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Fact About Wales and the Welsh

5. St. Patrick was a Welshman.
On March 17th, when St. Patrick's Day is widely celebrated in so many communities in the United States (where much more fuss is made than is found in Ireland), most Americans assume that Patrick was an Irishman. It is not so.

Though Patrick's birthplace is debatable, most scholars seem to agree that he was born in the area of southeastern Scotland known as Strathclyde, a former Celtic kingdom and Welsh-speaking at the time. (However, a few scholars continue to regard St. David's in Pembrokeshire as the saint's birthplace; the tiny city was formerly directly in the path of missionary and trade routes to Ireland).

When the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths under Alaric, Roman Britain, which had experienced hundreds of years of comparative peace and prosperity, was left to its own defenses under its local Romano-British leaders. One of these may have been a tribal chieftain named Arthur, who seems to have held off the invaders for a while. Centuries of constant warfare, however, meant that the majority of the British kingdoms eventually crumbled under the onslaught of Germanic tribes.

More than two hundred years of fighting between the native Celts, brave but always completely disorganized, and the ever-increasing number of highly organized and disciplined German settlers eventually resulted in Britain sorting itself out into three distinct areas: the Britonic West, the Teutonic East and the Gaelic North. These areas later came to be identified as Wales, England and Scotland, all with their very separate cultural and linguistic characteristics. (Ireland, of course, remained Gaelic: many of its peoples migrated to Scotland, taking their language with them to replace the native Pictish).

Many scholars believe that Patrick (Patricius or Padrig) was born in the still Welsh-speaking Northern Kingdom of Strathclyde of Romano-Brythonic stock around 385 AD at a place called Bannavem Taberniae (Banwen). His father was a deacon, Calpurnius. Not much is known of Patrick's early life, but it is believed he was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland. Escaping to Gaul, he then underwent religious instruction under Germanus and returned to Ireland to join other early missionaries, probably settling in Armagh. In his Confessio, a spiritual biography, Patrick describes his early adventures. His seventh century biographers claimed that he converted all of Ireland to Christianity. Other Information concerning his life comes from the Latin, "The Life of St. David", written in the late 11th century by Rhigfarch (Rhygyfarch) but supplemented by Geraldus Cambrensis around 1200.

In "The Life", Patrick is told of coming to Wales as a bishop and vowing to serve God at Glyn Rhosyn (now St. David's). But, he was warned in a dream that the place was reserved for someone who would arrive thirty years later. He was then shown Ireland in the distance by an angel as he stood on a rock called "the seat of St. Patrick." Patrick's mission was to evangelize the distant land, a task that he carried out in a remarkably short period.

Rhigfarch is also responsible for what little we know of St. David, adopted as the patron saint of Wales in the 18th century. David died about 590 AD with March 1st, the reputed day of his death, celebrated by a holiday in Wales. St. Patrick's Day is much better known. It has become an American national festival celebrated with monstrous parades silly green hats, fake shamrocks and prodigious amounts of alcoholic beverages, including -- horror of horrors -- green beer.



6. Wales is not represented on the British Flag.
Wales is an integral part of the British Kingdom, yet it is not represented on the national flag, the Union Jack. The standard of Wales consists of a red dragon on a green and white background. As such, it will not fit easily into the design of the Union flag, composed of the red upright cross of St. George on a white background; the white diagonal cross of St. Andrew on a blue background; and the red diagonal cross of St. Patrick on a white background. This represents England, Scotland and Ireland respectively.

St. Andrew's Cross was added to the English flag in 1707 when Scotland joined the Union. The Union Jack that was flown in the American Colonies before the Revolution does not include the red diagonal of Ireland which was added in 1800 (and which remained after 1921, when Ireland was divided into the Free State and Ulster, or Northern Ireland, and seemingly unknown to BBC announcers).

The red dragon of Wales (Y Ddraig goch) goes back a long time, long before the Union Jack was ever put together. As a national symbol for Wales, it predates its adaptation by the Tudors. The dragon is perhaps the very first mythical beast in British heraldry. Legend has Macsen Wledig and his Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth century. It was adopted in the early fifth century by the Welsh kings of Aberffraw to symbolize their authority after the Roman withdrawal. By the seventh century, it was known as the Red Dragon of Cadwallader, forever after to be associated with the people of Wales. The ninth century historian Nennius mentions the red dragon in his Historia Brittonum and it was referred to by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae written between 1120 and 1129.

In Geoffrey's account, Uther Pendragon was the father of Arthur; his name translates as Dragon Head. Uther dreamed of a dragon appearing in a comet. When he became king, he had two dragon standards made. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who told the tale of two dragons fighting, the red and the white, representing the Welsh and the English respectively. The red dragon is overthrown by the white one, signifying English control of Britain. The red dragon banner, however, continued to fly proudly; it was used by the Normans in Britain and apparently was used as the British standard at the Battle of Crecy (1346), in which Welsh archers, dressed in their beloved green and white, played so prominent a part. In the 15th century (though some sources give an earlier date, it may have been during this battle that the tradition of wearing a leek began).

Though Owain Glyndwr had raised his dragon standard in 1400 as a symbol of revolt against the English Crown, the dragon continued to be used by the Tudor monarchs. It signified their direct descent from one of the noble families of Wales. At Holywell, in Flintshire, there is a dragon carved over one of the arches beside St. Winifred's Well in honor of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Henry's standard was white over green "with the red dragon over all." His eldest son, the Prince of Wales was to be the new King Arthur, uniting the whole of Britain, but he died before he could be crowned.

During Henry VIII's reign the red dragon on a green and white background became a favorite emblem on many of the Royal Navy ships; it was also a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth I "that red-headed Welsh harridan" as she has been called by historian A.L. Rowse. The dragon was replaced by a unicorn on the orders of James 1st, the Scot, not reappearing on the Royal Badge of Wales until 1807.

In 1953, the author was working in a large store in Rhyl, North Wales, when the news came that a new royal badge had been officially approved for Wales containing the motto: Y Ddraig Goch ddyry Cychwyn. A spirited discussion as to the translation brought forth "The Red Dragon Gives Impetus" as the best meaning, though "The Red Dragon gives a beginning or start" came close. (We settled for "The Red Dragon Inspires.")

As far as the national flag of Wales is concerned (the red dragon on a green and white background), it seems to have only come into prominence in the early part of the present century, being used at the 1911 Caernarfon Investiture of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Though the red dragon had reappeared as the royal badge for Wales in 1807, it wasn't officially recognized as the national flag of the principality until 1959. The Queen was successfully petitioned for its national use by the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain (the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain).

Controversy over the correct version of the flag was settled that year when a statement from the Minister of State for Wales announced that "...only the Red Dragon on a green and white flag...shall be flown on Government buildings in Wales, and, where appropriate, in London." The Red Dragon now flies proudly over public and private buildings all over Wales and appears on all the "Welcome to Wales" (Croeso i Gymru) signs at the various border crossings. It has endeared itself to the Welsh people as a symbol of pride in their history and their hopes for their future.



7. A pungent vegetable is the national emblem of Wales.
The leek, a member of the onion family, has a strong smell. On March 1, St. David's Day, patriotic Welsh and those of Welsh descent, wherever they reside or work, wear a leek on their clothing.

The custom stems from the plant being used by the Welsh as a national badge for many centuries. According to a legend utilized by English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631), the leek was associated with St. David because he ordered his soldiers to wear it on their helmets in a battle against the hated, pagan Saxon invaders of Britain that took place in a field full of leeks. The poet probably made up the story, but it is known that Welsh archers adopted the green and white colors of the leek as early as the 14th century to distinguish their uniforms (perhaps in the Battle of Crecy.)

A 16th century reference to the leek as a Welsh emblem is found in the Account Book of Princess Mary Tudor. That it was well known as an emblem for Welsh people is also recorded by Shakespeare, who refers to the custom of wearing a leek as "ancient tradition" and whose character Henry V tells Fluellen that he is wearing a leek "for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman."

Throughout the years, leeks have been associated with the practice of medicine. The famous Myfddfai Physicians of Carmarthenshire used the vegetable to cure a variety of illnesses. It was highly regarded as a cure for the common cold, a protection against wounds in battle or being struck by lightning, a means of foretelling the future, of keeping away evil spirits and a tasty, healthy ingredient in cawl, the traditional Welsh broth. If placed under a pillow, leeks could help young maidens see an apparition of their future husbands as well as assist in alleviating the pains of childbirth.

The leek is worn in the caps of today's Welsh soldiers every year on St. David's Day. On the same day, in the prestigious Welsh Guards Regiment, a large raw leek has to be eaten by the youngest recruit to the cheers of his comrades. The green and white plume worn in the "Bearskin" hats of the Guards also identifies them as belonging to the Welsh Regiment. Outside the army, the trendy Welsh of today often substitute the daffodil for the leek, for though it possesses the necessary green stem and white bulb of its companion, it looks more attractive and certainly smells better.

One of the daffodil's many Welsh names is Cenhinen Bedr (Peter's leek). It is the most common spring flower found in Wales and has been used in place of the leek in many official ceremonies and on many official publications and letterheads. As far as the relative merits of the leek and the daffodil are concerned, it is purely a matter of personal choice which to wear on St. David's Day.



8. The Welsh Language is not Gaelic.
Welsh belongs to a branch of Celtic, an Indo-European language. (It was a Welshman in India in the 18th century, Sir William Jones who noticed the similarities between Welsh and Sanskrit and thus pioneered the later research into the families of European languages.) In heavily populated areas of Wales, such as the Southeast (containing the large urban centers of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea) the normal language of everyday life is English, but there are other areas, notably in the Western and Northern regions (Gwynedd and Dyfed particularly) where the Welsh language remains strong and highly visible.

The Welsh people themselves are descendants of the Galatians, to whom Paul wrote his famous letter. Their language is a distant cousin to Irish and Scots Gaelic and a close brother to Breton. Despite being widely spoken in the British Isles at one time, because the Anglo-Saxon conquest was so thorough and took so very long, the native British language was exterminated in many areas and very few words were adopted into English. (Surviving examples are coomb, coracle, eisteddfod, cromlech, avon, avalon and a few others.) When a conquest is quickly achieved, such as the Norman Conquest of England, the native tongue survives even if the official language of the royal court and the judiciary changes. This didn't happen during the centuries of warfare with the Saxon invaders when the native Brythonic language disappeared from most of lowland Britain.

The Anglo-Saxons called the native peoples "brittas" and "brittisch" as well as "walas" or "wealas." The latter terms denoting foreigners or those who spoke the Celtic languages. (Ref: Walloons, Wallachians). However, the Welsh people called themselves Cymry as well as Brythoniaid. The Welsh word for their country is Cymru (Kumree) the land of the Comrades; the people are known as Cymry (Kumree) and the language as Cymraeg (Kumrige).

Despite the increasing Anglicization of their lands, it is believed that there may be more speakers of Welsh than of any other surviving Celtic tongue. (Manx as a living language disappeared just after World War II; Cornish in the latter part of the 18th century; Scottish Gaelic is confined to limited areas of the Western Highlands and the Hebrides; Irish to the enclave known as the Gaeltecht; and Breton hanging on as a tongue of the old people, given little or no encouragement from the authorities in Paris).

Welsh is still used by about half a million people within Wales and possibly another few hundred thousand in England and other areas overseas. Welsh speaking people are still finding it difficult to get equality with English. Only be grudgingly has the language lately been recognized by the Parliament at Westminster. It was not until 1967 that the Welsh Language Act made special reference to the use of Welsh in legal proceedings and on official forms. The Gittins Report of 1967 recommended that every child in Wales be given the opportunity to become reasonably bilingual by the end of the primary stage, a recommendation put into effect in the 1990's.

Long before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, the Celtic languages had branched into p-Celtic, which developed into Welsh, Cornish and Breton; and the q-Celtic tongues, which developed into the Gaelic languages of Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland. Speakers of Welsh cannot understand speakers of Irish or Scots Gaelic and nor, without extensive study, are they able to read Gaelic. Though we might expect to find a common vocabulary, especially in words that deal with basic commodities or geographical terms, there is very little correspondence. To put it simply and emphatically, Welsh is not Gaelic.

Yet some similarities can be readily found: the Irish Inishmore is immediately recognizable to a Welsh speaker as ynys mawr (big island). Similarly tra can be recognized as traeth (beach); muir as mor (sea); gleann as glan (valley); aimsir as amser (weather in Irish, time in Welsh); go breagh as braf (fine); gabhar as gafr (goat); mhoin as mawn (peat); tarbh as tarw (bull); cearc as cyw (hen); eala as alarch (swan); cais as caws (cheese); vaineoil as oen (lamb) glas as glas (blue or green); dubh as du (black); bidh as bwyd (food); Nollaig as Nadolig (Christmas); ainm as enw (name); muc as moch (pigs); lan (full) as llawn; and mor (big) as mawr. There don't seem to be too many more. It would be nice to report that Welsh had a word for water similar to the Irish uisge (pr: Whisky), but dwr doesn't come close, either in taste, effect or spelling.

Similarities are also found in the use of mutations. For example, Irish tir (land) mutates to mo thir (my land); Welsh tir (land) mutates to fy nhir (my land); Irish bean (woman) to an bhean (the woman); Welsh menyw (woman) to y fenyw (the woman); Irish ceann (head) becomes mo cheann (my head): Welsh pen (head) becomes fy mhen (my head). It is the Irish c and the Welsh p that distinguish them as p-Celtic and q-Celtic languages.

Despite its formidable appearance to the uninitiated, Welsh is a language whose spelling is entirely regular and phonetic, so that once you know the rules, you can learn to read it and pronounce it without too much difficulty. Its seven vowels include y and w (which are also used as vowels in English though usually listed under consonants). For young children learning to read, Welsh provides far fewer difficulties than does learning English. The latter's many inconsistencies in spelling are not found in Welsh, in which all letters are pronounced. Gaelic, however, is altogether another matter (as Irish and Scottish schoolchildren who have to study the language will tell you).

More Facts About Wales & the Welsh


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