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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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6.1.3 The Welsh language and political nationalism

Thus, in 1925 when a small group of nationalists – none of whom were professional politicians – established Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru/the Welsh Nationalist Party, one of its main aims was the promotion of the Welsh language and culture. The founders of this new political party were mainly middle-class professionals – teachers, ministers and lecturers – and the Welsh language was central to both their personal and working lives. The party aimed to secure Welsh self-government, including (by 1932) membership for Wales in the League of Nations, and to promote Welsh culture and the Welsh language. Although the party was fully bilingual in its publications from the 1930s onwards, it was almost entirely Welsh speaking in its internal organisation and membership (Davies, 1983, pp. 179–86). Most of the members were inspired primarily by their concern for the Welsh language and its preservation in the face of the external factors that were undermining it, deriving from Wales’s lack of autonomy within the British state.

The Welsh Nationalist Party had little electoral impact in its first two decades and could be characterised as more of an intellectual and cultural movement than a political party. However, its character began to alter dramatically from the mid-1940s as Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) began its transformation into a political party, contesting both parliamentary and local elections across Wales with the intention of gaining political power as the means to its goal of full Welsh self-government.

As Plaid Cymru became more embedded in mainstream political activity, the promotion of the Welsh language, while remaining a central tenet, became less predominant in party concerns. Nevertheless, the language continued to be a major source of inspiration for many party activists. One individual I interviewed in 1977, a prospective parliamentary candidate for Plaid Cymru and mainly active as a political – rather than a cultural and linguistic – nationalist, told me: ‘Without the language, the mainspring would go out of my motivation. Welsh freedom would still be worth working for, but I would not be as passionate about it’ (Davies, 1989, p. 44).

The deep connections between language and identity mean that language can be an important source of inspiration and means of recruitment of nationalists if the achievement of political autonomy is seen as necessary for the protection, indeed the survival, of the language. Furthermore, the Welsh case suggests that this is not limited to speakers of the language. Many non-Welsh speakers have also embraced the nationalist cause primarily because of the language issue, arguing that they were deprived of the language themselves as a result of the linguistic oppression of Wales by the British state. They may try to reclaim the language – for themselves, through learning it as adults; for their children, through their support for the Welsh-schools movement; and/or for their nation, through political activism to achieve Welsh self-government

Activity 16

The following two excerpts illuminate what the Welsh language has come to mean to some who are not first-language Welsh speakers. Extract 4 is by the Anglo-Welsh poet and Welsh nationalist, Harri Webb, who was raised in Swansea and learned Welsh as an adult, adopting the Gwentian dialect he had heard while working as a librarian in Dowlais. Extract 5 is from an essay, ‘Coming home’, by the academic Sylvia Prys Jones, who was born in England and moved with her family to Cardiff when she was ten. Regarding each extract, what are the author’s reasons for learning Welsh? How does each of them connect language with personal and national identity?

Extract 4

The Old Language

They called us, shyly at first, those words

That were and were not ours.

They whispered in names whose meaning

We did not know, a strange murmur

Like leaves in a light wind you hardly feel

Stirring the autumn wood of memories

That were and were not ours.

We did not stop to heed, nor pause to wonder.

But we could not escape them, they were always

Around us, whispering. Did they croon

A crazed witless song, a bad spell,

Voices crying out of an old dark wood?

Some shuddered, fled, stumbled.

Others listened.

Suddenly we knew, understood

Whose voices these were, knew

What they had been telling us all the time:

Our true name;

And the dead leaves turned into a shower of gold.

Webb, 1995 [1963], p. 60

Extract 5 ‘Coming home’

At secondary school I studied Welsh, French, Latin and Greek ...

But it was Welsh which captured my interest, for it represented not just a language but an identity. I was a shy, diffident teenager: ... The Welsh language gave me roots and a sense of direction, and also set me apart from the crowd.

I became a fervent Welsh nationalist. ...

The strange aspect of this Welshness was that it was almost entirely an inward experience, a strange romantic notion in my imagination. ...

My Welsh nationalism ... had no political content. I had little grasp of political matters, and even less interest. ...

Looking back at that period of fervent nationalism makes me blush, bearing, as it did, little relation to the Wales of reality. I knew little of the geography of Wales ... I knew less of the people, of their struggle for survival and the preservation of their language. My Welshness was largely ‘psychological’: less of a response to the real, historical Wales than to a dim unperceived need within myself. ... But even now, as I wince in memory, I wonder whether it was such a bad thing.

... Is it a crime to want to belong, to be a part, to have roots? And if, in the process, we chance upon something of such immeasurable worth and beauty as the Welsh heritage, so much the better.

Source: Jones, 1992, pp. 67