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

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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.

Activity 1

Have a look at the first ten names on the list in the 100 Welsh Heroes [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] Wikipedia article . Do you know any of these personalities? Which fields do they belong to? Whether you do or do not know them, spend some time reading the short biographies by clicking on each name. Why have these particular people come to be so well-known?

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You might know or recognise some of these names – perhaps the famous poet Dylan Thomas, the well-known politician David Lloyd George or the actor Richard Burton. Five of these personalities belong to the field of politics if we include Owain Glyndŵr in this category. All but Glyndŵr were alive in the twentieth century: Aneurin Bevan, Gwynfor Evans, David Lloyd George and Saunders Lewis. Then there are three figures belonging to the field of the arts: the singer Tom Jones, the actor Richard Burton and the poet Dylan Thomas; sport is represented, too, with the rugby player Gareth Edwards; and the world of business features the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Robert Owen, born in the eighteenth century. They have come to be so well-known through their achievements and, often, their strong personality. Aneurin Bevan, for instance, is credited for creating the National Health Service as well as his tremendous speaking skills and strong views. The actor Richard Burton achieved global fame through exceptional acting ability, a strong magnetic presence and a turbulent private life.

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.