saying they were Welsh were found in the valleys of south Wales, where the vast majority of the population was born in Wales.

But who are the Welsh? Where do they come from? What has forged their identity? One can learn a great deal from understanding who it is that a nation or country chooses to admire and celebrate. In 2003–4 an internet poll was held to find the greatest Welsh men and women of all time. Over 80,000 nominations were received, from which a list of the ‘top hundred Welsh heroes’ was compiled.

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Of the one hundred names listed, roughly a quarter are contemporary ‘celebrities’ from the world of show business – film, music and sport. A similar number were historic figures active before 1900: they include the legendary King Arthur, the Welsh law-maker Hywel Dda, the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, and Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. Only ten of those named were women, none of whom were alive earlier than the twentieth century.

The names attracting most votes at the time undoubtedly included those whose reputations were especially strong, and whom most people in Wales would have heard of: Aneurin Bevan, Owain Glyndŵr, Tom Jones, Richard Burton, Gareth Edwards and Catherine Zeta Jones. When a similar poll was conducted on behalf of the Western Mail (which claims to be the ‘national paper of Wales’) for St. David’s Day in 2008, the greatest number of votes were received by Owain Glyndŵr, a Welsh Prince who led an uprising against the English King in the fifteenth century; David Lloyd George, who was a Liberal politician and Prime Minister from 1916 until 1922, and the poet Dylan Thomas.

‘Popularity’ is not necessarily a reliable guide to importance, but the list does tell us something about the individuals that people in Wales are familiar with, so that knowledge of them forms a shared cultural resource. In many cases their fame has spread far beyond Wales, so that their celebrity and importance is reflected back on the country and its people. The choices made in drawing up such a list reflect aspects of national pride and national character, revealing how the Welsh see themselves.


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