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

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