Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Land of my Fathers

Is it age that brings on feelings of nostalgia? Or is there something more deeply psychological that brings on yearnings to go back to one's roots? Maybe it's because that in retirement, I don't have that much to do, and 'thinking' takes up more of my time. In my professional career, I often debated, both formally and informally, the subject of nature verses nurture. What has made me the person the I am?

Nurture, means that our personality has been affected by our upbringing and surroundings, while Nature means that there is something in our genes or family history that explains the type of person we are. Whatever is the cause, I find myself increasingly looking back to the land of my birth, Wales. This can by seen in the number of blogs dedicated to My Village, My Home, My Life, and to references looking at Eisteddfodau and Welsh Male Voice Choirs. I'm in such a reflective mood today; thinking about the scenery, the history, the language and the people. But funny enough, I'm not thinking about moving back to Wales. Perhaps this shows that there is a great flaw in my character, that detracts from the pride of coming from Wales.

I also don't speak Welsh, but according to a Welsh Language Board survey in 2004 (the results of the 2011 Census are yet to be produced), 21.7% of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh. So I'm actually in good company with the other 78.3% of the population. Not that I say this with any pride.

So, enough of my rambling. Here's some thoughts on Welsh Rugby and the Welsh language.

Wales Rugby Team 1905
Rugby has a strong association with Wales. The current game is pre-dated by the game of Cnapan, which is thought to have been played in Wales since the Middle Ages. There is a wonderful description of the game here. It largely died out in the middle of the 19th Century, with the coming of Rugby Union.

It seems to be generally accepted that Rugby came to Wales in 1850, when the Reverend Professor Rowland Williams brought the game with him when he moved from Cambridge to St David's College, Lampeter. The expansion of interest in Rugby went hand in hand with the growth in industrialisation in Wales. The railways brought new workers from the main cities to the new steel and coal towns of Wales. Places like Merthyr (1876), Brecon (1874) and Penygraig (1877) all adopted the new sport.

While Wales has not always been dominant in Rugby Union (I'm going to forget the fallow years), there has been two recognised 'golden era's' of Welsh Rugby. The first is 1900-1919 because of the success of the national team. The Triple Crown (beating England, Scotland and Ireland) was first won on 1893, and between 1900 and 1914 the team won the trophy a further six times, and three Grand Slams when France joined the competition in 1908 and 1909. Wales began to transform for ever, the way that the game would be played. This was partly done through the introduction of what was called the "Rhondda Forward". The Welsh front row was now to be made up of men who worked all day and every day in the coal, iron and tin mines; who were chosen for their strength and aggressive tackling. During the 1970's (which we'll come to), the most famous front row of all was the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner. They were all manual workers, and some have put forward the theory that when Welsh industry declined, and players started to be drawn from 'soft jobs', the team suffered.

The success of Welsh Rugby in the first two decades of the 20th Century is all the more remarkable when you consider a number of external circumstances. The valley areas in particular were part of a strong Nonconformist Baptist movement that saw Rugby as "a wicked temptation to the young men of the mining and steel communities, leading to violence and drink". The religious revival of 1904 saw communities completely reject Rugby, and local clubs such as the famous Senghenydd disbanded for several years. In 1913, five members of the Senghenydd team were killed in Britain's worst colliery disaster, and many other teams, including Welsh internationals lost their lives in the First World War.

In England, the game of Rugby was generally seen as a sport for gentlemen of higher learning, but I'm very proud of the fact that in Wales, it was fast absorbed into the working class areas, and the link was severed of Rugby as a sport for middle and upper classes.

The second golden era, perhaps the greatest of all, was the 1970's. This is the period that I remember, with players such as Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JPR Williams. The video below is a collection of some of the greatest moments from that period. On this occasion, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Wales won four consecutive Triple Crowns during the period, playing a type of free flowing Rugby that had rarely been seen before. In 2003, Gareth Edwards was voted the greatest player of all time in a players poll. He also scored what many believe to be the greatest try of all time in 1973, when playing for the Barbarians against the All Blacks of New Zealand. You can watch it on You Tube.

Let's move on to language.

On the 7th December 2010, the Welsh Assembly unanimously approved a set of measures to develop the use of the Welsh language within Wales. On the 9th February 2011, this measure received Royal Approval and was passed, so making the Welsh language an officially recognised language within Wales. What does this mean in practice? The measure;
  • confirms the official status of the Welsh language
  • creates a new system of placing duties on bodies to provide services through the medium of Welsh
  • creates a Welsh Language Commissioner with strong enforcement powers to protect the rights of Welsh speakers to access services through the medium of Welsh
  • establishes a Welsh Language Tribunal
  • gives individuals and bodies the right to appeal decisions made in relation to the provision of services through the medium of Welsh
  • creates a Welsh Language Partnership Council to advise Government on its strategy in relation to the Welsh language
  • allows for an official investigation by the Welsh Language Commissioner of instances where there is an attempt to interfere with the freedom of Welsh speakers to use the language with one another
As I mentioned earlier, The Welsh Language Board indicated in 2004 that 21.7% of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh. This grew from 20.8% at the 2001 Census; the growth in absolute numbers is around 35,000.

Welsh is therefore a growing language within Wales. The map opposite shows the strongest Welsh speaking regions, and while some may have assumed that this would be in the former mining valleys of South Wales, it is actually in the area of North West Wales.

I guess that a national language goes along with a national identity, and no doubt Welsh will continue to flourish with the new recognition of the language within Wales.

As long ago as 1977, a greeting in Welsh was one of 55 languages chosen to be included on the Voyager Golden Record as representative of Earth in NASA's Voyager programme. 'Is anyone out there?'. If there is, they may well be hearing the Welsh greeting, but translated as "Good health to you now and forever".

I may be a Welshman in exile, but I have an increasing fondness for the land of my birth. Rugby and language seem to be two of a number of things that sum up the country, and how I feel about it.

I'm going to end with a video of Max Boyce, the Welsh comedian, poet, singer/song writer, and former coal miner. He's been performing for 40 years now, and has performed some magical songs about Rugby and being Welsh. Many pieces are extremely funny, while others are very poignant. The piece I've chosen is about the closure of a coal mine, which has the refrain, 'The pit head bath's a supermarket now'. The song is called, "Duw it's hard". The slides add to the poignancy of the song.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John. Your comments about nature v nurture ring a bell.Throughout my career I was very much a 'nurture' man but now as I get older I realise that deep within me the genes at the root of what I am. No day goes past without me realising that I am thinking and behaving more and more like my mother and dad. Have a good day.