Friday, 16 April 2010

A welsh tale, part one

Thoughts on an Introduction

I have, probably unwisely, signed up as a student with the Open University. A few comments on the introduction to the course materials.

Preconceptions, about Wales, they give a list. Confusing, in that these supposed stereotypes of Welshness are mostly ones I've never heard of. It's said that Wales didn't have a capital until 1955, when the government made Cardiff, as I shall refrain from calling it Caer Dydd, the Welsh capital. Wales had had centres of government in the past, although it's never been a single contiguous independent polity. Apparently one can sense a transition as one heads into wales "on the southern road" something which gives away more than it's meant to. There is a very south-centric aspect to Welsh government and society at present, the almost extinct southern dialect of Welsh having been chosen for massive European subsidies and official indoctrination in schools, not to mention use in broadcasting and government documents, while the north welsh dialect long actually used has been allowed to wither away. A coincidence, almost certainly, but DNA tests done to derive the genetic origins of various local populations as blood-archaeology, show a hefty dose of Anglo-Saxon DNA along the south coast of Wales, purportedly due to a Norman effort to repopulate the area with English and Frisian colonists.

Another thing said: it's as if Wales hasn't existed, and of course under the Act of Union this was the case. Wales was a mere part of England. An incosequential observation, but even so.

A question is asked: what is history. The answer, what history is not. History is a weapon. "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Most annoyingly a man called Jones, not entirely surprisingly, claims the Welsh had no experience of Empire, and hence while England, commonly conceived of as "Britain" was searching for a role the Welsh could carry on uneffected due to their "different economic realities", free of the "obsession" with "state sovereignty and integrity".

Of course the reality is that the Welsh benefited from Empire just as the rest of Europe did, some by fighting, some through business activities, some as workers capitalising on the availibility of export markets (a third of the world exports of coal were once Welsh, although no Welsh mines survive today having been outcompeted by, amongst others, those who were formerly occupied by Welsh soldiers), not to mention the Naval consumption of Welsh coal. Those Englishmen in "Zulu" with Michael Caine? Welsh, to a man.

Now, the Welsh have suffered the same economic fate as northern England. If they don't seem "obsessed" with such unfashionable concepts as national self-determination, such things are to be expected after such relentless economic battering to drive them into submission.

Of course, this won't be something I ever inform the course tutors of. Probably unwise to inform the historians of Wales that their conceptions of both Wales and history are entirely and fundamentally at error.

The Putative Welsh Presence in the New World

Apparently, this is in a book I have here, not in the course materials, there is a pile of rocks somewhere near Llandudno up which is attached a plaque, a plaque claiming this t be the point of origin of the mythical medieval mystery tour of the now infamous Prince Madog or Madoc, one of the never ending parade of claimants to the office of Discover of the Americas.

Loser !, says I. The Vikings beat him to it, along with possibly the Chinese and Punics. Possibly others. Never ending parade, as I says.

The plaque has more to say. It would appear he not only made it to America where he blessed the natives with the unpronounceable Welsh tongue, but he landed specifically in that poverty-stricken land fall of hurricanes, Mobile Alabama.

No accounting for taste, but then he didn't know he'd end up there or he'd probably have stayed in good old Wales.

The book uses this possible saga as a launching point for a discussion of Welsh presence in the Americas in more recent times, specifically in coal mines in Pennsylvania or some such place.

Not mentioned, more interestingly, are the more substantial Welsh colonisations of the Americas: one on the border of Argentina and Chile in the nineteenth century, which seems likely to be the origin of today's Argentine rugby team, a sport deprecated by all other Hispanophone nations. The other is, of course, that ancient Celtic, or proto-Welsh, presence recorded by Barry Fell and other academic collectors of the Ogham inscriptions of New England and North America generally. Another Welsh claim to firstness in the North American continent.

Even the mainstream of the academic world has now acknowledged the presence of these Ogham inscriptions, although they claim the translations offered by the Fellites are somewhat colloquial and lacking the dignity to be expected from proper scholarly work. Rather missing the point, I think, of the major implications of finally condescending to admit the truth of pre-historic connections across the oceanic highways between here and there, namely the truth of the Diffusionist theory over the currently dominant Isolationist faith.

Not that any of that gets into this course on Welsh history, of course. They are very much of the historical school of thought, virtually synonymous with the study of history itself, which relies entirely on tight readings of historical documents and the occasional flight of prejudiced fantasy to connect this hand-picked evidence to the established ideas it's meant to support.

The story of Beddgelert, for example. Held up and claimed to be the bastard child of a Beddgelert innkeeper, even offered as an example of how quickly oral traditions can be spread around and can come to be accepted as, if not truth, age-old tradition. Of course, there is another possible explanation, which is that the story is true. Doubtful, even to a myth-lover like myself, but just as valid a possibility. More likely still, is a middle ground. Not that this unlikely story is true, but not that an insular innsman dreamed the whole thing up and cleverly convinced the entire national public of Wales that it was a traditional folk tale. No, rather it's neither. It is an age-old tale coming from whatever well-spring also spawned near-identical continental versions of the tale. It's an archetypal tale, to credit its presence in the store of Welsh archetypes to an obscure innkeeper without even bothering to present evidence is outlandish. Especially in such a richly sourced essay as that one, with myriads of sources provided for each statement, often of only tangential relevance, still none is given for the slander of the innkeeper.

At the other end of Madoc's journey, in Mobile, a group called The Daughters of the American Revolution have erected a plaque. Something along the lines of a Madoc was ere.

Maybe he was, too. Wouldn't be the first. Don't know what's so good about Patagonia. The Nazis went there, too. Nazis, Welshmen, giant Indians, fossilised giant ground sloth... not many trees.

The odd cattle mute, too.
A Rising

A more subversive aspect to Welsh history than the occasional mention of Iolo Morganwgg: the Merthyr Tydfil rising of 1831. The Rebecca Riots get a mention, as they can be put forth as an example of the importance of women, because they're named after one from the Bible and some of the rioters dressed as women. Of course, some of the Teabaggers, the original ones, dressed up in redskin garb and blackface. Weren't advocates were native rights, though.

The Rebecca Riots, though, were a rebellion of small farmers, the middling sort if you will, and ended when the labourers working for these farmers started getting a bit uppity. Tydfil was a different matter, an uprising not of tenant farmers objecting to toll roads but of steel workers whose goods had been stolen by the bailiffs of the courts. Even when the Highlanders arrived as the strong arm of the government, the workers held ot for four days until they were shot down by the musket men.

One Mrs Arbuthnot, a horrible right wing diarist, compared it to the Peterloo massacre, not too many years earlier and somewhat less serious. “the newspapers for weeks wrote it up as the most outrageous and wicked proceedings ever heard of” she wrote, not entirely accurately for the press had almost uniformly (not least the Guardian, see 50,000 issues of the war-mongering hatefilled imperialist Guardian newspaper) supported the government actions during the Peterloo massacre. She continues “But that was in Tory times. Now this Welsh riot is scarcely mentioned.” Somewhat more accurate there, at least. Tydfil was entirely forgotten. Too dangerous to be remembered, Foot thinks. Could be. Going on at about the same time as the Bristol Massacre, at which dozens were cut down by the King's Own Dragoons for protesting the Great Reform Act.

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