Belonging to ‘Y Cymry’

Hannah Watkin, winner of the IWA’s New Voices competition, explores her sense of identity against the backdrop of shifting political and cultural landscapes in Wales.

For as long as I can remember I have always belonged to Y Cymry.

This belonging reminds me of my culture, connects me to my heritage, and defines how I see myself in society. For the rest of my life I will always be a part of Y Cymry, and for the most part I am immensely proud of this fact.  

When away from Wales for the first time at university, I found myself suffering greatly from hiraeth: that famous longing for Wales, Welsh culture and the Welsh people. As a result, one of the first student societies I joined was the Welsh one. 

There I was charmed to discover that this group was not only popular with current Welsh students in search of Y Cymry, but was also often frequented by past members, tutors and professors who all also cherished finding Y Cymry when away from home.

This really hammered home to me how much the Welsh value community.

From this moment on, my pride in belonging to Y Cymry originated not only from my own personal feelings of belonging, but also from how I’d come to see in this familial sense of Welsh belonging a community spirit which, if driven to be a positive and inclusive force, could be one of Wales’ greatest strengths going into the future.

“One of the greatest problems inherent to communities: as communities bring people together, they also divide.”

Yet I also worry that this community, if driven by negative and exclusionary ideas, could be our undoing.

A Welsh term without a simple translation, the meaning of ‘Y Cymry’ divides Wales. Whilst it may be translated simply as ‘the Welsh’, there are many who would disagree with this translation.

Many see Y Cymry as a concept specific to the belonging which is felt by Welsh-speaking Welsh people. As a result, there are many non-Welsh speakers who feel excluded by the term.

Coming from Cardiff, far from the concentrated Welsh speaking area of ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’, despite my bilingual upbringing I have felt how geographical factors can also be made to make one feel unworthy of being considered a member of Y Cymry, whether Welsh-speaking or not.

Others are led to doubt their belonging through even more troubling discriminatory narratives, such as those focused on place of birth or race. 

These arguments all go to show one of the greatest problems inherent to communities: as communities bring people together, they also divide. National communities like Y Cymry are especially dangerous in this regard. 

In many Western nations today, for every group of people who might feel a gentle sense of pride for the country in which they live, there are groups which weaponise such national pride towards extremist far-right agendas, such as the Front national (now Rassemblement national) in France, the English Defence League in the UK, and Trump’s MAGA groups in the USA.

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Whilst nationalist groups such as Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith exist, they have never claimed to only represent native Welsh-speaking Cymry.

Only a fool would try to claim figures such as Meic Stevens or Leanne Wood – both Welsh learners rather than Welsh speakers from birth – were any less Cymry than Saunders Lewis. However, the risk is still there.

I certainly do not believe that the community of Y Cymry should be an exclusive white, Welsh-born, ‘Welsh speakers only’ group. Whilst the term is itself very much a Welsh one denoting an untranslatable Welsh feeling of belonging, there is no reason why this feeling cannot be felt by non-Welsh speakers from any background. The example of hiraeth should help explain this idea. 

Non-Welsh speakers often refer to the word hiraeth to explain their feeling of longing for Wales when they are apart from it just as Welsh speakers do. Despite not speaking the language, they are fully aware of the meaning of this word and how it can speak for them. 

Hiraeth is specifically about Welsh longing, but it is not exclusively about Welsh speakers’ longing. And just as the Welsh longing for Wales can be felt by anyone who longs for Wales, the Welsh belonging of Y Cymry is also something that can be shared by anyone who feels they belong in Wales.

Student Welsh societies like the one I joined due to my hiraeth at university can be found across the UK from Exeter to Edinburgh, and this desire to find community through connecting to other Cymry can also be found much further afield.

Welsh emigrants and their descendants find value in coming together as Cymry through societies across the world such as the North American Welsh Association or the St David’s Society of Japan. 

“It is with this vision of Y Cymry creating a future unapologetically Welsh – through being unapologetically accepting and community-driven – which gives me particular pride.”

The existence of these societies that celebrate Welsh belonging goes to show just how much Y Cymry care about connecting with others to celebrate feeling Welsh.

Crucially, in all these instances any divisions that were present whilst in Wales regarding who can and cannot be considered Cymry are abandoned. Yet still, these societies are all fine examples of what it is to be Welsh; to be Cymry. 

When away from Wales, it becomes clear our nationality and community is fuelled by togetherness and belonging. It is vital, therefore, that we work as a nation to ensure the same inclusivity is practised by Y Cymry when at home too.

Although communities like Y Cymry can discriminate as much as unite, they can also choose to include rather than exclude.

By inviting all who come to call Wales a home to share in the community of Y Cymry, Wales might be able to avoid the woes that have recently befallen other national identities which have turned their feelings of belonging into tools for segregation. 

Strikingly, Wales can do this whilst staying true to part of what makes Wales – community. Focus can still be given to the protection of our language and culture whilst accepting individuals with other languages and cultures into the community which belongs to and protects this land. No one should be given reason to doubt that they can belong here as Cymry. 

It’s a fanciful and stereotypical idea, but maybe Wales ‘land of song and emotion’ does run partly thanks to feelings – those of community and belonging.

And for me personally, it is with this vision of Y Cymry creating a future unapologetically Welsh through being unapologetically accepting and community-driven which gives me particular pride in belonging to Y Cymry.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Hannah Watkin is a journalist and member of the welsh agenda’s editorial group.

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