Who are our Welsh heroes?

John Osmond reports on the first IWA Galeri Owain Glyn Dŵr Day annual lecture

A week ago in Caernarfon the IWA and Galeri’s inaugural Owain Glyn Dŵr’ Day annual lecture was delivered by the poet Mererid Hopwood. We shall be publishing an extract from the lecture in the forthcoming issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda later this autumn.

Mererid’s theme was absorbing for anyone preoccupied with Welsh matters. Her starting point was two questions: How does language define a people and how do people define their language? What is the influence of language on thought, and why is language much more than words and grammar?

These questions were prompted by a consideration of our national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and particularly the closing cry of its refrain, the hope that the ‘old language of Wales will endure’. Mererid also drew attention to the beginning of the third line of the first verse, and its emphasis on the ‘brave warriors’ and ‘good patriots’ of Wales, amongst whom Owain Glyn Dŵr must surely be counted as an outstanding example.

In turn this led her to question the notion of a hero. The temptation, of course, is to apply the ideas and values of our own time to the past. By our lights Owain Glyn Dŵr was certainly a violent man and perhaps as such his hero’s status should be qualified. But this must be judged according to the circumstances of the time, the provocations Glyn Dŵr faced, and his wider aspirations for his country.

In Brecht’s Das Leben des Galilei, Andrea, the eponymous lab-assistant exclaims with dismay that a country with no heroes is a sad country indeed. However, the famous scientist disagrees saying that that the sad country is the one that needs heroes. What then makes a hero, how do nations and peoples choose heroes, and what does this choice say about those people and their sense of identity? To what extent can heroes be judged by their aims rather than their methods?

Owain Glyn Dŵr’s aim was to see the people of Wales govern themselves: the warriors of the national anthem fought for freedom. But what is the difference between ‘self-governance’ and ‘freedom’, and why are both these ideals far more complex than linguistic translation of policy?

As I say, this is just a flavour of what Mererid had to say and more will be the forthcoming issue of the welsh agenda. But what stays with me from last Sunday’s event, attended by a good crowd of more than eighty people, was the energy of Mererid’s presentation. The stage in the Galeri was ideal for what was, in fact a performance. She had a script but only referred to it in passing. Instead she wandered the stage, a radio microphone ensuring we heard what she had to say, and held us spellbound with the force and commitment of her oration.

Mererid made history in 2001 by becoming the first woman to win the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod, that year in Denbigh. A few years later she won the crown at the Eisteddfod in Meifod, and in 2008 she was awarded the Eisteddfod’s Prose Medal for her book O Ran. Today Mererid is a lecturer in Trinity St David’s University in Carmarthen. Previously she has been a lecturer in German at the University of Wales, Swansea, and a Spanish teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Bro Myrddin, Carmarthen.

Mererid ended her lecture by giving us an insight into her preferred heroes. She noted that 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of Gwynfor Evans, the bicentenary of the birth of Henry Richard, the Apostle of Peace. And at the end of this month Cymdeithas Waldo will unveil a sculpture of the pacifist poet to celebrate his birthday. Taking Waldo Williams’ poem Pa Beth yw Dyn? (What is Man?), Mererid thought this a suitable expression of Welsh national identity in the 21st Century.

We need an anchor in a particular community which in our case is Wales. Waldo’s view was that rootedness in community is what provides us with the strength to resist the power of the state. Moreover, the nation and the community in which we plant our roots is our link with eternity. As Waldo puts it, Cadw tŷ mewn cwmwl tystion, our relationship with the nation is ‘Keeping a home amidst a cloud of witnesses’.


John Osmond is Director of the IWA

21 thoughts on “Who are our Welsh heroes?

  1. What Meredid’s lecture and this article subsequently fails (deliberately?) to take into account is that these are not ‘heroes’ for all Wales. I recognise the right of people from North Wales to embelish history to make themselves feel more secure in their identity. However, as a proud non Welsh speaker of many generations born and bred in South Pembrokeshire, I can assure you they are not my heroes and therefore by definition are not heroes for all of Wales!

    Glyndwr left his unmistakable mark on this neck of the woods by burning most of our towns and it is my understanding that he only expressed an interest in Welsh self-governance after half a lifetime’s worth of hanging around with English nobility and lining his pockets suddenly dried up. As for Gwynfor Evans, well you wouldn’t find anyone around here who would even know who he was because he certainly didn’t have our interests at heart. Also, as somebody who’s ancestors went to war to defend this country he is clearly no hero of mine.

    Perhaps instead of this dreamy eyed and skewed nonsence we should look for real heroes prepared to do good for all the people of Wales, no matter where abouts they come from and what language they speak. I would suggest that local hospitals and schools are a good place to start! There you will find some real heroes struggling to do good with the dwindling budgets passed on to them after the Welsh government has had it’s cut to pay for it’s shiny new buildings and political point scoring over England.

  2. OH COME ON!!! “Owain Glyn Dŵr’s aim was to see the people of Wales govern themselves”

    Owain Glyn Dwr couldn’t give a fig for the “People of Wales”. Owain Gly Dwr’s aim was to see Owain Glyn Dwr govern Wales and the means that he chose was to promise much to his supporters and kill those who opposed him…even within Wales and from within the Welsh population. If he could have extended his success to the lands to the East he would have done that too.
    The powerful leaders of history were no different to the political leaders of today; they had egoes the size of Nations and ambitions to match. When Cameron woos the electorate with promises of doing what will benefit “The people of Britain” he uses the “People” (Voters) as a means to an end. That end is the benefit of very wealthy people…..just like him. Why do we in Wales continue to wilfully blind ourselves to all logic in order to venerate some medieval opportunist thug?
    Kings and queens the world over established themselves through blood and treachery and modern politics is a continuation of the same eternal self serving.

  3. I suppose this article represents the mindset of people who think that the vast majority of Welsh people are dying to be released from history and turn themselves into a) Welsh speakers, b) attend the Eisteddfod, c) watch S4C and d) vote to seperate us from UK. The reality is of course completely the opposite, however many opinion formers (particularly in BBC Wales) seem to agree, and support anything that moves on ‘welshification’ at a pace. I live about 12 miles from Llandow and other than a few people who went for the singing, nobody could give two hoots about it. It’s the same about OG, and in particular Gwynfor Evans who has been turned into a hero to SOME Welsh speakers, but to every English-only speaker I know he is regarded as another ‘deluded’ Welshman of whom there are many who revile our place in the UK,but have surely earned vast salaries in the public sector, which is of course heavily subsidised by our English neighbours. The danger is that the propaganda in this article is being spewed out in our Welsh Medium education system and turning young minds away from reality, and to a world that never existed. With the acccession of Henry VII to English throne, and Tudor dynasty we (the Welsh) virtually changed the world, either for the better or the worse, but change it we did. It is surely to people who made significan changes by gaining power in wider world that our attention should be turned and not some middle age loser, and politician who earned great world renown by winning a by election in Carmarthen. We will wait to see the long term impact of S4C, but when its future rests on the Welsh Government after current deal with BBC ends then look out, because it hasn’t got many friends in the English only speaking world that I mix in, and that’s a fact.

  4. I suppose Mererid Hopwood speaks for people taking a communitarian view of life who want a distinctive Welsh culture to survive. People outside that culture or people who take an indvidualist approach and are indifferent to the disappearance of old communities will have quite different heroes, of course. Both views exist and many Welsh people flip between the two. No need to quarrel.
    Glyndwr may well have been an opportunist thug but the idea of Wales might not have survived the long period between 1282 and 1485 without his assertion of national independence. That makes him objectively a hero to the communitarians however unsavoury he may have been personally.

  5. That’s the beauty of artistic/poetic licence – there’s no need to let the inconvenient truth get in the way of a good story!

  6. I’ve been giving some thoughts to our seeming need for heroes, and can see there might be some merit in the idea and would like to nominate a Mr. Leslie Shepherd who died in February of this year. He was so eminent a scientist that his obituary appeared in the Daily Telegraph. No mention of his life as far as I’m aware on BBC Wales but he probably didn’t ‘tick enough boxes’ for that organisation. He grew up in Pontycymmer the son of the Station Master, so my family would probably have known him, however at the age of 6 he had to move to a better climate due to ill health. The full story of his life is extraordinary as he played a key role in the development of nuclear power and space exploration, but full details can be found on the Daily Telegraph obituary web site. There must be many other such people who grew up in Wales and made vast contributions to betterment of mankind, and could be an inspiration to our young people to get their minds out of parochialism and into the big wide world.

  7. Ah, but Mr Morgan “for what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul”? Can’t we admire both benefactors of mankind and contributors to Welsh culture?

  8. Are you suggesting that Owain Glyndwr benefitted Welsh culture? Perhaps as a figure of veneration by the starry eyed? Or are you suggesting that Growing Tomatoes whilst Welsh men died to protect the country from a genocidal maniac benefitted Welsh culture in some way? Perhaps you are making some allusion to the formation of S4C? Certainly I can see how the Welsh Language cash cow has allowed some to suckle profitably for many years but it would be going too far to call that a benefit to mankind, and, since very few watch that station the benefit to Welsh culture is hardly worth the hundreds of millions spent.

  9. Tredwyn, Yes. In my perception the contributors to Welsh culture come much further up the pecking order of recognition in Wales today rather than benefactors of mankind. The both are complimentary,n however we seem to have become more Welsh and introverted than is good for us? With regards to ‘losing one’s soul’ it all depends surely on how one views one’s soul. This I think goes to the heart of this matter in that people who grew up in a very Welsh speaking background (like some of my friends) have one type of soul, as compared to myself who grew up in totally Anglicised area (like most people I know) have a very different sort of soul. Plainly that does not mean they cannot co-exist in harmony, however it does mean they have different touchstones.

  10. Jon Jones, Very well said and I would think you are supported by 90% of English only speakers. It is fascinating that S4C over last ten years has received over £1Billion of hard working tax payers money, and most of that from the DREADED English who live over the border, as beloved by BBC Wales. The performance of S4C is appalling, and if people had to pay for it direct (like I do for Sky) it would have gone out of existence years ago. The comfy consensus of plent of money for everything is coming to an end and it will be interesting when people see their money is going on ‘pet projects’ what their reaction will be.

  11. Suggesting, Jon Jones? Of course Owain Glyndwr benefited Welsh culture. A precondition for a national culture is the survival of a nation. Glyndwr asserted Welsh independence, founded a Welsh parliament at Machynlleth and petitioneed the Pope for St David’s to be a metropolitan archbishopric independent of Canterbury. By re-establishing a court he restored the patronage of Welsh poetry and arrested the decline of Welsh versifying into a purely folk tradition Was not Iolo Goch his great court poet?
    If your references to tomatoes are an allusion to Gwynfor Evans, well, he was a Christian pacifist. I am neither but I suppose it is a respectable position, worthy of more than a sneer, Wales is a divided nation with some like yourself indifferent or hostile to the distinctive elements in Welsh culture but the majority show some mutual tolerance and so we get along.
    People who resent money being spent on promoting Welsh are simply philistines ignorant of their country’s distinctive contribution to world culture. Fortunately the philistines are not the majority that Howell Morgan asserts they are. If they become a majority Wales will cease to exist as a nation and will deserve to do so.

  12. Few years ago a so called academic institution in North East Wales decided they needed a new image and were not happy with the acronym NEWI. The NEWI management decided that they should use external consultants at a considerable cost for what they call the rebranding exercise and came up with a name that honours a Welsh hero. The Welsh hero they chose was no other than Owain Glyndwr and NEWI overnight became the Glyndwr University. The glaring and an obvious fact of having a name synonymous with their town and the local community and to become known as Wrexham University was ignored. Wrexham is predominantly an English speaking community and vast majority of its people probably do not have a clue who Owain Glyndwr was and what he represented. Truly sad that a Wrexham academic institution chose to snub its town’s name and celebrate a highly dubious Welsh hero as the history tells us.

  13. It is such a pity when an article like this attracts such negative comments. Would it not make better sense to make alternative proposals and to explain why they have merit?

  14. Oh, on the whole I agree that people like myself are a minority, but not an insignificant minority I think. Maybe 35%. Of course there are variations in degree between those who are outrightly antagonistic towards all things “Welsh language and Culture” and people who see no reason to lavish large amounts of money on the Language and others, like myself, who find the language divisive in my country and activists objectionable and sometimes racist.

    Even when it comes to spending on Welsh language and culture I am ambivalent; I think that the Eisteddfodau are well worth financial support but consider that S4C was overendowed with funding and makes a poor contribution to Welsh life.

    As for pacifism I have every respect for people who cannot bring themselves to kill but that respect does not extend to people who won’t put themselves in danger in support of a necessary war. Concientious objectors often showed extraordinary courage under fire when they acted as medical orderlies but to threaten to end your life to establish the bloated abomination that is S4C smacks of histrionic self advertisement. We see the same thing month by month as some obscure nobody or other goes to jail a “hero” for some piece of petty vandalism in the name of “Language Rights” and emerges to become a petty Nationalist politician or set himself up in business as a “Translator”.

  15. When you grow up in a TOTALLY anglicised area north of Bridgend in the 1950’s and parents who work physically hard to put food on the table and other necessary goods, along with 99% of our village, it is difficult to get into this Welsh nationalist type of mind set. All our life was through English language papers, produced in London, and BBC/Cinema also in English language. We had come through the Second World War, and used all the country’s assets in the USA to fund Lease Lend, and there was genuine feeling that all of us in the UK were ‘in it together’. The original post refers to our need for Welsh heroes, to help garner our interest in a Welsh nation, however I object to the two people referred to as being good examples, as in my opinion, and in particular the latter one I take great exception, as I am presumably entitled to do, but I wonder for how long in Wales. Some of us have not a good education, however can read and take positions, and I have no problem with the Welsh language, however public policy is another matter. I genuinely believe that the east Walian, working class people, and almost totally anglicised are an abomination to the Welsh nation builders who I believe are taking us down a cultural backwater and economic poverty, except for themselves and their children as they have created a lop-sided public sector which looks after 10% of the population. I agree we need good role models for our young people, but the two in the main article? Nah.

  16. People in Wales do come from very different cultural backgrounds and I am sure we have to have mutual respect and tolerance and not look down on anyone, far less regard them as an abomination. That is consistent with providing support for Welsh which would otherwise struggle as any minority language does nowadays. Even the Dutch had to take a conscious decision to use their language more in certain circumstances where it was being edged out by English. No-one suggested it should simply be abandoned as an ‘obsolete’ language.

    I don’t want to defend every nutty decision taken in Wales. Wrexham University would no doubt have been a more appropriate title since Glyndwr, though a great figure, was not notably a scholar. But the idea that we are favouring 10 per cent of the population is just wrong. The only institution I know outside Gwynedd where it helps to speak Welsh is the BBC. Very few civil servants speak Welsh and, as I keep pointing out, of the top eight policy positions, only one speaks Welsh and six are not just English speaking, they are actually English – or Scottish in one case. These people are not likely to be down on English speakers!

  17. It ought to be borne in mind that much of the ill feeling expressed towards Wales, Welshmen and Welsh in these columns is a proxy for other concerns. Behind many of these offerings, there is clearly some bad feeling about the loss of Empire, the loss of a mono-cultural environment and the loss of a society based on deference and conformity.

    In Wales (and in other parts of the UK, judging by occasional outbursts in the print media) there are no legal impediments towards venting one’s spleen towards Wales, Welsh people and the Welsh language. Such feelings if expressed in other directions would probably be subject to legal sanction.

    Perhaps the best response to this anger is to show compassion towards those who are clearly bemused by the changes that have gone on around them. Compassion is also necessary since many do not appear to fully appreciate the realities which lie beyond the rhetoric. We can also be grateful that a broader minded, more accepting society is ever more becoming the norm here.

  18. Perhaps I’m missing a ‘trick’ here as if having opinions freely expressed about public policy on any subject, including Welsh language are such a threat then we are a long way down the road to intolerance. I am perfectly happy with loss of Empire, however the family I grew up in was not overly worried about deference, however quite happy to conform to the accepted rules that governed all of us. I suppose that it is possible to view Wales with jaundiced eyes as I live here, and can see the effects of the drive to seperate us from UK, and into perpetual darkness. Of the people I meet when I go to England when discussing Wales there is only one topic that’s raised, ie Welsh rugby in the 70’s and other than that there is complete and utter indifference. We are in danger, because of the increasing Welshification of media in particular of taking ourselves far more seriously than is warranted, and that in itself shows a major element of insecurity. As far as deference/conformity is concerned I look around south Wales and am aware of the need for people to have the ‘Fuhereprincip’ mentality if they want to get on in public services, and any radical thinking outside the party lines is not welcomed at all. I can assure you I don’t need any compassion at all, or any other condescension, as my children/grandchildren are ‘over the border’ and away from this irrelevance, and competing in a pretty dynamic area, i.e London/East Midlands.

  19. I have read the comments above and the article and have one question to ask. What do we want our heroes of the future to be? Are they Scientists, Engineers, Rugby Players, Scholars, Poets, Singers, Actors, Nationalists, Politicians? My particular interest is Science and Engineering. There are examples of all of these in our past from A R Wallace, William Grove, William Jones, William Preece, Robert Owen all of whom did vital work in the fields of Evolution, Fuel Cell and battery technology, Mathematics and Wireless communications and of course the Industrial revolution. These 4 people either discovered or completely revolutionised and transformed our world view and we do not celebrate them enough.

  20. For the Humanities, I would propose Gwyn Alf Williams and Raymond Williams. Both had the ability to connect a highly local sense of place with the world in the widest sense. Neither had much room for sentimentality and both drank from many streams. You may not agree with their politics (I am of the dripping wet, just to the right of centre variety) but goodness me, they were connectors and communicators of global stature.

  21. This whole exchange is interesting – it overlooks something quite fundamental: Heroes are dumb, human animals like the rest of us, with limited perspectives and faults a-plenty. Even superheroes have weaknesses – vis a vis kryptonite. It’s not wholly unlikely Owain Glyndwr might have emotionally or physically abused his Mrs and large family on occasion (he seems to have possessed fierce emotion afterall…) but no [woman] is writing to suggest therefore he should not be held up as an object of admiration. Heroes challenge the status quo, shift paradigms and ultimately change what everyone thinks is possible. I wonder whether any of the comments preceding this one would have been written without the intervention of Owain Glyndwr. Equally, I probably would not be writing this without the intervention of suffragettes, some of whom were Welsh, no doubt…

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