Gwynfor Evans, |
The Fight for Welsh Freedom
(Y Lolfa, 2000)
It's easy to overlook little Wales, or Cymru to Welsh speakers, existing in the shadow of one of the world's great powers. For generations, even Welsh schoolchildren were taught history that was really the history of England, rather than that of Wales itself.
Gwynfor Evans, former leader of Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party) set out to rectify this situation in the 1970s with a detailed look at Welsh history as told by the Welsh. Called Aros Mae (It Endures) in Welsh, this book was translated to English as Land of My Fathers. Recently, publisher Y Lolfa produced an updated, pocket version of Evans' history called simply The Fight for Welsh Freedom.
Though it lacks the richness and scholarship of Aros Mae, it still provides a fine overview of Welsh history up to and including the creation of the National Assembly in 1999 (particularly for those who still think Charles is the "Prince of Wales" in anything but name). The Fight for Welsh Freedom is a book that sometimes suffers due to its brevity and occasionally reads a bit awkwardly, but these are not serious defects. Nor do they detract from the story.
Evans reminds us that, but for a series of missed opportunities, Wales could have gained full nationhood within Europe, like many similarly sized nations. Ireland comes to mind as a nation that has prospered in today's Europe. Forty-five years ago Wales had a gross national product twice that of Ireland, Evans says, but today Ireland's income per head exceeds that of Wales or even England. (One might also add Finland and Norway to that group.)
Evans reserves particular scorn for Welsh historical figures who put the interests of England or Britain first, to the detriment of Wales. He calls them the "deracinated and ambitious crew." Neil Kinnock, the 1980s Labour Party leader, stands out in this regard as someone who benefited by the defeat of the Welsh autonomy proposal in 1979. The very term "Britain," Evans says, is really a fiction invented for English propaganda purposes when Scotland was brought into the fold. The Welsh are, historically, the true descendents of the "Britons."
For those who don't know its history, Wales lost its last native prince in 1282 (the designation of the heir to the English throne as Prince of Wales stems from a piece of mediaeval chicanery). Owain Glyndwr claimed the mantle of prince in 1400 and briefly united an independent Wales for about 10 years. Since that time, sadly, Wales was the first, and is now one of the last colonies of the British Empire.
Prior to that Wales had enjoyed almost a millennium of freedom, prosperity and sometimes even unity, from the time the Romans left in 383 AD, says Evans. The Welsh (the Cymry) had their own laws from the time of Hywel Dda, (about 900 AD) and their own literature, such as Aneirin's "Y Gododdin," some of which endures. Welsh was spoken and written as late as 900 AD across western Britain from Cornwall to Strathclyde (Glasgow). But after English speakers conquered these areas, says Evans, all traces of Welsh nationhood were obliterated. What saved the language in Wales was probably the Welsh language bible, produced in the 16th century.
Today the Welsh language endures as the strongest of all living Celtic languages. No one knows how many people speak Welsh today. In Wales itself, probably one-quarter of the population (750,000 of three million) speak the language, but it is still threatened by cross-migration with England. As ever, the old language endures, as does the dream of Wales taking its place among the community of nations.
However, at least now Welsh has co-official status in Wales, is taught in schools, and Welsh language media exists, thanks to the efforts of Evans and many others who have protested and were even jailed fighting for these rights in our lifetimes. The Fight for Welsh Freedom, then, is the tale of 2,000 years of efforts to fight for Wales. It's a story that deserves to be told. And this book is a good starting point.